Battle for the Board’s Helm – Dec. 1, 2008

Originally posted at

Battle for the Board’s Helm

District Eleven Supervisor-Elect John Avalos Gains Support From Progressive Colleagues
While District Five Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi Courts Conservatives

By Savannah Blackwell,  photos by Luke Thomas

December 1, 2008

Once the final results of ranked choice voting for district supervisors ended three weeks ago and it was assured that progressives had held on to a majority of the board’s seats, discussion turned to which among them should serve as president.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who on Nov. 4 was re-elected to represent District Five (The Haight/Western Addition) without facing significant opposition, had already made it clear he wanted to have the position. Now, John Avalos, who will represent District Eleven (The Excelsior), has decided to seek the post as well.

Eric Mar, who will represent District One (the Richmond), and District Six Supervisor Chris Daly say Avalos is their top choice.

Top choice: District Eleven Supervisor-elect John Avalos

Avalos decided to jump in – largely because the idea of Mirkarimi presiding over board business has not gained much traction among his progressive colleagues. Mirkarimi’s recent move to turn to board members who consistently vote against progressive legislation to seek support (namely District Two Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier and District Seven Supervisor Sean Elsbernd) has furthered progressive opposition to his bid.

“Ultimately what I want to see is a progressive president who represents the progressives and is supported by the board’s progressive majority,” said David Campos, who will represent District Nine (The Mission).

Campos was quoted in the Bay Area Reporter last week saying he was inclined to vote for Mirkarimi. He has since modified his position.

“My support is contingent on getting support from other progressive board members, and I don’t know that (Mirkarimi) will be able to do that,” Campos said.

Mar expressed a similar sentiment: “I told (Mirkarimi) that if he is going after Alioto-Pier’s and Elsbernd’s votes, he’s not going to get one from me.”

“Avalos is my top choice,” Mar added.

District One Supervisor-elect Eric Mar

Mirkarimi said that he thought trying to “reach out” to supervisors with political leanings different from his was a “smart move.”

“(Elsbernd) and I came into office together. Now that we’re both moving from junior varsity to varsity, it would be a real missed opportunity not to get together and talk. I hope to do that with all my colleagues,” Mirkarimi said. “This is a good time to check in with people, and I think that whoever is interested in the board presidency should talk to everybody.”

Of the four supervisors-elect, Avalos is viewed as having the best handle on the workings and culture of the board. The former labor and community organizer served for three and a half years as an aide to Daly and is familiar with the demands of the board’s top spot. He has won raves from labor and community representatives as well as those who serve the poor, the homeless and tenants for his work staffing the budget committee the past several years.

“I’ve written ordinances, worked with the mayor’s office, the budget analyst, the controller. I understand the way the board works and also the role of the president,” Avalos said.

Though his politics do not jibe with the more moderate and conservative board members, Avalos is said to be well-liked by supervisors and their staff.

“I think I can do a great job,” he said.

The first order of business once the new supervisors take their seats in January will be for the 11 board members to choose their leader. It takes six votes to win the post. If Avalos cannot get six votes, an alternative under consideration is for the progressives to throw their support to David Chiu, who won election to the District Three (Chinatown/North Beach) seat and also campaigned as a progressive.

The San Francisco Labor Council spent $76,000 of the $370,000 in union funds that went to promoting Mar, Chiu and Avalos’ candidacies on swaying voters in Chiu’s district, and he was endorsed by Supervisors Daly, Mirkarimi and Peskin as well as the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee, which currently is controlled by progressives. Chiu is out of the country until mid-December and unavailable for comment. He is said to be receptive to the idea of being the progressives’ back-up candidate for president.

“My hat is in the ring as an option to bring the progressive majority together around a common agenda,” said Avalos, adding that he would be willing to vote for Chiu as well. “I want to make sure that (the progressives) come together behind the same person.”

For his part, Mirkarimi would not say whether he would be willing to support Avalos or Chiu to help one get to six votes, but that he does want “to endeavor for someone from the progressive caucus to prevail.”

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who has held the position for nearly four years, must leave the board at the end of this year because of the 8-year term limit on stints as supervisor. Peskin said he hopes the supervisors choose “somebody who will carry the torch of the progressives and put the board in the best light, somebody who can deal with the vastly changed federal climate, and somebody who can bridge [the political] gaps between the supervisors and the mayor.”

“While having legislative experience is important, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility for a new supervisor to rise to the occasion,” Peskin said.

Outgoing Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin

To ensure a progressive is elevated to the top post, to guide a progressive agenda, Peskin said, “It’s critical that the four new supervisors stick together.”

In the days following the election, sources close to the board predicted that Mirkarimi would not be able to count on the current board members – progressive, moderate or conservative – who are not lame ducks to get him the six votes necessary to win the presidency. Though Mirkarimi is widely supported in his district, his interpersonal relationships with most of his board colleagues have been weak for some time, and some have found dealing with him unpleasant, board members and sources close to the board said. But only Daly has condemned Mirkarimi publicly.

Mirkarimi said his interpersonal relationships with board members may have suffered because of his intense focus on his work.

“I have used my first term to apply my nose to the grind stone in tackling the many issues of the city and the district,” Mirkarimi said. “(Because of that), I have not made time to develop relationships with some of my colleagues.”

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi (right).

Elsbernd confirmed that, at Mirkarimi’s request, he had lunch with the District Five supervisor and that Mirkarimi asked for his support. Elsbernd said he has not made any final decisions yet and is waiting to see how the politics unfold. But word inside City Hall is that Elsbernd is not particularly enthused about Mirkarimi’s bid, and their lunch did not change that. Meanwhile, Mirkarimi has scheduled to meet with Alioto-Pier.

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd

District 10 Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, a moderate who sometimes votes with the progressives and sometimes with the three conservatives (Alioto-Pier, District Four Supervisor Carmen Chu and Elsbernd), has said she’s interested in the presidency. It is both more natural and more likely for her to get the conservatives’ support, according to City Hall insiders. Maxwell’s fellow moderate, District Eight Supervisor Bevan Dufty, told the Bay Area Reporter he will vote for Maxwell. Dufty supported her in 2003 when she, Gonzalez and Peskin all sought the position. Mayor Gavin Newsom, who was on the board at the time, voted for Maxwell as well. He has close ties to Alioto-Pier, whom he chose to succeed him, and Chu, who just won her seat after Newsom appointed her to replace Ed Jew.

Supervisor Sophie Maxwell

There’s been some thought in the mayor’s office that encouraging the five supervisors who frequently or at times vote in line with the mayor to support Mirkarimi might be a handy way to frustrate Daly, sources close to the mayor said. But for that strategy to succeed in getting Mirkarimi to the presidency, he would have to get either some support from progressive board members, or each of the votes of the two moderates and the three conservatives. At this point, the first scenario is unlikely, and the second is even more so.

