Election as prologue

Pub date June 11, 2008

› steve@sfbg.com

San Francisco politics shifted June 3 as successful new coalitions altered the electoral landscape heading into the high-stakes fall contests, when seven of the 11 seats on the Board of Supervisors are up for grabs.
Progressives had a good election night even as lefty shot-caller Sup. Chris Daly suffered a pair of bitter defeats. And Mayor Gavin Newsom scored a rare ballot box victory when the southeast development measure Proposition G passed by a wide margin, although voters repudiated Newsom’s meddling with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission by approving Prop. E.

But the big story wasn’t these two lame duck politicians, who have served as the two poles of local politics for the past few years. It was Mark Leno, who handed Sen. Carole Migden her first electoral defeat in 25 years by bringing together progressives and moderates and waging an engaged, effective ground campaign. In the process, he may have offered a portent of things to come.

The election night speech Leno gave just before midnight — much like his entire campaign — didn’t break along neat ideological lines. There were solidly progressive stands, like battling the religious right’s homophobia, pledging to pursue single-payer health care, and blasting Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for funding sleazy attack pieces against him, reaffirming his commitment to public power.

But he also thanked Newsom and other moderate supporters and heaped praise on his political consulting firm, BMWL, which has run some of downtown’s nastiest campaigns. "It was clean, it was smart, and it was effective," Leno said of his campaign.

The Migden campaign, which had the support of Daly and many prominent local progressives, often looked dirty by comparison, marred by past campaign finance violations that resulted in Migden getting slapped with the biggest fine in state history and by Daly’s unethical misuse of the Guardian logo on a mailer that made it appear as if we had endorsed Migden.

Old alliances seemed to crumble around this election, leaving open questions about how coalitions will form going into an important November election that’s expected to have a crowded ballot and huge turnout.


There are things that unite almost all San Franciscans, like support for public schools. In this election that support came in the form of Prop. A — a measure that will increase teacher salaries through a parcel tax of about $200 per property owner — which garnered almost 70 percent of the vote.

"These numbers show that people believe in public education. They believe in what we’re doing," school superintendent Carlos Garcia told a jubilant election night crowd inside the Great American Music Hall.

Also uniting the city’s Democrats was the news that Barack Obama sewed up the party’s presidential nomination June 3, ending a primary battle with Hillary Clinton that had created a political fissure here and in cities across the country.

"The winds of change are blowing tonight. Let me congratulate Barack Obama on his victory," Leno said on election night, triggering a chant of "Yes we can" from the crowd at the Upper Market bar/restaurant Lime.

Local Clinton supporters were already switching candidates on election night, even before Clinton dropped her campaign and announced her support for Obama four days later.

"As a strong Hillary person, I’m so excited to be working for Obama these next five months," DCCC District 13 member Laura Spanjian, who won reelection by placing fourth out of 12 slots, said on election night. "It’s my number one goal this fall."

Leno also sounded conciliatory themes. In his election night speech, Leno acknowledged the rift he created in the progressive and LGBT communities by challenging Migden: "I know that you upset the applecart when you challenge a sitting senator."

But he vowed to repair that damage, starting by leading the fight against the fall ballot measure that would ban same-sex marriage and overturn the recent California Supreme Court decision that legalized it. He told the crowd, "I invite you to join together to defeat the religious right."

A day later we asked Leno about whether his victory represented a new political center in San Francisco and he professed a desire to avoid the old political divisions: "Let’s focus on our commonalities rather than differences," he said, "because there is real strength in a big-tent coalition."

But this election was more about divisions than unity, splits whose repercussions will ripple into November in unknown ways. Shortly before the election, Daly publicly blasted "Big Labor" after the San Francisco Labor Council cut a deal with Lennar Corporation, agreeing to support Prop. G in exchange for the promise of more affordable housing and community benefits.

On election night, Newsom couldn’t resist gloating over besting Daly, whose affordable housing measure Prop. F lost big. "I couldn’t be more proud that the voters of San Francisco supported a principled proposal over the political proposal of a politician," Newsom told us on election night, adding, "Today was a validation of community investment and involvement over political games."

While Daly and some of his progressive allies have long warned that Leno is too close to Newsom to be trusted, one of the first points in Leno’s speech was the celebrate the passage of Prop. E, which gives the Board of Supervisors more power to reject the mayor’s appointees to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. "As an early supporter I was happy to see that," Leno said.

Susan Leal, the former SFPUC director who was ousted by Newsom earlier this year, said she felt some vindication from the vote on Prop. E, but mostly she was happy that people saw through the false campaign portrayals (which demonized the Board of Supervisors and erroneously said the measure gave it control over the SFPUC.)

"This is one of the few PUCs where people are appointed and doing the mayor’s bidding is the only qualification," Leal told us on election night.
Sup. Tom Ammiano, who will be headed to the Assembly next year, agreed: "It shows the beauty contest with the mayor is over and people are willing to hold him accountable."


