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In San Francisco, Revenge of the Obama Democrats

A political vibe shift in the nation’s bluest city.
April 25, 2022
In San Francisco, Revenge of the Obama Democrats
Mayor London Breed during a press conference at city hall in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (Bulwark edit / Gabrielle Lurie/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Dolores Park, San Francisco
In three elections over a period of three months, voters in America’s premier metropolitan progressive bastion are poised to have rejected members of the city’s left-wing school board, elected a mainstream YIMBY Democrat over a “progressive icon” to the state assembly, and recalled their radical district attorney. And if the polls hold up in the D.A. race, all three results will have come with landslide margins.

These San Francisco special elections are the spring 2022 leg of the ongoing Obama Democrats Revenge Tour, which began with the nomination of Joe Biden in 2020 and has continued through many of the party primaries during his early presidency. It came as a reaction to the party’s leftward swerve following Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton, during which progressive activists and campaign staffers began an inchoate effort to abandon what many saw as a failed technocratic experiment. This resulted in a few changes within the party. Among them:

  • Out went “there are no blue states or red states” paeans to national unity; in came identitarian critical theory.
  • Out went attempts to balance criminal justice reform with support for police; in came “defund.”
  • Out went Waiting for Superman watch parties and Race to the Top; in came a different type of school reform focused on “equity.”
  • Out went anything that smelled “neoliberal”; in came NIMBYs, protectionists, socialists, Chapo Trap House-ists, and anything that screamed revolution.

For a brief period, Democratic voters seemed satisfied with this evolution.

And there was no better evidence that the Democratic politicians themselves believed the new order was here to stay than the bizarre Democratic debates in 2020, which featured a flock of candidates trying to be the next Bernie while Biden was often alone in reminding the voters of what was good about Obama.

As we all know, Biden won that bet in the end.

But even after the 2020 election, many Democrats still seemed to think Biden’s primary win was a one-off. Maybe, they figured, it was a fluke that reflected Democratic voters’ desire to find the most electable candidate to defeat the Bad Orange Man, not the voters’ actual preference for the old guard.

The recent elections in San Francisco demonstrate that it might not have been the fluke they imagined.

Here, many Democratic regulars have become actively hostile to the new order that was imposed during the Trump years, and they are banding together to do something about it.

Their coalition is made up of older black voters, elder millennial HENRYs, Asian Americans, working-class union Democrats, wine moms, and Gaybraham Lincoln drag queens. Together they have majority power in the city, and they are trying to put an end to the leftward lurch by reasserting the more practical liberalism of the late-aughts glory days.

And so far, it’s working.

Democrats in D.C. and across the country should probably take note.

Last week, there was a special election to fill the empty assembly seat in San Francisco’s Flamin’ 17th. It’s a majority-minority district that runs from the city’s Italian North Beach neighborhood to the Haight-Ashbury of the Grateful Dead; then across the Castro, where naked gays occasionally roam the streets; through the Hispanic-turned-hipster Mission neighborhood; all the way down to multicultural South San Francisco.

While I haven’t done a full head-count myself, there are likely fewer Republicans in this district than there are homosexuals. Gavin Newsom won a Bashar al-Assad–like 89.5 percent of the vote there in 2018.

In other words, the 17th is not a haven for red dogs or crypto-conservatives. Peter Thiel left S.F. for L.A., after all.

So how did Matt Haney, a basic white guy in navy slacks, win the seat in a landslide?

Given the deeply liberal electorate, Haney’s campaign can’t be considered “centrist” in any meaningful sense of the word. But it is noteworthy that he won with the support of those who had been pushing the recalls of the left-wing school board members and D.A. Chesa Boudin.

Haney wasn’t a natural vehicle for this backlash to San Francisco’s new progressive establishment. He had been a career politician in the city. During his time on the city’s board of supervisors and board of education, he would have best been described as a progressive left Democrat. He even got swept up in the faddish political moment as one of the officials who in 2016 pushed to rename George Washington High and other schools, which prompted a backlash among residents.