Considered the second most powerful office in city government (after mayor), the board president appoints members of important commissions – including those that handle planning and police oversight issues, creates the board’s committee structure and assigns supervisors to those committees. In addition, the president decides to which committee an issue should go and often is expected to put together coalitions to both pass legislation and override mayoral vetoes. In the event the mayor dies or must leave office, the board president steps into the job.

Prior to the return of district-based elections in 2000, the presidency went to the top vote-getter in the city-wide races. Since then, supervisors have generally looked for who among them can best stay above the fray and direct the board’s business in a calm and even-handed manner. Currently, there is a feeling among progressive board members that the new president should be one among them who does not have mayoral ambitions – which can complicate his or her political moves. Mirkarimi is considering running for that job as well.

Before Peskin, former supervisor Matt Gonzalez held the position and prior to Gonzalez, Supervisor Tom Ammiano served in that role. Ammiano, who is heading to the state legislature, will be replaced by Campos whom Ammiano and Peskin endorsed.

Though Peskin will no longer be a board member, his influence likely will be felt for some time in board politics as he played a major role in the election of the four supervisors-elect.

There was some thought that Daly should be board president. That certainly would have been a slap in the face to Newsom, with whom Daly has sparred frequently. The pro-Newsom and downtown soft money campaigns seeking to eliminate the board’s progressive majority tried to use association with Daly as a way to sway voters to vote against the progressive candidates. A Daly presidency would have been a very public way to run home that the strategy failed, despite the roughly $670,000 soft money campaign behind it. Daly, however, decided that would not be the best move for the board and progressive causes in general.

“Other than Peskin, I have passed the most legislation, taken on some of the toughest fights, won one of the hardest re-elections (in 2006), yet I am not the best choice for board president,” Daly said. “I think it’s a safe assumption that if that happened, papers would be drawn immediately to get rid of district elections.”

Supervisor Chris Daly says he will not seek the board presidency.

Daly added that in a time of great political change, it was appropriate that the president be “one of the new guys.” Characterizing Mirkarimi as “not a family man,” Daly said he would not support Mirkarimi for president because Mirkarimi did not support his efforts to appropriate supplemental affordable housing funds in last year’s budget. Additionally, it did not go unnoticed that compared to the daily, hands-on efforts of Peskin and Daly that went into electing Mar, Chiu and Avalos, Mirkarimi’s involvement was relatively minor, according to political observers and the candidates.

“It’s pretty clear who was behind the work that really made the difference,” said one of the supervisors-elect, who asked not to be named. “I think Ross means well, but the votes (for board president) just aren’t there for him.”

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NO GROUND LOST – Nov 10, 2008

No Ground Lost

Despite a multi-million dollar campaign against their candidates and interests,
progressives hold on to their power in San Francisco

By Savannah Blackwell, photos by Luke Thomas

November 10, 2008

Roughly 24-hours after the polls closed in San Francisco, outgoing Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin was headed down to North Beach for an Italian-style victory meal when he decided to take the opportunity to make the forces behind the nearly $670,000 soft money campaign to eliminate the board’s progressive majority, eat a little crow.

The building that houses Tommaso Ristorante Italiano on Kearny Street also contains the office of political consultant Alex Tourk, the former aide to Mayor Gavin Newsom who had worked for a pro-development/anti-progressive committee whose leader had vowed to take the city “on a sharp turn to the right.”

Peskin removed from his car two of the group’s door hangers urging support for its candidate, Joe Alioto, Jr., took out a Sharpie, signed his autograph and hung one hanger on Tourk’s doorknob and slid the other under Tourk’s door.

The Board President had good reason to engage in a little chest thumping. The candidate he wanted to replace him in District 3, David Chiu, was winning handily, and progressives Eric Mar and John Avalos had finished first in District’s one and 11 respectively. Those were the three districts where the incumbent progressives were termed out and where corporate and developer-funded political action committees had spent huge sums of cash pushing candidates who would represent their interests and give Newsom control of the board.

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin

Meanwhile, many of the initiatives favored by these same groups, including one that would have eliminated the supervisors’ power of appointment to the Transportation Authority and given it to Newsom, and another that would have increased funding for Newsom’s pet Community Justice Center project, had lost, while many propositions Peskin and progressives supported — such as increasing revenues from real estate and business interests and empowering tenants to fight back against bad landlords — had won.

The next day, Tourk texted Peskin: “Appreciated the autographed door hangers. Pendulum can’t swing one way forever, brother.”

The pendulum, however, wasn’t moving this time.

Thanks to a colossal, $292,000 effort by the local Democratic Party (headed up by Chair Peskin), a $370,000 push from Labor for the progressives’ and the party’s slate for supervisor, as well as the party’s decision to tap into the grassroots movement behind Barack Obama, local progressives lost no ground on election night.

Most significantly, the results show that voters continue to identify progressive-backed candidates as the ones with genuine ties to their neighborhood districts.

“As weak as their candidates were, ours were really strong,” said Supervisor Chris Daly.

The author of much of the campaign mail for Avalos, his former aide, Daly was heavily involved behind the scene in the progressives’ efforts.

Supervisor Chris Daly

It Might Not Have Happened

Heading into 2008, progressives had a problem. Unlike in early 2000, when there was a great deal of grassroots momentum generated by the phenomenal 1999 write-in campaign for Supervisor Tom Ammiano for mayor, as well as the organizing efforts against the displacement and gentrification caused by the dot-com boom, in early 2008 progressives were faced with a limp base.

The situation had resulted from disappointment over the failure to field a candidate against Newsom’s 2007 re-election bid, and the fact that progressives had gone more than year without a local campaign cause that would have drawn out and strengthened the troops. But in spring, during the final days before the deadline to file for candidacy for a seat on the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee, Peskin, Daly and Supervisor Jake McGoldrick decided to jump in with the idea of using their committee membership to connect with progressives who, Daly figured, would be energized around Obama’s campaign.

“Initially, we had no wave to ride,” Daly said. “But I knew that if we could hitch our trailer to the Obama movement, we could basically turn progressives out for our candidates as well as for him.”

The local party’s slate mailers prominently featuring Obama’s image with its candidates for supervisor on the flip slide created a connection in the minds of voters, Daly said.

Meanwhile, the pro-business/pro-Newsom forces had an advantage. Given that Newsom faced no significant challenge in 2007 and had needed no major funding, those interests had plenty of money to spend and saw a chance to change the complexion of local politics to mirror their own.

They either forgot or did not realize, however, that money alone does not make for energized campaigns.

Peskin said he made a habit each evening after leaving City Hall to drive up Polk Street, look into the windows of D3 candidate Denise McCarthy’s campaign headquarters where he would see three to five volunteers, then past those of Alioto, Jr. – “which [were] usually locked and dark” — and then pick up a pizza to take into Chiu’s campaign office, where on any given night there were 20 people working the phones and making other efforts to get their candidate elected, he said.

“They tried every dirty trick in the book, spent millions and millions of dollars, but we had real people with real neighborhood connections,” Peskin said.

