As usual, California is irrelevant to the presidential primaries, except as a cash machine. The Republican Party has long since chosen its nominee; the Democratic outcome was never in doubt. So the state holds a June 5 primary that, on a national level, matters to nobody.
It's no surprise that pundits expect turnout will be abysmally low. Except in the few Congressional districts where a high-profile primary is underway, there's almost no news media coverage of the election.
But that doesn't mean there aren't some important races and issues (including the future of San Francisco's Democratic Party) — and the lower the turnout, the more likely the outcome will lean conservative. The ballot isn't long; it only takes a few minutes to vote. Don't stay home June 5.
Our recommendations follow.
Sigh. Remember the hope? Remember the joy? Remember the dancing in the streets of the Mission as a happy city realized that the era of George Bush and The Gang was over? Remember the end of the war, and health-care reform, and fair economic policies?
Yeah, we remember, too. And we remember coming back to our senses when we realized that the first people at the table for the health-policy talks were the insurance industry lobbyists. And when more and more drones killed more and more civilian in Afghanistan, and the wars didn't end and the country got deeper and deeper into debt.
Oh, and when Obama bailed out Wall Street — and refused to spend enough money to help the rest of us. And when his U.S. attorney decided to crack down on medical marijuana.
We could go on.
There's no question: The first term of President Barack Obama has been a deep disappointment. And while we wish that his new pledge to tax the millionaires represented a change in outlook, the reality is that it's most likely an election-year response to the popularity of the Occupy movement.
Last fall, when a few of the most progressive Democrats began talking about the need to challenge Obama in a primary, we had the same quick emotional reaction as many San Franciscans: Time to hold the guy accountable. Some prominent left types have vowed not to give money to the Obama campaign.
But let's get back to reality. The last time a liberal group challenged an incumbent in a Democratic presidential primary, Senator Ted Kennedy wounded President Jimmy Carter enough to ensure the election of Ronald Reagan — and the begin of the horrible decline in the economy of the United States. We're mad at Obama, too — but we're realists enough to know that there is a difference between moderate and terrible, and that's the choice we're facing today.
The Republican Party is now entirely the party of the far right, so out of touch with reality that even Reagan would be shunned as too liberal. Mitt Romney, once the relatively centrist governor of Massachusetts, has been driven by Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum so deeply into crazyland that he's never coming back. We appreciate Ron Paul's attacks on military spending and the war on drugs, but he also opposes Medicare and Social Security and says that people who don't have private health insurance should be allowed to die for lack of medical care.
No, this one's easy. Obama has no opposition in the Democratic Primary, but for all our concerns about his policies, we have to start supporting his re-election now.
The Republicans in Washington didn't even bother to field a serious candidate against the immensely well-funded Feinstein, who is seeking a fourth term. She's a moderate Democrat, at best, was weak-to-terrible on the war, is hawkish on Pentagon spending (particularly Star Wars and the B-1 bomber), has supported more North Coast logging, and attempts to meddle in local politics with ridiculous ideas like promoting unknown Michael Breyer for District Five supervisor. She supported the Obama health-care bill but isn't a fan of single-payer, referring to supporters of Medicare for all as "the far left."
But she's strong on choice and is embarrassing the GOP with her push for reauthorization of an expanded Violence Against Women Act. She'll win handily against two token Republicans.
U.S. CONGRESS, DISTRICT 2
The Second District is a sprawling region stretching from the Oregon border to the Golden Gate Bridge, from the coast in as far as Trinity County. It's home to the Marin suburbs, Sonoma and Mendocino wine country, the rough and rural Del Norte and the emerald triangle. There's little doubt that a Democrat will represent the overwhelmingly liberal area that was for almost three decades the province of Lynn Woolsey, one of the most progressive members in Congress. The top two contenders are Norman Solomon, an author, columnist and media advocate, and Jared Huffman, a moderate member of the state Assembly from Marin.
Solomon's not just a decent candidate — he represents a new approach to politics. He's an antiwar crusader, journalist, and outsider who has never held elective office — but knows more about the (often corrupt) workings of Washington and the policy issues facing the nation than many Beltway experts. He's talking about taxing Wall Street to create jobs on Main Street, about downsizing the Pentagon and promoting universal health care. He's a worthy successor to Woolsey, and he deserves the support of every independent and progressive voter in the district.
