Big Ol’ Voter Guide – November 2011

If you’re like me, you’ve been getting piles and PILES of mailers from the campaigns in the upcoming San Francisco election.  I even got two of the same flyer in one day!  It’s over the top.

Why is this happening? Two reasons: (1) All three candidate races (Mayor, District Attorney, and Sheriff) are competitive, boasting several strong candidates for each office; and (2) San Francisco has a robust public financing program, which has pumped several million dollars into the campaigns, so that they can spend more money on things like, uh, mailers.

Despite this colossal waste of trees, and despite the dramatic claims in those mailers about what will happen if certain campaigns win or lose, this is actually a relatively tame election. Why? Because polarizing figures are out of the picture (I mean you, Gavin Newsom and Chris Daly).  And because the candidates for each office are relatively good-natured, competent leaders, with their hearts in the right place and with some great ideas for governance.

Don’t get me wrong. There are certainly some candidates who are MUCH better than others, with a lot more relevant experience and better priorities, IMO.  In the pages below, I offer my thoughts and suggestions, explanations and advice.  I expect to get some heat for many of the choices I’ve made below, particularly in the Mayor’s race. I say: bring it! If you disagree with me, please comment below.  I love to hear opposing opinions (so long as they are not personal attacks), and other readers will appreciate it too. And if you find this guide useful, please post it on your Facebook page, or email it to your friends and frenemies.

If you want to compare this voter guide with other endorsing organizations, I strongly recommend checking out DemDash. It’s a site that allows you to compare easily various endorsements of groups like democratic clubs, newspapers, and political parties.

At the top is a brief summary, and below you can find more detailed explanations of my endorsements.  In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an attorney who specializes in municipal law, elections and entertainment law, and a San Francisco progressive whose passions include preserving and promoting nightlife and culture, fighting for economic and social justice, and getting more women elected to office.  I like to boast that I’m the lowest ranking elected official in California, having been elected last year to the governing body of the San Francisco Democratic Party. And I also like long walks on the beach.

Before we begin, I should also mention that I serve as counsel for two of the campaigns I endorse below (Sharmin Bock for District Attorney and Yes on Proposition G), though my support of each of those campaigns predated the campaigns hiring me to do their legal work.  I have not been paid for any aspect of this voter guide.

With those caveats, here are my choices for the November San Francisco election.

Mayor: (1) David Chiu (2) John Avalos (3) Dennis Herrera
District Attorney:
(1) Sharmin Bock (2) David Onek
Sheriff:
(1) Ross Mirkarimi

Proposition A (School Bonds): YES
Proposition B (Street Repaving and Street Safety Bonds):
YES
Proposition C (Pension Reform – Consensus Proposition):
YES
Proposition D (Pension Reform – Adachi Proposition):
NO
Proposition E (Reforming the Initiative Ordinance Process):
YES
Proposition F (Campaign Consultant Ordinance):
NO
Proposition G (Sales Tax):
YES
Proposition H (School District Student Assignment):
NO

MAYOR:

It’s confusing… what do you do when there isn’t a polarizing character in the San Francisco Mayor’s race? Incumbent Mayor Ed Lee is widely considered to be the front-runner. He’s a competent manager with a disarming mustache and many years of experience in city government.  He has also brought openness and a sense of humor to the office. However, he has a serious problem keeping his promises, some of his supporters have been accused of election fraud, and most agree that he takes direction from Willie Brown and Chinatown powerbroker Rose Pak.  But he’s no wine mogul who sleeps with his employees, marries B-list actresses and hates the little people.  Ahem. That said, there are several better candidates for Mayor in this race, so why settle for Mr. Not-a-Douche?

But first, can we talk for a second about Joanna Rees? She’s not going to win, but I feel like saying a few words about her candidacy. Rees is the least qualified person on the ballot. She’s Meg Whitman – a lifelong Republican (until recently) who has shown no interest in government until she decided to run. Managing a city with a multi-billion dollar budget and with complicated and unique problems requires a leader with experience in those same problems. We’re talking about complex civil service rules, transparency requirements unique to public officials, public contracting laws, the intricate budgeting process, understanding the nuance of negotiating a legislative agenda… it’s going to take Rees all four years of her term just to get up to speed on these things. Please don’t vote for her.

