There's a fine line between an effective political coalition and a political machine
Jane Kim, the San Francisco school board president running for supervisor in District 6, has a tough question to answer. When there's already a solid progressive in the race, Debra Walker, someone who has lived in the district for years and agrees with Kim on almost all the key issues, why is Kim running?
She gave a hint at her campaign kickoff June 24 on how she's going to portray herself: "I'm not part of anyone's machine, and I'm certainly not part of anyone's master plan." It's an attractive statement nobody likes machine politics and the idea that she's an independent candidate makes her all the more appealing.
Except that it also says something about the progressive movement in San Francisco and that's a little disturbing. Because no matter how you try to spin it, when you say you aren't part of anyone's machine, you're implying that maybe your opponents are.
Let me take a step back here, because this is important stuff. There's a fine line between an effective, organized political coalition that can actually win elections and a political machine, which stifles political innovation and grassroots candidates. And in part it's about motivation.
When Willie Brown ran San Francisco, it was all about Willie Brown. I've never believed the guy had much of an ideology or that any political cause really mattered to him; he loved power, he knew how to use it and he didn't want to give it up. That was the bottom line.
Now that he's pretty much out of the picture although he was at Kim's party, he's not a factor anymore there's a very different power balance in this city. There's nobody at City Hall (or in Sacramento, or Washington, or downtown, or anywhere else) who has machine-style control of local politics.
There are people who can build coalitions that work Aaron Peskin, for example, did exceptionally well with putting together a campaign to elect progressive Democratic County Central Committee elections. And there are people who would love to be power brokers.
But I've been around politics here a long time, and I can tell you: Aaron Peskin doesn't have a machine. Neither does Mark Leno, or Gavin Newsom, or Tom Ammiano, or David Chiu, or anyone else. Thanks in part to district elections, there aren't many call-up votes on the Board of Supervisors these days. In fact, the left in San Francisco is famously unable to agree on much of anything half the time. Note, for example, the fact that Chiu often called a Peskin ally is not supporting Peskin's candidate in D-6. He's with Jane Kim.
The thing is, unlike the players in a typical political machine, most of the progressives care about issues. It's about a shared ideology more than it's about power. That's a hugely important difference.
The way the mainstream media has it, the San Francisco left is either fatally fractured and can't do anything or it's becoming a machine. For the moment a great moment neither is true. Let's all keep that in mind. Because when we beat each other up with words like "machine," we undermine the whole progressive movement.
Bad way to start a campaign.