But during this year’s special election, Haney recognized the political winds were shifting.

He ran a successful campaign for the broad middle of the Democratic party, finishing first in a primary whose third-place finisher, Bilal Mahmood, ran even more to the center—and then swamped the DSA-friendly challenger, David Campos, in a run-off.

Haney was able to pull off these wins by falling back on a politics reminiscent of his first boss—Barack Obama.

On the Haney campaign’s About page, a banner image slot usually reserved for pictures of the candidate’s family instead features a photo of Haney posing with Obama in front of a Salesforce step-and-repeat backdrop. This is not exactly the mark of an anti-capitalist.

His platform would have been considered a standard posture for a Democrat in local elections not long ago, eschewing the campus-left style messaging that has become the trend of late: He supports approving and building more housing, getting homeless people off the streets, addressing climate change, reducing income inequality instead of calling to “abolish the value form,” and “not having to choose between criminal justice reform and keeping our communities safe.”

This presented a contrast with the language put forth by Campos, a former Democratic party chair whose campaign literature was steeped in the buzzwords of the modern activist left. The Campos campaign website didn’t just call for climate action but “a Green New Deal to address environmental racism.” He didn’t advocate for more funding for schools broadly, but chose instead to focus on the need for “equitable schools.” And his housing policy included attacks on YIMBY activists as being apologists for greedy developers who just want to build expensive condos.

As the San Francisco Standard put it:

In many ways, [Campos] relied on the same progressive playbook that led him to a similar Assembly race defeat in 2014: not taking money from corporations, focusing on identity politics and framing the discussion on housing in binary terms in which affordable homes are mostly pitted against luxury condos…. Campos’ focus on being corporate-free might have resonated in the days when Bernie Sanders had liberal arts majors swooning, but the pandemic and issues the city is facing this very moment have superseded [it].

In the end, Campos didn’t grow his base at all. He received 35.7 percent of the vote in the four-way primary and 36.7 percent in the two-way runoff. Meanwhile, Haney hoovered up all the center-left Mahmood voters when they cast ballots in the runoff, winning nearly every precinct.

Sí se puede.

I know what you are thinking at this point.

Tim might be getting high on the Rickshaw Stop supply and making some rather broad pronouncements based on the results of a single off-year state assembly special election.

But in reality, Matt Haney is just the latest sign of a broader, bottom-up push among Democrats within the city for practical, liberal reform—the sort that prioritizes competence, public safety, quality education, and affordable housing over appealing to socialist Twitch streamers.

Haney’s victory was the second domino to fall in this effort following the February school board recall, which he supported. The community organizers—so to speak—behind this coalition see June’s recall of San Francisco’s radical district attorney, Chesa Boudin, as their next scalp.

At the heart of this grassroots movement is a group called GrowSF, launched by Steven Buss and Sachin Agarwal—two unassuming millennials who were simply fed up with the “dysfunction” of a “city in decline.”

When I asked them during a Zoom meeting last week to describe what it was they were advocating, their language was future-oriented about the need for “change” in the city—but the change they were calling for sounded a lot like a return to the mainstream, capitalist, multiracial liberalism that we all came of age with.

When I told them that it seemed like they were offering a reskinned version of “Change You Can Believe In,” they laughed and didn’t object.

“I’d love for you to describe us as simply ‘the Obama coalition.’ We are lifelong Democrats who want our government to work better,” Buss said.

In one sense, it’s strange to think that such a group even needs to exist; it is hard to think of an analogous non-party political organization whose main aim is advocating for what most members of an existing party already support. Traditionally, the parties themselves cover that, and the outside groups are trying to drive change on a specific issue or fill a complementary tactical role with the party’s tacit blessing.

But in San Francisco, a somewhat confrontational generic Democratic grassroots movement became necessary because the traditional party organizations had all gone so far off the deep end.

“We filled a void because the existing Democratic party and activist organizations became controlled by the furthest-left faction of folks who promised big things they had no ability to deliver,” Buss said. “They were misaligned with what people want to see in the city.”