My choices are (1) David Chiu (2) John Avalos (3) Dennis Herrera. These guys are the most qualified candidates to be Mayor because of their experience, progressive ideals, and ability to cut through the bureaucracy and get things done.

#1 – David Chiu

Chiu is a pragmatist, a progressive, and a really smart guy. He serves as the President of the Board of Supervisors and on the Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) with me.  He doesn’t own a car, he rides his bike to City Hall every day, and environmental initiatives are his highest priority.  David has been a great friend to the women’s political organizations in SF, having carried legislation for them for many years. He has made urban agriculture and funding for public art two of his highest priorities. (Yay for public art and urban farming!) At my urging, he came to Burning Man this year for a brief visit, and he loved it; he’s already planning to come to the desert on his own in 2012.

David is an independent thinker, and he often finds himself as the swing vote in Board of Supervisors decisions, because his politics are somewhere in the middle of the Board’s.  This Board, keep in mind, ranges from super-lefty Democrat to moderate Democrat. (That’s right, every single member of the Board votes blue.)

David has been endorsed by the Chronicle (#1), the League of Conservation Voters (#1), the Bicycle Coalition (#2), many labor unions, San Francisco Arts Democratic Club (#3), Supervisors Mar, Kim and Cohen, four members of the school board, among many others.

David caught some heat from the left for supporting Ed Lee’s appointment to complete Newsom’s term as Mayor (See: “It’s on like Donkey Kong!”), and it is probably his biggest regret in his tenure on the Board.  He and Lee were friends for many years, and when the Board was considering appointing Lee as interim Mayor, Lee promised Chiu and others on the Board that he would only serve as a caretaker for the remaining year; that he would not run for a full term. Lee’s decision to renege on this promise was a personal and political betrayal.

I support David because I trust him to do the right thing, because he is great at finding practical solutions to complex problems, and because he is focused on government accountability.  (Here’s his Blueprint for San Francisco if you want to know more about his vision.) And besides, I’d really like for the next Mayor to be a Burner. ; )  Please vote for David as your #1 choice.

#2 – John Avalos.

My second choice for Mayor is John Avalos. This guy tops Ed Lee on the facial-hair-and-likeability index.  He’s also very smart, and he’s got some exciting ideas for San Francisco’s future. He will bring a progressive reform agenda to the Mayor’s office; he understands the plight of the poor, working class families, and small business. He’s also been a vocal supporter of the Occupy movement, staying up with them until 4am on the night the police were supposed to raid the camp. John is the 99%.

Something else I love: John’s life partner Karen Zapata is at the front and center of his campaign. She’s a teacher and activist, his partner in every sense of the word.  John and Karen are raising two kids in the Excelsior, one with special needs. They live and breathe the life of a working family in San Francisco.

John is the most lefty candidate in the race. He serves on DCCC with me and on the Board of Supervisors, representing the oft-neglected District 11 (Excelsior, Ingleside, Outer Mission).  As the progressive thought leader on the Board, Avalos has been a strong voice for bicycling and livable streets, for tenants and labor unions, for urban agriculture, and for a vibrant arts community.  And you have to see his rad bike video.

John has an impressive list of endorsements: San Francisco Democratic Party (#1), the SF Bicycle Coalition (#1) Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club (#1) San Francisco Bay Guardian (#1), League of Pissed Off Voters (#1), Dog PAC (#1), SF Arts Democratic Club (#2), Sierra Club (#2), League of Conservation Voters (#3), Assembly member Tom Ammiano, and many labor unions. This many lefties can’t be wrong! Vote for Avalos #2.

#3 – Dennis Herrera.

It can’t be easy to run for Mayor as City Attorney, particularly when you are running against half of your clients in City government, but Dennis is doing a good job of navigating the ethical minefields. Dennis is known to be a good manager, a top notch City Attorney, and an innovator in government. Part of me doesn’t want to endorse him because I’d really like for him to stay on as City Attorney.

