SF Politics 101 > SF Politics Overview
SF Politics Overview
What are the basics? | Influencing both California and federal politics | The birth of a thriving tech sector | “Techlash” in SF | Even in the Innovation Capital, tech can’t fix everything! | How does sf.citi fit into the fabric of SF?
San Francisco, The City by the Bay, has always been a destination in high demand, whether it be the missionaries who settled here in the 1700s, the prospectors who came during the gold rush in 1849 (ahem 49ers), the outcasts who arrived during the Summer of Love, or today’s burgeoning population of techies. Motivation has changed over time, yet one constant remains: San Francisco represents a place where people come to live in hopes of experiencing a better and more prosperous way of life
Known across the country as the model progressive city, politics in San Francisco has a greater influence on the culture and fabric of the city than in most places across the country. Two unique qualities can take credit for helping shape San Francisco into the political hotbed it is today. First, San Francisco is the only consolidated city-county in the state of California. As such it operates as a municipal corporation in its city capacity, and as the administrative division of a state when operating in its county capacity. Thus, San Francisco holds the powers and responsibilities of both identities. Second, San Francisco functions as a “strong mayor” government body, operating with one mayor, a Board of Supervisors, and several elected officials. While all other cities in California hold an independent City Council, as well as a Board of Supervisors, to oversee county-level decisions, in San Francisco everything is a county-level decision. Is this why they say San Francisco operates in a bubble? Perhaps.
In this approximate seven-by-seven-mile slice of the Bay Area, there exists an ongoing political tussle between different shades of Democrat blue known as “progressive” and “moderate.” Yes, there are San Francisco residents that are Republican, but let’s be honest, they are few and far between. In fact, according to the San Francisco Department of Elections, as of December 2021, the percentage of registered Republicans sits at a mere 6.7 percent citywide.1 As for the distinction between moderate and progressive Democrats, Mayor Breed said it best back when she served as Supervisor:
The difference between a moderate and progressive Democrat is really a question of how fast that change should occur. Moderates may say, ‘let’s push the utility companies for more clean energy.’ Progressives bypass the utilities and launch CleanPowerSF. Moderates fought for civil unions. Progressives started marrying people.2
The key difference between a Moderate and a Progressive lies in the approach used to reach an agreed-upon solution. With views that center on pragmatism and fiscal prudence, Moderates tend to support solutions utilizing business and development. Progressives, on the other hand, tend to center their views with the principles of social justice, focusing on challenging the status quo and creating stronger regulations.3 These differences, though seemingly small on paper, can lead to large political rifts in City Hall and continue to play a defining role in San Francisco politics.
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As San Francisco became known for its political activism and progressive values, the City began to build a reputation as a political powerhouse, both in making bold, politically touchy, moves, (such as same-sex marriage in 2008 and enforcing ‘sanctuary status’ when President Trump threatened to deport undocumented residents in 2017) as well as launching the careers of many important politicians.
Whether they were born in San Francisco, or simply rose through the political ranks of City Hall, a bevy of prominent political leaders trace their origins here. At the state level, the current San Francisco duo of Senator Scott Wiener (former SF Supervisor) and Assemblymember Phil Ting (former SF Assessor-Recorder), have been making names for themselves in Sacramento. They follow in the footsteps of countless former San Francisco movers and shakers, including former President pro Tempore and Congressman John Burton, State Senator Mark Leno, State Senator Carole Migden, Speaker of the Assembly Willie Brown (also a former SF Mayor), and Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (also a former SF Supervisor). Further, at the highest office in California, the Governor’s position has been held by many well-known politicians, and even a couple of movie stars, but only the Brown family can call itself the royal political family of California. Raised in San Francisco, Pat and his son Jerry Brown governed the Golden State for a combined six terms. After Jerry Brown concluded his final term of Governor in January 2019, former Supervisor and 42nd mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, was elected to succeed him and take the helm of the world’s fifth largest economy.
Shifting to the federal level, San Francisco has produced some of the most powerful fixtures in Washington, D.C., including the country’s first female Vice President, Kamala Harris and first female Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. Senator Dianne Feinstein (a former SF Supervisor and Mayor) and Congresswoman Jackie Speier also represent San Francisco on the national stage.
