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Monday, February 12, 2002

Politics 2002

Deus ex Machina, Or How I Learned to Love the Machine

by Betsey Culp

A group of young politicians, reported the Examiner, has pulled off a series of startling victories at the polls and are changing the way things are done in San Francisco. “Because of their avowed liberal stance, they are viewed with alarm in some quarters. ‘Dangerous’ is a word occasionally applied to their usually united front’; ‘threatening’ is another.”

The secret of their success? They created “as high a turnout as possible” by tapping into the aspirations and frustrations of low-income voters – especially “the minorities, the elderly poor, the labor unions, and the Democratic clubs.” Their method? Says the most successful candidate, “I ignored all endorsing groups and newspapers, and decided I’d meet as many voters personally as I could.”

No, these young politicians are not named Daly, Gonzalez, Sandoval, Maxwell, and McGoldrick. Nor is their leader Tom Ammiano.

These young men were Philip Burton (aged 40), John Burton (33), Willie Brown Jr. (30), George Moscone (36), and Josiah Beeman (31). The year was 1967, and the Examiner had just discovered the existence of “the Burton Machine.”

At the time, Philip Burton was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives; John Burton and Brown were in the State Assembly; and Moscone was a state senator. Beeman, who had cut his teeth as Philip Burton’s administrative assistant, was a newly appointed San Francisco supervisor. (He later left the Bay Area fold, serving as U.S. ambassador to New Zealand and presently as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors.)

The Burton Machine.

The term is being bandied about with much gusto this spring, as San Francisco prepares for an election on March 5. One so-and-so has profited from an affiliation with The Machine; another so-and-so has spent a lifetime battling The Machine.

What is this mechanical monster that has invaded our city? What kind of machine are they talking about? What on earth is a political machine?

Turns out it’s a contraption that spits out votes and sends them along the assembly line to the ballot box, while politicians stand around like Ethel and Lucy, trying to keep the scene from degenerating into chaos.

It’s a vote-making machine.

And it only operates smoothly if it is oiled regularly with lots and lots of voting data. The Examiner described Philip Burton as “a man who eats shredded precinct sheets for breakfast” and, Beeman added, “that’s almost literally true.” The Machine’s Dr. Frankenstein was very good at his job.

But if you stop to think about it, the ostensible target of this year’s election debates bears little resemblance to the evil oppressor that the campaign rhetoric describes. Philip Burton, says veteran reporter John Jacobs, “took the New Deal coalition of Franklin Roosevelt and extended it beyond what anyone thought imaginable. That began in his first successful race for the state assembly in 1956, when he campaigned on behalf of labor unions and San Francisco’s Chinatown, a previously unrepresented constituency historically at odds with labor groups in California who long and successfully had pushed anti-Chinese exclusionary laws. He also crusaded for civil rights for blacks at a time when his labor supporters were doing everything possible to keep blacks from joining their unions and competing with them for jobs. In the 1960s, he pushed the coalition to include the burgeoning antiwar movement. In the 1970s, he married, where possible, the conflicting interests of labor and environmentalists. And in the early 1980s, in the final campaign of his life, he united police officers and gay activists. No one else had ever put together such large and improbable coalitions.”

It sounds like he’d fit right in with the young progressive upstarts who are seeking public office today.

Do you sense some spin going on here?

In their heart of hearts, the candidates who fulminate against The Machine would like nothing better than to create one of their own, one that functions just as efficiently. And perhaps just as ruthlessly.

Maybe they are doing just that. For what’s at stake here is political power, for which a smoothly running machine is a necessary prerequisite. It is the only way to achieve repeated victories at the polls. And it’s the only way, as Burton demonstrated, to ensure the passage of a whole program of legislative changes.

To attack The Machine is lazy politics. It sets up a series of cheap shots; it spews out a series of buzzwords that elicit quick unthinking responses. And it trivializes the real issues at stake in the campaign.

People on all points of the political spectrum recognize that the city of San Francisco is in a sorry state, economically and socially. The crux of the debate should be whether our present crises are the result of misguided policies and/or genuine corruption, and whether the introduction of new blood into the veins of the body politic will produce a cure. Anything else degenerates quickly into name-calling, an activity that satisfies emotional needs but little else.

In the remaining weeks, let’s forget about The Machine. It’s an obsolescent model that’s well on the way to being dismantled or retooled anyway. Introduce the voters to some real live issues – and let the party begin.