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February 24, 2003


Gavin Newsom’s Proposed Stake Through the Heart of District Elections

By Sue Vaughan

Contemplating these extraordinary demands of the great army of discontents, and their apparent power, with the growth and development of universal suffrage, to enforce their views of civil polity upon the civilized world, the conservative classes stand in constant fear of the advent of an absolutism more tyrannical and more unreasoning than any before experienced by man, the absolutism of a democratic majority.

- Christopher G. Tiedeman, A Treatise on the Limitations of Police Power in the United States

Though the number of registered Greens in San Francisco is still small, the number of San Franciscans who share Green values is large and growing. Among the ten key values of the Green Party of California are grassroots democracy, decentralization, and respect for diversity.

Our district elections help fulfill all of these values. Yet Supervisor Gavin Newsom’s office has, until recently, been devising a ballot measure that would gut district elections. His office would have returned the city to supervisors elected citywide or a hybrid system with some elected at-large, and others in a series of fewer and larger districts. In a recent fund-raising letter for his mayoral race, Newsom hinted at an excuse for ending district elections, referring to “political bickering” on the current Board of Supervisors.

His office has since dropped these plans, but don’t let down your guard yet. Someone, somewhere, will come up with some similar attack on district elections, or some other gimmick to essentially undermine the power of - as Tiedeman put it - the democratic majority. And likely that someone or someones will come up with their gimmick this year, some sort of ballot measure that can be the companion to Gavin Newsom as he campaigns for the mayoral office.

You see, Newsom started running for mayor the moment he announced his Care Not Cash proposal. Understand - though individuals and organizations can only contribute up to $500 to a person’s race for public office, there are no limits on contributions to ballot measures. Last year, Newsom’s bid for reelection to the Board of Supervisors was secondary to his Care Not Cash campaign. Big business political action committees, especially the Committee on Jobs (which alone accounted for $200,000 of $1 million contributed), bankrolled a large part of Care Not Cash - and essentially paid for the citywide publicity that Newsom got in preparation for his mayoral bid through campaigning for Care Not Cash. This loophole will liberate him this year to run as the sponsor of some other ballot measure, raising thousands - if not millions - while he runs for mayor.

Whatever that ballot measure is - if it’s some resuscitated effort to gut district elections, for example - you can be sure the Committee on Jobs and other big business political action committees - including a new PAC SFSOS - will contribute mightily to it. Their goal? To control the political life of the city - through Gavin Newsom, if not a more malleable Board of Supervisors that does not reflect communities. But do San Franciscans want that?

Check out the Ethics Commission website and you will see that the Committee on Jobs is funded largely by corporate America. SFSOS was launched last fall by some of the city’s wealthiest residents, among them Warren Hellman, Donald Fisher, and Dianne Feinstein. (Remember her? She’s the Democratic Senator from California who was one of 12 Democratic senators to vote for Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and who voted for his war resolution last fall.) Charles Schwab, the San Francisco farmer who received $730,000 in farm subsidies from 1996 through 2001, contributed $25,000 to SFSOS in October alone.

If Newsom’s office or anyone else attempts to do away with district elections with the backing of these PACs, San Franciscans should reject such efforts. Besides mandating geographic diversity, district elections promote economic diversity in city government. Because districts are small, it’s less expensive to run for office, thus giving people who are not independently wealthy a chance to serve. This is especially important now that the electorate has voted to make the job of supervisor full-time, meaning that conscientious supervisors will not hold down second jobs to bring in extra money.

District elections (as well as the recently enacted supervisor pay raise and public financing of elections) can also be seen as similar to the GI Bill and financial aid. They give talented people of low-to-moderate means a leg up in the political world the way those measures have helped talented people of moderate means get a higher education.

Politically savvy San Franciscans opposed to district elections will argue that the $500 limit on campaign contributions to candidates for supervisor levels the playing field. But such limits neglect the fact that there is no limit on the amount candidates can donate to their own campaigns. Candidates can also loan themselves up to $15,000 - and then hold fund raisers after the race to recoup those loans. A return to at-large supervisors would make it more difficult, if not impossible, for candidates who can’t loan themselves money to run against wealthy candidates, candidates whose companion ballot measures have big business backing, or candidates with a combination of the two.

There’s no doubt that efforts to gut district elections are efforts by this city’s economic elite to control our political life. We abhor such thralldom in George W. Bush’s White House. And we abhor Gray Davis’ pay-to-play system. Likewise, we should abhor control of our local government by some of the wealthiest and most powerful corporations in the city - indeed, in the nation.

Judge Thompson’s opening sentence at once posed the problem: “whether the corporation is to rule the State or the State the corporation.”

- Seymour Thompson, “Abuses of Corporate Privilege,” Annual Address to the Kansas State Bar Association in 1892, Ninth Annual Meeting of the Bar Association of the State of Kansas (1892)

The quotations that begin and end this article can be found in Arnold Paul, Conservative Crisis and the Rule of Law: Attitudes of Bar and Bench, 1887-1895.