PG&E’s $10 million campaign that defeated Proposition H, the clean energy/public power initiative, failed to sweep in downtown’s Districts One, Three and 11 supervisor-candidates who had opposed the measure.

The corporate-funded initiative calling for the re-establishment of the JROTC program in San Francisco schools, which anti-progressives had hoped would create a successful wedge issue, won only narrowly while also failing to make the difference in the same three targeted districts.

“Downtown continues to put up candidates who have no personality, or who have negative personality,” noted one consultant who worked for that effort and asked not to be identified. “After a while, it becomes clear that you have to have an alternative vision, and none of these candidates did.”

In the final days before the election, the consultants working for the pro-business/pro-Newsom/pro-development candidates had even written off the not very personable Safai in D11, but were still hopeful for Alioto, Jr. in D3, the source said. Their strategy was to keep up appearances that Avalos was in trouble (a parade of vehicles bearing Safai campaign signs with blasting horns toured Mission Street in D11 on Sunday before the election), in order to force Labor to expend its people and resources there in the final days and, they had hoped, back off on District One, where they were most confident — as polls showed Mar trailing at least several points behind downtown candidate Sue Lee.

“They really thought they had that one,” the source said. “But all the money in the world is ineffective if you spend it stupidly.”

Downtown’s Strategy Failed/Progressives’ Succeeded

Late on Friday afternoon after the election, Peskin left a message for Jim Fabris, the head of the San Francisco Realtors’ Association. The realtors had funded a television ad that ran constantly and urged voters not to cast their ballots for Mar, Chiu and Avalos – identifying the three as the “hand-picked cronies” of Daly.

“Let’s not give the keys to the City to Chris Daly and his puppets,” the ad sneered.

Peskin and other observers figured the piece backfired through overkill and ironically helped the three candidates by increasing their name recognition with voters.

“I just wanted to call and thank him for everything he did on behalf of the candidates I’ve supported,” Peskin told Fabris’ office assistant. “We couldn’t have done it without him.”

Downtown’s consultants have to recognize that “the era of the anonymous call and the anonymous ad is over,” said Greg Dewar, a consultant who did some on-line advertising and advocacy work for PG&E and Supervisor Carmen Chu, who appeared in television ads opposing Prop. H. “The biggest influence on voters’ decision is people or organizations they know.”

Dewar pointed out that the realtors might have fared better if they had tapped their members with offices in the districts to get out and talk personally with residents in the neighborhood about the candidates they supported.

Obama’s campaign shows that the new political environment is about organizing on the neighborhood level. But the anti-progressives did not even attempt to do that, and their underhanded efforts to appear to have done so, failed.

So Much For Dirty Tricks

In late October, a move was made to diffuse the power of the local party’s endorsement of progressive candidates for supervisor by creating a new club with a similar sounding name, “The San Francisco Democratic Party Club,” and sending out mailers or phone calls saying Lee, Alioto, Jr. and Safai were its endorsed candidates. (The San Francisco Bay Guardian reported that PG&E, the Chamber of Commerce, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association and the Committee on Jobs funded the club).

A consultant privy to the effort had advised that it would fail, because no real work was done to establish the club early enough in the season so that it could have actual neighborhood resident involvement. As such, there was no identifiable human face to put on the mailers or associate with the calls.

Meanwhile, the real local Democratic Party responded by increasing its slate mail campaign and also sending out mailers or providing phone banking specifically on behalf of Mar, Chiu and Avalos to remind voters of the club’s actual endorsement.

Not since the days of former mayor Willie Brown has the club been so active and well funded in its election efforts.

Progressives successfully fought back other sleazy and misleading moves by sending out mail seeking to present candidates’ positions accurately. For example, in her bid for D1 supervisor, Lee had produced a mailer claiming she would represent renters: “From the Richmond. For tenants.”

In reality, Lee was benefiting from a $282,000 soft money campaign that was funded by downtown and development money, and aimed at helping her and another D1 candidate, Alicia Wang, while defeating Mar. The San Francisco Tenants Union countered by putting out mail indicating Mar was its endorsed candidate, and Ted Gullicksen, who heads up the group, recorded a robocall on Mar’s behalf.

“I think we got good information to the voters,” said Mar, who is holding on to his lead as the race tightens while absentee ballots are being counted. “We feel we countered without letting them frame the issues.”

Eric Mar

Ultimately, downtown and development interests underestimated the intelligence of San Francisco voters,” observers said.

Cynical moves to try anything – such as first attempting to identify Chiu as Daly’s candidate and then later sending out a mailer claiming Chiu would promote the interests of the Republican Party, foundered. (The local party was actually neutral on Chiu’s candidacy).

Said Peskin, “The bottom line is that San Francisco voters know b.s. when they see it.

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Why Chris Daly Should Run and How We Got Here – Aug. 8, 2007

Why Chris Daly Should Run and How We Got Here

Family man Supervisor Chris Daly with his wife, Sarah Low-Daly and son, Jack Daly.
Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

Campaign Analysis by Savannah Blackwell

August 8, 2007 8:08 p.m.

Twenty minutes into “Big Love” on the last Monday in July, the call came in.

Normally, nothing can tear me away from HBO’s polygamist drama, but having heard late that afternoon from a well-placed source that word was former supervisor Matt Gonzalez would not make a second run against Mayor Gavin Newsom, I was on red alert. I had prepared a story looking toward a Gonzalez v. Newsom race, and I was waiting only for an update from the Green Party activist.

Matt Gonzalez

But as the city’s progressives and so many other voters hoping to see Newsom face a serious challenge now all know, Gonzalez, the source told me, decided not to go for it — after more than seven months of flirting with the idea. And I, like many, was deeply disappointed.

Fast forward to Monday, August 6 when Supervisor Chris Daly told Fog City Journal that he was considering seriously taking on the task, and my outlook changed considerably.

Sure, the frequently embattled Daly has the slimmest chance of the city’s top progressive leaders to actually beat Newsom – or even come very close. But seven years after a slate of neighborhood activists and hard-core progressives swept the city’s freshly implemented district elections, and at a time when the murder rate is soaring, MUNI is a mess, the homeless problem clearly is not solved and Newsom’s personal problems nearly have cost him the support of some very key and high-ranked leaders in the Democratic Party as well as leaving many in his own administration wondering if he really can handle the job, it just seemed unbelievable – ridiculous even, that there would be no serious challenge from the left. That’s not good for “the movement,” and it’s not good for the city. As SF Bay Guardian Editor Tim Redmond pointed out back in February, “for a long list of reasons, there has to be a real mayor’s race this fall…

“We need to keep Newsom on the defensive, to hold him accountable not just to his donors but to the rest of the city,” Redmond said.

Given that recollection of nearly losing to Gonzalez in 2003 likely influenced Newsom’s decision to make important progressive moves such as implementing gay marriage and supporting Hotel workers as well as Supervisor Tom Ammiano’s health care package, a lack of a serious progressive challenge might make Newsom listen only to the Don Fishers of the city. And that would be disastrous.

