The people’s election

Pub date November 11, 2008


By midnight Nov. 4, the drama was long over: John McCain had conceded, Barack Obama had delivered his moving victory speech — declaring that “change has come to America” — and the long national nightmare of the Bush years was officially headed for the history books.

But in San Francisco, the party was just getting started.

Outside of Kilowatt, on 16th Street near Guerrero, the crowd of celebrants was dancing to the sounds of a street drummer. In the Castro District, a huge crowd was cheering and chanting Obama’s name. And on Valencia and 19th streets, a spontaneous outpouring of energy filled the intersection. Two police officers stood by watching, and when a reporter asked one if he was planning to try to shut down the celebration and clear the streets, he smiled. “Not now,” he said. “Not now.”

Then, out of nowhere, the crowd began to sing: O say can you see /By the dawn’s early light …

It was a stunning moment, as dramatic as anything we’ve seen in this city in years. In perhaps the most liberal, counterculture section of the nation’s most liberal, counterculture city, young people by the hundreds were proudly singing The Star Spangled Banner. “For the first time in my life,” one crooner announced, “I feel proud to be an American.”

Take that, Fox News. Take that Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin and the rest of the right-wing bigots who have tried to claim this country for themselves. On Nov. 4, 2008, progressives showed the world that we’re real Americans, too, proud of a country that has learned from its mistakes and corrected its course.

President Obama will let us down soon enough; he almost has to. The task at hand is so daunting, and our collective hopes are so high, that it’s hard to see how anyone could succeed without a few mistakes. In fact, Obama already admitted he won’t be “a perfect president.” And when you get past the rhetoric and the rock star excitement, he’s taken some pretty conservative positions on many of the big issues, from promoting “clean coal” and nuclear power to escautf8g the war in Afghanistan.

But make no mistake about it: electing Barack Obama was a progressive victory. Although he never followed the entire progressive line in his policy positions, he was, and is, the creature of a strong progressive movement that can rightly claim him as its standard-bearer. He was the candidate backed from the beginning by progressives like Supervisors Chris Daly and Ross Mirkarimi (a Green). And only after his improbable nomination did moderates like Mayor Gavin Newsom and Sen. Dianne Feinstein jump on the bandwagon.

From the start, the young, activist, left wing of the Democratic Party was the driving force behind the Obama revolution. And while he has always talked to the Washington bigwigs — and will populate his administration with many of them — he would never have won without the rest of us. And that’s a fact of political life it will be hard for him to ignore, particularly if we don’t let him forget it.

For a few generations of Americans — everyone who turned 18 after 1964 — this was the first presidential election we’ve been able to get truly excited about. It was also the first presidential election that was won, to a significant extent, on the Internet, where progressive sites like raised millions of dollars, generated a small army of ground troops, and drove turnout in both the primaries and the general election. The movement that was built behind Obama can become a profound and powerful force in American politics.

So this was, by any reasonable measure, the People’s Election. And now it’s the job of the people to keep that hope — and that movement — alive, even when its standard-bearer doesn’t always live up to our dreams.

The evidence that this was the People’s Election wasn’t just at the national level. It showed up in the results of the San Francisco elections as well.

This was the election that would demonstrate, for the first time since the return of district elections, whether a concerted, well-funded downtown campaign could trump a progressive grassroots organizing effort. Sure, in 2000, downtown and then-Mayor Willie Brown had their candidates, and the progressives beat them in nearly every race. But that was a time when the mayor’s popularity was in the tank, and San Franciscans of all political stripes were furious at the corruption in City Hall.

“In 2000, I think a third of the votes that the left got came from Republicans,” GOP consultant Chris Bowman, who was only partially joking, told us on election night.

This time around, with the class of 2000 termed out, a popular mayor in office and poll numbers and conventional wisdom both arguing that San Franciscans weren’t happy with the current Board of Supervisors (particularly with some of its members, most notably Chris Daly), many observers believed that a powerful big-money campaign backing some likable supervisorial candidates (with little political baggage) could dislodge the progressive majority.

As late as the week before the election, polls showed that the three swings districts — 1, 3, and 11 — were too close to call, and that in District 1, Chamber of Commerce executive Sue Lee could be heading for a victory over progressive school board member Eric Mar.

And boy, did downtown try. The big business leaders, through groups including the Committee on Jobs, the Chamber, the Association of Realtors, Plan C, the newly-formed Coalition for Responsible Growth, and the Building Owners and Managers Association, poured more than $630,000 into independent expenditures smearing progressive candidates and promoting the downtown choices. Newsom campaigned with Joe Alioto, Jr. in District 3 and Ahsha Safai in District 11. Television ads sought to link Mar, John Avalos, and David Chiu with Daly.

