The attack on district elections

Pub date February 9, 2010

EDITORIAL The Chamber of Commerce, the Mayor’s Office, and the San Francisco Chronicle have created, apparently out of whole cloth, a new attack on district elections of supervisors. And although there’s no campaign or formal proposal on the table, the new move needs to be taken seriously.

And it’s important to understand from the start what this is really about.

The Chamber and the Chron are talking about the need for more “citywide perspective,” trying to spin the notion that supervisors elected by district care only about micro-local, parochial issues. But after 10 years of district elections, the record is exactly the opposite. District-elected supervisors have devoted themselves to a long string of exceptional citywide reform measures and have been guilty of very little district pandering.

Consider a few examples:

Healthy San Francisco, the local effort at universal health care that has drawn national attention and plaudits from President Obama, was a product of the district board, led by then-Sup. Tom Ammiano. So was the rainy day fund, which has provided millions to the public schools and prevented widespread teacher layoffs.

The district board reformed the makeup of the Planning Commission, Police Commission, and Board of Appeals.

District-elected Sup. Ross Mirkarimi’s legislation restricting the use of plastic bags has been hailed by environmental groups all over the country.

The district board passed the city’s minimum wage and sick day laws.

The district board created a citywide infrastructure plan and bond program.

Community choice aggregation, a direct challenge to Pacific Gas and Electric Co. that will bring San Francisco clean energy and lower electricity rates, is entirely a product of the district board. So is campaign finance reform, sanctuary city protecting for immigrants, a long list of tenant-protecting laws … the list goes on and on. What significant policy initiatives came out of the previous 10 years of at-large supervisors? Very little — except the promotion of hyper-expensive live-work lofts; the displacement of thousands of tenants, artists, and low-income people; and the economic cleansing of San Francisco, all on behalf of the dot-com boom, real estate speculators, and developers.

People can agree or disagree with what the board has done in the past decade, but nobody can honestly say that the district supervisors have ignored citywide issues or that they don’t have a citywide perspective.

No, this has nothing to do with citywide issues vs. district issues. It’s entirely about policy — about the fact that district supervisors are more progressive. About the fact that downtown can’t possibly get a majority under a district system — because with small districts, big money can’t carry the day.

Under an at-large system, nobody can seriously run for supervisor without at lest $250,000, and candidates who start off without high name recognition need twice that. There’s only one way to get that kind of money — and it’s not from protecting tenants and immigrants and fighting developers and PG&E.

In a district system, grassroots organizing — the stuff that labor and nonprofits and progressive groups are good at — is more important than raising money. So district supes are accountable to a different constituency.

Polls consistently show that people like having district supervisors — and for good reason. With at-large elections, the only people who have regular, direct access to the supervisors are big donors and lobbyists who can deliver money. District supervisors are out in the neighborhoods, take phone calls from community activists, and are far more accessible to their constituents.

So instead of trying to repeal the district system, the Chamber has come up with this “hybrid” effort. The idea would be to reduce the number of districts to seven and elect four supervisors citywide.

What that means, of course, is that a third of the board, elected on a pile of money, will be pretty much call-up votes for downtown. With two more from the more conservative districts, you’ve got a majority.

So this is about money and political control, and about the political direction the city is going, and about who’s going to set that direction. That’s the message progressive leaders need to start putting out, now. And every incumbent supervisor, and every candidate for supervisor, needs to make preservation of district elections a public priority.