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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.