Pub date January 16, 2008

President, Democrat


This is now essentially a two-person race for the Democratic nomination, and no matter how it comes down, it’s a historic moment: neither of the front-runners for the White House (and by any standard, the Democratic nominee starts off as the front-runner) is a white man. And frankly, the nation could do a lot worse than either President Hillary Clinton or President Barack Obama.

But on the issues, and because he’s a force for a new generation of political activism, our choice is Obama.

Obama’s life story is inspirational, and his speeches are the stuff of political legend. He can rouse a crowd and generate excitement like no presidential candidate has in many, many years. He has, almost single-handedly, caused thousands of young people to get involved for the first time in a major political campaign.

The cost of his soaring rhetoric is a disappointing lack of specific plans. It can be hard at times to tell exactly what Obama stands for, exactly how he plans to carry out his ambitious goals. His stump speeches are riddled with words like change and exhortations to a new approach to politics, but he doesn’t talk much, for example, about how to address the gap between the rich and the poor, or how to tackle urban crime and poverty, or whether Israel should stop building settlements in the occupied territories.

In fact, our biggest problem with Obama is that he talks as if all the nation needs to do is come together in some sort of grand coalition of Democrats and Republicans, of "blue states and red states." But some of us have no interest in making common cause with the religious right or Dick Cheney or Halliburton or Don Fisher. There are forces and interests in the United States that need to be opposed, defeated, consigned to the dustbin of history, and for all of Obama’s talk of unity, we worry that he lacks the interest in or ability to take on a tough, bloody fight against an entrenched political foe.

Still, when you look at his positions, he’s on the right track. He wants to raise the cap on earnings subject to Social Security payments (right now high earners don’t pay Social Security taxes on income over $97,000 a year). He wants to cut taxes for working-class families and pay for it by letting the George W. Bush tax cuts on the rich expire (that’s not enough, but it’s a start). He wants to double fuel-economy standards. His health care plan isn’t perfect, but it’s about the same as all the Democrats offer.

And he’s always been against the war.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of that. Obama spoke out against the invasion when even most Democrats were afraid to, so he has some credibility when he says he’s going to withdraw all troops within 16 months and establish no permanent US bases in Iraq.

Hillary Clinton has far more extensive experience than Obama (and people who say her years in the White House don’t count have no concept of the role she played in Bill Clinton’s administration). We are convinced that deep down she has liberal instincts. But that’s what’s so infuriating: since the day she won election to the US Senate, Clinton has been trianguutf8g, shaping her positions, especially on foreign policy, in an effort to put her close to the political center. At a time when she could have shown real courage — during the early votes on funding and authorizing the invasion of Iraq — she took the easy way out, siding with President Bush and refusing to be counted with the antiwar movement. She has refused to distance herself from such terrible Bill Clinton–era policies as welfare reform, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and don’t ask, don’t tell. We just can’t see her as the progressive choice.

We like John Edwards. We like his populist approach, his recognition that there are powerful interests running this country that won’t give up power without a fight, and his talk about poverty. In some ways (certainly in terms of campaign rhetoric) he’s the most progressive of the major candidates. It is, of course, a bit of a political act — he was, at best, a moderate Southern Democrat when he served in the Senate. But at least he’s raising issues nobody else is talking about, and we give him immense credit for that. And we’ve always liked Dennis Kucinich, who is the only person taking the right positions on almost all of the key issues.

But Edwards has slid pretty far out of the running at this point, and Kucinich is an afterthought. The choice Californians face is between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. And Obama, for all of his flaws, has fired up a real grassroots movement, has energized the electorate, and is offering the hope of a politics that looks forward, not back. On Feb. 5, vote for Barack Obama.

President, Republican


We have a lot of disagreements with Ron Paul and his libertarian worldview. He opposes the taxes that we need to make civil society function and the government regulations that are essential to protecting the most powerless members of society. From its roots in the Magna Carta and Adam Smith’s economic theories to the Bill of Rights, it’s clear the United States was founded on a social compact that libertarians too often seem to deny. And Paul compounds these ills in the one area in which he departs from the libertarians: he doesn’t support federal abortion rights. He’s been associated with some statements that are racially insensitive (to say the least). He clearly shouldn’t be president.

But he won’t — Paul isn’t going to win the nomination. So it’s worthwhile endorsing him as a protest vote for two reasons. His presence on the ballot serves to show up some of the hypocrisies of the rest of the GOP field — and he is absolutely correct and insightful on one of the most important issues of the day: the war.