There was no starker example of this than on the issue of policing and public safety, which plays a central role in the D.A. recall vote coming up in June.

In late 2019, Chesa Boudin was elected district attorney over the Kamala Harris-endorsed former president of the San Francisco Police Commission by the narrowest of margins in a ranked-choice voting contest (sorry, Mona). He had been schooled in radical leftist politics: Activists Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn raised him after his parents were convicted of murder for their role as the getaway drivers during the 1981 Brink’s robbery.

Boudin ran for district attorney pledging not to prosecute “quality-of-life crimes” like public camping, offering or soliciting sex, public urination, and drug sales. He argued that many of the people selling fentanyl and other deadly drugs are themselves victims of human trafficking and thus shouldn’t be prosecuted. And his time as D.A. coincided with a broader effort to defund police in the city.

Now the city’s residents are experiencing some quality-of-life remorse.

In December 2021, Mayor London Breed lashed out at Boudin and others who continued pushing the radical agenda: “It’s time the reign of criminals who are destroying our city, it is time for it to come to an end. And it comes to an end when we take the steps to more aggressive with law enforcement, more aggressive with the changes in our policies and less tolerate of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city.”

Breed’s outburst reflected the mood of the electorate.

As Buss put it, “You can’t come in with a sweeping message of abolishing prisons and the police on a 2,000-vote margin.”

A poll conducted in May 2021 showed that 76 percent of San Franciscans wanted to increase the number of police officers in high crime areas; 64 percent wanted an increase in busy areas; and 60 percent said maintaining funding for police academy classes was a “high priority.”

Now, mind you, these folks hadn’t suddenly turned into a bunch of James Q. Wilson–spouting Bernie Keriks. The same poll showed they wanted more funding for caseworkers on the street to help those suffering from mental health or substance abuse issues, and more funding for the homeless. They remained opposed to overly aggressive police tactics, and supportive of sentencing reform.

But the manner in which Boudin was executing on these priorities ain’t it. If recent polling is to be believed—Boudin had an astonishing 74 percent unfavorable rating in March—then on June 7, he’s going to be put out to pasture, just like the school board members before him.

When I asked Sachin Agarwal about his own politics, he sounded like he was impersonating Jimmy Smits’s Obama homage on The West Wing.

He hadn’t paid much attention to local politics before GrowSF, but the city where he wanted to raise his two young girls had started letting him down. His parents, he told me, were the “classic immigrant story”: Mom worked at McDonald’s while Dad scraped by, cleaning tables and mopping floors until he could afford a tiny restaurant of his own. Agarwal’s father saw America as a land of opportunity where people can move to work hard and achieve their dreams. Agarwal himself wants more people to be able to come to San Francisco to experience that dream, but right now they are being blocked out.

That basic desire reflects the mindset of the people who have gotten involved in GrowSF and who have powered the recent elections.

Whether it’s the Chinese-Americans and other parents who were upset at the school board for shutting down programs for high achievers, or the young professionals starting families who just want to be able to afford somewhere to live, or the working-class residents of the Tenderloin who are sick of their neighborhood getting turned into a drug-filled porta potty, it’s liberals who are sick of the bullshit and just want to say “Yes We Can to opportunity and prosperity” for their families and their communities. They are the ones driving San Francisco’s political vibe shift.

And this year, they are starting to see signs that it is possible to change more than just vibes. From the recalls to Mayor Breed’s responsiveness to residents’ complaints to a pandemic revealing just how necessary competent governance is, recent events are showing this normie liberal coalition that collective action can yield results.

Ben LaBolt, national spokesperson for Obama during the actual “Yes We Can” campaign and now a San Francisco resident, put it this way:

The tide is now turning—out with the ideologues and in with the Democrats that aren’t willing to defend children stepping on needles, dropped prosecutions for hate crimes against the Asian American community or a school board that tried to cancel Abraham Lincoln. . . . Obama Democrats have always believed that good policy and government can change people’s lives for the better. [In San Francisco,] we pragmatists demand change and we are getting it.

Shepard Fairey would be proud.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.