On the day after the election, during a postmortem at the downtown office of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, political consultants Jim Stearns and David Latterman sized up the results.

Latterman called the Prop. E victory "the one surprise in the race." The No on E campaign sought to demonize the Board of Supervisors, a strategy that clearly didn’t work. Firing Leal, a lesbian, helped spur the city’s two major LGBT groups — the Harvey Milk and Alice B. Toklas Democratic clubs — to endorse the measure, which could have been a factor when combined with the high LGBT turnout.

"This may have ridden the coattails of the Leno-Migden race," Stearns said.

In that race, Stearns and Latterman agreed that Leno ran a good campaign and Migden didn’t, something that was as big a factor in the outcome as anything.
"Migden did too little too late. The numbers speak for themselves. Leno ran a really good race," Latterman said, noting how Leno beat Migden by a large margin in San Francisco and came within a few thousand votes of beating Joe Nation on his home turf of Marin County.

"It was a big deal for Leno to get so close to Nation in Marin," Stearns said.

Leno told us the polling his campaign did late last year and early this year showed he had a strong advantage in San Francisco, "so with that, I invested a lot of time and energy in Marin County."

Stearns attributed the big Prop. G win to its large base of influential supporters: "The coalition-building was what put this over the top." Daly chalked it up to the $4 million that Lennar spent, saying it had bought the election. But Stearns, who was a consultant for the campaign, didn’t agree: "I don’t think money alone ever wins or loses campaigns."

Yet he said the lack of money and an organized No on G/Yes on F campaign did make it difficult to stop the Lennar juggernaut. "You need to have enough money to get your message out," Stearns said, noting that "Nobody knew that the Sierra Club opposed [Prop. G]."

In the one contested judge’s race on the ballot, Gerardo Sandoval finished in a virtual dead heat with incumbent Judge Thomas Mellon. The two will face off again in a November runoff election because a third candidate, Mary Mallen, captured about 13 percent of the vote.

"How angry is Sandoval with Mallen now?" Latterman asked at the SPUR event. "If that 13 percent wasn’t there, Sandoval wins."

Both Latterman and Stearns agreed that this election was Sandoval’s best shot at unseating a sitting judge. "He’s going to face a tougher test in November," Stearns said.

The other big news was the lopsided defeat of Prop. 98, which would have abolished rent control and limits on condo conversions in addition to its main stated aim of restricting the use of eminent domain by local governments.

"It just lost bad," Latterman said of Prop. 98, the second extreme property rights measure to go down in recent years. "It just needs to go away now…. This was a resounding, ‘Just go away now, please.’<0x2009>"


Aside from the Leno victory, this election was most significant in setting up future political battles. And progressives won a big advantage for the battles to come by picking up seats on the city’s two Democratic County Central Committees, a successful offensive engineered largely by Daly and Peskin, who were both elected to the eastside DCCC District 13.

"On the DCCC level, we took back the Democratic Party," said Robert Haaland, a progressive who was reelected to the DCCC District 13.

"The fight now is over the chair. The chair decides where the resources go and sets the priorities, so you can really do a lot," Haaland told us.

Many of the fall supervisorial contests feature races between two or three bona fide progressives, so those candidates are going to need to find issues or alliances that will broaden their bases.

In District 9, for example, the candidates include housing activist Eric Quezada (who lost his DCCC race), school board president Mark Sanchez, and Police Commission member David Campos — all solid progressives, all Latino, and all with good bases of support.

Campos finished first in his DCCC District 13 race just ahead of Peskin. Speaking on election night at the GAMH, Campos attributed his strong showing to walking lots of precincts and meeting voters, particularly in the Mission, an effort that will help him in the fall.

"A lot of Latino voters are really eager to be more involved [in politics]," Campos said. "Speaking the language and being an immigrant really connects with them."

Campos thinks public safety will be a big issue on voters’ minds this fall, an issue where he has strength and one that progressives have finally seized. "Until Ross Mirkarimi came along, progressives really weren’t talking about it," Campos said.

So, does Campos’ strong DCCC showing make him the front runner? When I asked that question during the SPUR event, Latterman said he didn’t think so. He noted that Sanchez has always had strong finishes on his school board races, citywide contests that includes the Portola area in District 9 but not in DCCC District 13. In fact, Latterman predicted lots of acrimony and close contests this November.

"If you like the anger of Leno vs. Migden, we’ll have more in the fall," Latterman said of the competitive supervisorial races.

Leno hasn’t been terribly active in local contests since heading to Sacramento, and he told us that his focus this fall will be on state ballot fights and the presidential race. He hasn’t made endorsements in many supervisorial races yet, but his two so far are both of progressives: Ross Mirkarimi in District 5, and David Chiu in District 3. And as he makes more supervisorial endorsements in the coming months, Leno told us, "I will be fighting for progressive voices."

Sarah Phelan contributed to this story.