Although longtime Daly confidante and supporter Richard Marquez cautioned his friend against a run –“because the opposition and the press likely will threateningly depict Chris to voters as Charles Manson out on bail if he enters the race,” Marquez also feels strongly that “Daly’s entrance, however, would speak to the realities of what the other San Francisco – and especially the powerless, the vulnerable, the scorned and despised — struggles with every day.”

For his part and with less than 48 hours remaining before the deadline to file, Daly says he will sign on only if he feels that doing so will unify the city’s fractious progressive community. He hopes to make the decision by tonight – after meeting with key organizers.

“That’s really what it comes down to,” he said.

* * *

Let us pause and reflect on how we got to this point.

On February 1, when news broke that Newsom had some sort of affair with Ruby Rippey-Tourk, the troubled wife of Newsom’s former Deputy Chief of Staff Alex Tourk and Newsom’s secretary, some of Newsom’s well-heeled supporters, many in his administration and others at City Hall were well aware that the mayor had been more or less AWOL from the job for quite some time – drinking too heavily and drowning in depression — likely resulting from his failing marriage and dislike for some of the more politically tricky and psychologically challenging nuts and bolts aspects of the job.

Ruby Rippey-Tourk

Embattled department heads could not get their calls returned. Neither, apparently, could key local players such as higher-ups in the San Francisco 49ers, who have been threatening to take the team away from the city, and even key national players, such as Howard Dean, the chairman of the national Democratic Party.

Howard Dean (left) joins Mayor Gavin Newsom to support former gubernatorial candidate
Phil Angelides, August 12, 2006

According to sources close to Dianne Feinstein, the U.S. Senator was dismayed at the revelations, and was already concerned that perhaps Newsom could not handle the difficult challenges of the role.

Willie Brown, who appointed Newsom to the Board of Supervisors in 1997, had lost respect for the guy and was also feeling shut out of Room 200, according to sources close to the former mayor. “He told me a few times he was disappointed with him and that I had better access, which is really saying something,” said one source who remains a close ally of Brown but is no friend of the current mayor. “I picked up in conservation that Willie has a real dislike of him.”

One day before Rubygate hit the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, columnist Leah Garchik quoted Brown telling those gathered at a swanky Nob Hill luncheon, “Newsom needs to cut down on the social stuff and focus on city issues.”

“It is damaging politically said Brown…that the mayor’s been seen with so many women and that people are talking about his drinking too much,” Garchik wrote.

Add to the mix the machinations of powerhouse consultant Jack Davis, who took Brown to victory in 1995, and Newsom was skating on some very thin ice. He may have sounded ok when he spoke to supporters at a low-key campaign kick-off later that month (which occurred after former state Sen. John Burton came to his rescue to help the young mayor overcome his ahem, alcohol problem), but when one department head later asked him in private how things really were going, he shook his head and said, ” I don’t know. I really don’t know.”

Not long before Feb. 1, Davis had let it be known that he likely had lined up a formidable challenger, an outsider to City Hall — former 49ers President and CEO Carmen Policy.
Policy’s wife, however, soon made it clear she was far from thrilled with the idea, and so it was scuttled. Even so, Davis was still talking about squeezing Newsom from the left and from the right-center. He courted Gonzalez, even showing him a mock-up campaign mailer focusing on four major problems facing the city. The idea, which jibed with what even Newsom’s pollsters knew was possible, was to run a campaign based on the issues – and convince voters that regardless of whether they cared about the mayor’s sex life – the upshot was that he was not doing the job.

“Gavin is so f—ed up in his own head that he will self-destruct,” Davis told me in late February.

While Gonzalez mulled, other progressive politicians could not be convinced (or were reluctant given the possibility of a Gonzalez run) to jump in.

Jeff Adachi, who is widely liked and respected, could not be torn away from the job he truly loves – running the city’s public defender office.

Aaron Peskin, the highly competent president of the Board of Supervisors (who probably does more to run the city than Newsom), was never a contender. Peskin’s better half, planning activist Nancy Shanahan, has long disliked the inevitable nastiness of the San Francisco campaign trail.

Consultant Jim Stearns, who took District Attorney Kamala Harris to victory in 2003, has said that in some ways, the progressive for whom it would be easiest to craft a narrative with which to court voters, would be District Five Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi.

Ross Mirkarimi

Mirkarimi, as Stearns and other observers have noted, clearly is out front on the city’s homicide crisis — having pushed legislation requiring more foot patrols in areas most impacted by violent crime — to the board’s override of Newsom’s veto. This is a guy who goes to the scene of every shooting in his district and once even chased down a purse-snatcher. But if Mirkarimi were to run, he faced some serious problems – including having enraged leaders of the medical marijuana community that played a key financial role in his 2004 supervisorial bid. He did so not so much by tackling the issue of the proliferation of pot clubs, they said, but by rebuffing attempts to stop him from enacting regulations that would undermine the longstanding clubs’ financial viability.

“The reasons why Ross has lost our support is that he took a very defensive attitude,” pot community leader Wayne Justmann said in June. “It was defensiveness, and then coldness – and then shutting us out when we needed to talk to him about the problems we’re having actually complying with the legislation…Our pleas fall on deaf ears.” Justmann did note that Mirkarimi recently had offered an apology – which Justmann said he appreciated.

Supervisor Chris Daly, meanwhile, was hard at work trying to convince Gonzalez to enter the race.

Chris Daly and Matt Gonzalez

Having told the San Francisco Chronicle that Newsom would face a serious progressive challenge by June, in hindsight it is clear that he was overly optimistic about his ability to get Gonzalez to commit. Less than a week before the “Progressive Convention” on June 2, he had given up on Gonzalez and turned up the heat on former Mayor Art Agnos.

Thursday evening before the convention (and having concluded during the interim that Agnos would not jump in anytime soon), Daly was due to meet with Agnos and Mirkarimi with the hope of convincing Mirkarimi to announce at the convention that weekend. But that evening, Daly got a call from Mirkarimi aide Boris Delepine telling him that Mirkarimi said, “there was no need to meet.”

Unclear as to what that meant, Daly tracked Mirkarimi down the next day and walked away thinking he had convinced his fellow supervisor (with whom he had traded more than a few barbs) that he should go for it. But the next morning as Daly headed into the convention, Mirkarimi made it clear to Daly it was a no-go, and the D5 supe gave a speech saying “somebody – whomever it may be….somebody should begin to speak in terms that that will lead to solving the city’s problems…The people cannot wait another four years.”

Chris Daly and Ross Mirkarimi at the 2007 Progressive Convention

Daly departed the convention leaving the press with the notion that he himself might run. But on Monday, he announced that he would not – out of consideration for his young son, Jack, and his pregnant wife, Sarah. He was clearly still hoping that Gonzalez would enter the race.
During the roughly two months that followed, Gonzalez gave the idea serious thought, while hoping that Agnos would step to the plate.

