The Golden Gate bridge, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2022, in San Francisco. (Kirby Lee via AP)

In June, when San Francisco voters recalled progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin, the predictable response from the national media was that America’s most radical, leftist big city had made a rightward turn. That is a comfortable narrative, particularly for those outside the bay area who view the city as a font of left-wing excess, homeless encampments, open drug use, and an unalloyed Haight-Ashbury mindset in need of some Eric Adams tough love, if not some 90s (pre-deranged) Rudy Giuliani.

But that caricature is just that—a lampooned image of a city that, like most urban areas in America, has tensions between progressives and more conservative forces. Chicago had Rahm Emmanuel battling his left. Los Angeles’s recent mayoral race saw a tight battle between former Republican businessman Rick Caruso and Representative Karen Bass, a liberal who won the contest.

While there was almost no national coverage of San Francisco’s elections last month, the results provided more evidence for those who believe the city is moving rightward. Brooke Jenkins, the district attorney appointed by Mayor London Breed after Boudin was recalled, easily won the election in her own right. Jenkins, who has an African American mother and a father from El Salvador, used to run the hate crimes section under Boudin but, like many in the office, disagreed with his progressive approach. Since her appointment in June, she has behaved like a conventional big-city D.A.

In a race for the board of supervisors, San Francisco’s equivalent of the city council, the progressive incumbent Gordon Mar was narrowly defeated by the more conservative Joel Engardio, who supported the Boudin recall and that of three school board members in February. Mar didn’t and paid the price. In another district, Honey Mahogany (her real name), in a bid to become San Francisco’s first trans supervisor, lost to Matt Dorsey, a more conservative incumbent.

As usual, there were myriad city initiatives on the ballot. The results were mixed. Progressives could claim victory with the passage of a vacancy tax on empty apartments and an adjustment to the electoral calendar that will more closely align city elections with national elections—a move designed to bolster turnout and bring more of what middle and lower-income San Francisco residents are left to show up at the polls. But a progressive backed initiative to create more affordable, rather than simply market-rate, housing failed.

So San Francisco can be seen as moving rightward in some respect, but if you view it with a longer lens, you’ll see that this moderate tick to the right is part of the city’s history, which is much more like that of other American cities than is commonly understood. San Francisco has a deserved reputation for being socially tolerant—just read about Susan Sontag’s visits to lesbian bars in the 1950s, the flowers-in-your-hair drug culture of the 60s and 70s, or the city’s place as a beacon of the progressive counterculture during the Reagan era 1980s. But the high-profile social tolerance also belied a conservative business community and a city long on homeowners more concerned about property values than taking George Washington off the name of schools. In many respects, San Francisco has never been all that progressive.

One way to see this is through San Francisco’s impact on national politics. For a small city with a population of about 888,000, 17th in the US, San Francisco has had an outsized impact on the Democratic Party. The Speaker of the House and Vice President are San Franciscans. Although Kamala Harris now resides in L.A., she spent part of her youth here, went to law school, and climbed the legal and political ladders here. Beginning in January, the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate and second in the line of succession will be former San Francisco Mayor Diane Feinstein. The current and previous governors of California, the nation’s most populous state, are San Franciscans. All of them, despite conservative epithets, are moderates. Pelosi is a committed partisan, but the Catholic-educated daughter of former Baltimore Mayor Thomas D’Alessandro is no radical. The new documentary about Pelosi, directed by her daughter, Alexandra, included the speaker giving this bit of advice to Joe Biden in 2020: “Don’t go too far to the left,” she told him. “We didn’t get here in the majority by going to the left — and I can say that as a left-wing San Francisco liberal … Let us win, okay?” Feinstein has long been one of the Senate’s most conservative and institutionalist Democrats, much to the chagrin of her colleagues who would like to see the 89-year-old filibuster defender retire. The progressive wing of her party has long criticized Harris. “Kamala the cop,” they called her, something a then-liberal Tulsi Gabbard jumped on during a 2020 presidential debate. Newsom and Brown have been successful governors because of their pragmatism. 

