San Francisco is only the 17th-most-populous city in the United States, but its politics are, with all due respect, vastly more consequential than those of Jacksonville, Fla., (12) or Columbus, Ohio (14). These hill-studded 47 square miles are a crucible of American liberalism, not to mention the nerve center of Silicon Valley. It is also a study of brutal contrasts, where homeless men in rags watch self-driving Jaguars navigate past yoga studios.
Today, the city that paved the way on same-sex marriage and cannabis is facing a grueling and unglamorous challenge: how to keep to its progressive ideals while also keeping people safe amid widely available hard drugs, a police force struggling with recruitment, unaffordable housing and — not least of all — a pandemic that has drained so much life from this famously lively city.
Even though crime has not increased in many categories, burglaries have soared and the mood in the city is markedly dour. And while population decline has been pronounced across all of California, it has been “particularly severe,” as the Wall Street Journal put it, in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, with new arrivals nearly halving in 2020 and departures jumping by 21 percent.
Staving off doom is the work of Mayor London Breed, who recently launched a law-and-order crusade, forsaking (at least rhetorically) progressive commitments in order to acknowledge the grim reality of drug addiction, crime and general disorder. Breed attained instant celebrity —as well as some plaudits from the conservative press, which celebrates San Francisco about as often as it celebrates vegan butcher shops.
“Something’s got to give,” Breed told Yahoo News in a recent interview in her City Hall offices. “Something has got to change.”
The conflict between progressives and moderate Democrats here is over how to reconcile social justice goals with the despair evident within 30 seconds of setting foot on the downtown thoroughfare of Market Street, where drug users make little effort to hide pipes or syringes and the stench of human waste comes in waves. Drug dealers seemingly operate with impunity. The homeless huddle in the doorways of shuttered businesses, their bodies often riddled with sores and scabs.
Progressives see this, of course, but they have long said that simply arresting people in the throes of dependency or psychiatric distress is neither effective nor humane policy, as they will inevitably wind up back on the streets. Criminal justice reformers blame decades of disinvestment in mental health care and other support services for these social problems. They say that more spending, done smartly, will reclaim the streets while freeing cops to handle more serious crimes.
Reformers have also called for more affordable housing, a dire necessity in this city where an average apartment costs $3,200 per month. Many advocates for the homeless —of whom there are about 8,000 in this city of 875,000 —believe in a “housing first” approach that gets people into apartment units before trying to help them in other ways.
“Solving the homelessness crisis will take resources and a commitment to house everyone — and then the ability to match services to the need,” Margot Kushel of the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative recently told the San Francisco Examiner.
Voters across California, however, are acutely concerned about homelessness and crime as quality of life issues — and those concerns are rising. Breed has tried to fast-track housing for the homeless, only to be stymied by the city’s board of supervisors.
“I get that people struggle with mental illness. I get that people struggle with addiction,” Breed said. There was compassion in her voice, but also irritation, of the kind Democrats sometimes fear showing when it comes to social ills. “We need to start looking at the problem differently.”
In addition to declaring a state of emergency in the Tenderloin, a downtown neighborhood where the city’s problems are most poignantly visible, she has pushed for more surveillance cameras across the city, tighter control of street vendors (many of whom, her office says, sell stolen goods for drugs) and expedited hiring of health workers — 200 of whom are being dispatched to the Tenderloin — who can work with other agencies on street-level outreach.
An official at her office added that Breed has been "frustrated" by the difficulty of recruiting police officers, in what has proved to be yet another challenge to her vision for the city. Still, he remained confident that conditions on the streets would begin to change. They have to, if Breed wants to remain in office.
Critics worry that despite talk of social services and references to San Francisco’s culture of compassion, Breed will ultimately give license to a police department that has faced accusations of racism, brutality and outright inattention to the plight of ordinary San Franciscans.
Several city supervisors have opposed her plan for the Tenderloin, as has progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin, with whom Breed has a tense relationship. “Jailing people who have mental health struggles, putting [those] who are vending hot dogs and other people in cages will not solve this problem,” he said at the time. “They are not the only options available to us.”
Breed’s options are limited because, very simply, she can only do so much within the powers of her office. The city supervisors are to her left, as is California Attorney General Rob Bonta. A natural ally is Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor with rumored ambitions to run for president. But it is not clear how much he can do, either.
