San Francisco’s resurgent moderates notched another win in the city’s March elections. Less than two years after they ousted a far-left district attorney and nearly half the Board of Education, voters passed measures last month removing administrative burdens on the police and making welfare payments contingent on drug testing and rehab. They also elected moderate candidates to decisive majorities on the governing bodies of both the local Democratic Party and the local Republican Party.

This doesn’t mean that San Francisco has suddenly swung to the right, however. Instead, the elections demonstrate that political trends in San Francisco—a city of neighborhoods, with a balkanized electorate—are driven more by organizing capacity than by major changes in public opinion.

In the local Democratic Party’s blue-on-blue warfare, moderates have been trouncing progressives for decades in high-turnout, citywide races, where voter sentiment is most accurately reflected. But while every San Francisco mayor since 1992 has hailed from the moderate camp, progressives have successfully built a machine to capture lower-level offices and sinecures, including the city’s more than 100 commissions, committees, and task forces, and have systematically transferred power from the mayor to these progressive-controlled bodies. Such machines are critical in low-turnout, district-level races, where mobilizing neighborhood coalitions can decide elections.    

The progressive breakthroughs in the office of district attorney in 2019 and on the Board of Supervisors in 2020—followed by a crime wave and dysfunction in the public schools—finally galvanized the moderates into action. Groups like Grow SF on the left and the Briones Society (which I co-founded) on the right transformed thousands of “normies”—many of whom had never bothered to look up who their district supervisor was—into enthusiastic activists.

The moderates have been particularly successful in organizing precincts on the west side and along the city’s southern necklace, where large populations of Asian immigrants, working-class Irish families, and black homeowners are concentrated. While this new moderate coalition has already notched some electoral victories, the electoral defeat of Measure B (a police staffing initiative) and the outcome of the judicial races on the March ballot show that there’s still more work to be done.

In its original form, Measure B would have required the city to fund fully and staff the police department. But a progressive supervisor introduced a poison pill into the text, effectively requiring yet another tax hike before additional officers could be hired. Moderates, shifting rapidly from supporting the measure to opposing it, worried that voters would see only the measure’s headline (“more police staffing”) and neglect to read the fine print (“but only if you approve more taxes”). Opponents raised more than $1.3 million to attack it, and its original drafter, Supervisor Matt Dorsey, denounced the compromised measure, once again proving himself an adept politico by rebranding it as “the cop tax.” Measure B lost decisively.

Also on the March ballot were two races for seats on the local bench. California’s trial court judges have benefitted for years from a convenient electoral feedback loop. If they run unopposed, their names don’t appear on the ballot. Consequently, most voters don’t even know that judges are elected, so there’s less popular pressure to draft challengers in the next election cycle. Furthermore, in San Francisco, litigators adhere to an unspoken taboo against challenging incumbents. The only people who (rightly) pay no mind to this taboo are public defenders. That explains why incumbent judges typically receive challenges only from the left, and why, over time, the city has ended up with a catch-and-release judiciary.

The two moderates drafted to challenge incumbent judges this cycle fell short, despite the wave of pro-law-and-order sentiment sweeping San Francisco. They struggled to get endorsements, and judicial-ethics rules limited their ability to craft a compelling narrative. For example, judicial candidates are prohibited from discussing how they might rule on specific cases if elected, so they can only speak in generalities to voters who want firm commitments.

Fortunately, having captured supermajorities on both the Republican and Democratic County Central Committees in the March elections, the moderate camp is better positioned than ever to succeed in passing a police staffing measure and to field judicial candidates who can avoid the weaknesses of previous challengers. Unknown to most voters, these committees serve as the governing bodies of the two parties in California counties and thus play a decisive role in candidate recruitment, endorsements, fundraising, and voter mobilization. So voters can expect to see better moderate candidates, and better support for moderate candidates, in future elections. Given the blockbuster nature of the upcoming municipal elections in November—in which San Franciscans will choose a mayor and a majority of the seats on the Board of Supervisors—these developments have come just in time.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next