07/12/2011 10:39 pm ET | Updated Sep 11, 2011

A Progressive Decade in the Balance

A dozen years ago, there seemed to be little hope for progressive politics here in San Francisco. It was a frustrating political moment for a city that has written some of this country's most compelling progressive history.

Many San Francisco activists still proudly recall the '34 General Strike sparked by the struggles along the waterfront, as if they personally felt the injustice of Bloody Thursday. Even more of us could see ourselves on the barricades protesting the Vietnam War and alongside the fight for women's rights, civil rights, and gay liberation. Thirty years after his assassination, even those who don't share his progressive politics find themselves reliving the life of Harvey Milk. It's as if a small piece of each and every San Franciscan is missing with him gone.

So when nearly every elected official in San Francisco stood for a local neoliberal agenda that put the interests of Fortune 500 companies ahead of low-wage workers, big landowners ahead of struggling renters, overnight dot-com millionaires and big-time developers over working class neighborhoods, well, it felt plain wrong. With a majority of local legislators hand-picked by the then-Mayor Willie Brown and unwilling to check his pay-to-play politics, San Franciscans had had enough.

Everyday people across the City staged a mini-revolt.

The struggle for the soul of San Francisco had hit a crescendo in San Francisco's Mission District with renters, artists, non-profits, and mom-and-pop shops pushing back against the forces of displacement and gentrification. Thousands of people took to the streets to claim ownership of their neighborhood. In City Hall, hundreds routinely mobilized and witnessed a Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors who cared more about their political contributors than they did an entire community. In organizing to save the neighborhood from a hostile takeover, the Mission Anti-displacement Coalition (MAC) and other neighborhood coalitions also effectively framed the politics of the day -- everyday people standing up for their communities against reckless development and politicians with well-feathered pockets.

You could feel the essence of the revolt in Tom Ammiano's insurgent write-in candidacy for Mayor in 1999. For many of us, the effort to elect Harvey Milk's heir-apparent was the first time we experienced genuine optimism and grassroots energy in a candidate campaign. While we may not have won this David v. Goliath battle, the campaign was transformational. Hundreds of new activists were created and the politics of the City were turned on its head.

The framing of everyday people's rejection of pay-to-pay politics, coupled with the return to district elections in 2000, lead to a near progressive sweep of Willie Brown's hand-picked pols in the following year's Board races. A slate of true progressives and neighborhood advocates took over the Board of Supervisors. Over the next decade San Francisco would witness a renaissance of progressive reforms -- adopting the highest minimum wage in the country, universal healthcare with a mandate for employer coverage, paid sick days, the strongest local hiring requirement in the nation, mandates on developers for affordable housing and other community benefits, strengthening of protections for San Francisco renters, and a prioritization of basic health and human services in the City's often contentious budgeting process. (It is widely felt that the efforts by more establishment politicians to legalize same-sex marriage would not have been attempted without the new progressive tenor at City Hall, which included progressive politicians who already had a standard supportive position on marriage equity.)

However, with every Supervisor elected in the sweep of 2000 now termed out of office and a new Board of Supervisors that has no clear political philosophy, the future of San Francisco politics will be largely decided by the outcome of this year's Mayor's race. While much of the ink on the race has been spilled on whether placeholder Mayor Ed Lee will renege on his promise and throw his hat in the ring, the early progressive momentum, including the endorsement of longtime standard-bearer Tom Ammiano, has gone to the author of the landmark local hire law, John Avalos.

In many respects, the legacy of San Francisco's most recent progressive accomplishments now rests with the John Avalos campaign. In classic political form, several candidates (including the incumbent Mayor or not) with a more business-oriented appeal will headline the list of top fundraisers and will corner the coveted establishment endorsements. But Avalos will be able to counter not only with progressive people power but also with a partial public financing system designed to level the playing field and new system of ranked choice voting. Whether or not this is enough to take the Mayor's office will determine whether San Francisco will continue to write much of this nation's progressive history into the next decade.