Although the supervisors have no role in running the schools, the Republicans and downtown pushed hard to use a measure aimed at restoring JROTC to the city’s high schools as a wedge against the progressives in the three swing districts. They also went to great lengths — even misstating the candidates’ positions — to tar Mar, Chiu, and Avalos with supporting the legalization of prostitution.

And it didn’t work.

When the votes were counted election night, it became clear that two of the three progressives — Avalos and Chiu — were headed for decisive victories. And Mar was far enough ahead that it appeared he would emerge on top.

How did that happen? Old-fashioned shoe leather. The three campaigns worked the streets hard, knocking on doors, distributing literature, and phone banking.

“I’ve been feeling pretty confident for a week,” Avalos told us election night, noting his campaign’s strong field operation. As he knocked on doors, Avalos came to understand that downtown’s attacks were ineffective: “No one bought their horseshit.”

A few weeks earlier, he hadn’t been so confident. Avalos said that Safai ran a strong, well-funded campaign and personally knocked on lots of doors in the district. But ultimately, Avalos was the candidate with the deepest roots in the district and the longest history of progressive political activism.

“This is really about our neighborhood,” Avalos told us at his election night party at Club Bottom’s Up in the Excelsior District. “It was the people in this room that really turned it around.”

The San Francisco Labor Council and the tenants’ movement also put dozens of organizers on the ground, stepping up particularly strongly as the seemingly coordinated downtown attacks persisted. “It was, quite literally, money against people, and the people won,” Labor Council director Tim Paulson told us.

Robert Haaland, a staffer with the Service Employees International Union and one of the architects of the campaign, put it more colorfully: “We ran the fucking table,” he told us election night. “It’s amazing — we were up against the biggest downtown blitz since district elections.”

The evidence suggests that this election was no anomaly: the progressive movement has taken firm hold in San Francisco, despite the tendency of the old power-brokers — from Newsom to downtown to both of the city’s corporate-owned daily newspapers — to try to marginalize it.

Political analyst David Latterman of Fall Line Analytics began the Nov. 5 presentation at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association election wrap-up by displaying an ideologically-coded map of San Francisco, drawing off of data from the Progressive Voter Index that he developed with San Francisco State University political science professor Rich de Leon. The PVI is based on how San Francisco residents in different parts of the city vote on bellwether candidates and ballot measures.

“Several of the districts in San Francisco discernibly moved to the left over the last four to eight years,” Latterman told the large crowd, which was made up of many of San Francisco’s top political professionals.

The two supervisorial districts that have moved most strongly toward the progressive column in recent years were Districts 1 (the Richmond) and 11 (the Excelsior), which just happened to be two of the three swing districts (the other being District 3–North Beach and Chinatown) that were to decide the balance of power on the Board of Supervisors this election.

Latterman said Districts “1, 3, and 11 went straight progressive, and that’s just the way it is.”

In fact, in many ways, he said this was a status-quo election, with San Francisco validating the progressive-leaning board. “A lot of people in the city didn’t see it as a chance for a drastic change citywide.”

In other words, keeping progressives in City Hall has become a mainstream choice. Whatever downtown’s propaganda tried to say, most San Franciscans are happy with a district-elected board that has brought the city a living-wage law and moved it a step toward universal health insurance.

The fate of the local ballot measures was another indication that Newsom, popular as he might be, has little ability to convince the voters to accept his policy agenda.

Voters rejected efforts by Newsom to consolidate his power, rejecting his supervisorial candidates, his Community Justice Center (as presented in Measure L), and his proposed takeover of the Transportation Authority (soundly defeating Proposition P) while approving measures he opposed, including Propositions M (protecting tenants from harassment) and T (Daly’s guarantee of substance abuse treatment on demand).

Asked about it at a post-election press conference, Newsom tried to put a positive spin on the night. “Prop. A won, and I spent three years of my life on it,” he said. “Prop B. was defeated. Prop. O, I put on the ballot. I think it’s pretty small when you look at the totality of the ballot.” He pointed out that his two appointees — Carmen Chu in District 4 and Sean Elsbernd in District 7 — won handily but made no mention of his support for losing candidates Lee, Alicia Wang, Alioto, Claudine Cheng, and Safai.