Gonzalez met with key supporters and attended more than a handful of house party/fundraisers organized by the Residential Builders Association that gave him the opportunity to meet with more conservative-minded voters who have been unimpressed with Newsom’s performance. The RBA’s former head honcho, Joe O’Donoghue, had been urging Gonzalez to mount a second challenge to Newsom – really since Gonzalez’ near-win in 2003 — and was ready to dedicate their considerable resources of the RBA to a re-match. The organization ponied up $180,000 to help the Gonzalez effort four years ago, according to O’Donoghue.

Joe O’Donoghue (right)

But Gonzalez’ obvious ambivalence, while understandable – given that a mayoral campaign would take him away from the work he loves at his law office and face a strong chance of ultimate defeat — was confusing and even dismaying to some loyal supporters as well as those who were inclined to come to his aid. Less than one week before Gonzalez announced his final decision, O’Donoghue had phoned the attorney and told him, as the Irishman — never one to mince words — put it to me, “to shit or get off the pot.”

Gonzalez climbed off “the pot” while revealing that a poll conducted on his behalf showed that voters are concerned about the city’s serious problems but are not inclined to blame Newsom. According to sources who funded the Gonzalez poll, Gonzalez’ favorability rating came out at 66 percent. The same sources said that a poll conducted by supporters of Agnos showed Newsom with a favorability rating of 67 percent. Neither number reflects likely election results for either candidate. (You can’t take the 66 percent or 67 percent, subtract from 100, and say that’s the percentage the opponent would garner.

What those numbers mean, is that after educating voters more on Newsom’s failures and telling them positive things about Gonzalez and Agnos, in the Agnos poll 67 percent said that overall, they still had a favorable perception of Newsom, and 66 percent in the Gonzalez poll said they had a favorable opinion of the former supervisor.

What both polls do not measure is how a challenger ultimately would fare if — with a well-run and well-financed campaign — they were able to make voters see that Newsom should be held accountable.

Even in Newsom’s own polls, that often-quoted 70 percent approval rating is a soft number. Only about half of that is solid. The rest is ripe for picking.

Moreover, the decision made shortly after the Jan 2004 inauguration to make the Newsom mayoralty about Newsom the person rather than about the long list of issues that his campaign focused on, may turn out to be a gift for a challenger.

“We never made the campaign about Gavin Newsom,” said Jim Ross, who played a key role in Newsom’s 2003 race. “It was all about ‘Great Cities. Great Ideas….That was because we wanted to create a policy basis for this guy after election. But then it became about his personality.

“While it’s true he has a formidable public persona – He’s articulate. He’s charismatic — that’s a very dangerous strategy,” Ross said. “It hasn’t been about a team approach. Instead they’ve been promoting this, ‘Gavin Gives’ message, but that has the potential to be a real problem. You don’t beat him by attacking him. You beat him by coming up with an issue-focused agenda. That’s really what people want: a vision, a plan, a program.”

So what would it take to get a Daly bid up and running – virtually overnight – and mount a serious challenge? Daly said he feels confident he can raise enough dough to get $850,000 in matching funds from the city – the top amount available. That would give him nearly $1.4 million to run the campaign – one that hopefully would include television cable and radio ads where Daly, with the backing of Sarah and young Jack, could go far in shaking off the press’s demonic image of him. He would need to make amends with some colleagues who clearly have grown weary of his bare-knuckles approach to politics. He would need to work hard to win over the ethnic media. He would need to aggressively court absentee voters, register new ones, and focus on the districts where support for him is solid – or pretty much so – while not completely ignoring the opportunity to woo those voters in more moderate districts who know they should hold Newsom responsible or could be convinced to do so.

And even if he only captured barely 40 percent of the vote (or less), it’s difficult to see how that would be more damaging to efforts to push a progressive agenda and stave off potential losses on the Board of Supervisors in 2008 than not putting up a fight at all. That just feeds into the cynical line of Newsom spinmeister Eric Jaye — that the city’s progressives are “in total collapse.”

Let us show Jaye that he is wrong, and while we may not have a candidate with a real shot at winning, we know that it’s more important to lose and still “get our message out” (as activist Julian Davis put it recently) than to forfeit altogether.

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DUMPING ON DALY – Nov. 6, 2006

Dumping on Daly

Downtown’s biggest effort to kill the progressive cause may not succeed

By Savannah Blackwell

November 6, 2006

It really hit me just how desperate the downtown forces are to knock Chris Daly off the Board of Supervisors when I dropped in on Daly’s headquarters in the Mission last night and data wizard Marc Solomon handed me an anti-Daly door hanger featuring photos of a bottle of urine and what appears to be human feces: “The number 1 reason to dump Chris Daly…IS number one…(and number two…).”

Wow. How much lower can they go? Considering that the fat cats’ most publicized gripe against Daly is his “lack of civility,” isn’t this door hanger just a little ironic?

The good news is that the Daly06 campaign has surged in energy since two weeks ago when Matier & Ross wrote up a Binder poll predicting a victory for downtown’s candidate, Rob Black, by six to 10 percentage points. Bill Barnes, who helped Daly secure victory in 2002, arrived on the scene as well as Nicole Derse, who played a key role in sending Ross Mirkarimi to the District Five Board of Supervisors seat in 2004 as well as the Democratic County Central Committee’s Laura Spanjian, Mirkarimi aide Boris Delepine and other highly capable activists. Board president Aaron Peskin came down to rally the troops and did what he could in other ways to help the cause. Even former Mayor Willie Brown’s political advisor, Jack Davis, turned up to work the phones for Daly for a couple hours.

Here are some promising statistics: Daly’s campaign has managed to get more than 1,000 D6 residents who otherwise probably would not have voted to cast ballots to keep their pro-tenant representative in office and prevent Mayor Gavin Newsom from securing enough allies on the board to sustain his vetoes of legislation no doubt critical to those of us who are not in the upper echelons of the middle class and are struggling to remain residents of the city. A conservative analysis of canvas data suggests a substantial turnout of Daly’s identified supporters. If all the undecided absentee voters cast ballots for Black, and all the identified Black supporters vote for Black and all the identified Daly supporters vote for Daly, Daly will take a slim majority of the absentee ballots.

Given that Black has no real volunteer foot soldiers, it’s likely Daly will command today’s GOTV efforts and hang on to his seat. And whatever you think of Daly’s political style, that is very, very good news for progressives.

If Daly succeeds, he will have fended off what is likely to go down as the most expensive supervisorial race in San Francisco history. Voters in D6 know what I’m talking about. Their mailboxes have been deluged with anti-Daly propaganda – sometimes as many as 3 pieces on one day. A conservative estimate puts the amount of soft money directed against Daly at roughly $250,000. That does not include whatever Black’s main campaign committee ends up shelling out. Note that Black’s backers have been forced to pay people $15 an hour to create the illusion that he has volunteer support. If you visit the mission and see people of color holding Black signs, know that they likely have been paid to do so. This link to a photo on drives home the point.

