“Moderates” vs. “Progressives”: Breaking down the political factions in a one-party city

Officially, San Francisco’s local elections are a nonpartisan affair. In reality, San Francisco is a one party town, and hasn’t voted for a Republican President since Eisenhower, and the last Republican Mayor of San Francisco was George Christopher, who served until 1964. San Francisco has long been a stronghold of Democratic politics, with a lineage of electing leaders who go on to higher office, from Dianne Feinstein to Gavin Newsom to Kamala Harris.

However, that doesn’t mean the Democrats of San Francisco are in lockstep with each other. Take a look at the contentious Supervisor or California Senate District races and you’ll notice some bruising rhetoric traded by Democrats about each other. Often candidates will claim their opponents are too “moderate” and out of step with San Francisco, while trying to position themselves as the true “progressives” in the race. So how did we end up here?

Photo by Aaron Lee

At the national level, most Democrats’ conception of a “moderate” would be someone like Joe Biden, while a “progressive” would be Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. However, San Francisco politics are unique in the sense that the competing “Moderate” and “Progressive” factions don’t neatly map onto federal issues, and instead refer to local issues like land use politics. Many who may identify as a “progressive” on federal issues may be more aligned with the “Moderate” politicians in SF, and vice versa. Some have tried to mathematically analyze these factions by looking at the votes of Supervisors, like this effort from 2018. Here’s our perspective on these factions by looking at the elected officials and policies from each faction:

Moderates, by and large, are more forward-looking in terms of the San Francisco of tomorrow and Progressives are more concerned about the San Franciscans here right now. Moderate candidates tend to favor policies that make it easier to build housing of all types or support new businesses, while Progressives are more concerned with preserving the housing and businesses that exist today.

Progressives tend to subscribe to a model that centers them as principled actors pushing back against the machine, even as their leaders have gained control in San Francisco, currently holding a 9–2 supermajority on the Board of Supervisors. Many of their policies are geared towards centering San Francisco’s most vulnerable residents, which shows up in obvious ways like supporting more tenant protections or only building 100% affordable housing. Progressives are happy to increase how many affordable units must be built, and slow market rate projects, even if it means less affordable housing gets built overall. Sometimes the intense focus on percentages leads to less getting done to actually help some of our most vulnerable neighbors.

For a concrete example of this, look at SB50, which was a state bill that would legalize denser and more affordable housing in transit and jobs corridors. Housing experts praised the bill as it would have gone a long way towards combatting NIMBYism and addressing our housing shortage in an equitable and environmentally sustainable way. While it was was supported by some big-name Moderates in the city such as Mayor Breed, it was opposed by every single Progressive supervisor.

As a result of the current Progressive dominance over the Board of Supervisors, most Moderates are not necessarily “moderate” on the issues, but individuals who are on the opposite side of an issue to Progressives. While there may have been a “moderate machine” in the days of Willie Brown, it’s fallen apart as moderate SF politicians have advanced to state/federal office (like Kamala Harris and Gavin Newsom).

So why does all this matter? Because like most things in San Francisco, everything comes back to housing and affordability. The cost of starting a business here is astronomical, the cost of raising a family even more so. Most San Franciscans share progressive priorities at a national level; it just means something different at the local level, where Progressives spend more energy on taxation of who they perceive to be villains like “Big Tech” or “Big Real Estate”, even when economic analyses suggest that the taxes may be counterproductive.

At Grow SF, we believe in pragmatism and leaders who are willing to put outcomes ahead of soundbites, which puts us closer to the “Moderate” end of the spectrum in SF. While we have deeply progressive ideas about where we can go, we worry that many of the “Progressive” politicians and policies do not seriously grapple with the acute problems of housing, homelessness, environment, and affordability. Yes, we have a lot of wealth to tap, but we need to be solutions-oriented and focus more on helping the city and the people in it rather than hurting those we are trying to tax. Moderates tend to be more solutions-focused, and while that may not be elegant or feel as good, there needs to be a balance between people pushing the envelope and people trying to figure out how we can make that work. With our current Board having a Progressive supermajority, there are a lot of ideas about how to make the city better, but less focus on how those ideas will actually work in reality. That might feel good, but it’s no way to run a city.

San Francisco needs help. Grow SF is a community of people working in tech who want to lend a hand — through education and voting.

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