Paul is alone among the Republican candidates for president in sounding the alarm that our country is pursuing a dangerous, shortsighted, hypocritical, expensive, and ultimately doomed strategy of trying to dominate the world militarily. He opposed the invasion of Iraq and thinks the US should pull out immediately. It’s immensely valuable to have someone like that in the GOP debates, speaking to the conservative half of our country about why this policy violates the principles they claim to hold dear.

Paul is absolutely correct that if we stopped trying to police the world, ended the war on drugs, and quit negotiating trade deals that favor multinational corporations over American families and workers, we would be a far more free and prosperous nation.

President, Green


We endorsed Ralph Nader for president in 2000, in large part as a protest vote against the neoconservative politics of the Bill Clinton administration (the North American Free Trade Agreement, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, welfare "reform," etc.). And Nader’s Green Party campaign had a place (particularly in a state the Democrats were going to win anyway). We’ve never been among those who blame Nader for Al Gore’s loss — Gore earned plenty of blame himself. But four years later we, like a lot of Nader’s allies and supporters, urged him not to run — and he ignored those pleas. Now he may be seeking the Green Party nomination again. Nader hasn’t formally announced yet, but he’s talking about it — which means he still shows no interest in being accountable to anyone. It’s too bad he has to end his political life this way.

Fortunately, there are several other credible Green Party candidates. The best is Cynthia McKinney, the former Georgia congressional representative, who has switched from the Democratic to the Green Party and is seeking a spot on the top of the ticket. McKinney has her drawbacks, but we’ll endorse her.

The real question here is not who would make a better president (that’s not in the cards, of course) but who would do more to build the Green Party and promote the best course for a promising third party that still hasn’t developed much traction as a national force. We’ve been clear for years that the Greens should be working from the grass roots up: the party’s first priority should be electing school board members, community college board members, members of boards of supervisors and city councils. Over time, leaders like Mark Sanchez, Jane Kim, Matt Gonzalez, and Ross Mirkarimi can start competing for mayor’s offices and posts in the State Legislature and Congress. Running a presidential candidate only makes sense as part of a party-building operation. (That’s what Nader did in 2000, and for all the obvious reasons he’s incapable of doing it today.)

But the Greens insist on running candidates for president, so we might as well pick the best one.

McKinney has a lot to offer the Greens. She’s an experienced legislator who has won several tough elections and taken on a lot of tough issues. As an African American woman from the South, she can also broaden the party’s base. She was a solid progressive in Congress, where she was willing to speak out on issues that many of her colleagues ducked (she was, for example, one of the few members to push for an impeachment resolution).

McKinney has her downside — in recent years she’s been flirting with the loony side of the left, getting a bit close to some Sept. 11 conspiracy theories that hurt her credibility (although she’s also made some very good points about the attacks and the lack of a serious investigation into what happened). And some of her supporters have made alarmingly anti-Semitic statements (from which, to her credit, she has attempted to distance herself). But she has to come out now, strongly, to denounce those sorts of comments and show that she can build a real coalition.

With those (serious) reservations, we’ll give her the nod.

Proposition 91 (use of gas tax)


Prop. 91 is essentially an effort to ensure that revenue from the state’s gas tax goes only to roads and highways. It’s a moot point anyway: Proposition 1A, which passed last year, did the same thing, and now even proponents of 91 are urging a No vote.

But we’re going to take this opportunity to reiterate our opposition to Prop. 1A, Prop. 91, and any other ridiculous effort to restrict the use of gasoline tax revenues.

It should be clear to everyone at this point that the widespread overuse of automobiles is having far bigger impacts on California than just wear and tear on the roads. Cars are the biggest single cause of global warming, and they kill and injure more Californians than guns do, causing enormous costs that are borne by all of us. Driving a car is expensive for society, and drivers ought to be paying some of those costs. That should mean extra gas taxes and a reinstatement of the vehicle license fee to previous levels (and extra surcharges for those who drive Hummers and other especially wasteful, dangerous vehicles). That money ought to go to the state General Fund so California doesn’t have to close state parks and slash spending on schools and social services, as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing.

Proposition 92 (community college funding)


Prop. 92 is another example of how desperate California educators are and how utterly dysfunctional the state’s budget process has become.

The measure is complicated, but it amounts to a plan to guarantee community colleges more money — a total of about $300 million a year — and includes provisions to cut the cost of attending the two-year schools. Those are good things: community colleges serve a huge number of students — about 10 times as many as the University of California system — many of whom come from lower-income families who can’t afford even a small fee increase. And, of course, as the state budget has gotten tighter, community college fees have gone up in the past few years — and as a result, attendance has dropped.

