Recalling Sophie Maxwell

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Written with Adrian Castañeda

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Does it make sense to try and recall termed-out D. 10 Sup. Sophie Maxwell?


A group of District 10 residents has turned in 8,008 signatures in an effort to recall Sup. Sophie Maxwell. Election department staff says that 7,529 signatures must be verified for the recall attempt to go forward.

‘We think it’s going to be a little tight,” said an election department worker, who preferred to remain anonymous.

Department of Elections staff have 30 days to count and verify the submitted signatures, but they predict the process could be completed as early as Thursday afternoon (Feb. 4) or Friday morning (Feb. 5).

Meanwhile, Maxwell is termed-out in January 2011--a mere 11 months away. And 15 candidates have already filed to enter the D. 10 race this fall, with a dozen others variously threatening to throw their hats in the ring.

But if the recall effort gets the green light and is placed on the June 8 ballot, and if Maxwell actually gets recalled as a result of that vote, Mayor Gavin Newsom would then get to appoint his choice of successor to her seat. And if that successor happens to be one of the candidates vying for Maxwell’s seat, wouldn’t that person have an enviable edge come the November election?

Bayview activist Daniel Landry insists the recall effort would be effective. 
“We’re sending a message to anyone who wants to be a supervisor of D-10, you must recognize the will of the voters,” Landry said.

D 10 candidate Ed Donaldson warns that any supervisor that does not understand the complexity of the city’s largest district can expect a similar backlash. He says the recall effort is evidence of District 10’s diversity.
“There is no one homogenous voice in the community,” Donaldson said.
He says that the current grass-roots organizing that brought about the recall effort is a result of changing political structure in the area, but is not yet on par with the other districts in town.
“We still allow our politics to be controlled from downtown,” Donaldson observed.

D 10 candidate Espanola Jackson warns that if Newsom appoints someone, that person had better listen to the wishes of the community, or else they will face a similar fate to Maxwell.

“What the mayor needs to understand is that if we can get the signatures in two weeks to recall Sophie, we can get them on whoever he appoints as well,” Jackson said.

But D 10 candidate Eric Smith worries that the recall effort will backfire. He cites a recent community meeting in the Bayview on the Department of Park and Recreation’s budget, as an example of why folks are turning to this seemingly desperate strategy.

“People were emotional, angry and desperate, because they feel no one listens to them," Smith said. “That's part of the problem here; they would rather have a supervisor go down swinging for them, rather than watch one seemingly side with Lennar, PG&E and the Mayor on issues contrary to their interests. At the DCCC [Democratic County Central Committee] last week, everyone except Chris Daly voted against the recall in support of Sophie."

Smith added that Daly's vote, "likely had more to do with his belief that this was a waste of time and had no chance of actually succeeding, but you'll have to ask him.”

Daly, for his part, says he doesn’t believe the recall effort will qualify.

“Jake McGoldrick introduced an item in committee when he was a supervisor that the Board then passed that doubles the numbers of signatures required for a recall to qualify,” Daly said, noting that under the old recall rules the current effort would likely have succeeded in getting onto the ballot.

“And I don’t think the DCCC’s resolution against the recall effort was accurate,” Daly added. “It was long on the fact that Sophie isn’t guilty of malfeasance, but the truth is that a recall is a tool of democracy that is available and can be applied in cases where a representative is not being responsible to the needs of their district. So, while I’m not supportive of recalling Sophie, it would be patronizing for me to say that thousands of D. 10 residents don’t know what they are doing. The Democratic Party (with a capital D) is working against democracy (with a small d) in a patronizing way in a district that has a disproportionately high number of low-income folks and people of color. There is a significant level of disgruntlement, if that is a word, in District 10, and its residents have lodged a pretty real and significant complaint.”

Aaron Peskin, who chairs the DCCC’s executive board and is the former President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, also predicts that the effort to recall Maxwell is probably headed nowhere.

“There’s no way they got the numbers,” Peskin said. “You’re lucky if 50 percent of that shit runs.”

Peskin proffers three reasons why recalling Maxwell is against the community's own interests.
“First, recalls are an instrument to be used when a representative has committed malfeasance, and not because you disagree with the political positions of a person who has been duly elected three times,” Peskin said. “Second, this elected official is in her last eleven months in office. So, it’s a huge waste of time and money. And third, for those not satisfied with their current supervisor, any representative that the mayor might nominate would be far, far worse.”

Smith also worries that the recall effort is akin to the community shooting itself in the foot.

"If Sophie gets recalled, (and that is a very big if), the Mayor will insert someone and we may be right back where we started from, or worse. That's the terrible irony and one of the biggest problems in District 10. Folks are so mad, they're willing to do whatever it takes to make them feel they have a voice in the outcome, even if it's potentially worse. The same thing happened with the Navy and the Restoration Advisory Board. Some of the same folks who were frustrated by the process, tried to send a signal to the Navy that they weren't being heard and for all their well- intentioned efforts, got the RAB dissolved. I truly feel for them, it's absolutely heartbreaking, but at times, they can be their own worst enemy.”

To Smith’s mind, a recall has the potential for exacerbating the very problems the effort is purported to be about.

