San Francisco Bay Guardian, March 15, 2000
By Savannah Blackwell and Tim Redmond
In a generally bleak election, San Francisco saw to signs of hope: Proposition E, the antiwelfare measure, went down to defeat handily – and despite being outspent 5-1 by downtown forces, reformers managed to win 11 seats on the Democratic County Central Committee.
That’s not enough to form a majority, but it could be enough to shake up the machine and force at least some debate over reforms.
There are 24 elected positions on the committee, which means the reformers start out short of a majority. An additional seven seats go to representatives of city and state elected officials – many of whom are allies of Mayor Willie Brown.
“The elected really hold the margin here, so the question is, what are they going to do?” gay rights activist Jeff Sheehy told the Bay Guardian. “If they aren’t going to allow us to influence the DCCC, the lowest level of participation in politics, then I think we need to start going to the top and running against them.”
Sheehy was one of a group of candidates bent on reforming the politics of the DCCC. Many were involved in the unsuccessful campaign to elect board president Tom Ammiano mayor (see “The Party’s Over” 2/2/00).
A powerful but little watched organization, the DCCC endorses candidates for primaries and takes sides on non-partisan issues as well. It controls the influential slate card of the Democratic Club – and in the mayor’s reelection campaign, it became a conduit for hundreds of thousands of dollars collected from business interests. The reformers want to change the committee into a group that better reflects the interests and needs of the city’s have-nots.
“Progressives got out the message that the DCCC is important for causes like rent control and integrity in government,” Jim Stearns, a political consultant who worked for several of the reformers, told the Bay Guardian.
The Harvey Milk Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Democratic Club and the Bay Guardian endorsed 20 candidates for the committee. The Alice B. Toklas Lesbian/Gay Democratic Club, a group heavily influenced by political consultant Robert Barnes and generally loyal to the mayor, endorsed 24 candidates.
Eleven of the Toklas/Brown machine candidates won seats. Only five were political newcomers. The rest, including Sups. Sue Bierman and Leslie Katz, were incumbents. Two winning candidates, former district attorney Arlo Smith and Shawn O’Hearn, did not receive endorsements from either side. Smith is an incumbent; O’Hearn is a newcomer.
“I don’t think [either side] can claim a massive victory,” Barnes told us. “Given that we were up against a coalition of the Milk Club, Ammiano, and the Bay Guardian, I think we fared pretty well.”
Final figures aren’t yet available. But based on interviews and records that have been filed, the successful reformers spent roughly $30,000 (including $2,000 for taped phone calls by Ammiano to several thousand households). The Milk Club was not able to come up with enough money to send out a last-minute slate.
Those successful candidates backed by the Brown machine spent about $165,000. Much of the money came from downtown business leaders, including Republican Don Fisher and from financier Warren Hellman, who gave big chunks.
The Alice B. Toklas Club spent a grand total of $33,194 on the March 7 primary – an election in which one of the most blatant antigay measures in California history – Proposition 22 – was on the ballot.
All of Alice’s materials – including Democratic Central Committee slate cards – included a No on 22 message (along with a No on 21 message and a No on Prop. E message). Still, it’s worth noting that the club’s “Independent Expenditure PAC” spent $243,120 last fall to reelect Brown (over gay supervisor Ammiano).
So the Toklas club spent more than seven times as much money defeating a gay candidate for mayor as it did fighting an antigay ballot measure.
We ran into Sup. Amos Brown at the Department of Elections, just as the returns were showing clearly that Prop. E had lost (making San Francisco the only major city in the nation to defeat an antiwelfare ballot measure in the past five years). Reverend Brown wasn’t pleased.
“We need some people at city hall who can think,” he insisted. “We can’t continue giving out money to subsidize alcohol and drug habits.”
Well, he was asked, instead of taking away the already meager cash payment to welfare recipients, why not make sure the city funds adequate drug and alcohol treatment? His response, even for Brown, was startling.
“A lot of these people don’t need medical treatment, they don’t need residential treatment,” he said. “They need motivation to get their butts off the street.”
When we asked him what sort of motivation he was thinking of, he suggested they start coming to his church on Sunday. ■