Jay Donde joins Jordan McGillis to discuss politics and public safety in the City by the Bay.

Audio Transcript

Jordan McGillis: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. I’m Jordan McGillis, economics editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Jay Donde. In addition to a job as a corporate lawyer, Jay is the co-founder of the Briones Society, a political nonprofit in San Francisco, California. Jay, thanks for joining me.

Jay Donde: Happy to be here.

Jordan McGillis: Jay, I also live in California, and I notice a tendency among conservatives here in the state to tone down their associations with the Republican Party. They don’t want to be associated with that nasty bunch. But your group, the Briones Society, is explicitly Republican, and you’re attempting to change San Francisco politics through that vehicle. Talk to me about your thought process there and why associating explicitly as Republicans in SF is a worthwhile endeavor.

Jay Donde: Well, thanks for the question. It’s one that we get in one form or another fairly regularly. Usually, it’s more pointedly asked as, “You’re trying to revitalize the Republican Party. Why in God’s name are you doing that in San Francisco first?” The response that I always give is that I think San Francisco and other cities like it, not just in California, but across the U.S., are actually the perfect places to launch this kind of effort because they are ground zero for voters’ experience of failed progressive governance, and whether that’s in respect of public safety, the quality of public schools, the crisis that we’re seeing on our streets in regards to homelessness and mental health, lack of housing, et cetera, et cetera.

I think that voters in San Francisco and across California are ready and hungry for an alternative, and we hope to revitalize and transform the Republican Party into something that provides them with a credible alternative.

Jordan McGillis: In the recent City Journal piece you wrote that we titled “San Francisco, Moderated,” you describe political mobilization organizing capacity as being the key factor in San Francisco as opposed to public opinion change. Can you talk to me about that aspect?

Jay Donde: Yeah, absolutely. So, San Francisco has had mayors from the moderate camp as it’s described here since, I think, 1992. I think Art Agnos was the last “progressive” supervisor. The reason I’m putting air quotes around all of these terms is that everyone who’s listening to this podcast outside of San Francisco and outside of California has to keep in mind that we’re really talking about blue-on-blue warfare here. The difference between progressives and moderates in San Francisco would probably be characterized in most of the rest of the country as the difference between very, very, very far-left and just very, very left.

The voters’ sentiments with respect to moderate policies and their affinity for moderate politicians, in my estimation, hasn’t changed that much over the last 20 or 30 years, and that’s been reflected as I was starting to explain in the fact that when you have these top-of-the-ticket elections in which the entire electorate participates, moderate results are usually what you get. However, obviously city government is comprised of more than just the mayor. There’s also the Board of Supervisors. There’s a variety of other lower-level positions, and oftentimes, those are elected by small, idiosyncratic electorates. Whether they’re based in particular districts or they just are like the Board of Education, you’re going to get higher voter participation amongst parents in that sort of election.

When you have those types of elections, organizing capacity is really, really important because the idiosyncrasies of different constituencies won’t balance themselves out. You can have a situation where in a particular district, a particular constituency needs to be appealed to and relationships need to be built with them over time and get-out-the-vote efforts need to be precisely targeted towards them, and you just can’t do that without a fully built-out political machine, for lack of a better phrase.

Jordan McGillis: As you describe in the City Journal piece, there was success with this mobilization effort to counteract the far, far-left activists in San Francisco this spring in some municipal elections. Can you give a very brief rundown of what the successes were and then maybe expand a bit more on how you and the Briones Society can have any impact on that sort of thing coming from the Republican side?

Jay Donde: Yeah, absolutely. So, just a brief rundown on what happened this past March, California had its primary election, and San Francisco, along with other municipalities, also put a bunch of measures and races on that same ballot. We had, I believe, seven measures that voters voted on. Along with that, the county central committees of both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party and other organized parties in the city were elected as well.

Without getting too deep in the weeds, for those who are not familiar with county central committee bodies, they are essentially the governing bodies of the parties in each jurisdiction. They’re relatively obscure. People don’t pay too much attention to them. They appear at the bottom of the ballot. There’s usually 40-plus people running, and voters just tune them out, but they are extremely influential in that they decide who gets endorsed by the parties in each election. Most people are not particularly politically engaged. They wake up on election day or a couple of weeks earlier than that now that we have mail-in voting, and they just decide based on what their—

Jordan McGillis: Pause right there. Was there mail-in voting for this style of election?

Jay Donde: Mm-hm, yeah.

Jordan McGillis: Okay. Okay.

Jay Donde: They look at what the Democratic Party website says in regards to endorsements. They look at what the Republican Party website says in regards to endorsements, whether they’re Democrat or Republican, and they usually just follow those recommendations. At a high level, what we saw in March was voters approving measures that I think could be fairly characterized as moderate, implementing moderate policies in the city, rejecting measures that could, I think, be fairly characterized as far-left, and also importantly, voting in super majorities of moderate candidates to both the Republican and Democratic County Central Committees.