San Francisco wrestles with problems of education, crime, housing, and inequality. Even more than other cities, its politics are driven by soaring real estate prices, the result of the Silicon Valley wealth bonanza that shows only modest signs of abating with the downturn in the share price of nearby tech giants like Meta (aka Facebook), Netflix, Apple, and Google. The city’s failure to build more affordable housing is echoed around the country but amplified here, making the city’s homeless and gentrification problems resemble New York’s or L.A. ‘s but to a much greater extent. Those cities are 302 and 502 square miles, respectively. At 47 square miles set on spectacular hills, San Francisco, like Manhattan, can build higher, but there’s not much unclaimed land to build more.

The general view both inside and outside the city is that progressive governance rather than large economic forces brought us to this point. That’s not true. Like New York, bouncing between David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani or Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio, San Francisco has had mayors of different ideological stripes. George Moscone, elected in 1975 by a coalition of African Americans, Latinos, LGBT voters, and other progressives, was of the political left, but he was assassinated after three years in office. Art Agnos, a son of Greek immigrants who grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, before getting a degree in social work and moving to San Francisco, won his 1987 mayoral bid on issues that appealed to progressives, including opposition to hosting a Navy ship, the USS Missouri, at a San Francisco port, expanding rent control, and limiting downtown development. However, Agnos lost his bid for reelection in 1991. Since then, the city has been governed by pro-business centrists.

In a city with a relatively strong mayor system, it is hard to blame the left for the policies of mayors like Feinstein, Frank Jordan, the former police chief who got elected on promises to fight crime and get the homeless off the streets and served one term in the 1990s, or London Breed, the pro-business mayor who has been in office since 2018. Even Willie Brown, who served two terms as the city’s mayor from 1996-2003, sloughed off his history as a progressive Speaker of the California Assembly and adopted strong pro-business and pro-real estate positions once he got to City Hall. Similarly, although Gavin Newsom is viewed by many as a progressive governor, as mayor, he was a centrist in the Feinstein, Brown, and Breed model.

Part of the confusion here is that San Francisco, more than almost any other major city in the country, is dominated by the Democratic Party. No Republican has served as mayor since the early 1960s or made a strong bid for that office since Moscone defeated Republican John Barbagelata, a conservative urban backlash candidate in the mold of Frank Rizzo or Rudy Giuliani, in 1975. New York has elected a slew of Republican mayors, including John Lindsay in 1965, Giuliani in 1993, and Michael Bloomberg in 2001, although the billionaire would go on to run as an independent and a Democrat. L.A. had a Republican mayor in the 1990s, Richard Riordan, but the last time a Republican won an election for mayor in San Francisco was in 1959. Moreover, the city’s representatives in Sacramento and Washington are all Democrats. San Francisco reliably delivers huge margins for Democrats running statewide.

Just as the political topography of New York varies from working-class whites on Staten Island to Upper West Side liberals, the vibe in San Francisco changes from neighborhood to neighborhood, and rarely does it shout leftist. The city is racially diverse and famously an LGBTQ mecca. However, neighborhoods like the Sunset and Richmond districts in the west are more middle class and frequently vote for centrist Democrats. These two San Francisco neighborhoods have a fog-bound beauty and charm, as well as some great cafes and restaurants, but are a little bit afield from the San Francisco path trod by new tech migrants and national media.

Two generations ago, these neighborhoods of mostly modest single-family homes and small apartment buildings were heavily Irish and Italian. Today they are substantially Asian, but they remain a moderate voting block that has almost always been a check on progressive power. The two supervisors who represent these districts, Connie Chan in the Richmond (that’s not a typo; it’s called “the Richmond.”) and Gordon Mar in the Sunset (ditto), are Chinese American progressives who built winning coalitions in moderate districts. Mar became a target of conservative San Francisco, heady from the success of the recalls and buoyed by tech money, and lost his seat this past November. Chan will likely find herself against similarly powerful and wealthy conservative forces when she seeks reelection in 2024.

If the Richmond and Sunset are the San Francisco equivalent of working-class neighborhoods in New York’s outer boroughs, then Pacific Heights, Cow Hollow, and the Marina are more like the Upper East Side. These affluent neighborhoods, once Dianne Feinstein’s district on the Board of Supervisors, are solidly Democratic but not progressive. Pacific Heights, originally home to those who made their fortunes in or around the Gold Rush in the 19th century and the decades following, then to San Francisco’s wealthiest and most powerful families, is now where the richest of the new tech elite mingle with old-moneyed San Francisco. Pacific Heights is where the brutal attack on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, recently occurred. These northern neighborhoods voted for the recall and are much more Biden-Newsom-Pelosi feeling than the Bernie-AOC progressive San Francisco neighborhoods like the Haight, which became famous in 1967 as the epicenter of the Summer of Love, or the Mission, a diverse and heavily Latino part of town.

