November 13, 2002



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Beyond the bad news
Lessons from the bitter defeats of Nov. 5.

By Savannah Blackwell, Rachel Brahinsky, and Tim Redmond

BY 10: 30 p.m. on election night, Nov. 5, most of the returns were in – and over at La Fina Estampa restaurant on Van Ness Avenue, where about 200 activists and local politicians were gathered to eat, drink, and take stock, the mood was somber.

The Republicans had taken over Congress, and most local progressive initiatives were going down. At the same time, right-wing measures, such as Sup. Gavin Newsom's antihomeless initiative, were passing fairly easily.

With clusters of red, white, and blue balloons overhead, noshing on dip and cheese balls, and with plenty of beer, some were left with nothing but black humor (one passing comment: Could Canada annex San Francisco?). But underneath it all was a sobering sense of real concern: had the political pendulum that swung far left with the November 2000 election of a progressive majority on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors swerved so far back to the right that the downtown forces – allies of Newsom and Mayor Willie Brown – were now poised to take back the city?

It's not that bad: There were bits of good news and signs of life in the election returns. Proposition R, the anti-tenant condo-conversion law, went down to a resounding defeat. Sup. Chris Daly won reelection with a clear mandate, defeating eight other candidates and avoiding a runoff. Eileen Hansen came in first in the District Eight supervisors' race, although she faces a difficult runoff battle (see "Machine Muscle," page 15). School board candidate Sarah Lipson became the first Green Party member elected to citywide office.

And the grassroots organizing and show of unity on the left was perhaps unprecedented in modern local campaigns: tenants, neighborhood activists, organized labor, affordable-housing proponents, public power supporters, and advocates for the homeless all joined forces in a remarkable get-out-the-vote drive.

As longtime Haight-Ashbury activist Calvin Welch said, "We put together a hell of a coalition that went up against a lot of big money and did a good job on voter turnout. This bodes very well for the future."

And if Proposition J, the supervisors' pay increase, was in part a referendum on how the voters feel about the independent, district-elected board, the results were encouraging. While voters wouldn't even give the last board, which was allied with Brown, health benefits, this fall they approved a plan to make the job full time, with what will almost certainly be a sizable pay increase.

But overall, there's no way to avoid the bottom line: San Francisco progressives didn't do well Nov. 5. On big issues, from public power to homelessness to taxing the rich, downtown money carried the day. And that leaves the coalition that seemed so powerful two years ago, when Brown's pro-development politics were resoundingly defeated, scrambling to figure out how to approach a mayoral election that is a very short 12 months away.

Sup. Tom Ammiano, who is widely seen as the leading progressive candidate for mayor, minced no words. "The national news is even worse than the local news, and the local news sucks," he said.

And by any account, Ammiano has a tough year ahead of him: "Gavin Newsom has the scene set for next year," tenant activist David Spero noted on election night. "He had a huge field operation that turned out a lot of people."

Among the factors that accounted for the depressing San Francisco results:

Big, bad money The Committee on Jobs, real estate interests, and other big-business forces poured more than $2 million into campaigns to push Propositions N and R and to fight Proposition L. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. put more than $2 million into defeating Proposition D (see "Why Prop. D Went Down," page 28). And although the San Francisco Chronicle did a good job covering Prop. D, for the most part, the city's big daily newspaper ignored the local issues. That left the slick, expensive downtown ads unchallenged.

Not enough good money The entire sum total of money spent on Propositions B, D, and L and against Props. N and R, amounted to roughly $455,000, $300,000 of which was labor money promoting Prop. L. And despite the extensive grassroots effort, it wasn't enough.

The Prop. N/Newsom factor Newsom's slick, well-funded ads supporting Prop. N., known as Care Not Cash – some of the best campaign propaganda we've seen in two decades in San Francisco – and his field operation brought voters out of the woodwork who thought they were voting to solve the homeless problem. Many of those moderates and conservatives also voted against public power, affordable housing, and taxes on the rich.

The Gray Davis factor Even a hardworking grassroots operation couldn't overcome the fact that tens of thousands of Democrats, particularly liberal Democrats, didn't bother to vote because they were so unimpressed with Gov. Gray Davis and saw nothing at the top of the ticket to bring them to the polls.

No coattails The progressive supervisors who had the strongest popularity two years ago were unable to translate that into votes for their initiatives. "There needed to be some exceptional firepower from the Board of Supervisors," Ross Mirkarimi, manager of the Prop. D campaign, noted. "Voting to put it on the ballot is not enough."