Jordan McGillis: I think, if I recall correctly, you’ve blanched at times to the term moderate to describe some of your efforts. How do you feel about that word?

Jay Donde: I think it’s useful, and I understand why it’s applied to the Briones Society and our efforts because it’s a shorthand for voters in San Francisco. But we describe ourselves as conservative, and the distinction between our style of politics, the policies that we promote, our political philosophy, and those of our opponents, I don’t think come down to whether or not we are as principled as they are with respect to the typical conservative positions. We can get into a long conversation probably about the effect that Donald Trump has had on the party over the last 10 or 15 years, but I wouldn’t even ascribe all of this to him, and I wouldn’t necessarily say that support for or opposition to Trump is really the dividing line.

Jordan McGillis: And you’re talking about your opponents within the Republican Party of San Francisco when you’re describing this distinction.

Jay Donde: Yes, exactly. If you want to say that the Briones Society put forth a “moderate slate” for election to the Republican County Central Committee, I think that’s fair. We put forth 19 candidates, 17 of whom were elected, so now we have a supermajority on the board on that committee of 25 elected seats. But we had folks on our slate who were and still are Never-Trumpers, and there are folks on our slate who are getting ready to vote for Trump for the third time this year.

If I had to really define specifically the distinction between our slate and that of our opponents, it’s really whether or not you think it’s important to listen to and be responsive to the concerns of voters. Most voters don’t really care about and are not energized by the type of conspiracy-mongering and authoritarian-promoting and chaos that we see from the GOP at the national and state level and are just looking for people who will provide competent leadership on things like good schools and safe streets, affordable neighborhoods, and, yeah, just the basic kitchen table issues.

Jordan McGillis: Given how marginal, at least from my vantage point, the Republican Party appears electorally in San Francisco, what are you doing to have an impact on the city government?

Jay Donde: Right, so there are about 340,000 registered Democrats in the city, about 35,000 registered Republicans. We’re at a 10-to-one voter registration disadvantage. But interestingly enough, San Francisco has one of the highest percentages as a proportion of their voting electorate of NPP, No Party Preference voters. There are about 130,000 No Party Preference voters in San Francisco, and we estimate that somewhere between 25 and 33 percent of those voters lean conservative. They would register Republican, but for—

Jordan McGillis: But for some of the things that I alluded to earlier about just the negative perception in the culture.

Jay Donde: Absolutely, so I think that there is definitely a social and sometimes a professional stigma attached to being an out Republican or an out conservative in a deep blue city like San Francisco. But I also think that we should acknowledge that a lot of those voters have sincere and principled concerns about what they see in the Republican Party these days, especially among what is now the establishment. I know that the MAGA wing would like to present itself as still being the insurgents and wanting to drain the swamp, but they are the establishment of the GOP now.

On top of that constituency of let’s say 40,000 voters who are NPP, but lean right, there’s also probably a good 5 percent of the Democrats in the city who are what used to be called Blue Dog Democrats. They’re conservative Democrats, and so that’s another 20,000 or so voters. If you put those people together with the currently registered Republicans in the city and you build a coalition of approximately 100, 110,000 voters, you could start having a pretty significant impact on city politics even in a place like San Francisco.

We probably won’t be electing a Republican mayor here anytime soon, but it’s very possible for us to elect someone to the Board of Education or potentially get someone elected as sheriff or city attorney or to any of these other offices where I think voters trust Republicans a little bit more these days. So, I think that that’s an opportunity to build a coalition that extends beyond just who is actually registered as a Republican.

Jordan McGillis: As you described, Jay, the Blue Dog Democrat is something of a dying breed these days. As I think about San Francisco in particular, I suspect that that would be the case even in an even more pronounced fashion in the city. I think about because of the tight geography of San Francisco and the enormous cost of living there, and people who tend to be Blue Dog Democrats are often working in the trades or in unionized professions. There aren’t too many people that fit that description who can stay in San Francisco due to the extremely high real estate prices these days. Is that what you’re seeing?

Jay Donde: We are seeing that. Interestingly enough, there’s this traditional narrative pushed by the left that Republicans are all Mr. Monopoly with a monocle lighting 100 dollar bills on fire with cigars, and that the Democratic Party is comprised of salt of the Earth, blue-collar types. That’s just not what we’re seeing in San Francisco and I suspect elsewhere across the country over the last five or 10 years. Support for the Republican Party and support for moderate candidates and moderate measures is higher within precincts that are socioeconomically disadvantaged, that primarily consistent populations of color than in precincts that are wealthier.

Jordan McGillis: Even nationally, we are seeing those sorts of swings demographically comparing the 2020 voting patterns to the projected 2024 voting patterns. There are a lot of people from the backgrounds you’re describing who are really abandoning the Democratic Party, and it’s not just San Francisco.

