A Republican in San Francisco: Can Political Entrepreneurs Help the GOP Return to Normalcy?

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Daniel Stid
August 31, 2023

Lyceum Labs is exploring whether and how political factions can play constructive roles in American politics, with a particular focus on the potential for moderating factions in both parties to offset the extremism of their polarized wings. For Democrats, as we heard in this recent Lab Note interview with Lauren Harper and Liam Kerr of the Welcome Party, this means finding ways to win over rural, independent, and Never Trump Republican voters. For Republicans, such a breakthrough would mean appealing to independent and moderate voters, especially in urban areas.

The Briones Society of San Francisco is a dynamic experiment of this latter type of factional innovation. As the group notes on its home page,

“Let’s try something different. How about competent leaders for a change? How about real solutions to problems like crime, homelessness, and failing schools? We are centrist Republicans, moderates, and independents working to make our city the best place to live in America. We are the majority of voters in San Francisco who are tired of conspiracy theories from the right and virtue signaling from the left.”

Can such a center-right, red-tinted effort take root in America’s bluest city? To learn more, I recently caught up with Bill Jackson, a co-founder of the Briones Society and a current member of its leadership team. He also sits on the Central Committee of the San Francisco GOP.

Daniel: I’m really grateful for you making time today. Tell us about the Briones Society and your reason for being in San Francisco.

Bill: The Briones Society is a political club spanning a broad range of center-right viewpoints in San Francisco. We were brought together by the sense that San Francisco is not on a good track. There are a lot of problems, but the Republican Party is not a force in helping the city address them. The party is now down to 6.6% of registration in the city, compared to roughly 60% Democratic registration and 30% non-party preference. So 11 of us got together to try to do something about it.

Those of us who founded the Briones Society know we know we live in a place that is constantly reinventing itself, that has an outsized impact on commerce, culture, and politics–in California and beyond. We are political entrepreneurs. On the one hand, we are tied to certain enduring principles in our understanding of what it means to be center-right. We’re drawn to the idea of a dynamic society in which civil society is strong and robust and problems are being solved within it. At the same time, we are tech optimists. We want to live in a society where a very broad range of ideas, products, services, and people can emerge and lead us forward to create a better future. We think this is one of the ways San Francisco has gone wrong–it is so politically tied up with being opposed to what is currently the Republican brand. We are trying to counter that pattern.

Daniel: I am presuming that the city used to be much more politically balanced.

Bill: Yes, in fact, San Francisco was governed by Republican mayors straight through between 1912 and 1964, when the last Republican mayor left office. Ironically, that same year, the Republican convention that nominated Goldwater was held at the Cow Palace in South San Francisco. I recently did a podcast with Willie Brown who was a Democratic Speaker of the California Assembly for many years and remains a politically heterodox person. He was first elected Speaker in 1980 with more Republican than Democratic votes. He described becoming involved in politics in the 1950s in San Francisco, the high point of black San Francisco, when it was the Harlem of the West. There had been a huge growth in the black community in San Francisco through World War II, and Willie said that civil rights-oriented black San Franciscans were as likely to be Republicans as they were Democrats. This wasn’t that long ago!

Daniel: So do you have a different policy agenda for the city?

Bill: Yes, for example, we embrace and support a strong police department. Our department is one of the most reformed in the country, having been through the Obama Administration’s reforms for 21st Century Policing, and having rooted out some racist cops. Even though SFPD is really quite forward-thinking as a department, it’s still very hard for significant portions of San Franciscans to support the institution of the police. There is such a strong strain of thought that any kind of institution that anchors society is probably oppressive and racist at its core. So it needs to be defunded, or at least not be embraced. Those of us with center-right tendencies see it differently. On the one hand, we want a more open society, the reverse of 1960s-style law and order dynamics. But while we are more open to a broader variety of ideas, we still want to embrace certain institutions that enable the kind of civil society we envision to thrive–like the police.

Or take our education system. It is an institution that has gone astray here in San Francisco. We want one that clearly has as its first priority helping students learn the basics upon which they can build the more advanced kinds of skills rather than instilling the right ideological preferences, which is currently the focus of many in the teaching corps.

Daniel: Say more about why you use the word “club” as opposed to party or organization to describe your group.

Bill: We have a bunch of political clubs connected to the parties here in San Francisco. There are something like two dozen chartered political clubs affiliated with the Democratic Party. But there are only two or three clubs in the Republican Party. We’re trying to develop our ideas adjacent to but not directly controlled by the Republican Party in the city. We call our local parties central committees in California, and we have some significant differences with ours, which is why we want to be independent of it. There have been some signs thus far that many in the San Francisco GOP would like to chew us up and spit us out. They have conflicted feelings about us.

That’s why we view ourselves as political entrepreneurs. But to be clear, we have chosen to be Republicans. We live in a two-party system. If you take the long sweep of history, the two parties are the vessels in which people organize to develop ideas, policies, and constituencies. They evolve enormously over many decades. And we think the Briones Society can be a powerful vessel for evolving a kind of center-right sensibility that works in 2023 for multi-ethnic California.