He is endorsed by many of the organizations I care about, including San Francisco Women’s Political Committee (#1), SF Arts Democratic Club (#1), San Francisco Labor Council (#1), League of Conservation Voters (#2), San Francisco Democratic Party (#2), San Francisco Bay Guardian (#2), Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club (#2), and many, many more.

Dennis walks the walk. He has won all of those endorsements because of his many years in the trenches fighting for each of the constituencies that these groups represent, from women (see: battling the Bush administration over abortion records), to environmentalists (see: suing to shut down polluting power plant). And he has worked tirelessly to make marriage equality a reality in California. Vote for Dennis.

District Attorney: (1) Sharmin Bock (2) David Onek

Incumbent George Gascon made a good police chief. He has decades of experience, he brought professionalism to the SFPD, he is very personable, and has a long history of standing up for immigrants in the criminal justice system. But he is a bad fit for District Attorney.

When then-Mayor Newsom appointing Gascon as District Attorney, it had the intended effect: it surprised the political elite and frustrated his adversaries. We all wondered, “Does he have a law degree? Did he pass the bar? Has he ever practiced law?” It was very confusing. [The answers are yes, yes, and no]. The switch to DA created all kinds of conflicts of interest, particularly in police misconduct cases. Can we trust that the former police chief is going to aggressively prosecute misconduct cases? Will he be transparent about accusations made against his former colleagues? Is he going to be an objective judge of the credibility of officers who testify in cases brought by the DA’s office? Absolutely not. The fox is guarding the henhouse.

#1 – Sharmin Bock.

My choice is Sharmin Bock.  A career prosecutor, Bock has spent decades working on crimes against women and children, she has extensive experience managing several divisions within the DA’s Office in Alameda County.  This point bears repeating: Sharmin has 22 years of experience prosecuting crimes and managing other prosecutors. She is the only candidate in this race with this kind of experience.

Sharmin has an extraordinary 95% conviction rate in felony cases brought to trial.  She has led the way in focusing public attention on and prosecuting the purchase of children for sex. Though she has good working relationships with police officers, she believes it is vital that the DA and the police be entirely independent of one another so that the public can be assured of police transparency and accountability.

Sharmin has been endorsed by lots of people and organizations I care about, including the Sierra Club, SF Women’s Political Committee, Bay Area Lawyers For Individual Freedom (BALIF), African American Democratic Club, EMILY’s List, Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club (#2), SF Democratic Party (#2), San Francisco Bay Guardian (#2), SF Arts Democratic Club (#2), SF League of Conservation Voters (#2), San Francisco League of Young Voters (#2), Congresswoman Jackie Speier, Supervisors Cohen, Mar and Mirkarimi.  For more about her campaign, go here. Please vote for Sharmin!

#2 – David Onek

Like Gascon, Onek has also never prosecuted a case. He is a progressive and a smart guy who has made a career of thinking about criminal justice issues.  Onek understands that the criminal justice system is broken, and that the entire system needs to change.  It bothers me that he has no experience working as a prosecutor, but he would be a better DA than the incumbent.

Onek’s endorsement list is long and impressive, and includes dozens of law enforcement professionals, elected officials and organizations, including outgoing Sheriff Mike Hennessey; Assemblymember Tom Ammiano; Supervisors Chiu, Avalos, Chu, and Mar; six members of the school board, the SF Democratic Party, the California Police Chiefs Association, SF Bay Guardian, several unions, SF League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, SF Young Democrats, SF League of Young Voters, SF Arts Democratic Club.

Sheriff: (1) Ross Mirkarimi

Retiring Sheriff Mike Hennessey has done a great job. He’s been Sheriff for over 30 years, and has implemented many innovative reforms to the City’s jail system, such as creating the country’s first charter high school within the jails.  He has handled evictions in a humane way, he has held his deputies to a high standard of behavior, and he has done great work in reducing recidivism and providing alternatives to incarceration.

Hennessey has endorsed Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi to replace him as Sheriff. The two have much in common; both are progressives and reformers. They both think outside the box when it comes to how law enforcement can prevent crime and reduce recidivism, not just penalize criminals. Ross is the candidate best situated to carry Hennessey’s legacy forward.