Part of the way Prop. 92 cuts fees is by divorcing community college funding from K–12 funding — and that’s created some controversy among teachers. Current state law requires a set percentage of California spending (about 40 percent) to go to K–12 and community college education, but there’s no provision to give more money to the community colleges when enrollment at those institutions grows faster than K–12 enrollment.

Some teachers fear that Prop. 92 could lead to decreased funds for K–12, and that’s a real concern. In essence, this measure would add $300 million to the state budget, and it includes no specific funding source. This worries us. In theory, the legislature and the governor ought to agree that education funding matters and find the money by raising taxes; in practice, this could set up more competition for money between different (and entirely worthy) branches of the state’s public education system — not to mention other critical social services.

But many of the same concerns were voiced when Prop. 98 was on the ballot, and that measure probably saved public education in California. The progressives on the San Francisco Board of Education all support Prop. 92, and so do we. Vote yes.

Proposition 93 (term limits)


This is pathetic, really. The term-limits law that voters passed in 1990 has been bad news, shifting more power to the governor and ensuring that the State Assembly and the State Senate will be filled with people who lack the experience and institutional history to fight the Sacramento lobbyists (who, of course, have no term limits). But the legislature isn’t a terribly popular institution, and the polls all show that it would be almost impossible to simply repeal term limits. So the legislature — led by State Assembly speaker Fabian Núñez, who really, really wants to keep his job — has proposed a modification instead.

Under the current law, a politician can serve six years — three terms — in the assembly and eight years — two terms — in the senate. Since most senators are former assembly members, that’s a total of 14 years any one person can serve in the legislature.

Prop. 93 would cut that to 12 years — but allow members to serve them in either house. So Núñez, who will be termed out this year, could serve six more years in the assembly (but would then be barred from running for the senate). Senators who never served in the assembly could stick around for three terms.

That’s fine. It’s a bit better than what we have now — it might bring more long-term focus to the legislature and eliminate some of the musical-chairs mess that’s brought us the Mark Leno versus Carole Migden bloodbath.

But it’s sad that the California State Legislature, once a model for the nation, has been so stymied by corruption that the voters don’t trust it and the best we can hope for is a modest improvement in a bad law. Vote yes.

Propositions 94, 95, 96, and 97 (Indian gambling compacts)


We supported the original law that allowed Indian tribes to set up casinos, and we have no regrets: that was an issue of tribal sovereignty, and after all the United States has done to the tribes, it seemed unconscionable to deny one of the most impoverished populations in the state the right to make some money. Besides, we’re not opposed in principle to gambling.

But this is a shady deal, and voters should reject it.

Props. 94–97 would allow four tribes — all of which have become very, very wealthy through gambling — to dramatically expand the size of their casinos. The Pechanga, Morongo, Sycuan, and Agua Caliente tribes operate lucrative casinos in Southern California, spend a small fortune on lobbying, and convinced Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to give them permission to create some of the largest casinos in the nation. Opponents of this agreement have forced the issue onto the ballot.

The tribes say the deals will bring big money into the state coffers, and it’s true that more gambling equals more state revenue. But the effective tax rate on the slot machines (and this is all about slot machines, the cash engines of casinos) would be as little as 15 percent — chump change for a gambling operation. And none of the other tribes in the state, some of which are still desperate for money, would share in the bounty.

The big four tribes refuse to allow their workers to unionize. While we respect tribal sovereignty, the state still has the right to limit the size of casinos, and if the tribes want the right to make a lot more money, they ought to be willing to let their workers, not all of them Indians, share in some of the rewards. We’re talking billions of dollars a year in revenue here; paying a decent salary is hardly beyond the financial ability of these massive operations.

The governor cut this deal too fast and gave away too much. If the tribes want to expand their casinos, we’re open to allowing it — but the state, the workers, and the other tribes deserve a bigger share of the revenue. Vote no on 94-97.

Proposition A (neighborhood parks bond)


This $185 million bond has the support of a broad coalition of local politicians and activists, Mayor Gavin Newsom, and every member of the Board of Supervisors. It would put a dent in the city’s serious backlog of deferred maintenance in the park system.

The measure would allocate $117.4 million for repairs and renovations of 12 neighborhood parks, selected according to their seismic and safety needs as well as their usage levels. It would also earmark $11.4 million to replace and repair freestanding restrooms, which, the Recreation and Park Department assures us, will be kept open seven days a week.