While some conservatives want an approach similar to the one former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani implemented in the 1990s, they are as likely to be disappointed as progressives who insist on less policing and more social services. Breed is trying to strike a middle ground. “Recognize these are human beings,” she says. “We’ve got to take care of them and do what we can. But we also can’t just tolerate everything.”
Breed spoke to Yahoo News exactly two months after declaring an emergency in the Tenderloin. It would be difficult to argue that much has changed since then, but she insists the approach will yield results — and not just the kind of cosmetic fixes that make for good campaign commercials.
“There’s no way I am willing to do this job typically, like a politician who’s looking for stepping stones,” she said. “I won’t do it in fear of losing it.”
A large window behind the mayor overlooked a city-sanctioned homeless encampment on United Nations Plaza, in the heart of San Francisco’s civic center. Nearby is the new Linkage Center, a service hub that includes basic amenities like food and water but also is meant to help the city’s thousands of unhoused residents find treatment and shelter.
Critics say the Linkage Center has done little to meet that goal while effectively creating an informal but also city-sanctioned safe infection site. “It’s like a f***ing gigantic lie over the reality you can see on the street,” said Michael Shellenberger, the author of “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities.”
A controversial and sometimes abrasive figure in San Francisco politics, Shellenberger was initially encouraged by Breed’s newfound commitment to public safety. He has since soured on her approach, arguing that she remains far too lenient on drug dealers and users. “There’s been no change of policy,” he told Yahoo News over coffee across the street from the Linkage Center, which does include an outdoor smoking area where people can use drugs without fear of consequences, in keeping with a harm-reduction approach to substance abuse. “There was a change in public relations for about a month.”
An ambulance pulled up to the Linkage Center. It was most likely an overdose, Shellenberger said. In 2020, drugs killed more San Franciscans than COVID-19.
The official in Breed’s office who spoke on condition of anonymity challenged Shellenberger’s assertions, arguing that it was too soon to judge the Linkage Center — and that the facility itself was only one part of the mayor’s approach.
Breed announced her shift in thinking in a Dec. 15 press conference, describing the deteriorating conditions in San Francisco with a single word: “bullshit.” Her face radiating both anger and sadness, Breed said that San Francisco was “not a city where anything goes. Our compassion should not be mistaken for weakness or indifference.”
Her proposals for the Tenderloin were not all that revolutionary: more policing, better integration of services (hence the Linkage Center, which opened in January). It was less what she said than the fact of her saying it, with passion, that made the speech go viral, earning Breed national exposure that included praise from the White House. “We applaud the mayor making sure that there is more police presence in the city to protect Americans,” deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
During a visit to Washington, D.C., earlier this month, Breed met up with Vice President Kamala Harris, who was once San Francisco’s district attorney. They spent the time “gossiping” and “catching up,” Breed said, while also comparing respective challenges, including the criteria by which the two women are judged. Those criteria are skewed in both cases, Breed said, by the fact that some people don’t like that “you’re Black and you’re in the seat” of power.
But whereas Breed is eager to discuss the challenges of her job, the far more circumspect Harris has sought to avoid controversy. She has said nothing about the rise in street crime in San Francisco, despite having relatively recently served as the city’s district attorney, when she instituted an anti-truancy program that later came under progressive criticism.
Biden visited New York City Mayor Eric Adams just a week before Harris met with Breed in Washington. Adams has spoken bluntly about the need to curb crime; like Breed, he references growing up on the margins of society in a way that inoculates him against progressive attacks.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, has struggled to strike a similar balance. Having already committed to progressive ideas like bail reform, it is now looking to align itself with mayors like Adams who oppose such measures.
In some ways, Adams and Breed are a throwback to the mid-20th-century political operators who used common sense and tough politics to govern at a time when cities were still geared more towards middle-class families with practical concerns. Adams has thus far deftly kneecapped new Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, whose criminal justice reform agenda clashes with the mayor’s own vision for the city.
Breed, meanwhile, endorsed a recall of three school board members (including one whom she had appointed) expelled from offices earlier this week. Her support of the recall may have alienated progressives but put her on the side of parents furious about remote learning — as well as a Chinese-American community unhappy that the board had tried to change admissions at prestigious Lowell High.
Here, too, San Francisco is a portent, with Asian Americans increasingly becoming a powerful political bloc across the nation. Democrats have been challenged by that development, since many Asian voters have shown a more conservative disposition towards crime and education.
