Adachi and the real politics of pension reform

Jeff Adachi is pushing pension reform with downtown dollars but not a real political coalition.

While downtown-oriented politicos and out-of-touch corporate columnists tout the political potential of targeting public employee unions with pay reductions and pension plan take-aways – and say the Public Defender Jeff Adachi may be mayoral material for doing so – they forget that electoral success requires coalitions, particularly in savvy San Francisco.

Unlike his cheerleaders, Adachi seems to understand this, downplaying the personal political upside when he talked to the Guardian and other media outlets. Sure, he might just be sandbagging, as his boosters hope he is, but there's good reason to believe that this move could hurt Adachi's chances of becoming mayor more than it helps it.

Much has been written and said about how Adachi's move alienated labor unions and much of the progressive movement. “They urged me not to do it,” Adachi told the Guardian in the final days of his successful signature-gathering effort for a measure that would save the city about $167 million per year by taking that amount out of employees' paychecks.

It's not that pension reform isn't needed. Indeed, San Francisco voters just approved a measure in June to increase the pension contributions for all new city employees, and politicians ranging from Sups. John Avalos and David Campos on the left to Sup. Sean Elsbernd and Mayor Gavin Newsom on the right all agree that more needs to be done, pledging to work with unions on the issue. And given the surly mood of the electorate, Adachi's measure will probably pass.

But that still doesn't make him mayoral material. Unlike Newsom, whose Care Not Cash initiative to take money from poor people helped propel him into Room 200, Adachi doesn't have a strong constituency behind him, unlike the full strength of downtown and the Willie Brown machine that Newsom had behind him.

Downtown will never get behind a mayoral campaign for Adachi, a heavily tattooed defender of criminals who has a strong independent streak, even if they like the fact that he's socking it to the public employee unions, an effort they helped fund. And progressives will now have a hard time ever trusting Adachi to work with them, seeing him now as someone hostile to political process and coalition-building, much like Newsom.

And even Newsom has come out against Adachi and his proposal, even though he loves the pension reform issue and shares some stylistic similarities with Adachi, including a certain political petulance. “Mayor Newsom has been clear that effective, long-term pension reform will come by doing it with our public employee unions, in partnership, not to and against them, in contrast to the Adachi measure,” Newsom Press Secretary Tony Winnicker wrote to the Guardian this week. It was a laughingly hypocritical statement from a mayor who has repeatedly demonized unions and refused to work cooperatively with them, but it's a true statement nonetheless.

Finally, while socking it to public employees may be in vogue right now, during this moment of real economic uncertainty and political myopia, this sort of divisive politics might come to be seen more as opportunistic than courageous. And it's hard to see how the approach that Adachi has taken will somehow add up to an effective political coalition capable of stealing the Mayor's Office from wily politicians like Mark Leno, Leland Yee, or Aaron Peskin.

Consider the fact that even the Police Officers Association – the most conservative, downtown-oriented employee union in San Francisco – also opposes the Adachi measure and other efforts to blame the city's fiscal problems on employees, rather than the large financial institutions that don't even pay any kind of business tax to the city.

So I leave you with the words of POA President Gary Delagnes, writing in the May issue of the POA Journal, sounding a bit like a Guardian editorial writer on this politically sensitive issue: “Even more problematic is the rapidly developing notion that public employee pensions serve as the root of all evil, and are almost solely to blame for all of our economic woes.

“Opportunistic Wall Street insiders, politicians, and robber baron CEOs have manipulated and pilfered our country's financial well-being. They have unconscionably – if not also illegally – lined their deep pockets with the hard-earned savings and pensions of the middle class working man and woman. Accountants from coast to coast have coached multi-millionaires on the art of avoiding paying their true tax obligations. Millions of people were allowed to qualify for mortgage loans by greedy bankers and mortgage brokers that led to trillions of dollars in bailout money. The result is a public incensed about fat cats taking advantage of them. Now, the backlash has set up public pensions and the unions that negotiated them as the scapegoats for his anger.

“Those of use who long ago made the decision to forgo large salaries in exchange for a life of public service, are now being portrayed as greedy and self-centered, taking unwarranted pensions and benefits after 30 years of service as firefighters, police officers, teachers, and nurses. These are shameful accusations, and utterly without merit.”

We couldn't have said it better ourselves, but unlike one of our editorials, this is the perspective of cops and other unions and progressive constituencies that will shape their actions in elections to come.