Let us hope that downtown’s cynical effort fail. I am wearing my green “Go Daly” Mardi Gras beads and crossing my fingers. I hope you are, too. Better yet, go down to Daly’s headquarters on 16th Street near the intersection with Mission and join the effort. See you there.

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Daly victory saves the soul of San Francisco – November 7, 2006

Daly victory saves the soul of San Francisco

Incumbent Supervisor Chris Daly and wife, Sarah Low Daly, take to the stage at the DNA Lounge
in the heartland of San Francisco’s District 6 to announce a momentous victory
over big money and dirty politics.
Photos by Luke Thomas

By Savannah Blackwell

November 7, 2006

With 99 percent of the votes counted, Daly has captured 50 percent to Black’s 39 percent.

A visibly dejected Rob Black (left) with Mayor Gavin Newsom
moments after it was announced Black had been defeated.
Photo by Stephen Dorian Miner

The folks down here at the Daly victory fiesta at the DNA Lounge at 11th and Folsom broke out the champagne at 10 p.m. while the whole dance floor chanted, “OUR CITY” and the DJ played, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.”

California Senator Carole Migden showed up and received a massive round of applause.

Just like in November, 2004, Mayor Gavin Newsom had no coattails tonight. His D4 candidate, Doug Chan, is behind Ron Dudum, Ed Jew and Jaynry Mak.

Green Party member Jane Kim, is in first place for the San Francisco School Board.

Her fellow Green, John Rizzo, is ahead of Johnnie Carter for the number three slot on the Community College Board by 2,000 votes.

After fending off the ugliest, most expensive district supervisoral race in San Francisco history, Daly took the stage and thanked his supporters.

“You got the memo. We were under attack. San Francisco values were under attack. And you responded like nothing before,” Daly said to cheers and applause.

“I was a supervisor who was in a little bit of trouble. You got the message, and you showed up. I had 25, maybe 25 committed volunteers who had been working for months. But that little campaign doubled a month ago. Then, three weeks ago it doubled again. Two weeks ago it doubled again. This morning at 5:30 a.m. 100 volunteers showed up… We had 500 San Franciscans out on the streets today.”

Daly took the stage after his wife, Sarah Low Daly, accepted the microphone from Daly organizer Bill Barnes and shocked the crowd by using the kind of language more characteristic (only on occasion) of her husband.

“To those mother fuckers at the Golden Gate Restaurant Association: FUCK YOU!” Low Daly said.

“Every step of the way, Chris told me he just wants to stay here and fight for poor people. [Some people] tell us to go live in the suburbs where it’s nice, but he says, ‘Why would we want to go live there? All the good people live here!

“We’ve been so inspired by so many people who’ve come out and supported us.”

Fog City Journal ran into a jubilant Aaron Peskin at the DNA Lounge. “Now, we’ve gotta run somebody for mayor!” the Board President said.

Board President Aaron Peskin and SEIU’s Robert Haaland

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi said he spent Saturday at the Potrero Hill Shopping Center urging D6 resident to vote for Daly.

“We had a mini revolution tonight,” Mirkarimi said. “The very fact that we were able to topsize the heavy money campaign against Daly and take over the school board heralds quite a triumph for the progressive movement in San Francisco.”

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi (center)

Daly supporter David Spero admitted he was not convinced the D6 incumbent would pull through.

“I was a pessimist,” Spero said. “But in the final two weeks, this grassroots efforts was one of the best ever. The progressive community knew what was at stake and unified.”

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THE LONG MARCH – December 19, 2001

San Francisco Bay Guardian – December 19, 2001


S.F.’s progressive reformers helped win the city attorney’s race. But the big test will come in the March elections.

By Savannah Blackwell; Tali Woodward, contributor

At 10 p.m. on election night, Dec. 11, the faces of the crowd gathered at Don Ramon’s, a Mexican-food joint in a gritty part of South of Market, started to show surprise – and then glee.

The latest results had just come in, and it was clear that a huge upset was in the making. Former deputy mayor Jim Lazarus, the political heir of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, was clearly losing his bid for city attorney. Lazarus outspent his opponent two to one, running waves of television ads fueled by tens of thousands of dollars from the city’s old corporate establishment, including Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

Instead, a relatively unknown maritime attorney named Dennis Herrera was headed for victory – after a campaign that had relied on an unusual strategy. In a low-turnout election, normally dominated by conservatives, Herrera (at best a political moderate) made a conscious decision to run to the left. He posed for campaign flyers with Sup. Tom Ammiano. He portrayed himself as a foe of PG&E (and Lazarus as a PG&E ally). He distanced himself from Mayor Willie Brown. He tapped public power campaign manager Ross Mirkarimi and tenant organizer Robert Haaland to help get out the vote in neighborhoods such as the Castro, the Mission, and Bernal Heights.

It won him the election – and perhaps more important, it sent a profound message to the San Francisco political world. The balance of power is shifting away from the Brown-Burton machine and toward the grassroots coalition that elected a reform-oriented Board of Supervisors a year ago.

“The lesson of [Tuesday] night shows you can’t win in this town without the progressives,” Sup. Aaron Peskin told the Bay Guardian. “Dennis Herrera had to move to the left, and that is a very good thing.”

But a much bigger test is looming for the reformers in town – and it’s just a few months away.

The March election will include some critical races that may determine whether progressives can stand up to the full, focused power of the machine and whether they can win a high-stakes campaign for state assembly. Jeff Adachi, former chief assistant public defender, is trying to wrest the Public Defender’s Office away from Kim Burton, the daughter of state senator John Burton who has pulled out all the stops to save her job. And former supervisor Harry Britt is trying to win the Democratic primary for the state assembly’s 13th District against Sup. Mark Leno, former school board member Steve Phillips, and attorney Holli Thier.

Leno, first appointed to the board by Brown, is a political moderate (by San Francisco standards). Phillips is seen as a Brown ally; most observers say Thier doesn’t look as if she’ll be a major factor in the race.

The March elections, observers agree, have political ramifications that go far beyond the qualifications of Britt and Adachi for elective office.

“The question is, in the post-Brown era of San Francisco politics, what will the face of San Francisco politics look like?” Britt told us. “Will we create a really effective progressive leadership that will have the mandate to make changes in Sacramento and beyond?”

“I think the Britt-Leno race is really key,” AIDS activist Jeff Sheehy said. “Because that has the potential to bring the disparate forces [in the progressive community] together. If Britt wins, that will create a huge base, with the board president, the assembly, and the supervisors. It creates a countermachine and solidifies the newly reemerging union of progressives, the gay community, and labor. Those three came together in one alliance in the beginning of the movement.”

“I think the Adachi-Burton race and the Britt-Leno race are a test to see if the existing political machine still has any juice left in this town,” Sup. Gerardo Sandoval told us. “If the machine wins those races, that tells us a lot about the mayor’s race, and it also sends a signal to the business community that has been funding the machine for so many years, that they can continue with the status quo … In the March election we need to go for the knockout punch.”

