Dodging bullets

Pub date November 9, 2010

Progressives in San Francisco dodged a few bullets on election night, which was the highest hope that many held in a campaign season dominated by conservative money and messaging. The Board of Supervisors retained a progressive majority, Prop B’s attack on public employees went down, the wealthy will pay more property transfer taxes, and — perhaps the best news of all — Gavin Newsom is leaving for Sacramento a year before his mayoral term ends.

But economically conservative and downtown-backed campaigns and candidates scored the most election-night victories in San Francisco, killing a temporary hotel tax hike pushed hard by labor and several progressive-sponsored ballot measures, and winning approval for the divisive sit-lie ordinance and Prop. G, removing Muni driver pay guarantees, which had the widest margin of the night: 65-35 percent.

“Ultimately, downtown did well,” progressive political consultant Jim Stearns told us on election night, noting how aggressive spending by downtown business and real estate interests ended a string of progressive victories in the last several election cycles. He cited the likely election of Scott Wiener in District 8 and the strong challenge in District 2 by Mark Farrell to perceived frontrunner Janet Reilly, who had progressive and mainstream endorsements.

A preliminary Guardian analysis of reported spending by independent expenditure committees shows that groups affiliated with downtown or supporting more conservative candidates spent about $922,435, the biggest contributions coming from conservative businessman Thomas Coates and the San Francisco Board of Realtors, compared to $635,203 by more progressive organizations, mostly the San Francisco Democratic Party and San Francisco Labor Council.

That spending piggy-backed on national campaigns that were also skewed heavily to conservative and corporate-funded groups and messaging that demonized government and public employee unions, playing on people’s economic insecurities during a stubborn recession and jobless recovery.

Stearns said voters are having a hard time in this economy “and they don’t like to see the government spending.” He said national polls consistently show that people are more scared of “big government” than they are “big corporations,” even if San Francisco progressives tend to hold the opposite view.

And even that narrow defeat came after an almost unprecedented opposition campaign that included every elected official in San Francisco except the measure’s sponsor, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, and both the labor movement and many moderate groups.

“The campaign on this was extraordinary and caught fire at the end,” Alex Clemens, founder of Barbary Coast Consulting, said at SPUR’s Nov. 4 election wrap-up event. In particular, the message about how much Prop B would increase the health care costs on median-income city employees seemed to resonate with voters.

“We are really happy that Prop. B is going down because it was such a misguided measure. It was not well thought through,” Labor Council President Tim Paulson told the Guardian at the election night party labor threw with the San Francisco Democratic Party at Great American Music Hall. “San Francisco voters are the smartest in America.”

Paulson was also happy to see those voters approve taxing the transfer of properties worth more than $5 million, “because San Franciscans know that everyone has to pay their fair share.”

In the Board of Supervisors races, it was basically a status quo election that shouldn’t alter the body’s current politics dynamics much. Sup. Bevan Dufty will be replaced with fellow moderate Scott Wiener in D8 and Sup. Chris Daly by progressive Jane Kim in D6. The outcome of races to replace ideological wobbler Sup. Sophie Maxwell in D10 and conservative Michela Alioto-Pier in D2 may not be conclusively known for at least a few more days (maybe longer if the close races devolve into lawsuits), but neither is a seat that would diminish the board’s progressive majority.

Progressives could have made a gain if Rafael Mandelman had won in D8, but he was seven points behind Wiener on election night and even more after the initial ranked choice tally was run on Nov. 5. And in D6, fears that downtown-backed candidate Theresa Sparks might sneak past dueling progressive candidates Jane Kim and Debra Walker never materialized as Sparks finished far behind the lefty pair.

Consultant David Latterman, who worked for Sparks, told us on election night that he was surprised to see that Kim was the choice of 32 percent of early absentee voters “because we targeted those voters.” By comparison, Walker was at 20 percent and Sparks was at 21 percent in the initial returns, which tend to be more conservative. By the end of the night, Kim had 31.3 percent, Walker 27.7 percent, and Sparks just 16.5 percent.

“If she did that well with absentees, it seems like it was Jane’s race to win. If they choose Jane, they wanted Jane. It’s just that simple,” Latterman told us on election night.

At her election night party, Kim credited her apparent victory to a strong campaign that she said fielded 400 volunteers on Election Day, most wearing the bright red T-shirts that read “See Jane Run” on the back. “I feel good,” Kim told the Guardian. “What I’m really happy about is we ran a really good campaign.”

In the end, Kim’s campaign was put over the top by the second-place votes of Sparks’ supporters, with 769 votes going to Kim and 572 to Walker in the first preliminary run of ranked-choice voter tabulations. But despite the bad blood that developed between progressives in the Kim and Walker campaigns, Board President David Chiu, an early Kim supporter, sounded a conciliatory note, telling the Guardian on election night, “Given where Debra and Jane are, I’m glad that we’re going to keep this a progressive seat.”