The people's election - Page 2

On (almost) every level, the grassroots beat the establishment and the progressives beat the big money
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San Franciscans celebrate America
Photo by Stefan Jora

The evidence that this was the People's Election wasn't just at the national level. It showed up in the results of the San Francisco elections as well.

This was the election that would demonstrate, for the first time since the return of district elections, whether a concerted, well-funded downtown campaign could trump a progressive grassroots organizing effort. Sure, in 2000, downtown and then-Mayor Willie Brown had their candidates, and the progressives beat them in nearly every race. But that was a time when the mayor's popularity was in the tank, and San Franciscans of all political stripes were furious at the corruption in City Hall.

"In 2000, I think a third of the votes that the left got came from Republicans," GOP consultant Chris Bowman, who was only partially joking, told us on election night.

This time around, with the class of 2000 termed out, a popular mayor in office and poll numbers and conventional wisdom both arguing that San Franciscans weren't happy with the current Board of Supervisors (particularly with some of its members, most notably Chris Daly), many observers believed that a powerful big-money campaign backing some likable supervisorial candidates (with little political baggage) could dislodge the progressive majority.

As late as the week before the election, polls showed that the three swings districts — 1, 3, and 11 — were too close to call, and that in District 1, Chamber of Commerce executive Sue Lee could be heading for a victory over progressive school board member Eric Mar.

And boy, did downtown try. The big business leaders, through groups including the Committee on Jobs, the Chamber, the Association of Realtors, Plan C, the newly-formed Coalition for Responsible Growth, and the Building Owners and Managers Association, poured more than $630,000 into independent expenditures smearing progressive candidates and promoting the downtown choices. Newsom campaigned with Joe Alioto, Jr. in District 3 and Ahsha Safai in District 11. Television ads sought to link Mar, John Avalos, and David Chiu with Daly.

Although the supervisors have no role in running the schools, the Republicans and downtown pushed hard to use a measure aimed at restoring JROTC to the city's high schools as a wedge against the progressives in the three swing districts. They also went to great lengths — even misstating the candidates' positions — to tar Mar, Chiu, and Avalos with supporting the legalization of prostitution.

And it didn't work.

When the votes were counted election night, it became clear that two of the three progressives — Avalos and Chiu — were headed for decisive victories. And Mar was far enough ahead that it appeared he would emerge on top.

How did that happen? Old-fashioned shoe leather. The three campaigns worked the streets hard, knocking on doors, distributing literature, and phone banking.

"I've been feeling pretty confident for a week," Avalos told us election night, noting his campaign's strong field operation. As he knocked on doors, Avalos came to understand that downtown's attacks were ineffective: "No one bought their horseshit."

A few weeks earlier, he hadn't been so confident. Avalos said that Safai ran a strong, well-funded campaign and personally knocked on lots of doors in the district. But ultimately, Avalos was the candidate with the deepest roots in the district and the longest history of progressive political activism.

"This is really about our neighborhood," Avalos told us at his election night party at Club Bottom's Up in the Excelsior District. "It was the people in this room that really turned it around."

The San Francisco Labor Council and the tenants' movement also put dozens of organizers on the ground, stepping up particularly strongly as the seemingly coordinated downtown attacks persisted. "It was, quite literally, money against people, and the people won," Labor Council director Tim Paulson told us.

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