At the same time the Democratic County Central Committee – a little-known panel with a good political influence – will be up for grabs.

Britt comes back

Harry Britt left the political scene in 1992. But for 10 years before that, he was one of the leading figures in the city’s progressive movement. His tenure at the Board of Supervisors marked the creation of the city’s first civilian police review board, the city’s first efforts at officially recognizing gay partners as married couples, and the passage of the landmark growth-control law that seeks to protect San Francisco neighborhoods and historic commercial districts. Britt was a strong advocate for tenants. And he served during a time when a Republican ruled the White House while progressives in San Francisco fought to show that this city was very different. Britt says his reemergence is coming during similar times.

“Harvey Milk taught me that you can use political power to create accountability to real people,” Britt said. “There’s a real war on for the soul of the Democratic Party and accountability in Sacramento. There are too many unhealthy power relationships going on outside of San Francisco making issues such as education and healthy families vulnerable. Somebody has to stand up to that, and that’s what I like do.”

The early tenure of Sup. Mark Leno showed him more or less in lockstep with the rest of the mayor-controlled board. He frequently sided with then-supervisors Barbara Kaufman, Mabel Teng, Michael Yaki, and Leslie Katz, including on votes to put an anti-tenant measure (Proposition E) on the ballot and legislation cracking down on the homeless. But he also took a big political risk with moderate voters – and won a big victory – pushing for and winning full health benefits for transgendered city employees.

Perhaps in preparation for the race to keep his seat in 2000, Leno made a marked move to the left by restricting the development of “monster homes,” which angered developer Joe O’Donoghue, and by opposing the mayor’s pro-growth proposition K in November 2000. He supported public power this November.

So it’s unfair to call Leno a machine candidate, but he’s clearly more of a centrist than Britt.

“If Leno wins, it pushes the queer community into the moderate camp,” Sheehy said. “If he goes to Sacramento, the community will have shifted its allegiance from the times of Harvey Milk. You won’t be able to count on the queer community as an anchor of the progressive movement.”

Leno has supporters in the progressive and reform movements, and even his critics agree he wouldn’t be a bad assemblymember. But there’s much more to the race than that. The person who represents San Francisco in the state assembly has tremendous political clout at home – and there’s a real difference between how Britt would use that and how Leno would. Sheehy and other progressive leaders agree, for example, that a Leno win would not bode well for Ammiano’s all-but-certain campaign for mayor. Leno is not likely to be a strong Ammiano backer; Britt almost certainly is.

For the record, Leno says “it’s far too early to talk about [the mayor’s] race – it’s more than a year away. We don’t know who’s going to be in it.”

“Both Leno and Kim Burton supported public power, but what other issues and candidates will they support?” asked tenant organizer Haaland, who is working full-time on the Britt campaign. “Leno’s endorsements will be machine candidates. He supported Lawrence Wong over Aaron Peskin for District Three supervisor – I don’t think he supported any of the reform supervisors.”

Although a lot of the inside talk focuses on Britt and Leno, it would be a mistake to write off Steve Phillips, who says he has already raised $120,000. Phillips had a mixed record on the school board, and his ties to Brown became clear just six weeks before last year’s school board election when he resigned his seat on the board. He said he was stepping down so that the mayor could appoint an African American, who would then have an advantage at election time. Many observers, however, suspected that Phillips was also trying to curry the mayor’s favor by giving him more sway over the school board election.

About one week later, when the mayor’s pick withdrew from the race, citing personal concerns, Phillips quickly heeded the mayor’s call and returned to the board and served out his term.

Phillips is vulnerable on a key labor issue: the privatization of public schools by Edison Schools Inc. Though sometimes critical of Edison, Phillips always took the company’s side when it mattered. For example, when dozens of teachers threatened to quit the school, he drafted a toothless resolution that essentially said the company should try to keep the teachers from leaving.

Phillips told us he’s running “to make sure the progressive movement speaks to the issues affecting communities of color. You can’t talk about progressive politics without talking about racial justice.”

That’s an area where the progressive-reform movement, which has had only limited success in attracting black voters, is seriously vulnerable.

Politics of inheritance

Haaland and other political insiders say the race between Burton and Adachi for public defender will be another major bellwether of the success of the progressive movement.

“Both races are very telling,” artist and neighborhood planning activist Debra Walker, who is also working on the Britt campaign, told us. “Obviously the Burton-Adachi race raises the issue of the venerable old namesake.”

Adachi’s background certainly differs from Burton’s. He grew up “on the other side of the tracks,” as he puts it, in South Sacramento. The son of an auto mechanic and a lab technician, both of whom spent World War II in Japanese internment camps, Adachi started working at age 13, helping out in his dad’s car shop and plucking ducks for hunters at 40¢ a bird. He worked his way through Sacramento City College, UC Berkeley, and Hastings Law School and went to work in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office – “the only law job I ever wanted to do,” he told us.

Adachi rose to become second in command in the office, and in 1998, Jeff Brown, the longtime public defender, started talking about retirement and told Adachi he’d support him for the job.

The in January, Gov. Gray Davis appointed Jeff Brown to the California Public Utilities Commission, and Mayor Willie Brown immediately named Kim Burton to the public defender’s post. Burton quickly fired Adachi, and Jeff Brown withdrew his endorsement.

“This election and what’s happened to the office represents everything that’s bad and distasteful and shameful about San Francisco’s local government,” Adachi told us. “We’ve drifted to a point where residents have come to expect nepotism and favoritism. But I’m somebody who’s standing up to that, to what has been going on for a very long time and is very wrong.”

But defeating Burton won’t be easy: John Burton has already helped raise more than $700,000 for his daughter’s campaign – an unprecedented amount for a public defender’s race – and is using all of his clout to line up endorsements. And the senior Burton didn’t get where he is by being a political fool.

“Never underestimate John’s political savvy,” pollster David Binder told us. “He is trying to reach out to the left so that Kim is not viewed as a machine candidate who needs to be turned out of office.”

Party Power

Then there’s the Democratic County Central Committee election. It’s hardly a high-profile position, but some say it’s critical for the reformers to win control of the panel, which determines the official endorsements of the local Democratic Party.

Binder said that the March race for 24 slots on the committee is crucial to the survival of the progressive movement. If the DCCC’s composition hadn’t changed dramatically in March 2000, from mostly machine members to one-half reformers, many of the reform supervisors would have lost at the polls, Binder said.

Here’s why: Because of the split between reformers and machine-friendly interests on the DCCC, reformers succeeding in getting the membership to agree not to endorse any candidates for supervisor. That neutralized the DCCC’s influence on the supers’ races and kept it from being the usual booster for the mayor’s favorite candidates.

The DCCC also supported public power this fall, which gave the campaigns for Propositions F and I a huge lift.

“The county committee must have a majority of reformers [for the movement to continue],” Binder told us. “That’s a real key to the tone of the endorsements for the supervisors race in 2002 and for the mayor in 2003.

