Progressives prove that district elections and ranked-choice voting really work
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It's amazing what the New York Times can find newsworthy. On a night when progressives in San Francisco racked up an impressive list of victories — and the popular mayor, often described as a rising star in state and national politics, got absolutely walloped — the nation's newspaper of record led an online report on city politics with this gem: "A bike-riding member of the Board of Supervisors apparently won re-election while his wife was reported to have screamed an epithet at opponents."
The Times story, by Jesse McKinley, called it "just another night in San Francisco's iconoclastic politics," meaning, apparently, that only in this city would a politician ride a bicycle and only here would a politician's wife use foul language in public.
For the record: Sarah Low Daly — who watched her husband, Chris, get pummeled mercilessly for weeks by brutal attack ads paid for by, among others, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association — did dismiss "those motherfuckers" with a colorful epithet that no less than the vice president has used on the floor of Congress but that can't ever appear in the New York Times.
But allow us a little context here.
Daly's wife had every right to celebrate on election night — and every right to slam the forces that were so unwilling to accept a living wage for local workers, sick pay for employees, requirements that developers pay for affordable housing, and the rest of Supervisor Daly's progressive agenda, which had made him the subject of a Karl Rove–style smear campaign.
And the Times (as well as the embittered blogger at the San Francisco Sentinel who leveled personal insults at the supervisor's wife) utterly missed the point of what went on in San Francisco last week.
This was a watershed in city politics, an election that may turn out to have been every bit as important as the 2000 ballot that broke the back of the Brown-Burton machine. It was evidence that district elections work, that downtown money doesn't always hold the day — and that Mayor Gavin Newsom made a very bad political mistake by aligning himself with some of the most intolerant, unpleasant, and ineffective forces in local politics.
NEWSOM THE LOSER
We ran into Newsom's press secretary, Peter Ragone, the day after the election and asked him the obvious question: "Not a very good night for the mayor, huh?"
It was a hard point to argue: Newsom put immense political capital into two key races and was embarrassed in both of them. He worked hard for Rob Black, the downtown candidate trying to oust Daly in District 6, showing up at Black's rallies, walking the streets with him, talking about the importance of the race, and helping him raise funds. His handpicked contender in District 4 was Doug Chan, a former police commissioner. Black lost by 10 percentage points; Chan finished fourth.
And a long string of progressive ballot measures that the mayor had opposed was approved by sizable margins.
Ragone began to spin and dissemble like crazy. "We endorsed [Black and Chan] but didn't put a lot into it," he said despite the fact that Newsom spent the last two weekends campaigning for his two favorites.
"The real key for us was Hydra Mendoza, who won [a seat on the school board]," Ragone said.
Yes, Mendoza, who works as the mayor's education adviser, was elected — but she already had a strong base of support as a former leader of Parents for Public Schools and might very well have won without the mayor's help.
Besides, if Newsom saw her as a top priority, why did she finish second in a race for three positions, behind Green Party candidate Jane Kim? And how significant will it be to have Mendoza on a school board that now has a solid progressive majority, one she's not a part of?
Ragone shrugged again, sticking to his line.
But the Mayor's Office can't spin away the fact that, as pollster David Binder put it at a postelection event, "I don't think Newsom had a very good night."
"It showed that we had a progressive turnout and this is a progressive town," Binder said.
Boris Delepine, a campaign veteran and Sup. Ross Mirkarimi's board aide, went even further: "This election ranks up there with the 2000 supervisorial races as far as I'm concerned."
In other words, progressives battled the downtown interests and won.
The most exciting race was in District 6, where Daly's expected reelection was thrown into doubt a few weeks ago by some polls and the onslaught of downtown attacks on Daly (which Binder jokingly referred to as "a deforestation project" for all of the negative mailers).
The problem was that most of the material just attempted to savage Daly without really making the case for why Black would be better. That appears to have backfired.
In fact, the assault served to galvanize Daly supporters, who stepped up a vigorous campaign in the final push. "It was very efficient and very effective," Binder said.
Or as Daly put it to his supporters on election night, "We were under attack.... San Francisco values were under attack, and you responded like nothing before. Five hundred volunteers were in the streets today to say this district is not for sale."
The message from the Tenderloin, inner Mission, and South of Market was resoundingly clear: with district elections downtown can't simply buy a seat on the board anymore. Money is powerful — but an organized grassroots campaign can still prevail.