“You’ve chosen two as opposed to the totality,” Newsom said of Props. L and P. “Prop. K needed to be defeated. Prop. B needed to be defeated.”

Yet Newsom personally did as little to defeat those measures as he did to support the measures he tried to claim credit for: Measures A (the General Hospital rebuild bond, which everyone supported) and revenue-producing Measures N, O, and Q. In fact, many labor and progressives leaders privately grumbled about Newsom’s absence during the campaign.

Prop. K, which would have decriminalized prostitution, was placed on the ballot by a libertarian-led signature gathering effort, not by the progressive movement. And Prop. B, the affordable housing set-aside measure sponsored by Daly, was only narrowly defeated — after a last-minute attack funded by the landlords.

All three revenue-producing measures won by wide margins. Prop. Q, the payroll tax measure, passed by one of the widest margins — 67-33.

Latterman and Alex Clemens, owner of Barbary Coast Consulting and the SF Usual Suspects Web site, were asked whether downtown might seek to repeal district elections, and both said it didn’t really matter because people seem to support the system. “I can’t imagine, short of a tragedy, district elections going anywhere,” Latterman said.

Clemens said that while downtown’s polling showed that people largely disapprove of the Board of Supervisors — just as they do most legislative bodies — people generally like their district supervisor (a reality supported by the fact that all the incumbents were reelected by sizable margins).

“It ain’t a Board of Supervisors, it is 11 supervisors,” Clemens said, noting how informed and sophisticated the San Francisco electorate is compared to many other cities. “When you try to do a broad-based attack, you frequently end up on the wrong end (of the election outcome).”

We had a bittersweet feeling watching the scene in the Castro on election night. While thousands swarmed into the streets to celebrate Obama’s election, there was no avoiding the fact that the civil-rights movement that has such deep roots in that neighborhood was facing a serious setback.

The Castro was where the late Sup. Harvey Milk started his ground-breaking campaign to stop the anti-gay Briggs Initiative in 1978. Defying the advice of the leaders of the Democratic Party, Milk took on Briggs directly, debating him all over the state and arguing against the measure that would have barred gay and lesbian people from teaching in California’s public schools.

The defeat of the Briggs Initiative was a turning point for the queer movement — and the defeat of Prop. 8, which seeks to outlaw same-sex marriage, should have been another. Just as California was the most epic battle in a nationwide campaign by right-wing bigots 30 years ago, anti-gay marriage measures have been on the ballot all over America. And if California could have rejected that tide, it might have taken the wind out of the effort.

But that wasn’t to be. Although pre-election polls showed Prop. 8 narrowly losing, it was clear by the end of election night that it was headed for victory.

Part of the reason: two religious groups, the Catholics and the Mormons, raised and spent some $25 million to pass the measure. Church-based groups mobilized a reported 100,000 grassroots volunteers to knock on doors throughout California. Yes on 8 volunteers were as visible in cities throughout California as the No on 8 volunteers were on the streets of San Francisco, presenting a popular front that the No on 8 campaign’s $35 million in spending just couldn’t counter — particularly with so many progressive activists, who otherwise would have been walking precincts to defeat Prop. 8, fanned out across the country campaigning for Obama.

“While we knew the odds for success were not with us, we believed Californians could be the first in the nation to defeat the injustice of discriminatory measures like Proposition 8,” a statement on the No on Prop. 8 Web site said. “And while victory is not ours this day, we know that because of the work done here, freedom, fairness, and equality will be ours someday. Just look at how far we have come in a few decades.”

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, joined by Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and Santa Clara County Counsel Ann C. Raven, filed a legal challenge to Prop. 8, arguing that a ballot initiative can’t be used to take away fundamental constitutional rights.

“Such a sweeping redefinition of equal protection would require a constitutional revision rather than a mere amendment,” the petition argued.

“The issue before the court today is of far greater consequence than marriage equality alone,” Herrera said. “Equal protection of the laws is not merely the cornerstone of the California Constitution, it is what separates constitutional democracy from mob rule tyranny. If allowed to stand, Prop. 8 so devastates the principle of equal protection that it endangers the fundamental rights of any potential electoral minority — even for protected classes based on race, religion, national origin, and gender.”

