Sorting out a strange election

steve@sfbg.com, tredmond@sfbg.com

The way the San Francisco Chronicle pundits put it, Mayor Ed Lee was the clear winner in a grand San Francisco election. “All his measures on the ballot won hands down,” noted Willie Brown, the high-paid lawyer and political operative who also functions as a Chron columnist. “It was a great day for Ed Lee,” proclaimed columnist C.W. Nevius.

Well, not really.

There are a lot of ways to explain and analyze the inconsistent results of one of the most heavily propagandized elections in recent San Francisco history. But no matter how you look at it, the election was at best a wash for the mayor. Indeed, we’d argue that voters rejected the basic premise of the mayor’s political agenda – that tax cuts and favors for big business are the best economic policy – despite record-breaking outside spending selling that agenda and targeting those who stood in its way.

Let’s take a look at the real facts:

• Every single initiative backed by the mayor, the ones he’s getting credit for – from the City College parcel tax to the housing fund to the business tax – was either a compromise with progressives or a measure that originated on the left. There was nothing the mayor pushed that had any significant progressive opposition; his wins were equally, if not more dramatically, wins for the left.

• Both people the mayor appointed to office were soundly rejected by the voters. Rodrigo Santos, his high-profile appointee to the troubled City College Board of Trustees, spent almost $200,000 and finished a distant sixth. Sup. Christina Olague lost to the candidate Lee had rejected for appointment, London Breed, in a complicated race where the mayor’s actual role was unclear (he never withdrew his endorsement of Olague even as his allies trashed her in nasty ways).

• A million-dollar effort funded by some of the mayor’s allies to oust Sup. Eric Mar was a spectacular failure, suggested some serious problems in the mayor’s political operation, and undermined his emphasis on “civility.”

• The voters made clear on every level that they believe higher taxes on the wealthy and closing tax loopholes on big business are the right approach to the economy and to funding government. From Prop. 30 to Prop. 39 to Prop. A to Prop. E, the message was pretty clear: The tax revolt that started in California in 1978 may be winding down, and the notion of making property owners and the wealthy pay for education and public services is no longer a radical idea.

Robert Cruikshank, who writes for the Calitics blog, argues that the November election signals a major sea change in California. “[The] vote to pass Prop 30 — by a larger margin than most observers expected — does more than just provide $6 billion of badly needed funding to the state’s public school,” he wrote. “It brings to a close a 34-year long tax revolt that came very close to destroying California’s middle class, locking its low income families into permanent poverty, and left the state on the edge of financial ruin.”

That sounds like a progressive message. The agenda put forward by the mayor’s closest allies, including right-wing billionaire Ron Conway, who played a heavy-handed role in this election, not only failed to carry the day; the big-money types may have overplayed their hand in a way that will shape the political narratives going forward.

A LOT OF CONSENSUS

Let’s start with the ballot measures (before we get to the huge and confusing mess that was D5).

Proposition A, the parcel tax for City College, didn’t come out of the Mayor’s Office at all; it came from a City College board whose direction the mayor tried to undermine with the appointment of Santos, a pro-development engineer so conservative that he actually endorsed the Republican opponent of Assembly member Tom Ammiano.

Lee didn’t even endorse Prop. A until a few weeks before the election, and played almost no role in raising money or campaigning for its passage (see “Words and deeds,” 9/11/12). Yet it got a higher percentage of the vote than any of the three measures that Lee actively campaigned for: Props. B, C, and E.

Then there’s Prop. C, the Housing Trust Fund. Lee’s office played a central role in drafting and promoting the measure -– but it wasn’t exactly a Lee initiative. Prop. C came out of the affordable housing community, and Lee, who has strong ties to that community, went along. There were tough negotiations -– the mayor wanted more guarantees and protections for private developers -– and the final product was much more what the progressives who have spent decades on the housing front wanted than what the mayor would have done on his own.

