June ballot showcases the lopsided struggle against big money interests
The June 8 election is shaping up to be one that pits the people against powerful business interests, a contest that will demonstrate either that money still rules or that growing public opposition to corporate con-jobs has finally taken root.
On the state level, the five ballot measures include two brazen money-making schemes and two experiments in election reform, along with primary races that are still in flux. In San Francisco, where the ballot measures still have a few more weeks to shake out, the election will feature two rarely contested judges races, recession relief for renters, City Hall fiscal reforms, and a fight for control of the local Democratic Party.
So far, only four local measures have qualified for the San Francisco ballot, all placed there by members of the Board of Supervisors. Progressives qualified the Renters Economic Relief package (which limits rent increases during recessions and sets conditions for landlords passing costs to tenants), an initiative establishing community policing standards, and one affirming city support for making Transbay Terminal the northern high-speed rail terminus. Supervisors were unanimous in supporting a charter amendment governing the Film Commission.
But the board is still hashing out changes to the more controversial ballot proposals, a debate that will continue at its Feb. 23 meeting. They include an overhaul of how the city funds its pension program and an effort to remove Muni salary minimums from the city charter, both by Sup. Sean Elsbernd; a $652 million seismic safety bond proposed by Mayor Gavin Newsom; and a Sup. John Avalos charter amendment that would prevent the mayor from unilaterally defunding certain budget expenditures. All measures must be approved by March 5.
Also still forming up in the coming weeks are primary races for legislative seats (although no incumbents appear to be facing strong challenges) and all eight state constitutional offices, including governor (where Attorney General Jerry Brown seems poised to easily win the Democratic nomination), lieutenant governor, and attorney general (which District Attorney Kamala Harris is running for).
Candidates have until March 12 to declare themselves for statewide and legislative offices, as well as for the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee, which could play a key role in this fall's Board of Supervisors elections. Two years ago, a slate of progressives led by Aaron Peskin and Chris Daly launched a surprise attack to wrest control of the board away from the moderates who have long controlled it. Newsom, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and their downtown allies are expected to try hard to regain control over their party's purse-strings and endorsements.
Another struggle from two years ago is also being replayed. In 2008, then-Sup. Gerardo Sandoval successfully challenged Superior Court Judge Thomas Mellon, arguing the Republican-appointed jurist was too conservative (and the entire court is not diverse enough) for San Francisco. This time the target is Judge Richard Ulmer, a conservative appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ulmer is being challenged by two LGBT attorneys, Daniel Dean and Michael Nava, the latter endorsed by Sen. Mark Leno, Assembly Member Tom Ammiano, and Peskin, who chairs the Democratic Party and could be helpful in the race. "He's a brilliant guy," Leno said of Nava.
Leno also has endorsed deputy public defender Linda Colfax, a Latina lesbian, in a four-way race to replace retiring Judge Wallace Douglass. The other candidates are Harry Dorfman, Roderick McLeod, and Robert Retana. If no candidate wins a majority of votes, the top two finishers square off in a runoff election in November.
Leno said he's thrilled to see a diverse crowd of attorneys seeking judgeships: "This governor has failed horribly in his appointments, not only with the LGBT community, but with communities of color as well."
The struggle between the broad public interest and the wealthy power brokers that have long-dominated California politics is most apparent in the state propositions, which have been certified and for which ballot arguments are now being collected by the California Secretary of State's Office.
Two of those ballot measures, Propositions 16 and 17, are blatantly self-serving efforts by a pair of powerful corporations to increase their profitability, however deceptively and with overwhelming amounts of campaign cash they are presented.
Prop. 16, sponsored by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., would require local governments to get two-thirds of voters to approve creation of energy programs like Clean Power SF, San Francisco's plan for developing renewable energy projects and selling that power directly to citizens.
As we've reported ("Battle royale," Jan. 13, and "PG&E attack mailer puts City Hall on defensive," Dec. 22, 2009), PG&E placed the measure on the ballot to avoid having to repeatedly crush public power initiatives around the state with multimillion dollar campaigns, even though political leaders like Leno and Sup. Ross Mirkarimi say the measure violates the state's community choice aggregation law. That law allows local governments to create energy programs and prohibits PG&E from interfering with those efforts.
"The unregulated behavior of corporate arrogance is killing our democracy. Prop. 17, sponsored by Mercury Insurance, would let companies increase car insurance premiums for a variety of reasons that are now prohibited by the 1988 measure Prop. 103. Mercury has continuously attacked that landmark law, using lawsuits, huge political contributions, sponsored legislation, and, according to newly released documents from the California Department of Insurance (see "The malevolence of Mercury Insurance," Feb. 10, Guardian Politics blog), blatantly illegal activity in setting premiums and excluding certain customers, such as artists, bartenders, and members of the military.
"The Mercury initiative is even more pernicious than what it was doing before," Harvey Rosenfield, who wrote Prop. 103 and works for Consumer Watchdog, told the Guardian. "Under Mercury's initiative, if you've never had prior insurance, you can be surcharged for the first time. Then they've thrown in some other tricks and traps."
Mercury spokesperson Coby King told us the company has been unfairly maligned and denies that the measure is simply about boosting its profits: "Prop. 103 is the law of the land, but to the extent there are improvements that can be made that are pro-business and pro-consumer, Mercury has not been shy about acting in the public interest."
Yet few public interest groups or public officials believe the claims being made by Mercury or PG&E, and they hope that the public won't be fooled.
"These are measures designed to give a financial advantage to a specific industry or company," U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, who battled Mercury as California's first insurance commissioner, told us. He strongly opposes both measures, but did say, "Money talks. It always has, particularly in propositions."
Yet Leno said he's a bit more hopeful: "Californians have been savvy in the past, and I do believe they'll be able to see through the tens of millions of dollars in misleading ads."
"To me, it's a classic case study of what's going on with the initiative process in California and with politics in general," said Derek Cressman, western regional director of California Common Cause. "There are two initiatives literally sponsored by corporations to push very narrow interests."
Yet Cressman said recent events could help. There's been a big public outcry in recent weeks over the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to allow unlimited corporate spending to influence elections, the role that insurance companies played in sinking federal health care reform efforts, and the way businesses interests are hindering efforts to deal with global warming.
"It makes people aware of the overwhelming role corporations are playing in dictating government policy," Cressman said.
A pair of election reform measures might help lessen the influence of money and political parties. Prop. 14 is an open primaries measure that Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) got placed on the ballot as a condition for breaking last year's budget stalemate. It would create a single primary ballot and send the top two finishers to the general election, regardless of party.
Prop. 15, the California Fair Elections Act, takes direct aim at the corrupting influence of money in elections, creating a pilot public finance program in the secretary of state races for 2014 and 2018. The measure, which has broad support from politicians and good government groups in the Bay Area, is modeled on successful programs in Maine and Arizona.
"No elected official should be in the fundraising game the way they are now," campaign chair Trent Lange told us. "This is a way to change how we fund elections."
The idea is to create a model that will eventually be used for other offices. The campaign fund would be generated by a $350 annual fee on lobbyists, lobbying firms, and lobbyist employers. Currently lobbyists pay just $12.50 per year to register, which Lange said, "just shows the power of lobbyists in Sacramento." *