About Us

Contact Us


February 24, 2003


Notes on the Forum

If the election were held today…

By Gino Rembetes

Pollsters and political pundits have pegged Supervisor Gavin Newsom as the favorite to win the mayor’s race this fall.

And if the election were held today, they might be right.

But the election is eight months away. Lots will happen by then, not the least of which is a determination on whether instant-runoff voting (IRV) will be implemented.

My pick? Judging from the candidates’ remarks and demeanor, and audience reactions at the forum that the Call sponsored in the Goodwill Atrium on Feb. 21, I’m guessing that without IRV, it will be a tight race between Treasurer Susan Leal and former Board of Supervisors president Angela Alioto; with IRV, look for Alioto to edge out Supervisor Tom Ammiano and Leal.

But I repeat: The election is eight months away.

Newsom is showing he’s perfectly capable of shooting himself in the foot. He was noticeably absent from the Feb. 21 event; an aide explained beforehand that the supervisor, whose Second District comprises relatively affluent neighborhoods along much of the city’s northern waterfront, had not officially declared his candidacy – notwithstanding that he’s built a huge war chest and has a campaign committee that’s already produced and distributed copious amounts of material.

Furthermore, lots of voters don’t believe his assertion that his failure to report millions of dollars in loans and property holdings for four straight years stemmed from bad advice from the city attorney.

Newsom “does have gobs of money and important backers, but so much is riding on ‘Care, Not Cash,’ which is so basically flawed that it’ll be hard for it to even begin to succeed,” a veteran observer told me. “Care, Not Cash” was the proponents’ slogan for last November’s Newsom-sponsored initiative (Prop. N) to cut monthly payments to the homeless to $59 from the current $395. The observer continued, “He’s awfully thin-skinned, so a long campaign gives more time for him to blow it.”

Maybe. But Prop. N doesn’t take effect until July 1, so its predictable consequences – more aggressive panhandling, thefts, burglaries, robberies, and probably murders – will have only four months to manifest and gain public notice before the election.

Whether Newsom’s “thin” skin is a liability can be argued either way. George W. Bush landed in the White House despite being thin-skinned and lacking intellect. Then again, Al Gore won the popular vote by 500,000.

Absent instant-runoff voting (IRV), Leal and former Police Chief Tony Ribera will cut into Newsom’s conservative-to-moderate base, and both showed at the Feb. 21 forum that they can handle the tough questions, as did most of the other candidates there.

Leal stressed her experience as treasurer – “I have been making money for San Francisco!” – and Ribera pointed to a 30 percent drop in crime during his tenure at the SFPD helm, as well as the establishment of special units focusing on violent crime and parole violations, and the launch of “community policing.” San Francisco’s government is “top-heavy” and lacks “sound management principles,” he said.

But Newsom is being attacked from the left as well. After Call/Sentinel reporter/columnist h. brown was barred from airing his questions to the absentee supervisor, Alioto aimed some at him herself in her closing remarks: “Who are you? Who backs you? If I’m asking questions of Mr. Newsom, it’s about honestry and integrity. Who owns him?”

Alioto and Ammiano will vie for the progressive voter base, again if IRV isn’t in place by November. Alioto has two possible weaknesses: A long absence from the political scene and a perception by some voters that she’s “daddy’s little girl.” She is the daughter of the former Mayor Joseph Alioto.

But as her father did, she has strong ties with labor and to “old” Democratic money, and winning employees’ multimillion-dollar lawsuits against major corporations such as Wonder Bread and Mary Kaye Cosmetics strengthened her progressive credentials as well as her finances. Anyone who underestimates her political potency will be making a serious mistake.

Ammiano showed in 1999 that he can win the progressive vote – and not much else. If IRV isn’t implemented this year, he might make the December runoff. He faces a tug-of-war not only with Alioto for the progressives but also with Leal, a lesbian, for gays’ support. If he does make the runoff, his chances won’t be good, especially because there’s likely to be a low voter turnout and that favors conservatives.

During the forum, he and Alioto stressed the need for transparency in government, a concept anathema to Mayor Willie Brown, Jr. Alioto, as Board of Supervisors president, authored the 1993 Sunshine Ordinance, and she and then-president Ammiano were major contributors to the success of the 1999 initiative to strengthen it (notwithstanding opposition from Brown, seven of the eleven supervisors, the pre-Hearst Chronicle, the Chamber of Commerce, San Francisco Planning & Urban Research (SPUR), and the Democratic and Republican county central committees).

At her campaign kickoff on Feb. 18 and again during the Feb. 21 forum, Alioto vowed to hold public hearings over her first 80 days in office, making each department and agency account for every dollar in its budget.

She, Ammiano, Leal, and building contractor Jim Reid also said they favor having the city take over electricity distribution and transmission service from Pacific Gas & Electric Co.; Ribera opposed it, offering the erroneous objection that it would “create another bureaucracy.”

Leal admitted she’d opposed public power as a supervisor but said she’s changed her mind and supported the 2001 initiative to create a San Francisco-Brisbane Municipal Utility District. “We need to get out from under the PG&E monopoly,” she declared.

The public-power issue could be politically thorny, especially for Alioto and Ammiano, both of whom backed the initiatives in 2001 and 2002. On the one hand, playing down their support won’t wax well with the progressives. They need the Green Party, which can make the difference in a close race, and the endorsement of the Bay Guardian, which has been butting heads with PG&E and other monopoly utilities since 1969.

On the other hand, there are splits on the issue within labor and the Democratic Party, and espousing public power too loudly and frequently could cost them votes, foot-soldiering, and money from those extremely potent constituencies.

Reid said San Francisco could eliminate homelessness by creating 100-square-foot, single-occupant bungalows and condominiums affordably priced for all who wanted to buy them. The Hunters Point shipyard should be converted to accommodate affordable housing exclusively, he said, adding that homeless shelters are “a disgrace” and that by the luck of the draw, he was the official opponent of Prop. N.

David Giesen offered value-based property taxation as a panacea. Everyone has the right to own property but no one has the right to use property value for greed satisfaction, he said. Taxing the value could provide an extra $15 billion a year for social services and would enable the city to reduce its sales tax, he said.

Michael Denny is a Libertarian and believes in minimal government. “I don’t want this job,” he said in his opening remarks, “but San Francisco has driven out businesses, shackled freedom, and hurt families.”

The public school system could be an issue in the mayoral race, even though the school district has its own governing board and administration.

Alioto and Leal said the mayor should advocate in Sacramento and Washington on the schools’ behalf. Ammiano noted that the city provides Muni, public works, health, and parking/traffic enforcement services to the schools. He, Leal, and Ribera said the city and the school district must cooperate in these and other areas such as after-school programs. Denny said schools should be run individually by teachers and administrators. Reid suggested restructuring the school board to comprise equal representation among students, teachers and maintenance employees.

Gino Rembetes is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist and progressive activist.