Breed was quick to lock San Francisco down when the coronavirus arrived in the spring of 2020. Two years later, she was just as quick to pick up on rising public discontent with face masks, yet another challenge that Democrats have been slow to anticipate. She has been caught violating mask rules three times, about which she remains unapologetic.
“I’m just gonna let the spirit move me,” she said the first time around. She was more recently caught taking photos maskless with basketball legend Magic Johnson at a football game. But while outgoing Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was also photographed with them, argued that he held his breath for the pictures, Breed offered no such excuse.
“I’m just tired of taking pictures with masks,” Breed said, an exhaustion surely exacerbated by the fact that San Francisco has an enviable 65 percent booster rate, arguably obviating the need for masks in the first place.
California dropped its mask order this week, though children in schools remain masked. Breed says she understands the concerns of parents who wonder why sports fans can show their faces but kindergarteners cannot. “It breaks my heart that kids in our public school system still have to wear masks,” she said. “If I had my way, I would let kids run around free without masks.”
Whether on public safety or the pandemic, Breed’s deft political instincts have impressed Willie Brown, the city’s first African American mayor and a key figure in San Francisco politics. He recently described her stance on public order as “very bold” and “grandmotherish.” If you know Brown, you know this is intended as praise.
Virtually unknown outside the Bay Area until recently, Breed is now being talked about as a national figure, one who knows San Francisco well enough to know that it is far more than a Fox News stereotype of aging hippies and entitled tech bros.
“I've been here my entire life — and I grew up in poverty,” she said. Breed was raised in the Plaza East housing project, in the Western Addition section of the city, where mid-century redevelopment destroyed a once vibrant African American community. She worked for both the Brown and Newsom administrations before winning election to the Board of Supervisors in 2012. Five years later, Mayor Ed Lee died unexpectedly and Breed, then only 43, maneuvered to become his successor in City Hall.
She was the first Black woman to hold that office in a city whose African American population has been dwindling for decades, standing at only 5.6 percent today. Her history and trajectory have emboldened Breed to challenge white progressives, as she did in a Vogue interview during the racial justice protests of 2020. “I have a real problem with the takeover of the movement by white people,” she said of the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer of 2020, which she supported.
She continues to believe that progressives who haven’t had the first-hand experience of poverty are better suited to think tanks than city halls. “They may care about it and believe in it and feel very strong about their convictions,” Breed told Yahoo News. But, she adds with trademark guile, “it's another thing to have lived it and know what it feels like.”
Though Breed won’t come out and say it, she is presumably referencing Chesa Boudin, the city’s progressive district attorney, who opposes her Tenderloin plan and is more generally critical of any approach that touts policing as a solution. His policies have put him at odds with not only Breed but also Police Chief Bill Scott, who wants Boudin to act less like the public defender he once was.
Some African Americans are rankled that Boudin — once described as “radical royalty” because his parents were members of the militantly leftist Weather Underground — stands in the way of Breed and Scott making the city safer, in particular for the residents of color who are most affected by violent crime.
“He cannot relate to anyone in the Black community here in San Francisco or in the Latino community here in San Francisco,” former prosecutor Brooke Jenkins, an African American native of the Bay Area who has emerged as the most prominent critic of Boudin, told Yahoo News.
Boudin’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but his supporters point out that despite some high-profile cases, crime on the whole is down in San Francisco. They also remind that he ran on a platform of decarceration and ending cash bail, policies voters implicitly endorsed by choosing him over demonstrably more moderate candidates.
But San Franciscans appear to be reaching the limits of their tolerance, frustrated by an approach that puts ideological purity over administrative know-how. Boudin’s office has seen high turnover; a judge recently lambasted his office for incompetence, an accusation that former prosecutor Jenkins says is justified.
“He’s solely focused with advancing his radical agenda,” Jenkins says. While that agenda surely retains some appeal — and there is evidence that decarceration and bail reform can form the backbone of sound policy — the 83,000 voters in San Francisco who endorsed holding a recall of Boudin next June have made it clear that their patience is wearing thin.
Tuesday’s recall of the three school board members probably does not bode well for Boudin, but it is an endorsement of the moderate approach Breed has taken. As mother Sarah Stettler put it to Yahoo News, “We want to take our city back.”