Numerous politicians have successfully used SF City Hall as a de-facto launching pad for a productive and sustained career. Unfortunately, we have also had our share of tragic losses, and careers cut short, as some of the most famous San Francisco politicians have passed away too early in office, including Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayors George Moscone and Ed Lee.
Throughout San Francisco history, the City has successfully adapted to the rise of new economic engines. Early on, San Francisco was a port town with a bustling shipping industry. Soon a thriving financial sector developed and, most recently, the city solidified its role as the technology hub of the country.
The rise of the technology industry did not happen overnight; instead it took decades for tech to become one of the dominant forces in the City. Beginning in the early 1990s, tech took off, peaking at the height of the dot.com bubble. While growth of the tech industry slowed heavily after the bubble burst in 2001, it has since recovered and has experienced an even faster growth rate starting after the Great Recession of 2009 until today.4 Thanks to the tech industry, San Francisco was one of the few U.S. cities able to weather the recession and enjoy a fast recovery.5
In 2011, while realizing the strength and staying power of tech companies, San Francisco politicians saw tech as a way to help San Francisco mitigate the after-effects of the recession. As a solution, the SF Board of Supervisors decided to establish a Mid-Market tax break to support the tech industry. Companies were given a 1.25 percent payroll tax break for moving to the Mid-Market area, a part of town that desperately needed to be rejuvenated. At the time, the Mid-Market area was suffering from an abundance of empty storefronts, critical lack of investments, rampant street crime, and open-air drug use. The Board of Supervisors did not have unanimous support for the measure as some members were against this approach which they thought would set a bad precedent for San Francisco’s leniency when it came to business. Ultimately the tax was deemed a win for the City as it would revitalize a once thriving part of San Francisco, enhance tech’s presence in the City, and amplify the tech industry’s boost to the local economy. After successfully passing the Mid-Market Tax break legislation, Twitter moved into the area, and so did major tech companies such as Uber, Dolby, and Square. Not too long after these companies moved in, San Francisco’s Mid-Market neighborhood really started to boom.
Building on this momentum in 2012, another landmark moment for the growth of the City’s economy took place: the overhaul of the business tax system. At the time San Francisco was the only major city in the state of California to still implement the archaic payroll tax as its main business tax revenue, in addition to suffering from a double-digit unemployment rate. For many industries, particularly the tech industry, this form of business tax proved to be a strong barrier to growth and job development. A newer tax system, known as a gross receipts tax, was proposed as an alternative tax scheme. In November 2012, with the power of a strong business coalition and widespread support from elected officials, the overhaul to a new gross receipts based-tax system, known as Proposition E, passed with 71 percent of voter support. To this day, Proposition E remains one of only four dedicated tax measures to receive more than two-thirds voter support in recent history. This widespread effort was seen as a large success for the future of jobs in the City, is credited with helping lower the unemployment rate of the City to among the lowest in the country, and remains in place today as San Francisco’s main form of taxation.6
Following the 2011 tax deal and tax reform measure, over 100,000 jobs were created, according to a 2019 SF Examiner interview with Assemblymember Phil Ting. The Assemblymember further stated, “[San Francisco’s] budget jumped from $6 Billion per year to $11 Billion in a span of 8 years.” And since that interview, the budget has grown even more.7 In July 2021, Mayor London Breed signed San Francisco’s $13.2 billion budget for the Fiscal Year 2021-2022.
In San Francisco, the tech industry has had to navigate the double standard of creating shared economic prosperity and rapid growth, while also shouldering much of the blame for the City’s woes. With the economic recession long gone and unemployment rates at an all-time low, many argue the waves of new residents coming to the City, and the rise of high paying jobs, are significant factors in the increasing cost of housing, responsible for pushing many longtime residents out of the City, and contributing to today’s homelessness and affordability crisis. This dichotomy of what the tech industry has done for and to San Francisco has further divided Moderates and Progressives in San Francisco and accounts for the many efforts to have tech do more—both economically and socially.