The impact for the mayor is more than just the loss of a potential board ally. Newsom found himself in District 6 working closely with SFSOS — a group that has become so nasty and is so reviled, even two of its key founders, Senator Dianne Feinstein and financier Warren Hellman, have walked away in disgust.
"If all things were equal, I'd just as soon that SFSOS went away," Hellman told us.
It's not going to help the mayor's reputation to be seen in that sort of company.
A HIPPER DUFTY
The District 8 race showed the power of district elections in a different way.
From the start it was going to be tough for Alix Rosenthal, a straight woman, to defeat incumbent supervisor Bevan Dufty, a gay man in what has always been a gay district. But Rosenthal says her candidacy had a clear impact on Dufty — during the late summer and fall, the onetime solid mayoral ally moved a few noticeable steps to the left, supporting Sup. Tom Ammiano's universal health care bill and voting with the progressives (and against the mayor) for police foot patrols.
"Dufty became a much hipper person after I challenged him," Rosenthal said.
Dufty told us the challenge made him work harder but had no impact on his votes. "What you saw on foot patrols was an immense amount of frustration with the police chief's failures to lead the department," he said. "That had nothing to do with this race."
Binder pointed out that District 8 has a higher percentage of registered Democrats than any district in the city, and Dufty locked down party support early on. And even though Dufty's voting record was less progressive than his district, he remains popular. "There are people who think he doesn't vote the right way on the issues, but nobody thinks he doesn't try hard," Binder said.
The District 4 race was not only a test of the power of the mayor's coattails in a district where Newsom has always been popular. It was also a test of how ranked-choice voting works in complex election demographics.
From early this year, when it became clear that incumbent Fiona Ma was going to the state assembly, Newsom and his allies tapped Chan as the candidate they would promote. That was an odd choice for Newsom, who claims to be a public power supporter: Chan's law firm has received more than $200,000 in legal fees from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in just the past two years, and like his alliance with Black in District 6, the Chan endorsement put him on the side of one of the least popular actors on the local political stage.
And in the end, the mayoral support meant little: Chan finished fourth, after Ron Dudum, Ed Jew, and Jaynry Mak.
There was a certain amount of nervousness on election night when Dudum emerged atop the candidate list at the prospect that for the first time in a generation, the board would be without Asian representation. Four Asian candidates appeared to have split the vote, allowing Dudum to win.
But when the ranked-choice voting program was run Nov. 10, that concern evaporated: the new system allowed Asian voters to divide their preferences without risking that sort of vote-split result. When it was all over, Ed Jew emerged the winner.
As Jew told us, "I think it showed that having so many Asians benefited the top Asian vote-getter."
The school board and community college board races get less press than the top of the ticket, but as citywide contests, they can be even tougher for progressives. And this year the Green Party had some surprising victories.
Jane Kim, a Green, finished top in the balloting — remarkable considering that she didn't have the endorsement of the Democratic Party. Mendoza came in second, followed by Kim-Shree Maufas. That puts three new members, all of them women of color, on the board and shows that activists frustrated by the votes of longtime incumbent Dan Kelly could defeat someone who until recently was considered a shoo-in for reelection.
Peter Lauterborn, a Kim supporter, was ecstatic about the win. "This is a massive triumph," he said. "We beat the money and we beat the establishment."
The same goes for the community college board, where John Rizzo, a Green, appears to have edged out Johnnie Carter, bringing new reform blood to an ossified and often corrupt agency.
Binder attributed the strong finishes by Kim and Maufas to their endorsements by the Guardian, the Democratic Party, and other lefty supporters. He was surprised by Rizzo's apparent victory (absentees could still change the outcome) but most on the left weren't. Rizzo had a lot of grassroots support and ran a strong campaign.
Similarly, Mirkarimi — who attended the postelection briefing along with fellow supervisor Daly — didn't agree with Binder's line on the school board, noting that the defeat of Kelly and the election of Kim and Maufas were strong endorsements for the stand that the current board lefties — Mark Sanchez, Sarah Lipson, and Eric Mar — have taken against positions by autocratic former superintendent Arlene Ackerman and her downtown backers.
"We got four votes on the school board," was how Delepine put it, adding, "President Sanchez, man." SFBG
Steven T. Jones and Alix Rosenthal are domestic partners. Tim Redmond wrote the analysis of the results in District 8. Amanda Witherell contributed to this story.