The way the mayor envisioned business-tax reform, the city would have eliminated the payroll tax, which tech firms hate, and replaced it with a gross-receipts tax -– and the result would have been revenue-neutral. It was only after Sup. John Avalos and the progressives demanded that the tax actually bring in more money that the outlines of Prop. E were drafted and it received strong support from groups across the ideological spectrum.

“You had a lot of consensus in the city about these ballot measures,” political consultant David Latterman, who usually works with downtown-backed campaigns, said at SPUR’s post-election round-up.

The supervisorial races were a different story, with unprecedented spending and nasty messaging aimed at tipping the balance in favor of real estate and development interests. Mayor Lee didn’t get directly involved in the District 1 race, but he was clearly not a supporter of incumbent Sup. Eric Mar.

The real-estate and tech folks who are allied with Lee spent more than $800,000 trying to oust Mar — and they failed miserably, with Mar winning by 15 points. While Mar did have the backing of Chinatown powerbroker Rose Pak, who raised money and helped organize ground troops to help, Mar’s victory was primarily the result of a massive outpouring of support from labor and progressive activists, many reacting to the over-the-top effort to oust him.

Mar, who voted to put Lee in office, won’t feel a bit indebted to the mayor for his survival against a huge money onslaught. But in District 5, the story was a whole lot more complicated, and impact more difficult to discern.

THE D5 MESS

Before we get into what happened in D5, let’s dispel some of the simplistic and self-serving stories that circulated in the wake of this election, the most prominent being that Olague’s loss -– the first time an incumbent was defeated in a ranked-choice election –- was payback for crossing Mayor Lee and voting to reinstatement Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.

It’s certainly true that Lee’s allies went after Olague and supported London Breed, and that they tried to make an issue of domestic violence, but there was much, much more to this district election. Breed is an SF native with a compelling personal story who ran a strong campaign –- and that three strongest progressive candidates in the race each had major flaws that hurt their electability. By most accounts, the Olague campaign was a disaster until the very end. Equally important, the progressive community was divided over D5, leaving room for Breed to slip in.

“It’s hard to unravel what happened here,” Latterman said.

San Francisco Women for Responsibility and an Accountable Supervisor was an independent expenditure group fronted by domestic violence advocates and funded by more than $100,000 from the families of Conway and fellow right-wing billionaire Thomas Coates. It attacked Olague’s Mirkarimi vote as being soft on domestic violence — but it also did a last minute mailer criticizing Olague’s vote for CleanPowerSF, muddling its message of moral outrage.

On election night, Olague told us she believed her split with the Mayor’s Office really had more to do with CleanPowerSF –- which the board approved with a veto-proof majority over the objections of Lee and the business community –- and with her insisting on new revenue from Prop. E than it did with Mirkarimi, whose ouster she dismissed as “a power play” aimed at weakening progressives.

“They don’t want to say it, but it was the whole thing around CleanPowerSF. Do you think PG&E wanted to lose its monopoly?” she said.

Yet Olague said the blame from her loss was also shared by progressives, who were hard on her for supporting Lee, courting his appointment to the D5 seat, and for voting with him on 8 Washington luxury condo project and other high-profile issues. “The left and the right both came at me,” she told us. “From the beginning, people were hypercritical of me in ways that might not be completely fair.”

Fair or not, Olague’s divided loyalties hurt her campaign for the D5 seat, with most prominent progressives only getting behind her at the end of the race after concluding that John Rizzo’s lackluster campaign wasn’t going anywhere, and that Julian Davis, marred as he was by his mishandling of sexual impropriety accusations, couldn’t and shouldn’t win.

Olague told us she “can’t think of anything I would have done differently.” But she later mentioned that she should have raised the threats to renters earlier, worked more closely with other progressive candidates, and relied on grassroots activists more than political consultants connected to the Mayor’s Office.

“The left shouldn’t deal with consultants, we should use steering committees to drive the agenda,” Olague said, noting that her campaign finally found its footing in just the last couple weeks of the race.

