The next election

Pub date November 5, 2013

EDITORIAL This week’s dismal election in San Francisco is a symptom of deeper problems in our political system, both here and across the country. It isn’t voter apathy that caused what is expected to be record low turnout at the polls. It was an understandable loss of faith in an electoral system dominated by money and insider political games. And that’s what we need to address before the next election.

Three of the four officeholders on the Nov. 5 had no opposition, while Dist. 4 Sup. Katy Tang had only token opposition from someone new to town with no relevant experience. Why would these important, coveted, well-paying jobs have no applicants? Because the cost of admission is just too high, and it looks to many observers like the fix is in.

Tang and Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu were each appointed to their posts by Mayor Ed Lee, and it is because of that connection that they were able to raise nearly $200,000 each, the most in this field of experienced office-holders. They also unfairly benefited from the power of incumbency, which can be formidable (as Lee knows, given that he was appointed mayor on the condition that he wouldn’t run for office, breaking that pledge and spending millions of dollars to win the 2011 mayor’s race).

We need a better system, one that the power brokers who put Lee into office can’t game as easily as they do. Maybe we should hold special elections for each vacancy, with shorter campaigns requiring less fundraising and thus opening up the field. Alternatively, we could make all appointees temporary caretakers and prohibit them from immediately running for a full term.

We should also limit how much developers can spend on political campaigns pushing their projects. The $2 million that Pacific Waterfront Partners just spent selling the 8 Washington luxury condo project to voters — particularly the deceptions and limits on reviews by the Planning Department in Prop. B — was obscene and unfair. But it was a smart investment on seeking profits of more than 50 times that figure.

In the post-Citizens United world, where money equals speech, there are legal barriers to doing what needs to be done. But we need to be creative and aggressive at pushing for political reform, from public financing, spending caps, and greater disclosure on campaigns to reforming the City Charter to end our strong mayor form of government, from his appointments to commissions and elective offices to the unchecked power that he has to control the spending of public money.

If we want to woo voters back to the polls, we need to give them something to vote for, and a package of political reforms would be a good place to start.

UPDATE: This editorial was corrected to fix a misspelling of Katy Tang’s last name.