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San Francisco, the liberal beacon, embraces conservative ballot measures

Voters in San Francisco, a famously liberal stronghold, embraced unusually conservative policies this week as they passed a pair of controversial ballot measures that take increasingly aggressive steps to curb the city’s intertwined troika of troubles: Homelessness, drug addiction and crime.

The initiatives require drug screening for welfare recipients and give police more surveillance power and less oversight, measures that opponents have panned as right-wing and dangerous. Ballots were still being counted after a dismally low turnout, but the measures, known as Propositions E and F, held a clear majority of support early Thursday.

The city’s Democratic mayor, London Breed, who faces a tight reelection race in November, sponsored the initiatives and claimed victory on election night, saying they were “additional tools that are going to help us deliver some real results for San Francisco.”

“We are also sending a message that we are a city that offers help but not a city where you can just come and do whatever you want on our streets,” Breed said in a later statement.

The results reinforce a recent trend of more moderate forces prevailing in San Francisco elections, as voters continue to express alarm over the crises unfolding daily on city streets, where a record 806 people died of an accidental overdose last year. Meanwhile, the city has battled a barrage of apocalyptic headlines — fair or not — since the onset of the pandemic, which experts say could also affect residents’ perceptions of crime and safety.

Tuesday’s contest serves as another key marker in San Francisco’s recent shift toward the center, political analysts say, along with the separate 2022 recall elections of Chesa Boudin, the city’s liberal district attorney, and three school board members, who were blamed for failing to reopen schools during the coronavirus pandemic and for favoring diversity over merit in admissions to the city’s most prestigious public high school. Taken together, the analysts say, the outcomes are a measure of voters’ priorities and their frustration with the status quo.

“California is run lock, stock and barrel by Democrats,” said Garry South, a longtime Democratic campaign strategist in the state. “There are advantages to being the party in power — you get your way. The disadvantage is when significant problems develop, the gum’s on your shoe.”

While San Francisco is far from the hellscape Republicans make it out to be, South added, the results show that voters are desperate for solutions, regardless of the political party that may have incubated them.

“Particularly with crime and homelessness, Democrats have to step up to the plate and deal with these things, which may challenge the orthodoxies they have long held,” he said.

In the national imagination, San Francisco is often cast as the pinnacle of blue state America. And while the city is overwhelmingly Democratic — one of the nation’s premier exporters of liberal leaders and ideas — residents have a long history of supporting more moderate policies and politicians, especially for mayor.

Particularly on homelessness, San Francisco voters have backed a range of conservative approaches, from an anti-panhandling law to an ordinance preventing people from sitting or lying on a public street.

“San Francisco voters have been willing to put strong requirements, almost punitive measures, on people who are homeless — for decades,” said Jim Ross, a Bay Area political consultant who ran Gov. Gavin Newsom’s San Francisco mayoral campaign in 2003.

Like Tuesday’s results, this track record undercuts the stereotype that the city has always been a liberal haven.

“The Summer of Love was a long time ago — and even then, you had cops beating up hippies,” Ross said. “San Francisco, much like any city, has a lot of nuance to it.”

Still, the local Democratic Party’s far left flank suffered a series of setbacks in this week’s contest. In addition to the ballot measures, a slate of moderates appeared poised to take control of the local Democratic County Central Committee, an influential political body whose endorsements can make or break a given candidate. Liberals nearly swept the DCCC election four years ago.

Tuesday’s votes, however, were not uniform: Residents rejected well-funded attempts to oust two Superior Court justices who were accused of being soft on crime, a rejection of an argument similar to that which felled Boudin two years prior.

Still, the signals prompted the San Francisco Chronicle to declare on Wednesday: “San Francisco can no longer be called a progressive city.”

Jane Kim, the director of the California chapter of the Working Families Party, which in the past has endorsed the presidential bids of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), said the situation is not quite that dire.

Kim, a former county supervisor who as of Thursday appeared to be one of the few liberals to win a seat on the DCCC, said that, in hindsight, the city’s left missed an opportunity to offer alternatives to the more conservative Propositions E and F.

“The propositions that were put forward were put forward by the other side,” she said. “I don’t think there was any surprise about E and F passing. They were the only solutions proffered to address what was top of mind for San Franciscans.”

The larger message for Kim and her allies, she said, is that high turnout is a key driver of left-wing candidates and causes, as shown by past ballot measures promoting tenant protections and a tax on executives that passed during general elections drawing more voters.

“When more voters come out, the vote tends to be more progressive, younger and diverse,” Kim said.

Like other liberals, Kim blasted the pair of propositions, saying they would be ineffective and harmful. “This is what the red states do,” she said.

Proposition E loosens rules around the police force’s use of surveillance cameras, drones and vehicle pursuits, and it seeks to reduce the amount of time officers spend on paperwork, including after use-of-force incidents, while also limiting oversight by the city’s police commission.

And Proposition F requires adults who receive cash assistance from the city to be screened for drugs. If they’re found to have a substance use disorder, they would have to undergo treatment to remain eligible for welfare benefits.

Breed, the city’s mayor, championed the proposals while under intense pressure from a disgruntled electorate and while fending off multiple challengers to her reelection bid who are pushing more conservative approaches to the city’s problems. On election night, Breed said the measures would make the city a safer place and thanked voters for their support.

The measures seemed “designed to speak to the mood” of the electorate, said Jason McDaniel, a political scientist at San Francisco State University.

“It’s a positive story for the mayor’s reelection,” McDaniel said. “She can make the case that she’s moving in a policy direction that voters want.”

When Breed first took office after a 2018 special election, liberals in San Francisco were pushing to reduce incarceration rates, promote safe drug injection sites and build a Bay Area bulwark against the Trump administration’s far-right policies. But some six years later, circumstances in the city have changed dramatically, and voters are reacting accordingly, McDaniel said.

“Voters in San Francisco are still liberal, they’re still progressive,” he said. “They’re not changing, but the issues that are important to them have changed.”

Both measures passed despite an organized and vocal opposition, including from a powerful local union that said it could ask courts to block Proposition F because the city hadn’t adequately addressed concerns about how the new law would affect its members, who include health care and city government employees.

Many doctors and addiction treatment providers also spoke out against the measure, saying the policy could backfire and make the city’s emergency worse. The measure, they argued, is coercive and could result in a wave of residents being wrongly flagged for substance use disorder and funneled into an already-overtaxed system.

It also could strip benefits from vulnerable San Franciscans, spiraling them into homelessness, said Marlene Martin, a doctor and addiction care expert in the city.

“This is not going to make our addiction crisis better,” said Martin, who works at San Francisco General Hospital. “From my experience, when people lose their housing, their substance use disorder only worsens.”

But supporters like Cedric Akbar insist that more stringent policies are the only way to solve the worsening conditions on the city’s streets. Akbar, who has himself battled a heroin addiction and has been sober for 31 years, said San Francisco’s policies enabled illegal drug use and lacked accountability.

Akbar said Breed, whose younger sister died from an overdose, consulted him and other members of the city’s addiction recovery community before crafting her approach. He said people are fed up and hungry for change.

“San Francisco went way too far to the left,” said Akbar, a Democrat who used to consider himself a staunch liberal. “But the more I keep talking, the more I’m sounding like a damn Republican.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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