What’s interesting about Mike Hennessey is that he had no law enforcement experience going into the job; he was a civil rights attorney before being elected. By contrast, Mirkarimi has extensive law enforcement experience, having graduated from the Police Academy, where he was president of his class, and having worked as an investigator in the DA’s office for nearly a decade.

Ross represents a district with many crime-related challenges (Western Addition, Haight, Fillmore) and he has spent much of his tenure on the Board of Supervisors focused on public safety issues. He personally appeared at every homicide scene, pushed for community policing and for organizing the community around crime — and he delivered the first veto override of Mayor Newsom’s career over forcing the police to use foot patrols in high crime neighborhoods.

Ross is endorsed by just about everybody: Sierra Club, San Francisco Democratic Party, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, SF Tenants Union, San Francisco Women’s Political Committee, San Francisco Arts Democratic Club, San Francisco for Democracy, African American Democratic Club, Latino Democratic Club, San Francisco Young Democrats, League of Pissed Off Voters, San Francisco Labor Council, Senator Mark Leno, Assemblymembers Fiona Ma and Tom Ammiano, Supervisors Mar, Kim, Campos, Avalos.  For more about his candidacy, go here. Please vote for Ross!

Proposition A (School Bond): YES

Yes, I know. It seems like we are asked to approve a school bond in every single election. Why? Because California’s budget process is bleeding schools to death, and this is really the only way local school districts are able to make capital improvements. Sad.

The $531 million new bond will go towards upgrading the seismic safety of 50 of 140 schools in the district, and it will require homeowners to pay about $21 per $100,000 of assessed value every year until the bond is paid off.  If you are not a homeowner, frankly you have nothing to lose in voting yes. You don’t have to pay for it, and the money will improve these schools significantly. I’m a (child-free) homeowner, and I’m voting yes because improving school quality in San Francisco makes it easier for families to stay here, it improves my property value, and because $21 is a small price to pay for seismically safer school facilities. Every member of the school board signed the ballot argument for this one, and it has been endorsed by just about everybody I care about. Vote YES.

Proposition B (Street Repaving and Street Safety Bond): YES

If you ride a bike or a scooter, you know that pavement quality in the City is horrible and dangerous. If Prop B passes, the new $248 million bond will accelerate major streetscape enhancements for biking, walking, and transit. It will make it easier to obtain grants from federal, state, and local agencies, and it will fund other badly needed infrastructure work. The Bike Coalition supports it, and so do I.

But one thing bothers me: City streets are supposed to be maintained by the general fund as a part of the City’s normal maintenance budget. Paying for this by way of a bond sets a really bad precedent. However, the City’s financial situation is dire, and delaying street repair can lead to exponentially higher costs down the road (not to mention the safety hazards), and so all things considered, the city will be worse off if B fails.  Vote YES.

Proposition C (Pension Reform – Consensus Measure): YES
Proposition D (Pension Reform – Adachi Measure):
NO

Everyone agrees: San Francisco’s pension liability is a huge cause for concern.  While pension costs are rapidly increasing, the investment funds that support them are being decimated by the economy.  By 2013, the Department of Human Resources estimates that pensions are going to constitute 52% of the City’s payroll expenses. And according to the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco owes $4.476 billion in pensions to its employees but can only afford to pay three-quarters of that cost. Yikes!

How did we get into this mess? Because during the fat years, city management offered increasingly better and better retirement options and benefits to city workers to improve the quality of employees they could attract, and to make the unions happy. The promise to a new city employee was: Take a pay cut to come work for the public sector now, and we’ll take care of you after you retire. I know, I was one of these public employees who took that deal.

Then, the City’s pension investment fund took a $4 billion hit in 2008, and the City was forced to start contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to pension costs using its annual revenues that pay for basic services such as police, fire, parks and roads. So here we are. With battling pension reform measures that we need to decide between.

Propositions C and D present voters with two different pension reform options. If both propositions receive a majority vote, the one with the most votes will go into effect.

