After SF Progressives Win Big, a Shift in Dynamics at City Hall

4 min
San Francisco Mayor London Breed. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

London Breed might have breezed into her first full term as San Francisco mayor on Nov. 5, but Election Day was a loss for her moderate faction at City Hall — one that could stifle the mayor's agenda.

Breed's landslide victory against a field of little-known candidates was one measure of her popularity among voters and progressives' hesitance to challenge her campaign directly. Yet two of her strongest allies lost to more progressive candidates.

Pro-reform Deputy Public Defender Chesa Boudin defeated interim District Attorney Suzy Loftus — a former president of the San Francisco Police Commission, appointed by Breed after DA George Gascon resigned in October — and democratic socialist Dean Preston beat incumbent District 5 Supervisor Vallie Brown, whom Breed hand-picked as her own replacement.

For progressives, the victories are twofold. They not only represent a rejection of Breed's relatively moderate ideology, but they also forge a clear path for more reformist policy changes — particularly at the Board of Supervisors.

Earlier this year, progressives gained their first solid majority on the 11-member board in years, after Supervisors Matt Haney and Gordon Mar were elected in November 2018. Come January, after Preston takes office, their majority will be even stronger.

And that leaves little incentive to cooperate with the mayor and her dwindling number of City Hall allies, said Jennifer Snyder, Preston's campaign manager and soon-to-be legislative aide.

"There's no reason that any supervisor now has to work with the mayor," she said.

For Preston, it's an opportunity to hit the ground running with ambitious policy proposals on housing, homelessness and power redistribution.

"I think it's our job in Supervisor Preston's office to push things as far left as we can," Snyder said. "Folks have a serious appetite for progressive reform. They want it. They're not afraid of democratic socialism."

Still, Snyder said, Preston's team is optimistic that their relationship with Breed won't be entirely adversarial. "Hopefully she'll work with us to push super progressive policies," she said.

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But cooperation isn't a necessity, at least when it comes to passing legislation. With nine out of 11 supervisors now identifying as progressive (if you include Preston), Breed's ability to set the legislative agenda by signing or vetoing legislation — perhaps the strongest tool of the executive branch — is muffled.

"They [progressives] have enough to override any veto that she may use," San Francisco State political science professor Jason McDaniel said.

"I think there is a sense in the board now that they are going to be driving policy and driving the agenda much more so than the mayor."

A veto or signature still holds symbolic power. But it remains to be seen how Breed might wield her signature — and that's something to keep an eye on, according to McDaniel.

"How to navigate that?" he asked. "She is going to maybe use that to call out policy differences where she disagrees, but still highlight some things that she might agree with as she begins her statement about the legislation."

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Mayor Breed's communications director, Jeff Cretan, said in a statement that the mayor has a "clear record of working" with all supervisors, including on issues like affordable housing and mental health.

Cretan also noted that Breed can work outside of the board to push her agenda "on her own" with executive directives, which don't change law but call on city departments to take certain actions.

"There will always be areas of policy disagreement with members of the board," Cretan said. "But the mayor will continue to focus on moving forward solutions that make a difference for the people of San Francisco."

Since Nov. 5, there have been a couple of glimpses into how Breed might navigate the progressive majority.

Shortly after the election, she announced a compromise with Supervisors Haney and Hillary Ronen, among the most progressive on the board, on a sweeping mental health care proposal that they've been sparring over for months.

While it's unlikely that the deal was entirely a result of the newly strengthened progressive majority — Breed, Haney and Ronen had been in talks since before the election — the election results sped up negotiations, according to Haney.

"I think we saw a pretty immediate shift," he said. "The mayor came on board pretty much right after the election."

Cretan said the deal was in no way related to the election and that they reached an agreement before Nov. 5.

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Regardless of the timeline, the move could illustrate what City Hall might look like over the next few years, according to SF State's McDaniel.

"I think you'll continue to see things like that," he said, especially when it comes to measures on issues like mental health, health care and housing.

Another example of emerging political dynamics, McDaniel said, came after supervisors unanimously passed legislation that aims to create more housing funding for the city's middle to low-income workers.

Breed didn't veto or sign the legislation, which was introduced by Haney. Rather, she returned it unsigned, allowing the measure to become law — but not without expressing her reservations.

In a letter to the board, Breed said she does support generating cash for affordable housing, but she voiced frustration over the particular measure, saying it wasn't financially feasible and that it could hurt small businesses, among other issues.

"I remain concerned that this legislation, while well intended, will not produce the revenue it promises for affordable housing," Breed wrote, arguing that the measure's $400 million funding promise was misleading.

For Haney, it was clear that the mayor was trying to send a message.

"It's a little unclear to me what the point of it was, at this stage, when it is going to become law," he said. "It certainly raises questions as to whether she's going to be able to be independent from some of the bigger developers and different forces in the city to be able to work with us when we challenge the status quo."

Of course, both the progressive faction and Breed's wing have more upcoming elections to consider as they navigate changing power dynamics.

In November 2020, six seats on the Board of Supervisors will be open, which could be an opportunity for progressives to further isolate the mayor. It could also be an opportunity for Breed to regain allies. Four years later, the mayor will be up for re-election once again.

How things turn out could come down to two things: Whether Breed will be able to use internal rifts within the progressive block that inevitably come along with a growing majority to her advantage, and whether progressives can pin Breed between a rock and hard place by passing pieces of legislation that, as McDaniel puts it, "make her oppose things that are popular in the city as a whole," like more affordable housing and police reform.

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