The Chronicle’s dishonest hit on district elections

Pub date February 28, 2010
WriterTim Redmond
SectionPolitics Blog

The move to get rid of district elections – which is based entirely on the fact that big business and more conservative voices (including the Chron) don’t like the progressive policy positions of the current board – is now well under way. The Chron devoted its Insight section to the issue Feb. 28, leading with a long editorial that wandered back and forth between points and never really made the case.

An example of the Chron’s logic:

But sitting atop the decision-making tree [in San Francisco] are small-time politicos, some elected with fewer than 10,000 votes in a city with a population of 808,976.

Horrifying! It’s as if the United States Congress – which has to decide issues like war and peace — was made up of local politicos who were elected with as few as 100,000 votes in a nation of 350 million.

Or as if the California Assembly – which has to deal with a $28 billion budget deficit – was made up of local politicos who were elected with as few as 50,000 votes in a state of more than 35 million.

A district supes votes could represent about 1.2 percent of the entire city. A state Assembly member could represent only 0.1 percent of the population of the state. And yet, I don’t hear the Chron calling for the state Assembly to be replaced with an at-large body.


A town with sweeping plans to develop two empty Navy bases at Hunters Point and Treasure Island, fill vacant offices with new jobs, and cut its budget by more than a half billion dollars isn’t getting the thought, expertise – and citywide vision – it needs for these challenges.
This lack of broad leadership obstructs the city’s future. A major cause is the district election system that magnifies neighborhood and tight-knit interest groups to produce officeholders with little stake in citywide questions. If all politics is local, as former House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously declared, then San Francisco has pushed this dictum to the max. It’s all about me and my neighborhood.

That’s absolutely, factually untrue – the district elected board has done more to advance citywide issues – from minimum wage to health care to the rainy day fund to infrastructure planning – than any at-large board in the previous 20 years.

And the Chron’s own editorial contradicts that argument:

Supervisor David Campos (a winner with 9,440 votes) led a move to keep illegal immigrants who are juveniles accused of felonies from being turned over to federal authorities, despite a city legal opinion that the idea wouldn’t fly. Supervisor John Avalos (6,918 votes) dreamed up the “must spend” order directing the mayor to maintain expenditures in a record deficit year. Thankfully, he dropped the idea at the 11th hour

Okay, I get that the Chronicle editorial board doesn’t like the Campos sanctuary bill or the Avalos must-spend legislation – but that are both citywide issues. They have nothing to do with “me and my neighborhood.”

Which is really the entire point here. The Chron doesn’t like the outcome of district elections – because over the past ten years, the progressives have shown they can win district races. There’s a good reason for that; in district races, you don’t need to raise huge amounts of money.

As Assemblymember Tom Ammiano and Supervisor David Chiu point out in an opposing editorial:

Part of that increased accessibility to government is the result of the decrease in the cost of running a district versus a citywide election. In the 1994 citywide elections, the average winning candidate spent $456,000 in today’s dollars. That’s 225 percent greater than the amount spent today: In 2008, the winning candidates spent an average of $204,000. Candidates needing to raise money for a citywide race will inevitably turn to special interests for contributions. If you believe elected representatives should speak up for people, not just the special interests that donated to their campaigns, today’s district system serves you better.

They also note:

Before district elections were passed, under a citywide election system, many neighborhoods – the Excelsior, the Sunset, the Mission and Bayview-Hunters Point – had no supervisor of their own. Today, all residents can pick up the phone and reach an office responsible for their neighborhood and responsive to their concerns – a broken streetlight, a dangerous pothole or a consistently tardy Muni line.

A lot of people don’t like Chris Daly’s personality, and some don’t like his politics, but if you’re a person living on SSI in a grubby little hotel room in the Tenderloin and you need help, you can walk into his office and get a welcome reception and assistance with your needs. You won’t get that from the mayor.

On the other hand, do you think, Don Fisher ever needed to stand in line and try to make a 15-minute appointment to talk to Gavin Newsom? Seriously?

And while we’re on the personality stuff: Yeah, some of Daly’s antics have been over the top. But he’s no worse than some of the others who have served on citywide boards. Former Sup. Bill Maher once accused one of his opponents of having a small penis, and waved around two fingers spread about an inch apart to the press and public.

More important, we had supervisors who did nothing. We had supervisors who did exactly what the mayor said without any question. We had supervisors who were wholly-owned subsidiaries of major local corporations. I’ll take Chris Daly over those folks any day.

By any rational standard, the district board over the past ten years has been more productive, more accountable, more representative and more accessible than any at-large board I’ve seen in my almost 30 years of covering this city.

So the Chron needs to shut up about “citywide perspective”’ and personalities. If the paper wants to oppose district elections, it needs to drop the poll-tested downtown talking points and tell the truth:

The current board is too liberal for the Chron. The moderate candidates the paper prefers can’t win in districts. So they want to change the rules.

That’s the story, beginning, middle and end.