Get a clue, Randy Shaw

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I read BeyondChron every day, and Randy Shaw, who operates the site, and Paul Hogarth, his managing editor, often have interesting commentary. But I’m constantly annoyed by people who run what by any stretch is a journalistic operation, but don’t follow the basic rules of (even alternative, activist) journalism: When you’re going to say something nasty about somebody, you call that person for comment.

Randy never called me, or Steve Jones, or Bruce Brugmann, before he launched an attack on the Guardian as part of a political machine. If he had -- or if he’d done any reporting work and called around town -- he might have learned something.

Randy's argument is that the "machine" -- including the Bay Guardian -- is trying to block Jane Kim's election as D6 supervisor. Let's examine that for a minute.

There are plenty of people in San Francisco who would love to have a political machine. But it’s just not happening. The very fact that Jane Kim has the support of so many progressives -- including the Board president, David Chiu, and Supervisors Eric Mar and John Avalos (all part of what Shaw calls the “machine”) suggests that nobody has to clout -- not even me -- to tell a candidate whether she can run for office, to control (or cut off) campaign contributions, or to wire an election.

In the days when Willie Brown ran San Francisco, the machine really did keep people from running for office. It really did close off avenues to political advancement. And if the machine was against you, it was really hard to raise money. If Brown were still the boss, and he didn’t want Kim to run, she would have been frozen out of much of the support and money she has today. Instead, Brown was at her campaign kickoff -- and nobody’s manged to intimidate her many supporters and campaign contributors.

And guess what? The Guardian -- the axis of the machine evil trying to freeze out Kim -- endorsed her as our second choice.

I stand by what I said months ago -- there’s nobody in San Francisco today -- and no cadre or group -- with the clout to operate as a political machine.

Nobody can line up six automatic votes on the Board of Supervisors. Even the progressives on the Democratic County Central Committee can’t always seem to get it together (note that Aaron Peskin, the chair and supposed machine honco, supported Tony Kelly for supervisor, and the DCCC didn’t put Kelly on its slate).

Right now, power in this city is fairly diffuse. That’s both a good and a bad thing. Good because machines are exclusionary, bad because it means the progressives can’t always function on a level that gets the right candidates elected and the right legislation through. Good because the left in this city is aggressively, almost happily disorganized and politically diverse, full of characters, voices, interest groups, candidates and elected officials who don’t always agree with each other and take orders from nobody. Bad because when we’re disorganized, we tend to lose.

Jane Kim didn’t get the DCCC endorsement. Nobody talked to me about that; I’m not on the panel and none of the members called to ask my advice. I would have said what the Guardian said in our endorsement package: There are exactly two progressive candidates who are qualified to be the next D6 supervisor, and their names are Debra Walker and Jane Kim. I still don’t understand why Kim entered the race against an established candidate with whom she has no substantial policy disagreements; I think that, before Kim moved to the district and entered the race, Walker was the clear consensus candidate of progressives, and as a matter of strategy, since Kim and Walker are both on the same side on the key issues, it might have made more sense for the left to unite behind one candidate.

But that’s not the issue anymore; Kim had every right to run, and now any cogent, honest ranked-choice voting strategy includes both her and Walker.

That statement alone makes clear that the Guardian’s not exactly in synch with the DCCC or any of Shaw’s other “machine” operations. The DCCC decided that the top candidate in D10 should be DeWitt Lacy, and left Tony Kelly off the slate entirely. We endorsed Tony Kelly as our first choice. The labor activists on the DCCC (and in the “machine”) are dead set against Margaret Brodkin winning a seat on the Board of Education; we endorsed her.

I would have explained our positions to Randy Shaw if he’d called or emailed me; I’m really easy to reach. And slapping people around without talking to them is bad journalism and bad progressive politics. Randy and I have disagreements, but I don’t consider him the enemy; we’re both part of a larger progressive community, and while I love (and thrive on) disputes in that community, we ought to be civil about it.

(I always contact Randy before I write about him. I did that yesterday, and asked him a series of questions, including why he never called me for comment. His non-response: "I write 3-4 articles a week and have published three books. You are free to quote from anything I have written without asking me about it.")

Herb Caen used to say (somewhat in jest) that if you “check an item, you lose it.” In other words, once you start talking to everyone involved in an issue, you sometimes find out that the story isn’t at all the way you heard it.

That’s what should have happened with Shaw’s completely inaccurate claim about Steve Jones.

BeyondChron says that Jones was trying to get Kim to challenge Carmen Chu in D4 because they're both Asian-American, " in effect saying that as an Asian-American Jane should run among 'her people,' implying that demographics prevailed over issues and political stands."

I talked to Steve about it; he did, indeed, talk to Jane Kim when Kim was shopping around for a district to run in. What he told her -- and would have told Randy Shaw -- was that it would be great for Kim, a school board member with citywide name recognition, to knock off Carmen Chu and expand the progressive majority rather than going after a strong progressive candidate in a solidly progressive seat. Race had nothing to do with it.

In fact, just about everything we’ve written about Kim comes down to the same argument: Sometimes, you have to think about the larger progressive movement, not just about yourself.

I sometimes wish the all the people who say the Bay Guardian is part of a powerful Peskin Machine were right: I’d love to pass a city income tax, hit the wealthy up for about half a billion dollars a year, eliminate the budget deficit without cutting services, municipalize PG&E (and have municipal cable TV and broadband), ban cars on a lot of streets, create 25,000 units of affordable housing ... I’ve got a great agenda. And the Guardian’s so powerful that none of it ever happens.

Randy Shaw and I were both around for the tail end of the Burton Machine, and I think he gives the brothers Phil and John Burton too much credit. They were great on national issues, progressive champions in Congress. But they weren’t progressive leaders on local issues.

The Burton Machine was nowhere on the fights against overdevelopment and downtown power. Phil Burton rarely used his clout to support progressive causes and candidates at home. The machine got Harvey Milk fired from a commission appointment when he announced he was going to run for state Assembly against Art Agnos. The machine came together to make sure that Nancy Pelosi, an unknown who had never held office, got elected to Congress instead of Harry Britt, the most progressive elected official in the city at the time. The machine never helped out on public power, the numerous anti-highrise initiatives, rent control, or much of anything else that challenged the real estate interests like Walter Shorenstein, who gave vast sums of money to the Democratic Party.

Yes, George Moscone, a Burton ally, supported district elections, but once he got elected he stopped challenging downtown power.

And, of course, when Willie Brown emerged as heir to the machine throne, he was a disaster for progressives. He also at one point controlled an unshakable majority on the Board of Supervisors; he could call up votes whenever he needed.

The progressives in San Francisco today share an ideology on local issues -- tough local issues that involve powerful economic forces at home.

And honestly, Randy: It’s not all about Jane Kim.