Prop C is called the “consensus” measure because it was the product of a collaborative effort by Mayor Lee, the Labor Council AND the Chamber of Commerce, and the Board of Supervisors. It requires all City workers to pay a higher percentage of their salary into their own pensions – 2.3% to 12.5%, depending on the type of job and the City’s future investment successes. It also requires recent and future employees to contribute a percentage of their salaries into their retirement health plan.

Proposition D, by contrast, was written by Public Defender Jeff Adachi with little or no input from the City’s managers or organized labor. It will save the city $50 million more a year than Proposition C. It will require a higher contribution percentage across the board, and it will set a $140,000 cap on the total annual pension payout to any employee. Prop D does not address how the city handles health care for retired workers.

Labor strongly opposes D, and it will be a much more difficult burden to bear for most public employees, who have already taken many hits in recent years, including cuts to pay and benefits, and increases in workloads as the City has been laying off workers. Believe me, it is very difficult to be a public employee in the current environment. Please vote YES on C and No on D.

Proposition E (Reforming the Initiative Ordinance Process): YES

The ballot measure system is seriously flawed.  If the voters approve a law by ballot measure, that law can’t be amended except by going back to the voters.  This makes it nearly impossible to amend the law in many cases, and burdensome on voters who shouldn’t have to vote on a law every time it needs tweaking.

Because of the way the ballot measure system is set up, the City’s municipal code is a patchwork including dozens of crazy unworkable (and sometimes unenforceable) laws.  Prop E is an important reform to the way in which voters can make law, and coming from a person whose job it is to interpret the municipal code, I tell you this measure is a breath of fresh air.

If it is approved, Prop E will make the following changes:

  • For the first three years after a measure is approved, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors will not be able to amend it.
  • In years four to seven after the law is passed, the Board will be able to amend or repeal a measure with a 2/3 vote.
  • After seven years, the measure will be amendable or repealable by a simple majority vote of the Board of Supervisors.

Prop E does not apply to any past voter-approved measures. It will only apply, if it is approved, to ballot measures adopted in the future. Sometimes laws have unintended consequences that need fixing, or they need a little tweaking to make them more workable. This law allows the Board of Supes to do the fixing and tweaking, and to remove provisions ruled illegal or unenforceable by the courts.

Supervisor Scott Wiener, SPUR (the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association), and the Chronicle support Prop E. It is opposed by the San Francisco Democratic Party, the Bay Guardian, Supervisor John Avalos and former Ethics Commissioner Eileen Hansen. They each say that Supervisor Wiener, the measure’s sponsor, hasn’t provided an adequate explanation as to why the law is needed, and that the democratic process is fine the way it is.  I disagree! This reform is a modest and thoughtful one, and it includes protections against abuse by future lawmakers. I suspect that much of the opposition is due to political biases against Supervisor Wiener, and due to fears that he has a particular law or laws in mind that he wants to change. Sup. Wiener is a former Deputy City Attorney, and I’ve spoken with him at length about his motivations – I think he genuinely wants to make the Municipal Code easier to use.

Reduce the size of future ballots, and allow City government to operate more efficiently.  Please vote yes on E.

Proposition F (Campaign Consultant Ordinance): No?

Prop F asks you whether you want to modify the law that sets reporting rules for local political consultants.  The San Francisco Ethics Commission, which is in charge of administering rules governing political consultants, asked for the changes.

Under the existing law, consultants are required to register if they earn $1,000 or more a year on political consulting (which is nothing, IMO). Under Prop F, that threshold would be raised $5,000 in annual consulting income (which is still very low). These changes are fine by me because it really won’t change the number of people registering as consultants. However, the new law would also allow the Ethics Commission to make any other changes it wants in the future.  In the words of Supervisor Wiener, the measure’s sponsor, “We don’t want to have to go back to voters and ask whether consultants should file every month or every three months.”  Sounds good, except that I’m not so sure the Ethics Commission can be trusted – it is not elected, but appointed by the very elected officials who would probably do away with the registration law if they had the chance. Unlike Prop E, this measure doesn’t include the same safeguards in exchange for taking away the voters’ power to make amend this law.

