Mecke, Sumchai, and Chicken John for mayor. Plus: Other endorsements
Let us be perfectly clear: none of the people we are endorsing has any real chance of getting elected mayor of San Francisco. Gavin Newsom is going to win a second term; we know that, he knows that, and whatever they may say on the campaign trail, all of the candidates running against him know that.
It's a sad state of affairs: San Francisco has been, at best, wallowing helplessly in problems under Newsom, and in many cases things have gotten worse. The murder rate is soaring; young people, particularly African Americans, are getting shot down on the streets in alarming numbers. The mayor has opposed almost every credible effort to do something about it he fought against putting cops on foot patrol in the most violent areas, he opposed the creation of a violence-prevention fund and blocked implementation of a community policing plan, and he's allowed the thugs in the Police Officers Association to set policy for a police department that desperately lacks leadership. The public transportation system is in meltdown. The housing crisis is out of control; 90 percent of the people who work in San Francisco can't afford to buy a house here, and many of them can't afford to rent either. Meanwhile, the city is allowing developers and speculators to build thousands of new luxury condos, which are turning San Francisco into a bedroom community for Silicon Valley. Newsom only recently seems to have noticed that public housing is in shambles and that the commission he appoints to oversee it has been ignoring the problem.
The mayor is moving aggressively to privatize public services (including turning over the city's broadband infrastructure to private companies), and he's done little to promote public power. He's cracking down on the homeless without offering adequate alternatives to long-term housing. Much of the time, he seems disconnected, out of touch with the city; he won't show up and take questions from the Board of Supervisors and won't even comply with the Sunshine Ordinance and release his daily calendar so the voters can see what he's doing all day. He rarely appears in public, unless his handlers have complete control of the situation.
In fact, almost all of the significant policy discussions and initiatives that are happening in San Francisco today (including the universal health plan that Newsom likes to take credit for) have come from the Board of Supervisors.
There are good things to say about Newsom. We were among the huge number of San Franciscans who applauded when Newsom directed the city to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He did more than make a political statement, more than allow hundreds of couples to get married; he put one of the leading civil rights issues of our time on the center stage of the political agenda. And he made all of us proud to be San Franciscans. We were happy to see him stand up against the big international hotel chains and support striking hotel workers. In some ways, he's brought modern management to the city the 311 system, which connects callers directly to the proper city services, actually works, and sometimes works well.
But San Francisco is one of the world's great cities, and it's in serious trouble, and the person in charge isn't offering much in the way of leadership and he certainly isn't offering the sort of progressive agenda that this city ought to be showing the nation. Newsom doesn't deserve another term.
And yet the progressives in the city, who have come so very far since the return of district elections in 2000, were unable to field an electable candidate. We could spend pages dissecting why that happened. Matt Gonzalez should have made a decision much earlier in the process. Ross Mirkarimi should have run. The entire movement needs to be better about developing and promoting candidates for citywide office. But right now the issue on the table is this: who should the progressives, the independents, the neighborhood activists, the tenants, the people who have been dispossessed during the Newsom years, who don't like the prospect of this mayor waltzing into another term atop a landslide majority, vote for Nov. 6?
We aren't in the habit of endorsing for a big-league elective office people who haven't put in their time in the minors. And Newsom's challengers are not exactly a varsity squad. But many of them are raising important issues that Newsom has ignored, and we commend them all for taking on the difficult task of mounting a campaign against a mayor who most observers say is unbeatable. Our endorsements are, to be honest, protest votes but we hope they'll send a message to Newsom that there are issues, communities, and ideas he can't just ignore after his coronation. The smaller the mayor's margin of victory and the more votes the candidates who are pushing the progressive agenda collect, the less of a mandate Newsom will take into a second term that could be a truly frightening time.
