The politics of unity and division

Pub date August 3, 2010

These are strange days for the San Francisco Democratic Party, which is seeking to overcome bitter divisions on the local level and come together around candidates for statewide office that include Mayor Gavin Newsom, whose fiscal conservatism and petulant political style are the main sources of that local division.

The tension has played out recently around the Board of Supervisors deliberations on the new city budget and November ballot measures and in dramas surrounding the newly elected Democratic County Central Committee, where the battles during its July 28 inaugural meeting previewed a more significant fight over local endorsements coming up Aug. 11.

Almost every elected official in San Francisco is a Democrat. Newsom, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, has been the main obstacle to new taxes that progressives and labor leaders say are desperately needed to preserve public services, deal with massive projected deficits in the next two years, and quit balancing budgets on the backs of workers.

“We balanced the budget without raising taxes. I don’t believe in raising taxes. We don’t need to raise taxes,” Newsom said proudly at his July 29 budget signing ceremony, during which he also effusively praised the labor unions whose support he needs this fall: “Labor has been under attack in this state and country. They’ve become a convenient excuse for our lack of leadership in Sacramento and around the country.”

That hypocritical brand of politics has been frustrating to his fellow Democrats, particularly progressive supervisors and DCCC members. At the July 27 board meeting, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi and Board President David Chiu reluctantly dropped their pair of revenue measures that would have raised $50 million, bowing to opposition by Newsom and the business community.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce has become such a vehicle for antitax and antigovernment vitriol that the DCCC on July 29 approved a resolution calling for the organization — which hosted a speech by Republican National Chair Michael Steele in June — to renounce the platform of the Republican National Committee.

“The Chamber is not a knee-jerk right-wing organization,” Chamber President Steve Falk felt compelled to clarify in a July 28 letter to DCCC Chair Aaron Peskin, closing with, “Anything you can do to avoid painting the Chamber as a pawn of the GOP would be greatly appreciated — because it just isn’t true.”

Yet Rafael Mandelman, who sponsored the resolution and is a progressive supervisorial candidate in District 8, told us the Chamber’s fiscal policies are indistinguishable from those pushed by Republicans. “They’re the leading force pushing the Republican agenda in San Francisco,” Mandelman said, calling the stance short-sighted. “It’s not in the long-term interests of the business community for our public sector to fall apart.”

Chiu’s business tax reform measure is a good example of how conservative ideology seems to be trumping progressive policy, even among Democrats. Only 10 percent of businesses in the city pay any local business tax, and the measure would increase taxes on large corporations, lower them on small businesses, create private sector jobs, bring $25 million per year into the city, and expand the tax burden to 25 percent of businesses, including the large banks, insurance companies, and financial institutions that are now exempt. But even the Small Business Commission refused to support the plan, prompting Chiu to drop the proposal and tell his colleagues, “There is still not consensus about whether this should move forward.”

Sup. Chris Daly, the lone vote against the budget compromise with Newsom and the removal of revenue measures from the November ballot, noted at the July 27 board meeting how the business community has sabotaged city finances, citing its 2002 lawsuit challenging the gross receipt taxes, which the board settled on a controversial 8-3 vote. “This is a large part of our structural budget deficit,” Daly said.

But antitax sentiment has only gotten worse with the current recession and political dysfunction, causing Democrats like Newsom to parrot Republicans’ no-new-taxes mantra, much to the chagrin of progressives.

“A lot of this is being driven by statewide politics. [Newsom] needs to not have taxes go up but he also needs the support of the labor unions, so we get weird stuff happening in San Francisco,” Mandelman said.

The situation has also fed Newsom’s animus toward progressives, who have enjoyed more local electoral success than the mayor. Newsom responded in June to the progressive slate winning a majority on the DCCC by placing a measure on the November ballot that would ban local elected officeholders from serving on that body, which includes four progressive supervisors and three supervisorial candidates.

Nonetheless, Newsom then unexpectedly sought a seat on the DCCC, arguing that his lieutenant governor nomination entitled him to an ex officio seat (those held by state and federal elected Democrats) even though the DCCC’s legal counsel disagreed. While noting the hypocrisy of the request, Party Chair Aaron Peskin took the high road and proposed to change the bylaws to seat Newsom.

Some progressives privately groused about giving a seat to someone who, as DCCC member Carole Migden said at the meeting, was “picking a fight” with progressives by pushing a measure she called “disrespectful and unconstitutional.” But in practice, the episode seems to have hurt Newsom’s relations with progressives without really strengthening his political hand.

Newsom ally Scott Wiener — a DCCC member and District 8 supervisorial candidate (who told us he opposes the mayor’s DCCC ballot measure) — proposed to amend Peskin’s motion to change the bylaws in order to seat Newsom with language that would allow Newsom to continue serving even if he loses his race in November.

That amendment was defeated on a 17-13 vote that illustrated a clear dividing line between the progressive majority and the minority faction of moderates and ex officio members. Even with Newsom and District Attorney Kamala Harris (who was seated as the Democratic nominee for attorney general) being seated — and counting the one absent vote, Sen. Leland Yee, who is expected to sometimes vote with progressives and sometimes with moderates — progressives still hold the majority going into the process of endorsing local candidates and allocating party resources for the fall campaign.

“Presuming that 17 people of that 33-member body all agree on something, then the presence of Mayor Newsom doesn’t change anything,” Peskin said. He also noted that even if Newsom’s measure passed and the progressive supervisors were removed, “the irony is that the chair of the party [Peskin] would appoint their successors.”

Also ironic is the political reality that it is Newsom who most needs his party’s support right now, while it is progressives who are adopting the most conciliatory tone.

“We should all be working to turn out the vote and help Democrats win,” Peskin told us. “I implore our mayor and lieutenant gubernatorial candidate to work with us and get that done.”

Yet after Newsom gave a budget-signing speech that included the line, “At the end of the day, it comes down to leadership, stewardship, collaboration, partnership,” he told the Guardian that he has no intention of removing or explaining his DCCC ballot measure, saying only, “If the voters support it, then it would be the right thing to do.”

Chiu responded to the news by telling us, “I hope the mayor can move beyond the politics of personality and build a party vehicle that is about unity.”