Whether this blame against the tech industry is properly directed or not, tech has dealt with its fair share of pushback from both politicians and activists. In 2016, former Supervisor Eric Mar proposed the “Tech Tax,” a measure that failed to get out of committee, but if passed would have increased the payroll tax obligation of all large tech companies to 1.5 percent. Then in 2018, San Francisco politicians placed two tax measures on the ballot to increase the Gross Receipts Tax—Prop C June 2018 and Prop C November 2018. Even after those measures passed, San Francisco politicians placed another successful tax measure to increase the Gross Receipts Tax in November 2020—Prop F.
On the ground, activists have taken action over the past couple of years against emerging technologies in transportation as a way of bringing attention to what they deem symbols of gentrification. Methods have included throwing rocks at Google buses and blocking them from moving, burning Ford GoBike bicycles, and more recently, vandalizing electric scooters. With the presence of tech companies in San Francisco continuing to grow, and the problems in the City proceeding to intensify, the “techlash” from both politicians and activists will not be going away anytime soon.
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Homelessness. High housing costs. Wealth inequality. Inefficient transportation systems. The list goes on and on. There will always be a problem to work on, and there will always be a handful of solutions that might work. In the previous three decades, one of the most pressing issues for San Franciscans has been homelessness. This was exemplified by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom’s “Care Not Cash” initiative, a program aimed at cutting back on the money given to people experiencing homelessness in the General Assistance programs in exchange for shelters and other forms of services. The program proved to be immediately successful on many fronts, adding “more than 1,300 units of affordable housing for homeless San Franciscans [in a span of 5 years], according to the audit conducted by the City Controller, and [housing] 2,127 clients from its inception through December 2007.”8 Later, under the late Mayor Ed Lee, the push to construct Navigation Centers around San Francisco as a way to support the growing homeless population started to gain a strong foothold, with Navigation Centers remaining in high demand today. Mayor London Breed has made the fight to end homelessness one of the top priorities of her time in office through her Homeless Recovery Plan. The Mayor’s plan aims to create 6,000 housing placements for people experiencing homelessness by June 2022 and earmark $1 billion from the City’s budget over the next two years to support significant investments in housing and homelessness projects and programs.9 By adding more housing and shelters, politicians such as Mayor Breed and others believe they can help alleviate some of the City’s major problems including inflated housing costs, homelessness, street cleanliness, and much more. On a final note, homelessness is a complex and complicated issue and these approaches above represent a small fraction of the work being done in this area.
Created as an entity to unify tech voices in San Francisco, sf.citi represents, engages, and convenes the technology industry. Founded in 2012, sf.citi has grown into what many dub the “Tech Chamber of Commerce,” hosting events for San Francisco residents wanting to break into the industry, advocating on behalf of the technology sector, and most importantly, giving a voice to the largest growing industry in our City. sf.citi also strives to be the organization that connects tech companies to the City around them – our communities, our local and state elected leaders, and our future workforce. By hosting programs such as volunteer days, roundtable discussions with elected officials, and corporate social responsibility opportunities, we are able to galvanize the tech community as a positive influence on the fabric of our City. Together we strive to make San Francisco the world’s best place to live and work.
1 “San Francisco Department of Elections.” EData.
2 Garofoli, Joe. “The Difference between a Progressive and a Moderate Is…” The San Francisco Chronicle. 14 Mar. 2016.
3 Kurykh. “A Crash Course in San Francisco Politics.” Daily Kos, 19 Nov. 2012.
4 Avalos, George. “Tech Employment in Bay Area Reaches Record Heights.” The Mercury News. 15 Jun. 2019.
5 Metcalf, Gabriel, and Egon Terplan. “Tech Boom.” SPUR. 17 Dec. 2013
6 Shontell, Alyson. “Ron Conway And San Francisco Startups Win Big In The Election, Saving New Companies Millions Of Dollars In Taxes.” Business Insider. 7 Nov. 2012.
7 Bulwa, Demien, and Trisha Thadani. “Fifth & Mission.” Mid-Market: Vision vs. Reality. The San Francisco Chronicle. 9 May 2019.
8 Buchanan, Wyatt. “S.F.’s Care Not Cash a Success, Audit Shows.” SF Gate. 1 May. 2008.
9 “Mayor London Breed Signs Balanced Budget to Support Economic Recovery and Meet City’s Top Challenges.” Office of the San Francisco Mayor. 29 July 2021.