U.S. CONGRESS, DISTRICT 12
Nancy Pelosi long ago stopped representing San Francisco (see: same-sex marriage) and began representing the national Democratic party and her colleagues in the House. She will never live down the privatization of the Presidio or her early support for the Iraq war, but she's become a decent ally for Obama and if the Democrats retake the House, she'll be setting the agenda for his second term. If the GOP stays in control, this may well be her last term.
Green Party member Barry Hermanson is challenging her, and in the old system, he'd be on the November ballot as the Green candidate. With open primaries (which are a bad idea for a lot of reasons) Hermanson needs support to finish second and keep Pelosi on her toes as we head into the fall.
U.S. CONGRESS, DISTRICT 12
This Berkeley and Oakland district is among the most left-leaning in the country, and its representative, Barbara Lee, is well suited to the job. Unlike Pelosi, Lee speaks for the voters of her district; she was the lone voice against the Middle East wars in the early days, and remains a staunch critic of these costly, bloody, open-ended foreign military entanglements. We're happy to endorse her for another term.
U.S. CONGRESS, DISTRICT 13
Speier's more of a Peninsula moderate than a San Francisco progressive, but she's been strong on consumer privacy and veterans issues and has taken the lead on tightening federal rules on gas pipelines after Pacific Gas and Electric Company killed eight of her constituents. She has no credible opposition.
STATE SENATE, DISTRICT 11
Mark Leno started his political career as a moderate member of the Board of Supervisors from 1998 to 2002. His high-profile legislative races — against Harry Britt for the Assembly in 2002 and against Carole Migden for the Senate in 2008 — were some of the most bitterly contested in recent history. And we often disagree with his election time endorsements, which tend toward more downtown-friendly candidates.
But Leno has won us over, time and again, with his bold progressive leadership in Sacramento and with his trailblazing approach to public policy. He is an inspiring leader who has consistently made us proud during his time in the Legislature. Leno was an early leader on the same-sex marriage issue, twice getting the Legislature to legalize same-sex unions (vetoed both times by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger). He has consistently supported a single-payer health care system and laid important groundwork that could eventually break the grip that insurance companies have on our health care system. And he has been a staunch defender of the medical marijuana patients and has repeatedly pushed to overturn the ban on industrial hemp production, work that could lead to an important new industry and further relaxation of this country wasteful war on drugs. We're happy to endorse him for another term.
STATE ASSEMBLY, DISTRICT 17
Ammiano is a legendary San Francisco politician with solid progressive values, unmatched courage and integrity, and a history of diligently and diplomatically working through tough issues to create ground-breaking legislation. We not only offer him our most enthusiastic endorsement — we wish that we could clone him and run him for a variety of public offices. Since his early days as an ally of Harvey Milk on gay rights issues to his creation of San Francisco's universal health care system as a supervisor to his latest efforts to defend the rights of medical marijuana users, prison inmates, and undocumented immigrants, Ammiano has been a tireless advocate for those who lack political and economic power. As chair of Assembly Public Safety Committee, Ammiano has blocked many of the most reactionary tough-on-crime measures that have pushed our prison system to the breaking point, creating a more enlightened approach to criminal justice issues. We're happy to have Ammiano expressing San Francisco's values in the Capitol.
STATE ASSEMBLY, DISTRICT 19
Once it became abundantly clear that Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting wasn't going to get elected mayor, he started to set his eyes on the state Assembly. It's an unusual choice in some ways — Ting makes a nice salary in a job that he's doing well and that's essentially his for life. Why would he want to make half as much money up in Sacramento in a job that he'll be forced by term limits to leave after six years?
Ting's answer: he's ready for something new. We fear that a vacancy in his office would allow Mayor Ed Lee to appoint someone with less interest in tax equity (prior to Ting, the city suffered mightily under a string of political appointees in the Assessor's Office), but we're pleased to endorse him for the District 19 slot.
