A suddenly hot election could determine the balance of power on the next Board of Supervisors
The race to replace Chris Daly the always progressive, sometimes hotheaded supervisor who has dominated District 6 politics for almost a decade is becoming one of the most important battles of 2010, with the balance of power on the board potentially in play.
Through whatever accident of politics and geography, San Francisco's even-numbered districts five of which will be up for election next fall haven't tended to fall in the progressive column. Districts 2 (Marina-Pacific Heights) and 4 (Outer Sunset) are home to the city's more conservative supervisors, Michela Alioto-Pier and Carmen Chu. District 8 (the Castro) has elected the moderate-centrist Bevan Dufty, and District 10 is represented by Sophie Maxwell, who sometimes sides with the progressives but isn't considered a solid left vote.
District 6 is different. The South of Market area is among the most liberal-voting parts of San Francisco, and since 2000, Daly has made his mark as a stalwart of the board's left flank. And while progressive are hoping for victories in districts 8 and 10 and will be pouring considerable effort and organizing energy into those areas Daly's district (like District 5, the Haight/Western Addition; and District 9, Mission/Bernal Heights) ought to be almost a gimme.
But the prospect of three progressive candidates fighting each other for votes along with the high-profile entry of Human Rights Commission director Theresa Sparks, who is more moderate politically has a lot of observers scratching their heads.
Is it possible that the progressives, who have only minor disagreements on the major issues, will beat each other up and split the votes enough that one of the city's more liberal districts could shift from the progressive to the moderate column?
A few months ago, District 6 was Debra Walker's to lose. The Building Inspection Commission member, who has lived in the district for 25 years, has a long history on anti-gentrification issues and strong support in the LGBT community.
Jim Meko, who also has more than a quarter century in the district and chaired the Western SOMA planning task force, was also a progressive candidate but lacked Walker's name recognition and all-star list of endorsements.
Then rumors began to fly that school board member Jane Kim who moved into the district a few months ago was interested in running. Kim has been a leading progressive voice on the school board and has proven she can win a citywide race. She told me she's thinking seriously about running, but hasn't decided yet.
Having Kim in the race might not have been a huge issue in District 9 last year, three strong progressives competed and it was clear that one would be the ultimate winner. But over the past two weeks, Theresa Sparks has emerged as a likely contender and if she runs, which seems more than likely at this point, she will be a serious candidate.
Sparks picked up the kind of press most potential candidates would die for: a front-page story in SF Weekly and a long, flattering profile in San Francisco magazine, which called her "San Francisco's most electrifying candidate since Harvey Milk." Sparks does have a compelling personal tale: a transgender woman who began her transition in middle age, survived appalling levels of discrimination, became a civil rights activist and now is seeking to be the first trans person elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
She has experience in business and politics, served on the Police Commission, and was named a Woman of the Year by the California State Assembly (thanks to her friend Sen. Mark Leno, who would likely support her if she runs).
"Anyone who knows Theresa knows that she is smart, a formidable candidate, can fundraise, and will run a strong race," Robert Haaland, a trans man and labor activist who supports Walker, wrote on a Web posting recently.
She's also, by most accounts (including her own) a good bit more moderate than Walker, Meko, and Kim.
Sparks doesn't define herself with the progressive camp: "I think it's hard to label myself," she said. "I try to look at each issue independently." Her first major issue, she told me, would be public safety and there she differs markedly from the progressive candidates. "I was adamantly against cuts to the police department," she said. "I didn't think this was a good time to reduce our police force."
She said she supported Sup. David Campos' legislation which directs local law enforcement agents not to turn immigrant youth over to federal immigration authorities until they're found guilty by a court "in concept." But she told me she thinks the bill should have been tougher on "habitual offenders." She also said she supports Police Chief George Gascón's crackdown on Tenderloin drug sales.
And she starts off with what some call a conflict of interest: Mayor Gavin Newsom just appointed her to the $160,000-a-year post as head of the HRC, and she doesn't intend to step down or take a leave while she runs. She told me she doesn't see any problem she devoted more than 20 hours a week to Police Commission work while holding down another full-time job. "I don't know why it would be an issue," she said, noting that Emily Murase ran for the school board while working as the director of the city's Commission on the Status of Women.
But some see it differently. "It would be as if the school superintendent hired someone to a senior job just as that person decided to run for school board," Haaland said.
Sparks' election would be a landmark victory for trans people. For a community that has been isolated, dismissed, and ignored, her candidacy (like Haaland's 2004 run in District 5) will inspire and motivate thousands of people. And it's a tough one for the left opposing a candidate whose election would mean so much to so many members of one of the city's most marginalized communities could be painful. "A lot of folks will say that the progressives will never support a transgender candidate," Haaland noted.
But in terms of the city's geopolitics, it's also true that electing Sparks would probably move District 6 out of the solidly progressive column.
"If we lose D6, it's huge," Walker noted. "This is where most of the new development is happening, where law-and-order issues are playing out, where we can hope to save part of the city for a diverse population."
More than that, if progressives lose District 6 and don't win District 8, it will be almost impossible to override mayoral vetoes and control the legislative agenda. And that's huge. On issue like tenants rights, preventing evictions, controlling market-rate housing development, advancing a transit-first policy and raising new revenue instead of cutting programs the moderates on the board have been overwhelmingly on the wrong side.
Kim, for her part, doesn't want to talk about the politics of the 2010 elections except to say that she's thinking about the race and will probably decide sometime in the next two months. But she agreed with my analysis of how any left candidate should view this election: if she's going to enter, she needs to present a case that, on the issues that matter, she'd be a better supervisor than either of the two long-term district residents with strong progressive credentials already in the race.
"I don't have an answer to that now," Kim told me. "And when I make my decision, I will."