Sheehy agrees, “You gotta have the majority on the DCCC,” he said. “Then the majority can embarrass the electeds into supporting major issues we care about. We can control the debate.” (This is already happening to a certain extent: DCCC sent out mailers urging yes on both F and I.)

Public power campaign director Mirkarimi warned that the left needs to keep its momentum going between electoral campaigns. He said progressives need to focus not just on elections but also on organizing around key issues, such as public control of vital resources, civil and housing rights, social justice, and keeping corporations in check.

“What we do to effectuate success in March needs to be calculated so that March’s results position us well for November and then thereafter,” Mirkarimi said. “It has to be stitched into a much larger picture – so that the movement is sustained not just from election to election but from coalition to election. I don’t believe we’re sustaining progressive policy and coalitions in San Francisco. I think the March election is a major stepping-stone toward achieving this.” ?

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MONEY AND POWER – October 10, 2001

San Francisco Bay Guardian – October 10, 2001


The big foundations that helped bring us deregulation are still on the wrong side.

By Savannah Blackwell

If you’re going to screw the public, it helps to have some cover. That’s a lesson Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has learned well.

In fact, the deregulation scheme of 1996 that led to soaring rates and crumbling service wasn’t just backed by the private utilities. Some of the strongest support came from environmental groups, funded by a handful of big foundations.

The result: California legislators who took PG&E’s side were able to argue that they were only doing what the environmentalists asked them to do. The disastrous deregulation bill passed easily – and efforts to overturn it with a citizen initiative were crushed.

The process of buying off the public interest community was subtle – but effective. PG&E gave money directly to a lot of organizations (see “PG&E’s Web of Influence,” page 22), and foundations simply refused to fund anyone who opposed deregulation or supported public power (see “The Energy Elite,” 10/9/97).

Since public interest groups increasingly rely on foundation money to stay in business, that’s an effective strategy: The groups that get the funding can hire staff, do research and political organizing, and present an effective message. The ones that don’t do what the foundations want remain small, underfunded, and less able to be politically effective.

Now the world of energy policy has changed. PG&E’s in bankruptcy court, deregulation is largely discredited, and there’s a successful grassroots move for public power on the November ballot in San Francisco. Around the country groups like Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen in Washington, D.C., and fellow consumer activist Harvey Rosenfield’s San Diego-based group, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR), are mounting a new effort to promote public control of energy resources.

So where are the big foundations that helped PG&E create the mess and the environmental groups that did their dirty work? With few exceptions, they’re still up to the same tricks.

The municipal utility district initiative has the support of most of the local green groups, including the Sierra Club, the Green Party, and San Francisco Tomorrow. And it will likely get the official endorsement of the Consumers Union, according to officials from that organization.

But while the large, moneyed foundations that supported deregulation have pretty much given up on it, they still aren’t helping to promote effective progressive change. Organizations that fight to replace private utilities with public power or that oppose a state bailout for bankrupt utility companies still aren’t getting funded.

NRDC’S friends

The group most responsible for creating the veneer of environmental friendliness that sugarcoated deregulation was the Natural Resources Defense Council, whose utility-friendly policies were articulated by energy policy director Ralph Cavanagh.

The $45 million-dollar Energy Foundation, based in the Presidio National Park, funds Cavanagh’s work for the NRDC. And in 1996 the foundation pulled the plug on grants to groups fighting the notion that ratepayers should be responsible for paying off the utilities’ investments in nuclear power.

The even wealthier Pew Foundation, the influential Philadelphia-based outfit that funds many non-profits, including the Energy Foundation, with money from the philanthropic arms of private industry, including oil, likewise steered funding away from any groups opposed to deregulation (see “Bailout Battles,” 12/3/97).

According to Public Citizen, Pew has quietly backed away from involvement in deregulation issues since California’s version proved disastrous when rates shot sky-high in San Diego in summer 2000. Instead, Pew is now focused on the noncontroversial area of slowing global climate change through energy policy.

“I think Pew is getting out of [deregulation] issues,” Public Citizen executive director Wenonah Hauter told us. “I think it’s been an embarrassment to them.”

But Hauter said that while it’s helpful that the foundations are no longer as actively involved, the situation has not changed fundamentally, because money from those outfits still does not flow to groups fighting the utilities.

“You’re still not able to get money for fighting deregulation, not from the big foundations,” Hauter said. “In that sense nothing has changed.”

Pew representatives either refused to answer questions about the shift in focus or did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Memory Loss

According to the FTCR, which organized the unsuccessful campaign to overturn deregulation, the Energy Foundation also would prefer that no one recalled the role it played in deregulation.

“Everybody knows deregulation failed. But what people don’t always remember is that a few environmental groups were amongst the chief cover for the passage of this lunacy,” Doug Heller, consumer advocate at the FTCR, told the Bay Guardian.

The FTCR is still actively fighting against the utilities in Sacramento and has been trying to thwart efforts by Gov. Gray Davis and some legislators to bail out the corporations. It supports state and local power efforts.

The Energy Foundation isn’t doing anything to oppose the bailouts. Its representatives still insist that deregulation had its advantages.

A report recently published on the foundation’s Web site admits that the utilities’ undue influence on the legislature led to problems in the market, but it does not mention the nonprofit’s role in funding groups friendly to the utilities’ interests.

The Energy Foundation isn’t doing much of anything for public power. When asked if the foundation is supporting any groups pushing for greater public control of energy service, program officer Bentham Paulos said the outfit is funding a group in Ohio that is pushing for community aggregation (the form of public power least feared by private utilities). But, he said, the foundation still neither supports nor opposes public power and takes no official position on campaigns.

Paulos did say that he agrees public power can lead to environmentally friendly energy policies. “I feel somewhat optimistic about San Francisco [going into the power business],” Paulos told the Bay Guardian.

But if you’re a group working to get the private utilities out of the energy business, don’t look to the Energy Foundation for money.

For his part, Cavanagh still won’t say deregulation was a mistake. A report on the NRDC’s Web site dealing with the California crisis and coauthored by Cavanagh says nothing about mistakes or problems with the market, much less Cavanagh’s part in the whole mess. And neither Cavanagh nor the NRDC is backing any public power campaigns. Instead he’s arguing that private utility profits should be linked to reliable service. Cavanagh did not return Bay Guardian calls for comment by press time.

Public Citizen says this is the same tired, ineffective, procroporate line NRDC has always given.

Tyson Slocum, Public Citizen’s research director, told the Bay Guardian the group is doing what it can to spread the word on the policy level, discussing the merits of publicly controlled electricity service at activist policy discussion groups. “We’ve got to reintroduce public accountability into electricity markets,” he said.

Nettie Hoge, director of the Utility Reform Network, told the Bay Guardian the consumer group also believes public ownership and control of electricity services is the best solution to the current mess.

“We’re totally supportive of public power, and we are looking at the particulars of the two measures,” Hoge said.

Too bad she can’t get any serious money from the big-dough energy foundations to back up that talk.

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