Ting has gone beyond the traditional bureaucratic, make-no-waves approach of some of his predecessors. He's aggressively sought to collect property taxes from big institutions that are trying to escape paying (the Catholic Church, for example) and has taken a lead role in fighting foreclosures. He commissioned, on his own initiative, a report showing that a large percentage of the foreclosures in San Francisco involved some degree of fraud or improper paperwork, and while the district attorney is so far sitting on his hands, other city officials are moving to address the issue.
His big issue is tax reform, and he's been one the very few assessors in the state to talk openly about the need to replace Prop. 13 with a split-role system that prevents the owners of commercial property from paying an ever-declining share of the tax burden. He wants to change the way the Legislature interprets Prop. 13 to close some of the egregious loopholes. It's one of the most important issues facing the state, and Ting will arrive in Sacramento already an expert.
Ting's only (mildly) serious opponent is Michael Breyer, son of Supreme Court Justice Breyer and a newcomer to local politics. Breyer's only visible support is from the Building Owners and Managers Association, which dislikes Ting's position on Prop. 13. Vote for Ting.
DEMOCRATIC COUNTY CENTRAL COMMITTEE
You can say a lot of things about Aaron Peskin, the former supervisor and retiring chair of the city's Democratic Party, but the guy was an organizer. Four years ago, he put together a slate of candidates that wrenched control of the local party from the folks who call themselves "moderates" but who, on critical economic issues, are really better defined as conservative. Since then, the County Central Committee, which sets policy for the local party, has given its powerful endorsement mostly to progressive candidates and has taken progressive stands on almost all the ballot issues.
But the conservatives are fighting back — and with Peskin not seeking another term and a strong slate put together by the mayor's allies seeking revenge, it's entirely possible that the left will lose the party this year.
But there's hope — in part because, as his parting gift, Peskin helped change state law to make the committee better reflect the Democratic voting population of the city. This year, 14 candidates will be elected from the East side of town, and 10 from the West.
We've chosen to endorse a full slate in each Assembly district. Although there are some candidates on the slate who aren't as reliable as we might like, 24 will be elected, and we're picking the 24 best.
DISTRICT 17 (EAST SIDE)
Gabriel Robert Haaland
Jamie Rafaela Wolfe
Arlo Hale Smith
State ballot measures
LEGISLATIVE TERM LIMITS
Let us begin with a stipulation: We have always opposed legislative term limits, at every level of government. Term limits shift power to the executive branch, and, more insidiously, the lobbyists, who know the issues and the processes better than inexperienced legislators. The current system of term limits is a joke — a member of the state Assembly can serve only six years, which is barely enough time to learn the job, much less to handle the immense complexity of the state budget. Short-termers are more likely to seek quick fixes than structural reform. It's one reason the state Legislatures is such a mess.
Prop. 28 won't solve the problem entirely, but it's a reasonable step. The measure would allow a legislator to serve a total of 12 years in office — in either the Assembly, the Senate, or a combination. So an Assembly member could serve six terms, a state Senator three terms. No more serving a stint in one house and then jumping to the other, since the term limits are cumulative, which is imperfect: A lot of members of the Assembly have gone on to notable Senate careers, and that shouldn't be cut off.
Still, 12 years in the Assembly is enough time to become a professional at the job — and that's a good thing. We don't seek part-time brain surgeons and inexperienced airline pilots. Running California is complicated, and there's nothing wrong with having people around who aren't constantly learning on the job. Besides, these legislators still have to face elections; the voters can impose their own term limits, at any time.
Most of the good-government groups are supporting Prop. 28. Vote yes.
CIGARETTE TAX FOR CANCER RESEARCH
Seriously: Can you walk into the ballot box and oppose higher taxes on cigarettes to fund cancer research? Of course not. All of the leading medical groups, cancer-research groups, cancer-treatment groups and smoking-cessation groups in the state support Prop. 29, which was written by the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association.
We support it, too.
Yes, it's a regressive tax — most smokers are in the lower-income brackets. Yes, it's going to create a huge state fund making grants for research, and it will be hard to administer without some issues. But the barrage of ads opposing this are entirely funded by tobacco companies, which are worried about losing customers, particularly kids. A buck a pack may not dissuade adults who really want to smoke, but it's enough to price a few more teens out of the market — and that's only good news.
Don't believe the big-tobacco hype. Vote yes on 29.
