The Chronicle's dishonest hit on district elections


The move to get rid of district elections – which is based entirely on the fact that big business and more conservative voices (including the Chron) don’t like the progressive policy positions of the current board – is now well under way. The Chron devoted its Insight section to the issue Feb. 28, leading with a long editorial that wandered back and forth between points and never really made the case.

An example of the Chron’s logic:

But sitting atop the decision-making tree [in San Francisco] are small-time politicos, some elected with fewer than 10,000 votes in a city with a population of 808,976.

Horrifying! It’s as if the United States Congress – which has to decide issues like war and peace -- was made up of local politicos who were elected with as few as 100,000 votes in a nation of 350 million.

Or as if the California Assembly – which has to deal with a $28 billion budget deficit – was made up of local politicos who were elected with as few as 50,000 votes in a state of more than 35 million.

A district supes votes could represent about 1.2 percent of the entire city. A state Assembly member could represent only 0.1 percent of the population of the state. And yet, I don’t hear the Chron calling for the state Assembly to be replaced with an at-large body.


A town with sweeping plans to develop two empty Navy bases at Hunters Point and Treasure Island, fill vacant offices with new jobs, and cut its budget by more than a half billion dollars isn't getting the thought, expertise - and citywide vision - it needs for these challenges.
This lack of broad leadership obstructs the city's future. A major cause is the district election system that magnifies neighborhood and tight-knit interest groups to produce officeholders with little stake in citywide questions. If all politics is local, as former House Speaker Tip O'Neill famously declared, then San Francisco has pushed this dictum to the max. It's all about me and my neighborhood.

That’s absolutely, factually untrue – the district elected board has done more to advance citywide issues – from minimum wage to health care to the rainy day fund to infrastructure planning – than any at-large board in the previous 20 years.

And the Chron’s own editorial contradicts that argument:

Supervisor David Campos (a winner with 9,440 votes) led a move to keep illegal immigrants who are juveniles accused of felonies from being turned over to federal authorities, despite a city legal opinion that the idea wouldn't fly. Supervisor John Avalos (6,918 votes) dreamed up the "must spend" order directing the mayor to maintain expenditures in a record deficit year. Thankfully, he dropped the idea at the 11th hour

Okay, I get that the Chronicle editorial board doesn’t like the Campos sanctuary bill or the Avalos must-spend legislation – but that are both citywide issues. They have nothing to do with “me and my neighborhood.”

Which is really the entire point here. The Chron doesn’t like the outcome of district elections – because over the past ten years, the progressives have shown they can win district races. There’s a good reason for that; in district races, you don’t need to raise huge amounts of money.

As Assemblymember Tom Ammiano and Supervisor David Chiu point out in an opposing editorial:

Part of that increased accessibility to government is the result of the decrease in the cost of running a district versus a citywide election. In the 1994 citywide elections, the average winning candidate spent $456,000 in today's dollars. That's 225 percent greater than the amount spent today: In 2008, the winning candidates spent an average of $204,000. Candidates needing to raise money for a citywide race will inevitably turn to special interests for contributions. If you believe elected representatives should speak up for people, not just the special interests that donated to their campaigns, today's district system serves you better.

They also note:

Before district elections were passed, under a citywide election system, many neighborhoods - the Excelsior, the Sunset, the Mission and Bayview-Hunters Point - had no supervisor of their own. Today, all residents can pick up the phone and reach an office responsible for their neighborhood and responsive to their concerns - a broken streetlight, a dangerous pothole or a consistently tardy Muni line.

A lot of people don’t like Chris Daly’s personality, and some don’t like his politics, but if you’re a person living on SSI in a grubby little hotel room in the Tenderloin and you need help, you can walk into his office and get a welcome reception and assistance with your needs. You won’t get that from the mayor.

On the other hand, do you think, Don Fisher ever needed to stand in line and try to make a 15-minute appointment to talk to Gavin Newsom? Seriously?

And while we’re on the personality stuff: Yeah, some of Daly’s antics have been over the top. But he’s no worse than some of the others who have served on citywide boards. Former Sup. Bill Maher once accused one of his opponents of having a small penis, and waved around two fingers spread about an inch apart to the press and public.

More important, we had supervisors who did nothing. We had supervisors who did exactly what the mayor said without any question. We had supervisors who were wholly-owned subsidiaries of major local corporations. I’ll take Chris Daly over those folks any day.

By any rational standard, the district board over the past ten years has been more productive, more accountable, more representative and more accessible than any at-large board I’ve seen in my almost 30 years of covering this city.

So the Chron needs to shut up about “citywide perspective”’ and personalities. If the paper wants to oppose district elections, it needs to drop the poll-tested downtown talking points and tell the truth:

The current board is too liberal for the Chron. The moderate candidates the paper prefers can’t win in districts. So they want to change the rules.