Quintin Mecke has the strongest progressive credentials and by far the best overall approach to issues facing the city. He's never held elective office (and had never run before), but he's been involved in local politics for a decade. A volunteer with Tom Ammiano's campaigns for supervisor and mayor and with Gonzalez's mayoral campaign, Mecke went on to serve on the civil grand jury and the task force on redistricting, where he helped stave off attempts to chop up progressive supervisorial districts. He helped organize the South of Market Anti-Displacement Committee and now runs the Safety Network Partnership, a nonprofit that works to fight crime and violence in the city's neighborhoods. He's on the committee that monitors the city's homeless shelters.
Mecke told the Guardian that "it's hard to find an innovative, non-PR-type initiative out of the Mayor's Office." He supports community policing, a progressive gross-receipts tax that would exempt small businesses, and a moratorium on market-rate housing until the city can determine how it will build enough affordable units. He complains that there's no standard of care in Newsom's homeless shelters. He opposes the privatization of public programs and resources.
Mecke tends a bit to bureaucratspeak; he talked about "horizontal conversations" instead of taking some issues head-on. And we're concerned that he didn't seem serious or organized enough to raise the modest amount of money it would have taken to qualify for public financing and mount a more visible campaign. But he's a solid candidate, and we're happy to give him the nod.
Ahimsa Porter Sumchai is a remarkable success story, an African American woman who grew up in the housing projects and wound up graduating from UC San Francisco's medical school. She's running primarily on the issue of environmental justice for southeast San Francisco and for years has been one of the loudest voices against the flawed Lennar Corp. redevelopment project at and the reuse plan for the contaminated Hunters Point Shipyard. Sumchai says the shipyard can never be cleaned up to a level that would be safe for housing, and she suggests that much of it should be used for parks and open space and possibly maritime and green-industry uses. She's highly critical of the low levels of affordable housing in market-rate projects all over the city, arguing that the developers should be forced to provide as many as 25 percent of their units at below-market rates. Sumchai is a physician, and she talks like one; her scientific language and approach sometimes confuse people. She suggested that one of the main causes of the homicide rate in the city is mental illness. "You can medically address people who are violent," she told us, saying the first step is to properly diagnose and treat depression in men. "Just as we looked at AIDS as an epidemic," she said, "we should look at violence as an epidemic." Which is, at the very least, an interesting approach.
Sumchai has some innovative ideas, including a universal child-care program for the city, paid for with a "fat tax" on unhealthy food. She's a strong supporter of public power and a longtime critic of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
She can be abrasive and temperamental, but she's talking about critical issues that almost everyone else is ignoring. She deserves support.
Chicken John Rinaldi is the political surprise of the season, an artist and showman who has managed a traveling circus, run a bar in the Mission, put on unusual performances of every kind and somehow managed to be the only person running for mayor who could qualify for tens of thousands of dollars in public funding. On one level Rinaldi's campaign is a joke he told us repeatedly he has no idea what he's doing, and that if by some wild chance he were elected, he would hire people like Mecke and Sumchai to run the city. He's the Dada candidate, with his entire run something of a performance art piece.
But Rinaldi has a real constituency. He represents a dying breed in the city: the street artists, the writers, the poets, the unconventional thinkers with economically marginal lifestyles, who were once the heart and soul of San Francisco. It's hard to pin him down on issues since he seems to disdain any policy talk, but in the end, the very fact that he's running speaks to the pressure on artists and the lack of support the unconventional side of the art world gets in this increasingly expensive city.
Rinaldi is the protest candidate of all protest candidates, but he's going to get a lot of votes from people who think San Francisco needs to stop driving some of its most valuable residents out of town and if that leads to a more serious discussion about artist housing, affordable housing in general, arts funding, and the overall crackdown on fun under Newsom, then it's worth giving Chicken John a place on the ticket.
There are several other candidates worthy of consideration. Josh Wolf, a video blogger, served 226 days in a federal prison rather than turn over to the authorities tape of a demonstration he was filming. It was a bold and courageous show of principle (anyone who's ever done time knows that spending even a week, much less month after month, behind bars is no joke), and it speaks to his leadership and character. Wolf is talking about some key issues too: he's a big supporter of municipal broadband and sees the Web as a place to promote more direct democracy in San Francisco.