Jay Donde: Yeah, and that really is the opportunity for the Republican Party. I think that Kevin Drum has written a lot of interesting things on this dynamic, and one of the things that he’s pointed out is if you look at the polling, if you look at the data, you’ll see that the Republican Party on most issues has moved less to the right over the last 20 years than the Democratic Party has moved to the left. There are a lot of Democrats who, at this point, feel that their party no longer represents their interests, it no longer represents their sensibilities, and they’re just having to hold their nose and continue voting blue because of the chaos that they’re seeing on the other side.

So, this is the opportunity that the GOP, in my opinion, has been squandering. I hesitate to use the term permanent majority because it’s so overused in politics, and it’s usually involved in a lot of wish-casting and opium-smoking, but there is an opportunity there for the GOP to capture a huge swath of the electorate if they can just tone down some of this conspiracy theorizing and some of this at least seeming affinity for authoritarianism and distaste for liberal democracy.

Jordan McGillis: One of our core values here at the Manhattan Institute is public safety, and we have a strong emphasis on that in our research, particularly pertaining to New York City, but obviously, San Francisco has become notorious for the erosion of public order and public safety. How is that factoring into the current discourse and to your work with Briones?

Jay Donde: I think that that was actually the catalyst for our formation, the election of Chesa Boudin to the office of district attorney in San Francisco. For those who aren’t familiar with him, he’s sort of the prototypical de-carceralist prosecutor that has now appeared in various forms in other cities, led to an increase in crime, particularly property crime in San Francisco, and galvanized a lot of people who I would call normies like myself to become more comprehensively involved, more engaged in politics.

So, we started the Briones Society on the right, but a lot of other groups who are also, I would characterize as moderate, on the left, began around the same time. This is just an issue that continues to be a high priority for voters. Fortunately, we’re seeing the fruits of the recall of Chesa Boudin in 2022 now in lower crime states, especially over the last couple of months. But there’s still a lot more work to do, and I think we saw some of that play out in the March election for better or worse.

Jordan McGillis: I used to live in San Francisco, the Knob Hill area, and when I go back, I still have a sense that the extreme disorder is down the hill. It’s in the Tenderloin. It’s along Market Street. Has that disorder spread out from that core section of troublemaking, or is it still relatively confined?

Jay Donde: It’s still relatively localized to the Tenderloin, and I think it’s important to note that you used the term disorder there, and I’m glad that you did because there are other neighborhoods in San Francisco that on paper are more dangerous. Bayview, Hunters Point, Visitation Valley, these are parts of the city that for many years have struggled with gang violence, serious crime, but I think that if you talk to people who live in those neighborhoods, they’ll say that, “You know what? I can more or less walk down the street and feel safe because there’s a . . .” I hate to say it. There’s a sort of predictability in a lot of ways to that type of violence and crime, whereas in the Tenderloin, you’re seeing the combination of the effects of open-air drug use, a mental health crisis, a homelessness crisis, open drug markets, and it is just chaos.

So, you can look at it as, “Well, it’s a good thing because it’s localized to one neighborhood,” but I think it’s actually bad because the people who live in that neighborhood are not socioeconomically advantaged. They have had this mess dumped on their front door because they don’t wield the political clout that residents of Pack Heights do, or Ashbury Heights, or Coal Valley, or any of these other neighborhoods that, as I was alluding to before, often vote for de-carceralist measures, de-policing measures, et cetera because they know that they won’t have to deal with the immediate consequences of those measures.

Jordan McGillis: It’s fascinating geographically that the Tenderloin is the epicenter of the disorder because it is so central to the city’s life. If you compare it to L.A., you can go to L.A. and have a great time, and completely avoid Skid Row. But if you’re visiting San Francisco, you’re going to at some point go up and down Market Street. You’re going to see off on these side streets all that’s happening.

Jay Donde: Yeah, and it’s an interesting historical artifact. There’s a lot of path dependence there. San Francisco has a lot of these SROs, single-room occupancy hotels, for people who don’t live in urban areas. Think of tenements from movies about the 1930s. That’s what we’re getting at here. A lot of San Francisco’s homeless population, a lot of people who are on public assistance live in those SROs. It has always been a neighborhood that has faced challenges associated with poverty and socioeconomic depression.

Jordan McGillis: Well, I got to push back on you a bit there, Jay, because I think that that style of housing, very low-end, entry-level housing is essential to combating some of the problems that we face in this state. We need more of an opportunity for people to get off the street and into this first rung. But at least my understanding of the SF situation is that there’s this complex of aid workers and nonprofits that are sort of facilitating the things that are taking place outside the SROs and on the street.

Jay Donde: There’s this perennial debate around whether or not . . . and tell me if I’m unfairly characterizing your position . . . housing-first is the right approach to dealing with homelessness and drug addiction.