That may succeed. In fact, the state Supreme Court made quite clear in its analysis legalizing same-sex marriage that this was a matter of fundamental rights: “Although defendants maintain that this court has an obligation to defer to the statutory definition of marriage contained in [state law] because that statute — having been adopted through the initiative process — represents the expression of the ‘people’s will,’ this argument fails to take into account the very basic point that the provisions of the California Constitution itself constitute the ultimate expression of the people’s will, and that the fundamental rights embodied within that Constitution for the protection of all persons represent restraints that the people themselves have imposed upon the statutory enactments that may be adopted either by their elected representatives or by the voters through the initiative process.

As the United States Supreme Court explained in West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette (1943) 319 U.S. 624, 638: ‘The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.'”

As Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin told the Guardian later that week: “Luckily, we have an independent judiciary, because the voters of California have mistakenly taken away a class of civil rights.”

But if that legal case fails, this will probably wind up on the state ballot again. And the next campaign will have to be different.

There already have been many discussions about what the No on 8 campaign did wrong and right, but it’s clear that the queer movement needs to reach out to African Americans, particularly black churches. African Americans voted heavily in favor of Prop. 8, and ministers in many congregations preached in favor of the measure.

But there are plenty of black religious leaders who took the other side. In San Francisco the Rev. Amos Brown, who leads the Third Baptist Church, one of the city’s largest African American congregations, spoke powerfully from the pulpit about the connections between the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and the fight for same-sex marriage.

The next time this is on the ballot, progressive and queer leaders will need to build a more broad-based movement. That is not only possible, but almost inevitable.

The good news — and it’s very good news — is that (as Newsom famously proclaimed) same-sex marriage is coming, whether opponents like it or not. That’s because the demographics can’t be denied: the vast majority of voters under 30 support same-sex marriage. This train is going in only one direction, and the last remaining issue is how, and when, to make the next political move.

The progressives didn’t win everything in San Francisco. Proposition H, the Clean Energy Act, was taken down by one of the most high-priced and misleading campaigns in the city’s history. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. spent more than $10 million telling lies about Prop. H, and with the daily newspapers virtually ignoring the measure and never challenging the utility’s claims, the measure went down.

“This was a big, big, big money race,” Latterman said. “In San Francisco, you spend $10 million and you’re going to beat just about anything.”

But activists aren’t giving up on pushing the city in the direction of more renewable energy (see Editorial).

Latterman said the narrow passage of Prop. V, which asked the school board to consider reinstating JROTC, wasn’t really a victory. “I would not call this a mandate. I worked with the campaign, and they weren’t looking for 53 percent. They were looking for 60-plus percent,” Latterman said. “I think you’ll see this issue just go away.”

Neither Latterman nor Clemens would speculate on who the next president of the Board of Supervisors will be, noting that there are just too many variables and options, including the possibility that a newly elected supervisor could seek that position.

At this point the obvious front-runner is Ross Mirkarimi, who not only won re-election but received more votes than any other candidate in any district. Based on results at press time, more than 23,000 people voted for Mirkarimi; Sean Elsbernd, who also had two opponents, received only about 19,000.

Mirkarimi worked hard to get Avalos, Chiu, and Mar elected, sending his own volunteers off to those districts. And with four new progressives elected to the board, joining Mirkarimi and veteran progressive Chris Daly, the progressives ought to retain the top job.

Daly tells us he won’t be a candidate — but he and Mirkarimi are not exactly close, and Daly will probably back someone else — possibly one of the newly elected supervisors.

“It’s going to be the most fascinating election that none of us will participate in,” Clemens said.

The danger, of course, is that the progressives will be unable to agree on a candidate — and a more moderate supervisor will wind up controlling committee appointments and the board agenda.

One of the most important elements of this election — and one that isn’t being discussed much — is the passage of three revenue-generating measures. Voters easily approved a higher real-estate transfer tax and a measure that closed a loophole allowing law firms and other partnerships to avoid the payroll tax. Progressives have tried to raise the transfer tax several times in the past, and have lost hard-fought campaigns.

That may mean that the anti-tax sentiment in the city has been eclipsed by the reality of the city’s devastating budget problems. And while Newsom didn’t do much to push the new tax measures, they will make his life much easier: the cuts the city will face won’t be as deep thanks to the additional $50 million or so in revenue.

It will still be a tough year for the new board. The mayor will push for cuts that the unions who supported the newly elected progressives will resist. A pivotal battle over the city’s future — the eastern neighborhoods rezoning plan — will come before the new board in the spring, when the recent arrivals will barely have had time to move into their offices.

Obama, of course, will face an even tougher spring. But progressives can at least face the future knowing that not only could it have been a lot worse; for once things might be about to get much better.

Amanda Witherell and Sarah Phelan contributed to this report.