Don't move the mayoral elections

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The Board of Supervisors is slated to vote July 25th on a plan that’s attracted little press attention, but could have a profound impact on San Francisco politics. Sup. Jake McGoldrick has proposed a charter amendment that would move mayoral elections to coincide with presidential elections. The idea, McGoldrick says, is to increase turnout: In 2004, when John Kerry was running against George W. Bush, more than 70 percent of San Franciscans voted. When Matt Gonzalez ran against Gavin Newsom for mayor in 2003, only 55 percent showed up at the polls.

It sounds good, and generally, we’re for anything that increases voter turnout. But there are some real tricky questions about this proposal, and there hasn’t been enough public discussion around it. So the supervisors should vote against placing it on this fall’s ballot.

Our main concern with the plan is that it might diminish local interest in the mayoral contest. When the presidential race is at the top of the ticket, and likely a U.S. Senate race at the same time, the news media tends to focus on those campaigns, and the public’s attention is focused on them, too. The advantage of having a San Francisco mayor’s race in what is otherwise an off-year for elections is that all the energy in local politics centers on a high-stakes local campaign (The district attorney’s race is also on the ballot, and that might totally get lost in the presidential-year madness).

Some critics oppose the plan because, in practice, it would give the next mayor – at this point, probably Gavin Newsom – an additional year in office. That shouldn’t be an issue, really: This is about more than one mayor, and more than one year. It’s about the future of politics in the city.

It shouldn’t be about the Democratic Party, either. Some people worry that party money – always big in a presidential year – will flow to the anointed Democratic mayoral candidate, drowning out the voices of (say) a Green candidate, or a democrat who didn’t get the party’s nod. Maybe – but maybe all the money will go to the top of the ticket, and there will be less local cash spent on the San Francisco mayor’s race. And the power of the Democratic Party in a presidential year didn’t stop Ross Mirkarimi – a green – from getting elected supervisor from District Five in 2004.

Both supporters and opponents of the plan are trying to calculate how it would help or hurt progressive candidates, but there’s another factor here. Mayoral races are about more than just winning. The 1999 campaign, in which Tom Ammiano lost to Willie Brown, was a turning point in progressive politics in San Francisco. The runoff between Gavin Newsom and Matt Gonzalez in 2003 created an immense outpouring of community activism and brought thousands of new people into local politics. In a presidential year, some of that excitement – which is, in the end, crucial to any progressive movement – might have been diffused.

We don’t see any clear mandate or case for making the change right now, and we see some serious downsides. After extensive hearings and public debate, we might be convinced that this is a good idea, but that hasn’t happened yet. So for now, we urge the supervisors not to place it on the November ballot.