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How to Pick the Best Supervisor in a District Race

By Tys Sniffen

It’s not about party politics, progressivism vs. liberalism vs. moderate-ism… nor is it about new ideas or a fundamental shift in ideology, or even somehow perfectly matching what the will of the people who live in the district think and feel.  To pick the best candidate in any district race, I believe you need to look at only a few things: the candidate’s ability to understand the local history of the district and the city’s policies, the candidate’s ability to work with many different types of people and ideas to find reasonable solutions without bringing a vehement philosophy of their own (also known as “their own big ego”) to the discussion, and the candidate’s ability to manage a team that will be responsible to 50,000 or so customers. 

Incumbents have both advantages and disadvantages in this situation, as they have had the opportunity to be the focal point of different policy discussions, but they also have a record to review on their management skills.

These races aren’t about party politics or ideology for a number of reasons.  First and foremost in my opinion, is that political parties are vehicles for two things: putting a candidate in a shorthand box that creates an “us or them” mentality that doesn’t work on the city level, or to help advance the career of that candidate for other offices.  A phrase I keep repeating when talking politics with people in District Five that seems to resonate is “Is a clean park a Republican issue or a Democratic issue?” Of course, it’s neither, or both. The same goes for all the other aspects of city issues. 

There are some ideological battles done at the BOS level, to be sure.  I think the simple obvious one that can draws lines in the ideological sand is housing: whether to have checks and safeguards on prices and amounts, or whether to let the free market determine things. What’s obvious to remember about that issue, or any “big” issue is that there are 11 Supervisors, a mayor, hundreds of concerned organizations, the media, and the public all participating in these discussions. No one supervisor is going to run off and change the fundamental direction of the city.  I think we’ve seen Chris Daly and Matt Gonzalez try that occasionally, and whether you agree with them or not, the effect has been limited.

The worst part about applying political parties to this level of government is that it becomes ripe for the “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine,” right at a level where things actually get done.  When senators do that on federal issues, it’s rather philosophical. When it happens at the city level, the results are often in your face. 

We have many different little “clubs” that show up at election time and run candidates through an endorsement process.  Turns out most of those have to do with who’s friends with whom for how long, or worse, who the club thinks will win, rather than who’s the best candidate.  No one seems to question these groups about what they do with the rest of their time, what involvement they’ve had in trying to solve the problems of the city.  They seem to be simply vehicles for politicos to work their way up a ladder without actually ever doing anything but attending a few meetings and talking about their friends. 

I actually spoke to an elected leader in city hall about endorsing me in D5, as this official and I seem to agree on many issues… this leader told me that if they endorsed anyone, it would have to be the people from the DCCC who had voted for them years ago… even though this leader didn’t agree as much philosophically with them.  Wow. A full on confession of back scratching.  Some would say that I’m naïve to think it doesn’t happen; I disagree.  I’m simply surprised it happens so much, so often, and isn’t obvious to the public.  On the national level, no one is surprised when the tobacco industry donates to the Republican cause; we all know what they want in return.  But at the very local level, where issues don’t have party affiliations and yet candidates shout out their endorsements like they actually earned them, people don’t realize how strange it is.

The other strange part of the endorsement process that I’ve learned as a candidate is not as surprising, yet still disturbing.  That groups will only endorse who they think will win, not who they think is the best candidate.  So it continues the self-promotion process. You have to be in politics a long time to be in politics.  By perpetuating this scenario, groups do a disservice to the public by only talking to and endorsing those who are already separated from the public by years of political bickering and back scratching. 

So, how should one pick a candidate for supervisor?  Again, look to the candidate’s ability to understand the local history, both in SF as a whole and the very local issues: do they know the who, the why, and the what’s been tried on the issues of the district?  The last thing a district needs is someone who needs to have every issue spelled out for them… taking precious time and energy away from working on the solution.  Also, look for the candidate’s ability to work with all sides of issues.  This might mean looking at who did and who didn’t endorse them.  Find out where they feel they’ve learned the most about San Francisco politics, and decide if you feel that issue is too one-sided, or if it even “translates” to other political skills. If someone has worked on say, saving an endangered bird from extinction, that may be important work, but ask yourself if you feel that work experience can be applied at City Hall.  And finally, make sure you feel they have the  management skills to deal with the flood of constituent issues that will overtake their schedule.  Having a vision of where the city will go is great, but if they can’t respond to email or organize their day, they won’t be of any use. 

If you get a chance to talk to a candidate between now and the election, think of these issues, and ask them interview questions that start with “Tell me about a time when you had to…”  and insert each of these areas of needed expertise, listen to their answer, and decide if it makes sense.   Good luck, and may the best candidates win.

Tys Sniffen is a candidate for supervisor in District 5.