The bond also contains $33.5 million for projects on Port of San Francisco land, including a continuous walkway from Herons Head Park to Pier 43 and new open spaces at regular intervals along the eastern waterfront. While some argue that the Port should take care of its own property, it’s pretty broke — and there’s a growing recognition that the city’s waterfront is a treasure, that open space should be a key component of its future, and that it doesn’t really matter which city agency pays for it. In fact, this bond act would provide money to reclaim closed sections of the waterfront and create a Blue Greenway trail along seven miles of bay front.

One of the more questionable elements in this bond is the $8 million earmarked for construction and reconstruction of city playfields — which includes a partnership with a private foundation that wants to install artificial turf. There’s no question that the current fields are in bad repair and that users of artificial turf appreciate its all-weather durability. But some people worry about the environmental impact of the stuff, which is made from recycled tires, while others wonder if this bond will end up giving control of 7 percent of our parkland to the sons of Gap founder Don Fisher (their City Fields Foundation is the entity contributing matching funds for city-led turf conversions). Although the Rec and Park Department has identified 24 sites for such conversions, none can take place without the Board of Supervisors’ approval — and the supervisors and the Rec and Park Commission needs to make it clear that if neighbors don’t want the artificial turf, it won’t be forced on them.

Prop. A also earmarks $5 million for trail restoration and $5 million for an Opportunity Fund, from which all neighborhoods can leverage money for benches and toilets through in-kind contributions, sweat equity, and noncity funds.

And it includes $4 million for park forestry and $185,000 for audits.

With a 2007 independent analysis identifying $1.7 billion in maintenance requirements, this is little more than a start, and park advocates need to be looking for other, ongoing revenue sources. But we’ll happily endorse Prop. A.

Proposition B (deferred retirement for police officers)


We’ve always taken the position that relying exclusively on police officers to improve public safety is as useless as simply throwing criminals behind bars — it’s only part of the solution and will never work as an answer all on its own.

But we’re also aware that the city is suffering a dramatic shortage of police officers; hundreds are expected to retire within a few short years, and those figures aren’t being met by an equal number of enrollees at the academy.

So we’re supporting Prop. B, even if it’s yet another mere stopgap measure the police union has dragged before voters, and even though the San Francisco Police Officers Association is often hostile to attempted law enforcement reforms and is never around when progressives need support for new revenue measures.

Prop. B would allow police officers who are at least 50 years of age and who have served for at least 25 years to continue working for three additional years with their regular pay and benefits while the pension checks they’d have otherwise received collect in a special account with an assured annual 4 percent interest rate.

The POA promises Prop. B will be cost neutral to taxpayers, and the city controller will review the program in three years to ensure that remains the case. Also at the end of three years, the Board of Supervisors, with a simple majority vote, could choose to end or extend it.

POA president Gary Delagnes added during an endorsement interview that department staffers in San Francisco who reach retirement age simply continue working in other police jurisdictions. If that’s the case, we might as well keep them here.

No other city employees are eligible for such a scheme, which strikes us as unfair. And frankly, one of the main reasons the city can’t hire police officers is the high cost of living in San Francisco — so if the POA is worried about recruitment, the group needs to support Sup. Chris Daly’s affordable-housing measure in November.

But we’ll endorse Prop. B.

Proposition C (Alcatraz Conversion Project)


We understand why some people question why a decaying old prison continues to be a centerpiece of Bay Area tourism. A monument to a system that imprisoned people in cold, inhumane conditions doesn’t exactly mesh with San Francisco values.

But the Alcatraz Conversion Project, which proposes placing a half–golf ball–like Global Peace Center atop the Rock, is a wacky idea that looks and sounds like a yuppie tourist retreat and does little to address the island’s tortured past. People don’t have to support everything with peace in the title.

The proposal includes a white domed conference center for nonviolent conflict resolution, a statue of St. Francis, a labyrinth, a medicine wheel, and an array of what proponents call "architecturally advanced domed Artainment multimedia centers."

We agree with the ideal of dedicating the island to the Native Americans who fished and collected birds’ eggs from this once guano-covered rock for thousands of years and whose descendants carried out a bold occupation at the end of the 1960s. But this proposal seems based on wishful thinking, not fiscal or environmental realities.

The plan is backed by the Global Peace Foundation, which is a branch of the San Francisco Medical Research Foundation, a Mill Valley nonprofit founded by Marin resident and Light Party founder Da Vid. It’s just goofy. Vote no.

Next week: Alameda County endorsements.