Prop F is supported by Supervisor Wiener, SPUR, and the Chamber of Commerce.  Environmental groups and lefty organizations like the Sierra Club, the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods and the San Francisco Democratic Party oppose it. So does Assembly member Tom Ammiano, who drafted the original law.

I’m all for streamlining government (see Prop E above), but I think this measure goes a little too far.

Proposition G (Sales Tax): YES

The next few paragraphs are very dry and involve math, so bear with me.

At the beginning of the year, the sales tax in SF was 9.5%.  It is now 8.5% because state lawmakers couldn’t agree on whether to extend a 1% temporary sales tax that expired June 30. Letting that 1% expire means less money coming from Sacramento for cities and counties.  (If you haven’t been paying attention, in the last few years the state government has been starving city and county governments by imposing new fees on them and refusing to pass along monies that the localities used to depend on for basic services).

So the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors put Prop G on the ballot to increase the local sales tax rate by 0.5% to make up some of that revenue loss – and it will pump approximately $60 million back into the City’s general fund. The sponsors say the money will go toward public safety, children’s services and programs for seniors.  AND – if Sacramento acts to raise the California sales tax by 1% sometime before November 30, or by 0.75% by January 2016, this new local sales tax hike will be scrapped. If it’s not scrapped, the increase will expire after 10 years.

The City needs the money really badly. And the new tax doesn’t even take us back to where it was earlier this year. Yes, OK, it’s regressive – meaning, poor people are hurt more by this tax than the rich.  But I honestly don’t think it’s going to make that much of a difference to people’s pocketbooks – if it passes, it will add 5 cents to your next $10 purchase.  And $60 million WILL make a big difference to the services that the City is able to provide. Vote yes.

Proposition H (School District Student Assignment): NO

Prop H is based on a fallacy: that every San Francisco family wants their kid to go to the school that is closest to their home. If Prop H is approved, it will become an official policy of the City of San Francisco to encourage the school district to give the highest priority to assigning each student to the school closest to where they live. And I understand the premise: that families are leaving SF in large numbers because their kids are being bused across town.  And yet proximity is only one of many factors in a family’s school choice, and this premise ignores the many complicated factors that go into school preferences.

The teachers union and every member of the school board oppose Prop H, and for good reason: this measure only helps those families who live in neighborhoods with good schools. And it punishes those who live in poor neighborhoods and/or near underperforming schools.  Moreover, there are lots of different kinds of schools to choose from, depending on your child’s interests and abilities. Even if you live near a “good” school, you still might want your kid to go somewhere else. As if that weren’t enough, the measure is badly written, and will encourage school reassignments to happen in the middle of the school year if it passes. Prop H is just a bad idea all around. Please vote NO.

6 thoughts on “Big Ol’ Voter Guide – November 2011

  1. Pingback: Alix Rosenthal’s “Big Ol’ Voter Guide – November 2011″ | San Francisco Politics

  2. Alix, I do appreciate your enthusiasm and effort towards our local political process. But here is my major criticism (genuinely directed) of your voting guide: too much about the personalities of candidates and not enough about specific policies and positions.

    I want to know what the candidates plans are for our city’s crime, budget deficits, homelessness, business development, and social support programs! Less concerning is whether they bike to work, have gone to Burning Man, or have a beloved spouse or partner (despite being worthy individual traits).

    In a general sense, it’s really appreciating what a Mayor’s job really involves: Primarily boring but essential topics. It involves making our city work! It means keeping streets clear and clean, keeping our lights running, warding off crime, abating graffiti, fixing potholes, etc. When candidates come in with endless starry visions for San Francisco (Public art! Urban farming!) without first appreciating that our primary mundane problems need to be solved, we will have continued problems.

    • Guj – Thank you for your comment. I would have loved to go deeper into every candidate’s positions on the issues. Yet it was impossible to do so given the time and space constraints, which is why I hyperlinked almost every candidate’s website to each post. (By the way, most of the comments i’ve received tell me that my voter guide was too long and in depth!). Holding on to the audience’s attention span was of utmost importance to me in this post, and perhaps I erred too much on the side of brevity. I will certainly keep your input in mind as I write my voter guide for the next election.

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