That’s the story, beginning, middle and end.



if you cannot find a job just change your career, get a medical billing degree from your local school

Posted by alejandro on Feb. 28, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

Thank you, Tim, for calling attention to the Chron editorial on district elections.

I agree with you that some the Chron's arguments are faulty. For example, the Chron's claim that the district-elected board favors neighborhoods. My own experience has been that the present system favors ideology over neighborhoods.

But there are faults with your arguments, too. You are mistaken in claiming that discontent with the present system can be reduced to a desire to favor moderate politicians over others.

Many San Franciscans across the political spectrum are disgusted with the crude and immature behavior that the present system has brought to the fore.

Examples: Tom Ammiano screaming "You f*** piece of s**!" in his City Hall office. Chris Daly and Jake McGoldrick each yelling "Kiss my a***!" at each other in front of the press box at a board meeting.

Aaron Peskin boasting that "Payback is a bitch." Ross Mirkarimi loudly berating his own staff members, so that people in other offices could hear.

Chris Daly bullying Michela Alioto-Pier in her wheel chair and making Bevan Dufty feel that he was about to be punched out.

Many San Franciscans are also disgusted with the board's failures in matters of policy. For example, homelessness. The board dropped the ball on that issue.

Then-Supe Gavin Newsom broke through the board's logjam on the issue, taking the matter to the voters in a referendum, which passed. Had the board done its job, that referendum would never have occurred.

A similar situation is now developing with neighborhood safety. The board is becoming as obstructionist on this issue as it was on homelessness. A referendum to the voters will again be the likely solution because the board failed to do its job.

The current system is better than the old at-large system, but it needs a mid-course correction. A sensible solution would be to make a few seats on the board elected at-large, or to keep an all-district board, but reduce the number of districts.

It's no solution at all to cling to the status quo and pretend there is no problem.

Let's work together to reform the board of supervisors.

Posted by Arthur Evans on Feb. 28, 2010 @ 9:28 pm

Well, Arthur, San Franciscans were far more disgusted when Willie Brown's board stood by and watched thousands and thousands of San Francisco residents, mostly low income people, get evicted and displaced by the dot-com boom and the economic cleansing of San Francisco.

I'll take a few fuck yous over mass evictions and the destruction of San Francisco any day.


Posted by tim on Mar. 01, 2010 @ 10:32 am

Tim, in a post above you say:

"I'll take a few fuck yous over mass evictions and the destruction of San Francisco any day."

This comment reveals a common pattern in SF politics. The moderates and the progressives point fingers at each others' failings in order to excuse their own.

A more balanced and inclusive approach would be to move beyond the narrowness of each sect, avoiding the flaws of both, and opening the road to a better vision of politics.

Posted by Arthur Evans on Mar. 01, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

Really, Arthur? You just attacked most of the progressive supervisors for their behavior and then you complain about pointing fingers?

On the other side of the fence, Gavin Newsom has a litany of personal problems. Michaela Alioto-Pier wanted the city to blow $1M on a wheelchair ramp. Ed Jew is in jail. Did you notice that most of the so-called moderates on the BOS (Elsbernd, Pier, Chu) were such lightweights that they had to be appointed to their seats, like Newsom? And we should split the difference with them?

On a separate but related note: it doesn't matter which side a supervisor is on - every year, they cut schools first and the fire department last.

Posted by Mark on Mar. 01, 2010 @ 10:54 pm

I have no illusions about either moderates or progressives, or about any sect, whether in politics or religion.

The road to both social justice and personal enlightenment is not dogma but critical inquiry.

Let's be reasonable.

Posted by Arthur Evans on Mar. 02, 2010 @ 10:06 am

I'd love to be reasonable, Arthur, and most progressives on the board would, too. But the mayor routinely vetoes progressive legislation, refuses to come and meet with the supervisors, does his own budget by fiat without consulting the board members and is almost the definition of unreasonable.

Same goes for the governor of CA and the Republicans in Sacramento. Then they want the left to be "reasonable," which means to compromise basic values.


Posted by tim on Mar. 02, 2010 @ 10:40 am

Thanks for your post above, Tim.

You say:

"the mayor routinely vetoes progressive legislation, refuses to come and meet with the supervisors, does his own budget by fiat without consulting the board members and is almost the definition of unreasonable."

The mayor started out well but became infatuated with his own image in media mirrors. Overall, I'd give him a "C."

You say:

"Same goes for the governor of CA and the Republicans in Sacramento."

The governor and the Republicans are worse than the mayor. Schwarzenegger is incompetence laced with testosterone. The Republicans are a captive of the Religious Right.

Unfortunately, the progressive alternative in SF has ossified. I remember when it was a popular movement, but today it is a doctrinaire sect.

We need to open the windows of political thinking, let in some fresh air, and move beyond them all.

Posted by Arthur Evans on Mar. 02, 2010 @ 1:08 pm

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