“This isn't about malfeasance, or not showing up for work,” Smith observed. “It’s about being heard, respected and listened to. I don't think any other Supervisor has ever had the challenges that Sophie has had to face here; the Bayview, the Hunters Point Shipyard's toxic super-fund site, the homicide rate, unemployment, poor public transportation, dwindling services and community resources have made D10 one of the City's largest melting pots of discontent. It's just one of the reasons I'm running. The health, welfare, quality of life issues and the environment are the things I put above everything else out here, particularly above special interests and big money.”

“We will soon know how valid those signatures are; I can tell you that the many of the folks behind it feel very confident about it,” Smith continued. “But Sophie still has a lot friends in D10 who will not vote her out, so even if this makes the ballot, there is no guarantee it will carry. There are many, many folks who still love and support Sophie, so the folks who signed the recall petition will have to overcome the balance of the 37,000 D.10 voters who may not want to see her go and have a vested interest in seeing a fair electoral process in November, untainted by a Mayoral appointee, an appointee that would have implied advantage over any of the candidates in November.”

Smith has asked many folks why they are launching a recall when Maxwell only has 10 months left on the job.

“For them, it's about making a statement; they want everyone to know that ‘They're mad as hell and not going to take it anymore,’” Smith said. “They also want to send a signal to the D10 candidates that this is what you will face if you don't listen to them. D10 is not for the squeamish, those easily intimidated or the faint of heart.”

On a side note, Smith observed that “we will need the world to come out to defeat Proposition 16", the PG&E ballot measure in June. "And, depending on the turn out, many of the folks needed to come out for that, may also play a role as it relates to Sophie's recall.”

Asked what she thought of the effort to recall her, Maxwell characterized it as "strange" and "destabilizing."

‘It seems to me that this effort is destabilizing the community,” Maxwell said. “When you undercut the leadership, you destabilize a community in transition. At a time when these folks could have something to say about the future, they are looking at the past. It’s about backward thinking. It’s about not having the best interests of the community. It’s about egos. Because if this is for the community, then why not bring something to the table that’s about bringing some direction to the district?”

One of the last straws, in the minds of some recall signature gatherers, was Maxwell’s 2009 vote against a resolution that would have advised the Navy to restore its community-based Restoration Advisory Board. This board, which was established in 1994, had consistent access to the many technical and environmental documents surrounding the proposed clean-up of the heavily polluted Hunters Point Shipyard.

The RAB, whose primary fucntion was to share information on investigations and clean-ups at the shipyard, was also able to vote on the Navy's proposed solutions and to request more information and/or speakers and experts so its members could educate themselves on related public health and safety issues. But early last year, the Navy announced that it was dissolving the RAB, citing dysfunctional behavior and off-topic discussions that were getting in the way of the RAB's intended purpose.

The move to dissolve the RAB came just as the Navy was poised to take a series of important decisions on some of the most polluted and radiologically-impacted parcels on the shipyard. And many in the community saw the timing of the RAB's dissolution as evidence that the Navy was going to ignore their wish to have these parcels dug out and hauled away, and not capped (a wish shared by the 87 percent of voters who supported Prop. P in 2000.)

But despite the outcry that followed the RAB's 2009 dissolution, Maxwell voted to tell the Navy to either restore the RAB or find other ways to involve the community--thereby giving the Navy the choice, some felt, to ignore the community's desire to reinstate the RAB.

And last night, the Navy, along with a flotilla of police and special agents, showed up at the Bayview YMCA to share its plan to reformulate the Navy's original Community Involvement Plan—a plan that angered many meeting goers ( the majority of which were former RAB members,) since it didn't appear to aim at reinstating the RAB. But to give the Navy credit, once it became clear that meeting attendees were underwhelmed by its plan, Navy officials scrapped their original agenda and allowed the community to speak instead about their wounds from the past and their hopes for the future. It remains to be seen where the Navy will go next, but those interested in tracking these developments can visit the Navy's website for updates.

Maxwell for her part defended her vote--and pointed the finger at the Navy.

“The Navy has an obligation to get out its plans to the public,” Maxwell said. “People are getting information in many ways, these days, not just by coming to meetings. The Navy has just got another $92 million towards the shipyard clean up, but does anyone know what this means? It means that instead of taking years to clean up groundwater at the shipyard, we can spend that money on it, now. And if folks knew what capping really means, maybe they wouldn’t be against it. Mission Bay is capped. Schlage Lock will be. And all of them are brown fields.”

Maxwell worries that democracy is not currently being well served within her district, but not by her.
"There are folks who are trying to block real information from getting out, and if only your view can get out, that’s not democracy,” Maxwell said.

But so far, she’s not willing to publicly support anyone in the November D. 10 race.
“I’m waiting for people to have a better understanding of what this community is, what the common thread running through it is, and how to use rank choice voting,” she said.

And despite the current recall effort—and the insults regularly hurled her way with a voracity and meanness not generally seen in other supervisorial districts, Maxwell said she has truly enjoyed serving as D. 10 supervisor.

“When people say that it’s an honor to serve as an elected official, I really know what they mean, because I really feel that. Democracy is challenging, it’s messy and it’s invigorating. I think a lot of what’s going on in my district is about people using people. But what has changed for these folks? Their lives have gotten worse, not better. And they are going after me, because I am not part of their group. I have tried to stay focused on the issues.”