Daniel: If you are wildly successful over, say, a 10-year period, how does the Republican Party in San Francisco, in the state of California, and maybe even the country overall look different? What could be the ripple effects of your work?

Bill: If we are wildly successful, we will see the emergence of urban Republicanism. That’s our aspiration, but really our focus is here in San Francisco for the foreseeable future. If we can get some success here, we could set the stage for progress elsewhere. We have nothing to lose in the sense that the deck is stacked against us. We come across many people whom we would like to draw in who respond: “You people are crazy! I’m not going to join that brand. I’m not interested in that brand.”

So our thought is ok, let’s start with 11 people and see what we can do for our democracy with that. It turns out we can actually do a lot! We have a monthly podcast. We have a policy journal that is going to be published twice a year. We do a Weekly News RoundUp on San Francisco politics and policy which reaches over 10,000 subscribers. We have occasional events. Our focus now is growing from 11 to 22 to 50 to 100 people who, like us, think we really need something new, and who have an instinctive pull towards the center-right. If the current Republican Party is not for you, that’s fine! We aim to get to 100 or 200 people who are part of our club, and along the way, we are going to be making ourselves really useful to San Francisco moderates.

Wild success in the longer term would be that the ideas we’re putting out here in far-left San Francisco start to get serious consideration and get adopted. I’ll give an example. We believe the police commission in San Francisco should be reformed. We have shifted control from the mayor to a shared accountability structure for the police. And we are among the first people saying, actually, no, we should go back to the mayor being in charge of the police because we need to have clear accountability. We can’t govern with the police department becoming part of the fight between progressives and moderates in the city. We don’t want that. If we can shift San Francisco policy, that’s one measure of success.

We also want to be reversing the Republican registration decline. When I moved here 33 years ago, we were 20% Republican. That was not very much back then, but now we’re down to 6.6%. What if we could grow that back up to, say, 10% at first, and keep moving in that direction? That would be another marker of success.

To make this happen, we can’t all be older white guys. We need to be multicultural in our leadership and in our membership, and then surprise people with fresh ideas–not necessarily what they would expect from us. We want people to join us because we’re more interesting and we’re more aligned with how they think about the world–we’re more dynamic and compelling to them.

One last thought on the long term. After we’ve discovered what works in San Francisco–, both to inject good policy ideas into the governance of the city and to build a constituency of urban Republicans–then we hope to engage with others doing similar work elsewhere and share our insights and processes. There could be a set of cities where this kind of movement is growing and contributing to the heterodoxy of the Republican Party, and the health of it, in a way that it can bring value to those cities as well as to suburbs and rural areas surrounding them.

Daniel: A question about power dynamics. At a certain point, don’t like-minded Republicans in San Francisco need to effectively prevail within the GOP Central Committee? Don’t you actually need to gain power within the formal local party structure, under its bylaws, to be able to carry your policy and political agenda?

Bill: Yes, we do need to gain power. One advantage of doing it sooner rather than later would be to reduce the statements and activities of the current Central Committee that in our view, alienate the no-party preference voters and the moderate voters that we would like to attract. But it might take longer. And that’s okay, too.

Daniel: What is it like being a member of the Central Party Committee, when you are also in the vanguard of an effort to change how the party is situated and operates in the city?

Bill: Well, there are four of us on the committee. And with all due credit to the current chair of the central committee, his view is, “Hey, we want all comers and ideas!” This strikes us as a little crazy sometimes–do we really want all comers and all ideas to be included? On the other hand, we appreciate being included. And I’ve come to see the wisdom in his approach. Others in the party understand us, even if they oppose some of our ideas. They see we’re here trying to build up the party and have a particular approach to that. Everybody would like to see the number of registered Republicans grow and for the party to have more influence on politics and policy. We’ll get more influence as we grow our membership, fundraising, and volunteers.

In local party politics, sometimes the biggest fights are about the smallest things. There are some big differences in style and approach, even within our own club. For example, a few of our leaders support Donald Trump. Many more of us could never imagine voting for Donald Trump, even if he is the nominee of the Republican Party. So we purposefully don’t define ourselves in terms of national issues. Everybody’s clearly focused on local issues.

Daniel: What’s been the most encouraging aspect of your work to date?

Bill: Well, we leaned in and we provided enthusiastic foot soldiers for the Chesa Boudin recall–he was our district attorney. That recall would have won by a lot without the existence of the Briones Society, but we contributed to that effort and also to the school board recall. That just feels good because we can be a political club. We can be dealing with all the brand issues we have discussed, but we can also be leaning in and making a contribution to strengthening the leadership and political culture of San Francisco right now.

I also had a recent conversation with a well-known billionaire in San Francisco. He is quite involved in the city and told me, “I read your policy journal from cover to cover and it’s great! I like your courage and original thinking.” Now he is not writing a check to us just yet, and maybe he never will. But that is encouraging. It is just one example of the growing appreciation for our ideas.

Daniel: That is a good place to wrap up. Thank you Bill for your time and insights–and Godspeed!

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Daniel Stid
Daniel Stid is the Executive Director of Lyceum Labs.