Jordan McGillis: Yes, that would be a mischaracterizing. Definitely not a housing-first guy. I just want there to be the economic liberty for that style of housing to exist as a rung on the housing ladder, not that I’m supporting the enormously costly endeavors around housing-first.

Jay Donde: Okay. Well, my apologies, and it turns out that we’re in agreement. I also feel like a diversity of different options for housing should be available and are necessary if we’re going to have a well-functioning city and the type of city where different types of people can live and can afford to live. It’s true what you’re saying about this, what’s become known as a non-profit industrial complex or a homeless-industrial complex in San Francisco. A lot of the problems that we’re seeing in the Tenderloin ultimately come down to mental health and drug abuse issues, and until the city gets serious about dealing with those issues, I don’t think we’re going to see a significant change in how life looks for people who live in the Tenderloin.

Having said that, bear with me for one second. I think a dramatic increase in the visible police presence in the Tenderloin could make a difference and has made a difference in the past. There’s just this interesting anecdote from about 10 years ago when Ed Lee was mayor of San Francisco, and Ed Lee was sort of an accidental mayor. He became mayor through a variety of . . . Gavin Newsom left to become Lieutenant Governor, and Lee became mayor by default, then they convinced him to run. There’s a whole story, but it’s not particularly interesting to your listeners, I think.

But he basically told the police chief that he needs to flood the Tenderloin with police officers, and the police chief told him, “Look, I’ve been here for 25 years, 30 years. It’s always been like this.” Ed Lee just didn’t know enough to acquiesce to that objection, and just said, “I don’t care. I don’t care how the Tenderloin’s always been. It’s not going to be like that going forward.” And there was a good three or four years there, I’d say, in the mid-2010s when the Tenderloin was actually cleaned up quite a bit. So, I think there’s an opportunity to do something there. If we just had more law enforcement presence.

Jordan McGillis: How does law enforcement fit into the political picture?

Jay Donde: This is a huge political football, third rail in San Francisco. It played out very prominently. It played a very prominent part in the most recent elections. There was a proposition on the ballot, Proposition B, and it was originally drafted by the supervisor who the Tenderloin is in his district, Matt Dorsey. What the proposition would’ve done was it would’ve required that San Francisco fully staff its police department. What does that mean? A third-party consultancy did an analysis, I think back in 2021, that showed that a city the size of San Francisco and with the challenges that it faces needs about 2,100 full-time sworn officers. We have something like 1,500 right now, so severely understaffed.

At the very last minute, another supervisor, Ahsha Safaí, who is currently running for mayor and potentially as a way to generate publicity for his campaign, essentially inserted a poison pill into that proposition, into that measure such that when it ultimately went on the ballot, it would have only allowed an increase in police staffing if voters had approved a tax increase, I think, in the five years after the measure had passed. So, there was a lot of concern among moderates who had initially supported this measure and then quickly had to pivot to opposition that voters would just read the headline, more police, and then not read the fine print, but only if you approve a tax increase.

Jordan McGillis: So, the opposition was on the grounds that it would’ve been fiscally unsustainable?

Jay Donde: The opposition was that we need more police now. We have the ability to transfer existing funds to police staffing, and we don’t need another tax increase to do so. San Francisco has a $15 billion annual municipal budget. It’s just insane, and so certainly, it would’ve been feasible to transfer some of those funds for police staffing.

Jordan McGillis: What you described as the poison pill though, was it sincere in your mind, or was it an intentional separating of the bill?

Jay Donde: I am dispositionally averse to saying that things are insincere, but I think in this case it was insincere. It also potentially would have been unconstitutional. Again, I won’t go into the weeds here, but California has all sorts of interesting rules around what are called general taxes and special taxes and what threshold you have to reach for a special tax to be passed. A lot of legal scholars were looking at the poison pill that was introduced into this measure as essentially an attempt at a back door around the special tax requirements of having, I think, 33 percent or 66 percent of the electorate approve such a tax.

So, not only would this delay the increase in police staffing, it likely would’ve resulted in San Francisco being in court litigating this issue for many, many years before they could actually add any police officers.

Jordan McGillis: I see. Well, public safety, policing in San Francisco, this is a target-rich environment for us, and this is something that the conversation we should continue at a later day because we’re about our time limit, Jay. Thank you so much, Jay Donde, for joining me. Where can our listeners check out your work?

Jay Donde: Thanks for having me. They can visit our website www.brionessociety.org and learn more about our organization and our efforts there.

Jordan McGillis: And what’s your personal handle on X?

Jay Donde: We are @BrionesSociety. It’s very easy to remember.

Jordan McGillis: Of course, you can follow City Journal on X @CityJournal and also on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. Thanks for listening.

Photo: Dan Kurtzman/Moment via Getty Images

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