Lessons of the Avalos campaign

By N’Tanya Lee

It’s the middle of the night. His two kids and wife are home in bed. Supervisor John Avalos, candidate for mayor, heads downtown in his beat-up family car. He parks and walks over to 101 Market Street, and casually starts talking to members of OccupySF. He’s a city official, but folks camped out are appreciative when they see he’s there to stand with them, to try to stop the cops from harassing them, even though its 1 a.m. and he should be in bed.

John Avalos was the first elected official to personally visit Occupy SF. It wasn’t a publicity stunt — his campaign staff didn’t even know he was going until it was over. He arrived and left without an entourage or TV cameras. This kind of moment — defined by John’s personal integrity and the strength of his personal convictions — was repeated week after week, and provides a much-needed model of progressive political leadership in the city.

John Avalos is more than “a progressive standard bearer,” as the Chronicle likes to call him. He’s also a Spanish-speaking progressive Latino, rooted in community and labor organizing, with a racial justice analysis and real relationships with hundreds of organizers and everyday people outside of City Hall. He’s demonstrated an authentic accountability to the disenfranchised of the city, to communities of color and working people, and he knows that ultimately the future of the city is in our hands.

Some accomplishments of John’s campaign for mayor are already clear: He consolidated the progressive-left with 19%, or nearly 40,000, first-place votes, despite the confusion of a crowded field; he came in a strong second to incumbent Ed Lee despite being considered a long shot even weeks before the election; after RCV tallies, he finished with an incredible 40% of the vote, demonstrating a much wider base of support across the city than he began with, and much broader than former frontrunners Leland Yee and David Chiu, who outspent him 3-1. He won the Castro, placed third in Chinatown (ahead of Yee), and actually won the election-day citywide vote. Not bad. In fact, remarkable, for a progressive Latino from a working class district in the southern part of town, running in his first citywide race.

I believe John Avalos demonstrated what can be accomplished with a new kind of progressive leadership — and suggests the elements of a new progressive coalition that can be created to win races in 2012, and again, in 2015.

It’s Monday afternoon, 1:35pm, time for our weekly Campaign Board meeting. John rushes in, after a dozen appointments already that day. The rest of us file into the ‘cave’ — the one private room in Campaign headquarters, with no windows, a makeshift wall and furniture that looks to be third-hand. The board makes the key strategy, message, and financial decisions. There are no high paid political consultants here. Most of us are, or have been, organizers. Today, we need to approve the campaign platform. Finally. We’ve decided to get people excited about our ideas, an agenda for change. We leave the meeting excited and nervous, wondering if anyone will get excited about the city creating its own Municipal Bank.

We were an unlikely crew to lead a candidate campaign — even a progressive one in San Francisco. We come from membership based community and labor organizations, and share a critique of white progressive political players and electeds who spend too few resources on building power through organizing and operate without accountability to any base. We are policy and politics nerds, but we hate traditional politics. Seventy percent of us are people of color — Black, Filipina, Latino, and Chinese. We are all women except John, the candidate, and nearly half of us are balancing politics with parenting.

The campaign board — including John himself—shared a vision for building progressive power. The campaign plan was explicit and specific about achieving outcomes that included winning room 200 but went beyond that central goal. We set out to strengthen progressive forces, to build towards the 2012 Supervisor races, and increase the capacity of the community-based progressive electoral infrastructure so we can keep building our collective power year-round, for the long-term.

We hope these victories will shape progressive strategy moving forward:

1. In just a few months, Team Avalos consolidated a new and unique progressive bloc. We brought together people and organizations who’d never worked together before — white bike riders and Latino anti-gentrification organizers, queer activists and African American advocates for Local Hire. The Avalos coalition was largely community forces: SF Rising’s base in working class Black, Latino, Filipino and Chinese communities; the Bike Coalition’s growing base of mostly white bike riders; affinity groups like Filipinos, Queers, Latinos and Arabs for Avalos; progressive Democrats; social networks of creative, young progressive activists affiliated with the League of Young Voters; and loyal families and neighborhood leaders from John’s own District 11. The campaign prioritized communicating to voters in four languages, and according to the Chinese press, John Avalos was the only non-Chinese candidate with a significant Chinese outreach program. There were stalwarts from progressive labor unions (most notably SEIU 1021 and USWW) who threw down — but overall, labor played it safe and invested resources in other guys. And then, in the great surprise development of the race, supporters of the new national occupy movement came to be a strong part of the Team Avalos base because the campaign was so well positioned to resonate with the call to take on the one percent.

2) Team Avalos built popular support for key progressive ideas. We used the campaign to build popular support for a citywide progressive agenda. Instead of leading with our candidate we led with bold, distinctive issues that provided a positive alternative vision to the economic crisis: Progressive taxation, municipal banking, and corporate accountability for living wage jobs instead of corporate tax breaks. By the end of the campaign, at least three other candidates came to support the creation of a city-owned bank, and the idea had enough traction that even the San Francisco Business Times was forced to take a position against it.

3) Team Avalos built the electoral capacity of grassroots organizations whose members have the most at stake if progressives gain or lose power in SF: poor and working-class communities of color. We developed the electoral organizing skills of a large new cohort of grassroots leaders and organizers of color with no previous leadership experience in a candidate campaign. They are ready for the next election.

For the last few months, I had the privilege of working with an unusual but extraordinary Avalos campaign team, who were exactly the right people for the right moment in history, to lead a long shot campaign to an unlikely, remarkable and inspiring outcome. Let’s build on these gains. In the coming weeks and months, we must be thorough in our analysis of this election, engage and expand the Avalos coalition base, and build unity around one or more collective demands of Mayor Lee from the left. And in time, we will have a progressive voting majority and a governing bloc in City Hall. We will win, with the mass base necessary to defend gains, hold our own electeds accountable, and truly take on the city’s one percent.

NTanya Lee was the Executive Director of Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth, and served as a volunteer chair of the Avalos for Mayor campaign board. You can find her now at USF or working on her new project about a long-term vision for left governance called Project 2040.