San Francisco ballot measures
A tough one: Recology's monopoly control over all aspects of San Francisco's waste disposal system should have been put out to competitive bid a long time ago. That's the only way for the city to ensure customers are getting the best possible rates and that the company is paying a fair franchise fee to the city. But the solution before us, Proposition A, is badly flawed public policy.
The measure would amend the 1932 ordinance that gave Recology's predecessor companies — which were bought up and consolidated into a single behemoth corporation — indefinite control over the city's $220 million waste stream. Residential rates are set by a Rate Board controlled mostly by the mayor, commercial rates are unregulated, and the company doesn't even have a contract with the city.
Last year, when Recology won the city's landfill contract — which was put out to bid as the current contract with Waste Management Inc. and its Altamont landfill was expiring — Recology completed its local monopoly. At the time, Budget Analyst Harvey Rose, Sup. David Campos, and other officials and activists called for updating the ordinance and putting the various contracts out to competitive bid.
That effort was stalled and nearly scuttled, at least in part because of the teams of lobbyists Recology hired to put pressure on City Hall, leading activists Tony Kelley and retired Judge Quentin Kopp to write this measure. They deserve credit for taking on the issue when nobody else would and for forcing everyone in the city to wake up and take notice of a scandalous 70-year-old deal.
We freely admit that the measure has some significant flaws that could hurt the city's trash collection and recycling efforts. It would split waste collection up into five contracts, an inefficient approach that could put more garbage trucks on the roads. No single company could control all five contracts. Each of those contracts would be for just five years, which makes the complicated bidding process far too frequent, costing city resources and hindering the companies' ability to make long-term infrastructure investments.
It would require Recology to sell its transfer station, potentially moving the waste-sorting facility to Port property along the Bay. Putting the transfer station in public hands makes sense; moving it to the waterfront might not.
On the scale of corrupt monopolies, Recology isn't Pacific Gas and Electric Co. It's a worker-owned company and has been willing to work in partnership with the city to create one of the best recycling and waste diversion programs in the country. For better or worse, Recology controls a well-developed waste management infrastructure that this city relies on, functioning almost like a city department.
Still, it's unacceptable to have a single outfit, however laudatory, control such a massive part of the city's infrastructure without a competitive bid, a franchise fee, or so much as a contract. In theory, the company could simply stop collecting trash in some parts of the city, and San Francisco could do nothing about it.
As a matter of public policy, Prop. A could have been better written and certainly could, and should, have been discussed with a much-wider group, including labor. As a matter of real politics, it's a messy proposal that at least raises the critical question: Should Recology have a no-bid, no contract monopoly? The answer to that is no.
Prop. A will almost certainly go down to defeat; Kopp and Kelly are all alone, have no real campaign or committee and just about everyone else in town opposes it. Our endorsement is a matter of principle, a signal that this longtime garbage deal has to end. If Recology will work with the city to come up with a contract and a bid process, then Prop. A will have done its job. If not, something better will be on the ballot in the future.
For now, vote yes on A.
COIT TOWER POLICY
In theory, city department heads ought to be given fair leeway to allocate resources and run their operations. In practice, San Francisco's Department of Recreation and Parks has been on a privatization spree, looking for ways to sell or rent public open space and facilities as a way to balance an admittedly tight budget. Prop. B seeks to slow that down a bit, by establishing as city policy the premise that Coit Tower shouldn't be used as a cash cow to host private parties.
The tower is one of the city's most important landmarks and a link to its radical history — murals painted during the Depression, under the Works Progress Administration, depict local labor struggles. They're in a bit of disrepair –but that hasn't stopped Rec-Park from trying to bring in money by renting out the place for high-end events. In fact, the tower has been closed down to the public in the past year to allow wealthy patrons to host private parties. And the city has more of that in mind.
If the mayor and his department heads were acting in good faith to preserve the city's public spaces — by raising taxes on big business and wealthy individuals to pay for the commons, instead of raising fees on the rest of us to use what our tax dollars have already paid for — this sort of ballot measure wouldn't be necessary.
As it is, Prop. B is a policy statement, not an ordinance or Charter amendment. It's written fairly broadly and won't prevent the occasional private party at Coit Tower or prevent Rec-Park from managing its budget. Vote yes.