Inside sources say Olague’s relations with Lee-connected campaign consultant Enrique Pearce soured months before the campaign finally sidelined him in the final weeks, the result of his wasteful spending on ineffective strategies and divided loyalties once a wedge began to develop between Olague and the Mayor’s Office.

Progressive endorsements were all over the map in the district: The Harvey Milk Club endorsed Davis then declined to withdraw that endorsement. The Tenants Union wasn’t with Olague. The Guardian endorsed Rizzo number one. And none of the leading progressive candidates had a credible ranked-choice voting strategy — Breed got nearly as many second-place votes from Davis and Rizzo supporters as Olague did.

Meanwhile, Breed had a high-profile falling out with Brown, her one-time political ally, after her profanity-laden criticism of Brown appeared in Fog City Journal and then the San Francisco Chronicle, causing US Sen. Dianne Feinstein to withdraw her endorsement of Breed. That incident and Olague’s ties to Lee, Brown, and Pak may have solidified perceptions of Breed’s independence among even progressive voters, which the late attacks on her support from landlords weren’t ever able to overcome.

Ironically, while Breed and some of her prominent supporters, including African American ministers in the district, weren’t happy when Lee bypassed her to appoint Olague, that may have been her key to victory. Latterman noted that while Olague was plagued by having to divide loyalties between Lee and her progressive district and make votes on tough issues like reinstating Mirkarimi –- a vote that could hurt the D5 supervisor in either direction -– Breed was free to run her race and reinforce her independence: “I think Supervisor Breed doesn’t win this race; challenger Breed did.”

But even if Breed lives up to progressive fears, the balance of power on the Board of Supervisors could be up in the air. District 7 soundly rejected Mike Garcia, the hand-picked successor of the conservative outgoing Sup. Sean Elsbernd.

At press time, progressive favorite Norman Yee seemed headed for victory, although FX Crowley was within about 30 votes, making this too close to call. But either way, the once-solid conservative seat will now be a swing vote on many issues, just as Breed will be in the once-solid progressive D5.

“The Board of Supervisors as a whole is becoming a helluva lot more interesting,” was how political consultant Alex Clemens put it at SPUR election wrap-up. “Determining what’s going to happen before it happens just got more difficult.”

GOBS OF MONEY

The other big story of this election was money, gobs of it, and how it can be spent effectively — or used to raise suspicions about hidden agendas.

Third-party spending on D1 loser David Lee’s behalf was $454,921, with another $219,039 to oppose Mar, pushing total spending to defeat Mar up over the $1 million mark, roughly doubling the previous record. Labor groups, meanwhile, spent $72,739 attacking Lee and $91,690 backing Mar. But many political analysts felt that lop-sided spending only served to turn off voters and reinforce the idea that powerful interests were trying to buy the seat.

In District 5, the landlords, Realtors, and tech moguls spent $177,556 in support of Breed, while labor spent $15,067 attacking her as a shill for the landlord lobby. The only other D5 candidate to attract significant spending by outside groups was Olague, who had $104,016 spent against her, mostly by the families of Conway and Coates, and $45,708 spent in support of her by SEIU 1021. Yet ultimately, none of these groups bought very much with their money. Conway, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, and San Francisco Association of Realtors each spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of their money, and the most obvious result was to convince San Franciscans that they’re working together to move an agenda in San Francisco. They may have the mayor on their side, but in a politically sophisticated city like San Francisco –- with its cost of living being driven up by the schemes of Lee, Conway, and the Realtors -– they seem to have a long way to go before they achieve they’re stated desire of destroying the progressive movement, particularly with its rising new leaders on the left, including Matt Haney and Sandra Fewer on the school board and Steven Ngo and Rafael Mandelman on the City College board. As Haney said on Election Night, “It was a good night for progressive San Francisco,” which stands for important egalitarian values. “We are the ones about equity and compassion. That’s what this city is about.”