The message that came out of the election was clear: the progressives have done a good job electing district supervisors, and in races where door-to-door efforts can easily make the difference, the existing tactics will probably continue to work.

But in citywide races (where, sadly, money remains a crucial factor) the left is in serious trouble. If Ammiano wants to be mayor – in fact, if progressives want to win any major issues on the citywide ballot – they have to figure out how to raise some cash to go up against a reinvigorated, money-flush downtown operation. That doesn't mean they have to outspend big business – that would be impossible – but they have to have enough money to get a message out.

"Progressives are really having a problem [winning] citywide elections," said Wade Crowfoot, treasurer of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee. "We needed a stronger turnout in progressive areas. [The DCCC] did do a big 'get out the vote' campaign. We hired paid canvassers, did a door hanger, and made calls. It was a very strategic operation. But ultimately it didn't carry the day. I feel like [all the downtown] money on the propositions defined the issues."

Fans of the supes

Although it got little press attention, the measure that raises supervisors' salaries was a significant issue, some say, because it demonstrated that the public likes – and trusts – the district-elected board. That's a key statement at a time when downtown forces are openly talking about trying to repeal district elections.

"I'm not going to stand up and say this is a mandate, this is vindication, but it is not lost on me that this is the first time that this kind of initiative has been embraced by the voters of San Francisco," Sup. Aaron Peskin said. "This shows that district elections actually work – because it fundamentally means people are getting constituent services for things they care about. And it's a poke in Willie Brown's eye. They've spent an inordinate amount of money and press in the last two years trying to make us look like a bunch of nuts."

And that wasn't the only big progressive victory. The crushing defeat of Prop. R, which would have ended rent control on 40 percent of the city's housing units over a 25 year period, means San Francisco tenants are still a political force to reckon with.

"[The Nov. 5 local election] could have been our waterloo, but it wasn't," Peskin said. "The most important thing is that downtown hasn't succeeded in changing the city's demographics. It's still a tenants' town, still a progressive town."

The grassroots campaign against Prop. R unleashed the kind of classic, foot soldier-heavy assault that tenant activists have relied on in the past to win citywide elections. The campaign organized early, starting last spring by holding rallies against the concept of allowing an increase in the number of condo conversions. And unlike many of the other progressive campaigns, the No on R effort had some cash: assisted by $35,000 in contributions and roughly $10,000 worth of street signs paid for by state senator John Burton, activists hit the streets and dropped some 150,000 pieces of literature.

Even though at least $600,000 went toward mailers and signs urging "yes," the "no" forces were successful in getting their message to moderate tenants: Prop. R didn't represent an opportunity to increase the number of homeowners but rather signaled a direct threat to rental protections activists have fought long and hard to gain. And with an electorate that's more than 60 percent renters, the landlords were unable to win.

While San Francisco is known for internal battles on the left, this year the major progressive campaigns worked together with a level of coordination not seen in years. Tenants, affordable housing proponents, advocates for the homeless, public power supporters, and labor leaders met regularly and shared resources. But despite those efforts, many propositions didn't stand much of a chance – at least not against the huge amounts of downtown money that poured in.

Prop. L, for example, was almost certainly the victim of a lopsided, misleading campaign. So even though proponents raised $300,000, they started too late and were thwarted by a sharp effort. The measure would have raised real estate transfer taxes on properties worth more than $1 million, but foes – mostly downtown interests and big property owners – tried to insist that it would "double city taxes."

"That was money, money, money," Peskin said. "As our venerable, respected city controller [Ed Harrington] says, this is one of the most disingenuous campaigns he's seen."

The victory of Care Not Cash, which cuts off much of the city's welfare payments to homeless people, was no surprise. According to opponents, Prop. N's backers, with roughly $1 million in campaign money, succeeded in tapping into voters' frustration with the city's inability to solve the homeless crisis. And the campaign was not only pervasive, it was sophisticated: the Yes on N TV ads, for example, left the impression that the measure would help drug addicts get treatment – something the measure doesn't do.

