The politics of unity and division

Why does Newsom keep stabbing the progressive Democrats whose support he needs?

Democratic County Central Committee chair Aaron Peskin

These are strange days for the San Francisco Democratic Party, which is seeking to overcome bitter divisions on the local level and come together around candidates for statewide office that include Mayor Gavin Newsom, whose fiscal conservatism and petulant political style are the main sources of that local division.

The tension has played out recently around the Board of Supervisors deliberations on the new city budget and November ballot measures and in dramas surrounding the newly elected Democratic County Central Committee, where the battles during its July 28 inaugural meeting previewed a more significant fight over local endorsements coming up Aug. 11.

Almost every elected official in San Francisco is a Democrat. Newsom, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, has been the main obstacle to new taxes that progressives and labor leaders say are desperately needed to preserve public services, deal with massive projected deficits in the next two years, and quit balancing budgets on the backs of workers.

"We balanced the budget without raising taxes. I don't believe in raising taxes. We don't need to raise taxes," Newsom said proudly at his July 29 budget signing ceremony, during which he also effusively praised the labor unions whose support he needs this fall: "Labor has been under attack in this state and country. They've become a convenient excuse for our lack of leadership in Sacramento and around the country."

That hypocritical brand of politics has been frustrating to his fellow Democrats, particularly progressive supervisors and DCCC members. At the July 27 board meeting, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi and Board President David Chiu reluctantly dropped their pair of revenue measures that would have raised $50 million, bowing to opposition by Newsom and the business community.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce has become such a vehicle for antitax and antigovernment vitriol that the DCCC on July 29 approved a resolution calling for the organization — which hosted a speech by Republican National Chair Michael Steele in June — to renounce the platform of the Republican National Committee.

"The Chamber is not a knee-jerk right-wing organization," Chamber President Steve Falk felt compelled to clarify in a July 28 letter to DCCC Chair Aaron Peskin, closing with, "Anything you can do to avoid painting the Chamber as a pawn of the GOP would be greatly appreciated — because it just isn't true."

Yet Rafael Mandelman, who sponsored the resolution and is a progressive supervisorial candidate in District 8, told us the Chamber's fiscal policies are indistinguishable from those pushed by Republicans. "They're the leading force pushing the Republican agenda in San Francisco," Mandelman said, calling the stance short-sighted. "It's not in the long-term interests of the business community for our public sector to fall apart."

Chiu's business tax reform measure is a good example of how conservative ideology seems to be trumping progressive policy, even among Democrats. Only 10 percent of businesses in the city pay any local business tax, and the measure would increase taxes on large corporations, lower them on small businesses, create private sector jobs, bring $25 million per year into the city, and expand the tax burden to 25 percent of businesses, including the large banks, insurance companies, and financial institutions that are now exempt. But even the Small Business Commission refused to support the plan, prompting Chiu to drop the proposal and tell his colleagues, "There is still not consensus about whether this should move forward."