The recall mystery
Who's really behind the effort to oust Sup. Sophie Maxwell?

By Steven T. Jones

There are two ways of looking at the campaign to recall Sup. Sophie Maxwell, which is expected to be certified Aug. 19 for an election sometime between November and January.

Under one scenario, a ragtag group of Bayview-Hunters Point activists of various political stripes – concerned that Maxwell wasn't responsive enough to community concerns about pollution, economic development, and problems with the police – worked on a shoestring budget out of the San Francisco Bay View newspaper office to gather about 5,000 signatures.

Only later did they learn that they had mistakenly neglected to file campaign documents revealing who funded the effort and that the City Charter calls for the mayor to appoint the replacement for a recalled supervisor, rather than holding a direct election for that slot, as the recall proponents assumed.

The other scenario also includes all of these elements – and something more. There's some evidence that, sprinkled among grassroots recall proponents, there are individuals with grand plans to take advantage of the southeast part of town's enormous development potential – along with allies of Mayor Gavin Newsom who promised to secretly fund the effort using downtown money.

The key public faces in the recall campaign are Mel Washington, a Newsom supporter, Third Street business owner, and president of the Black Chamber of Commerce; Kevyn Lutton, the recall's main spokesperson, who is a community activist and member of the BVHP Planning Group, which is pushing a $10 billion development scheme for the region; and Willie Ratcliff, the progressive publisher of the Bay View who announced halfway through the recall petition drive that he planned to run for Maxwell's seat on the board.

Yet the Bay Guardian has now learned that a big player behind the scenes was Wade Randlett, president of centrist political advocacy group SFSOS, which gets its funding from Gap founder Don Fisher and other downtown business interests.

Randlett was on the e-mail list of recall supporters who strategized how to go after Maxwell, along with many others, including Michael Strausz, a Pacific Heights developer who enlisted Lutton to help push his plan for the creation of a residents' stock ownership development corporation, which would purportedly give Bayview-Hunters Point residents direct power to make decisions about development of the region, with Strausz hoping to be paid market rate for serving as its development consultant. Maxwell had rejected the scheme, which Strausz and Lutton cite as one of many reasons for recalling her.

Yet neither Strausz nor many others on the list – which included various activists, a couple of journalists, and even Sup. Chris Daly – ended up offering much to support the recall campaign. Strausz told us he offered $250 but ultimately decided against sending it. Washington and Ratcliff both say they funded the entire recall effort, spending about $5,000 between them.

But Ratcliff told us that it wasn't supposed to be that way and that when Washington first called him in the spring to propose the recall campaign, Washington told him he had lined up financial backers who would pour up to $15,000 into the effort. In fact, Ratcliff told us Washington later gave him a check for $1,463 as payment for signatures.

In an interview with the Bay Guardian – a brief one because he insisted we deal with Lutton – Washington confirmed he had told Ratcliff he had a possible source for funding. But he insisted that source never came through, and he wouldn't identify who it was.

He also told us the $1,463 was payment for a recall ad in Ratcliff's paper, but a receipt supplied to us by the Ratcliffs showed it was actually for signatures, and Washington wouldn't return calls for comment on the discrepancy.

Rumors of a mysterious deep-pocketed benefactor for the effort have circulated since the beginning. A confirmation first came July 13 during a meeting of the Potrero Hill Merchants Association that Lutton attended.

Association board member Tony Kelly, who opposes the recall, said he got into a contentious discussion with Lutton at the meeting, during which he accused Ratcliff of funding the effort just so he could run for office. Lutton, he told us, objected to the characterization, saying the campaign was actually being funded by a wealthy Potrero Hill resident.

Later, Lutton confirmed the account to us and admitted that she was referring to Randlett (who didn't return messages left on both his cell and office phones). She said that Randlett – who she said she hadn't heard of before the campaign began and who was brought in by Washington – came to an early meeting and committed himself both to funding the campaign and to doing some leafleting, and that on another occasion he came by Lutton's house to pick up some leaflets.

But Lutton said that was the last she heard from him and that it was Washington and Ratcliff who funded the entire effort. That can't be independently confirmed because recall proponents haven't filed required campaign finance documents.

Ethics Commission director John St. Croix told us that all recall campaigns must file semiannual campaign finance statements (which were due Aug. 1) and that groups raising more than $1,000 must report their donors and expenditures within 10 days. Lutton said that any lapse on the campaign's part is accidental and that they intend to comply with the law.

When Ratcliff announced in mid-June that he intended to run for the seat, a rift developed in the campaign, with the moderate Washington refusing to repay any more of the left-leaning publisher's expenses, Ratcliff said. Ratcliff said he paid for and facilitated the collection of about 85 percent of the total signatures.

Yet what Ratcliff characterizes as the "fast one" he pulled on his more conservative partner may backfire, because representatives from both the City Attorney's Office and the Elections Department say the City Charter clearly gives the mayor the power to replace recalled supervisors, although Ratcliff is trying to challenge that under local law and potentially through a civil rights claim under the federal Voting Rights Act.

Matt Dorsey, a spokesperson for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, told us his office will issue a detailed legal opinion on issues raised by this recall shortly after the election is certified. In addition to the appointment question, recall proponents differ with city officials about whether the election should be held Nov. 2 or sometime in either December or January.

Newsom spokesperson Peter Ragone told us, "The mayor does not support the recall ... he was opposed from the beginning." Yet this was also a mayor actively trying to engineer a more loyal board majority by moving Sup. Tony Hall over to the Treasure Island Development Authority, appointing mayoral staffer Sean Elsbernd to Hall's seat, and asking Maxwell and Sup. Aaron Peskin whether they would consider taking the vacant treasurer's job (both declined).

But Ragone said the mayor neither knew about nor approved of efforts by his allies to remove Maxwell: "There will be people we associated with at some point that do things that we don't agree with."

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