Lonnie Holmes, a probation officer, has roots in the African American community and some credible ideas about violent crime. He favors extensive, direct intervention in at-risk communities and would fully fund recreation centers, after-school programs, and antiviolence education in elementary schools. He thinks a network of community resource centers in key neighborhoods could cut the crime rate in half. He's a little conservative for our taste, but we like his energy, commitment, and ideas.
Harold Hoogasian, a third-generation florist, registered Republican, and small-business activist, is a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative and law-and-order guy who complains that the city budget has skyrocketed while services don't seem to have improved. Yet somewhat to our surprise, he told us he supports the idea of a moratorium on market-rate housing and a ballot measure that would force developers to build housing more in tune with San Francisco's real needs (even if he wants to start with ownership housing for cops). He supports public power, wants more sunshine in government, and opposes privatization. He also brings a much-needed critique of the remaining vestiges of machine politics in this one-party town and speaks passionately about the need for outsiders and political independents to have a seat at the table. We're glad to have him in the race.
In the end, though, our picks in this first ranked-choice vote for San Francisco mayor are Mecke, Sumchai, and Rinaldi on the issues, as a political statement, and to remind Newsom that his poll numbers don't reflect the deep sense of distrust and discontent that remains in this city.
We're always nervous about unopposed incumbents. And since Kamala Harris unseated Terence Hallinan four years ago, running as an ally of then-mayor Willie Brown with the backing of a corrupt old machine, we've been nervous about her.
In some ways she's been a pleasant surprise. Harris quickly showed that she has courage and integrity when she refused to seek the death penalty for a cop killer despite the fact that the police rank and file and much of the brass excoriated her for it. She remains one of the few district attorneys in the nation who oppose the death penalty in all situations. She's created a public integrity unit and aggressively filed charges against Sup. Ed Jew. She's made clear to the Police Department that she won't accept sloppy police work. She talks constantly about making crime and criminal justice a progressive issue.
But there are plenty of areas in which we remain nervous. Harris hasn't been anywhere near as aggressive as she could be in prosecuting political corruption. She doesn't pursue ethics violations or Sunshine Ordinance violations. The San Francisco DA's Office could be a national leader in rooting out and prosecuting environmental and political crime, but it isn't.
Meanwhile, the murder rate continues to rise in San Francisco, and Harris and the police are pointing fingers back and forth without actually finding a workable solution.
And lately, Harris, to her tremendous discredit, has been stepping up the prosecution of so-called quality-of-life crimes which translates into harassing the homeless. She's made sure there's a full-time prosecutor in traffic court, pressing charges for things like public urination, sleeping in the park, and holding an open container of beer. That's a colossal waste of law enforcement resources.
We expect a lot more from Harris in the next four years. But we'll back her for another term.
Mike Hennessey has been sheriff for so long that it's hard to imagine anyone else holding the job. And that's not a bad thing: Hennessey is one of the most progressive law enforcement officers in the country. He's turned the county jail into a center for drug rehabilitation, counseling, and education (the first charter high school in America for county prisoners is in the SF jail). He's hired a remarkably diverse group of deputies and has worked to find alternatives to incarceration. He's openly critical of the rate at which the San Francisco police are arresting people for small-time drug offenses ("We're arresting too many people for drugs in the city," he told us). He took a courageous stand last year in opposing a draconian and ineffective state ballot initiative that would have kicked convicted sex offenders out of San Francisco and forced them to live in rural counties without access to support, services, or monitoring.
We've had some issues with Hennessey. We wanted a smaller new jail than he ultimately decided to build. And we really wish he'd be more outspoken on local law enforcement issues. Hennessey told us he wants to stick to his own turf, but if he were more visible on police reform, criminal justice, and law enforcement, the city would benefit immensely.
Hennessey's only opponent is David Wong, a deputy sheriff who was unable to make a case for replacing the incumbent. We're happy to endorse Hennessey for another term but since this might be his last before retirement, we urge him to take his progressive views and push them onto a larger stage.