Prop. N's presence on the ballot undoubtedly hurt the left's other measures by bringing more moderates and conservatives to the polls. Those voters helped defeat progressive measures and the initiatives calling for general obligation bonds, Prop. B, which would have authorized a $250 million bond to build affordable housing, and Proposition C, which called for issuing $123 million in bonds to make the War Memorial building earthquake safe. And disenchantment among progressives with Governor Davis didn't help. As pollster David Binder put it, "San Francisco is not immune to what we saw nationally and statewide with a lot of liberals not seeing a strong reason to vote. Liberal turnout was somewhat depressed in the city."

Some activists say the progressive supervisors weren't doing enough to push their own issues. "We haven't really seen Tom [Ammiano] out there in this election, and we needed to see him crusading like Newsom," tenant activist (and longtime Ammiano supporter) Tommi Avicolli Mecca said.

What's next?

While many eyes are turning already to the 2003 mayor's race, the supervisors races aren't over yet – and in at least one district, the results will be crucial. The runoff in District Eight pits Eileen Hansen, long allied with Ammiano and the progressives, against Bevan Dufty, a former aide to Mayor Brown who has the support of property owners. Progressives and downtown machine interests are gearing for a big fight. A Dufty victory would further damage Ammiano's political stature and undermine the left's ability to argue that it can win in small districts, where money has less influence.

On a more practical level, if District Eight goes with Brown's ally, it's likely the progressives will lose the ability to put together eight votes to overturn mayoral vetoes – giving Brown back a major piece of political power.

But the real prize is just a year away, when San Francisco will elect a new mayor – and right now Newsom's triumph with Prop. N and strong showing in his own supervisorial race clearly place him as the front-runner.

The field is far from settled, but the independent-neighborhood-progressive forces are starting to get more than a little nervous. For most of the past two years it was almost an article of faith that the consensus candidate on the left would be Ammiano, who finished second to Brown in a stunning write-in campaign in 1999 and who helped lead the progressive board victories in 2000. But for a lot of reasons, some say his star is dimming.

Ammiano has moved a bit to the center, seeking to broaden his base, and that has disappointed some activists. They say a "moderate" Tom Ammiano won't get many votes anywhere – and won't have the hardcore activist base that made his write-in campaign possible.

Newsom is already on the attack. He even referred to the "Ammiano years" in the past tense in a quote in Rob Morse's Nov. 10 Chronicle column praising Newsom's campaign efforts. Not only is he flush with the victory of Prop. N, but he has also built a major operation, with a well-developed database of voters identified as likely supporters and an army of workers.

"Ammiano is not a winner [from the Nov. 5 results], because of Prop. O and because of not being able to deliver on progressive initiatives," Binder said at a Nov. 6 election wrap-up held by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. "Because he's seen by people as the progressive leader, people will blame him.... In terms of the 2003 mayor's race, Newsom has the momentum at this point. He will be formidable. Clearly, the progressives and labor are looking to find a strong opposition candidate. I think there's some questioning whether Ammiano is that candidate."

Ammiano said that's nonsense. "I'm the guy that's been around. Give me the benefit of the doubt," he told us. "Overall, I ask people to take a breath and step back and instead of seeing the sky falling in, we've got to allow ourselves a misstep without shooting ourselves, and not give up because of what appears to be a setback."

Debra Walker, president of the Harvey Milk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Democratic Club, says she's still with Ammiano. "He's been a consistent progressive voice, and others do not have that history. I think Tom is the only one who can win."

She added, "A lot of blame can be laid directly at our [activists'] feet if we don't get our act together, rather than laying blame on our [progressive] leaders."

Besides, there's another problem. If not Ammiano, who? Former supervisor Angela Alioto, who has considerable personal wealth to put into a campaign, would love to become the progressive candidate, but she wasn't heavily involved in the ground operations of the fall campaigns. So she doesn't bring any kind of grassroots operation – and doesn't have much support from the grassroots coalition that worked so hard without her to pass public power and defeat Prop. N.

Then there's Carole Migden – a formidable fundraiser and candidate who just won a seat on the state Board of Equalization. Migden has been working with the Ammiano forces for the past two years or so and played a big role in Harry Britt's effort to beat Mark Leno for the Democratic state assembly nomination. But only a short time before that, she was a strong ally of Brown – and many activists find that hard to forget.

This is hardly the first time the progressives have had a major setback. And Ammiano has come from behind before. But the euphoria of 2000 has hit the reality of 2002, and with the stakes so immensely high, there's not much time to figure out the next move.

E-mail Savannah Blackwell at, Rachel Brahinsky at, and Tim Redmond at

For more on the election see "Why Prop. D Went Down," page 28.