Upset in San Francisco

Mayor Willie Brown recently donated one of his famous fedoras for a time
capsule that will show future San Franciscans what their city was like
in 2000. The mayor’s generosity may have been prompted by the feeling that
he hasn’t such a great need for the fancy chapeaus since the voters handed
him his head in the runoffs of the city’s first district Board of Supervisors
elections in two decades. Despite all of the advantages money could buy,
Brown- backed candidates won but two of eleven seats on the new board,
while those backed by Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano won seven.

Although only two races were settled in the November 7 preliminaries—Brown-backed
incumbent Gavin Newsom ran unopposed and Ammiano drew 69 percent against
4 challengers including one supported by the mayor—it was already clear
that things would be quite different on the new board.

Due to the law allowing the mayor to fill vacancies, five members of the
old board had first gained their seats via appointment by Brown. They generally
hadn’t forgotten who brought them to the dance, even if he had once referred
to the lot of them as “pantywaists.” As a result Ammi- ano frequently wound
up on the short end of eight to three votes, and on major matters was either
forced to go directly to the voters via initiative, as was the case with
his proposal (successful, but currently tied up in court) to end the practice
of double-charging by banks for ATM transactions, or gathering the signatures
to go to the ballot and thereby forcing a settlement, as occurred with
the city’s Living Wage ordinance.

But still, the mayor appeared to be in fair shape after the first roundof
voting. One of his appointees —Newsom—won, another missed victory by only
five votes, and overall his candidates won or made it to the finals in
nine districts and led in five. He and his well-heeled friends would have
plenty of money to spend over the next five weeks. However, some of the
spending proved downright embarrassing. Groups close to the mayor offered
free parties, motorized cable cars rides, pizza, cookies, and Teletubbies
and Robo- Dino action figures for the kids to voters who would cast their
votes before election day, as is allowed in California.

For San Francisco’s insurgents, the December 12 runoff elections proved
to be an embarrassment of riches. In one of the districts targeted for
voter giveaways, Brown’s candidate, former planning commissioner Linda
Richardson, held a 33-21 percent preliminary lead over union electrician
Sophie Maxwell. By the last pre-election campaign finance reporting deadline,
Richardson had also become the beneficiary of $314,042 in “soft money”—expenditures
made on behalf of a candidate by committees not under the candidate’s control—the
highest total in the city. Maxwell, who was endorsed by Ammiano in the
final, received none, and yet was elected by a 56-44 percent margin.

Amos Brown, a minister appointed to the board by Willie Brown (no relation)
lost by a 62-38 margin in a district he had moved into by evicting an elderly
tenant from a house he owned. Another Brown appointee, Michael Yaki, a
former aide to Congressperson Nancy Pelosi, had seemed a shoo-in. After
leading in the preliminary round, Yaki’s op-ed pieces in the New York Times
appeared to indicate a greater concern with negotiating his return to Washington,
DC than to San Francisco’s City Hall. He lost. The only Brown-supported
candidate to win a runoff, Mark Leno, who had just missed election in the
first round, got less than 52 percent.

All in all, it was hard to say which of the races was most astounding,
but Matt Gonzalez’s election is certainly a contender. The deputy public
defender had done very well in the first round, leading Brown’s candidate,
School Board member Juanita Owens, by 44-28 percent. But that was before
he switched his registration to Green. Some opined that not waiting to
make that change until after the final election was evidence of the man’s
political death wish. He was elected by a 66-34 margin.

Certainly San Francisco’s political left was invigorated by Tom Ammiano’s
remarkable 1999 insurgent mayoral campaign. Although he ultimately lost
that race by a 60-40 margin, the fact that he made it into the final by
gathering an astonishing 25 percent of the preliminary vote on write-in
ballots went a long way toward transforming the city’s politics from a
spectator to a participant sport.

The past two years of electoral insurgency stem from something deeper—a
widespread belief that while the city has been awash in dot com money,
for many, if not most residents, this has meant little more than increased
housing costs that would ultimately force them to leave their prosperous
city. It was this belief, along with the perception that the arrogance
of the city’s mayor and business community had passed beyond all reasonable
bounds, that has given San Francisco a dramatically new look at City Hall.

San Francisco may be starting to realize its political potential. While
the political left has been less than the sum of its parts throughout America,
in few places was this more so than here. It is generally agreed that the
1978 murder of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by former
Supervisor Dan White was in large part responsible for the voters’ decision
to end the city’s experiment in district elections after only two terms.
But while it is generally foolhardy to psych- ologize a city, it does seem
hard to deny that the tragedy may also have effected a political timidity
from which the city is only now beginning to emerge.

Of course, it would be a mistake to characterize the new majority on the
Board of Supervisors as one of the left, and it is not even clear that
those members who could legitimately be called leftist will always agree.
For instance, one of the newly elected leftists is eager to pass a new
housing bond, while another opposed a recent library bond. After all, it
is a legitimate debate whether the use of bonds represents the only available
means of financing construction beneficial to the majority of a city’s
residents or whether it constitutes a transfer of income upward—or both.

Yet there is ample reason to hope that the new Board will facilitate one
of the central goals of the left—a fair fight on the issues, free of the
overwhelming dominance of corporate cash. Ammiano suggests taking the power
to fill board vacancies away from this and any future mayor and giving
it to the voters; a city commission proposes allowing the voters to decide
whether to establish a municipal utilities district to take over power
distribution from Pacific Gas and Electric, a move blocked last year despite
the filing of the required signatures. This new board would seem likely
to let both ideas go forward.

Oh yes, newly elected Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval told Willie Brown that
it might be a nice idea if the taped greeting to visitors at the new international
terminal at San Francisco Airport were to come from the supervisors as
well as the mayor. The mayor said that he would take it under consideration.

Tom Gallagher is a long-time activist and a freelance writer.