How to Pick the Best Supervisor in a District Race
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
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
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
Tys Sniffen is a
candidate for supervisor in District 5.