San Francisco does not just seem more conservative than its radical national image suggests, but it has a more conservative history than is broadly understood. For example, in addition to the centrist Democratic mayors of more recent vintage, from 1911 to 1963, the city was led by Republican mayors. Many were relatively moderate, but the historical impact of those mayors is still with San Francisco today because the city never developed the progressive policies and programs those other cities, like New York, did in these years. This is why San Francisco has a much weaker tradition of, for example, government-supported middle-class housing, vital public education, and public transportation that serves working people or even public hospitals and healthcare than New York.

This is often confusing to non-San Franciscans and those new to the city because its progressive history is very real. Still, it has always been movement, rather than governance, oriented. Decades ago, the city had a disproportionately huge presence in the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1970s and 1980s, San Francisco was, of course, at the center of the burgeoning LGBT movement. Even earlier progressive landmarks of San Francisco history, such as the general strike of 1934 and the demonstrations at the HUAC road show in 1960, were movement based and had almost nothing to do with public policy. Notably, during the general strike of 1934, the Republican mayor Angelo Rossi was violently unsympathetic to the striking longshoremen.

The failure of progressive governance is not entirely unrelated to San Francisco’s complex racial history. The progressive markers over the last 60 years are apparent in much of the recent racial history, such as the occupation of Alcatraz by Native Americans and the strike led by students of color at San Francisco State University in the late 1960s early 1970s. But again, these are movement, not governance, based. More recently, San Francisco has had two African American mayors, Brown and current mayor London Breed, who have moved rightward as crime and homelessness have begun to dominate local politics, and one Chinese American mayor, Ed Lee, who worked closely to accommodate big tech during the boom years of the previous decade.

There’s another side to the African American story in San Francisco. The city had a tiny Black population until World War II and, in general, was much less racially diverse than many other major cities in the pre-war year. Additionally, San Francisco’s history of racism against the Chinese, which included white mobs and anti-Chinese legislation, contributed to residential segregation that lasted well into the 20th century. As late as 1960, African Americans were only 10 percent of the overall population, less than many other major cities, including Chicago, which was 23% African American. By 1960, Oakland emerged as much more African American than San Francisco, as African Americans made up 23% of that city. San Francisco did not have a single African American elected official until 1964 when a young attorney, who had recently arrived from Texas, won a state assembly seat. Almost 60 years later, Willie Brown is still extremely important in San Francisco.

During the late twentieth century, politicians looking to form a coalition in support of progressive economic policies in San Francisco, unlike in many other cities, did not have a big African American vote on which to draw.

By 2021, the city was 5.9% African American, down from 7.6% at the turn of the century and 10.5% in 1990. (The neighborhood where O.J. Simpson grew up, Potrero Hill, has long since been gentrified.) Halving the African American population of any city, especially if many newer residents are well-paid tech workers, would lead to a rightward movement in that city’s politics. Still, this demographic change also has roots in San Francisco’s historically business-oriented leadership and relatively small African American population. San Francisco’s African American population has dropped significantly in the last thirty years, but even at its peak in 1970, it was only 13.4%. This helps explain why the redevelopment of African American neighborhoods was met with less resistance in San Francisco than in cities where the African American community had more political power.

Although San Francisco’s radical label is misplaced, it is equally wrong to describe the city as conservative or right-wing. The strong record of being at the forefront of issues like LGBT rights, the environment, and prevailing wage, and the complete decimation of the GOP as a relevant political force for almost half a century demonstrate that. However, San Francisco has never been able to marry these progressive tendencies by successfully creating an affordable city that provides decent services to working people and where decision-making and political power rest in neighborhoods rather than downtown economic and political forces. The problems that San Francisco and other affluent cities face—grinding inequality and a shrinking middle class—are not going to be easy to solve, but blaming this on the left and therefore precluding progressive solutions is a misreading of history.

Lincoln Mitchell teaches in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. and is writing a biography of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.

Lincoln Mitchell

Lincoln Mitchell teaches in Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and is writing a biography of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.