Big Ol’ Voter Guide – June 2014

The June ballot looks really long, but don’t be fooled, San Francisco. This is an easy one. Out of the four ballot measures in question, only one of them is controversial. And in the candidate races, many of them are incumbents who are virtually unopposed. Why? Because they are all pretty effective and they have each avoided sleeping with their interns. As far as we know.

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An interesting factor in this election: California has adopted the “top two” open primary system of electing our state officers and legislators, which means that: (1) voters can choose among candidates of any party, not just the party they are registered in; and (2) the top two candidates, regardless of party, advance to the general election in November. So the candidates in this election are really just running to get first or second place. And if the race only has two viable candidates, then June is merely a dress rehearsal for November.

Without further ado, I submit to you my Big Ol’ Voter Guide for the San Francisco/California June 2014 election. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a progressive attorney with a background in real estate and land use, whose passions include protecting and promoting San Francisco’s nightlife and culture, getting more women elected to public office, and bringing more public art to cities around the world. I’m a Vice Chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, and I also like long walks on the beach.

Click here for more information on your voter registration and what your ballot looks like.

Governor: Jerry Brown!
Lieutenant Governor: Gavin Newsom
Secretary of State: Alex Padilla
Controller: Betty Yee
Treasurer: John Chiang
Attorney General: Kamala Harris
Insurance Commissioner: Dave Jones
Superintendent of Schools: Tom Torlakson
Board of Equalization: Fiona Ma
Assembly, District 17: David Chiu
Assembly, District 19: Phil Ting
CA Proposition 41: Yes
CA Proposition 42: Yes
SF Measure A: Yes
SF Measure B: No
SF Superior Court Judge: Kimberly Toney Williams
US Congress, District 12: Nancy Pelosi
US Congress, District 13: Barbara Lee
US Congress, District 14: Jackie Speier

Governor: Jerry Brown!

Remember when Jerry Brown ran for Governor four years ago, when the economy was in the tank and nobody else wanted the job? Think about how far we’ve come. Governor Brown can’t take ALL the credit for the vastly improved economy, but he can take credit for having turned around some of the state’s structural budget deficits. Today he has a 60% approval rating, and California has a projected budget surplus of $4.6 billion this year, in no small part due to the tax measure that he pushed for in 2012.

His two opponents are Republicans with marginal support. Assembly member and Tea Party conspiracy theorist Tim Donnelly is the same guy who attempted to board an airplane in 2012 with a loaded Colt handgun. He later pled guilty to carrying a loaded gun without a concealed weapons permit. Neel Kashkari is a former banker and an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury responsible for overseeing the TARP bailout program. Polls last month showed Kashkari trailing a convicted sex offender.

Lieutenant Governor: Gavin Newsom

I kind of feel bad for Gavin Newsom. The Lieutenant Governor doesn’t have much to do other than fill in when the Governor is absent or incapacitated. He sits on the State Lands Commission and the UC Board of Regents, and these can be powerful (but boring) places to be. Newsom has been able to use his office to draw attention to important issues like drug policy reform. He has called for ending the war on drugs, calling it “nothing more than a war on communities of color and on the poor.” (Tell it, brother!) I don’t like his stance opposing high-speed rail in California. But! He threw a good party at this year’s California Democratic Party convention, he married well, and he’s virtually unopposed. (None of these are good reasons to vote for him, but I just thought I’d give him props. For once.)

Secretary of State: Alex Padilla

padillaSecretary of State is normally a low profile race, but this year it’s shaping up to be the most interesting and important statewide race for the June election. After State Senator Leland Yee dropped out of the race after being charged with taking bribes for gun running and murder-for-hire (!!!), this race became even more interesting. Leland’s arrest was a defining moment, as the remaining candidates have become more focused on campaign finance and ethics reform. Everyone’s trying to distance themselves from the ethics scandals that have plagued the state legislature this year, and they are promising to use the office of Secretary of State to push for more transparency and less corruption in government.

I like State Senator Alex Padilla because he has been a prolific legislator in the State Senate, authoring bills on a wide range of issues including local prosecution of military sexual assault, criminalizing the mislabeling of seafood, and improving campaign communication disclosures. Remarkably, he is also an MIT-trained engineer who is both charismatic and charming (!). If elected, he promises to modernize the technology used by the Secretary of State’s office (‘bout time!) to make it easier to open a business and to register to vote.

I also like Democrat Derek Cressman, a longtime good government advocate with Common Cause. He’s the guy who blew the whistle on the Koch brothers and their efforts to evade campaign finance rules in California through secret PAC contributions. But (ironically?) he hasn’t raised enough money to be competitive, the polls show he’s not gaining much traction and I don’t think he can beat Republican Pete Peterson in the fall.

Peterson, an academic at Pepperdine University, is leading the polls, and it is likely that Peterson and Padilla will advance to the November election under the top two primary system. The pundits are calling Peterson a Republican breakout star this year, and I must admit that he has some interesting ideas. He has suggested that politicians’ salaries be based on the number of campaign promises they are able to keep. (Ha! Yeah. Right.) He has proposed a ban on all fundraising activities by state legislators and statewide officeholders while the legislature in is session, thus leveling the playing field for candidates who are running against incumbents. Hmm.

Dan Schnur got the Chronicle’s endorsement, and he is a wild card in this race. He’s a longtime Republican strategist, having worked for John McCain and many other big name candidates, but he’s running as an independent. (Probably because he knows that the California Republican Party is on life support). His motto is “politics is too important to be left to the politicians,” which rings hollow to me since Schnur is a lifelong political operator.

Oh! And Leland Yee didn’t drop out of the race in time to remove his name from the ballot. So if you like politicians who are willing to take bribes for murder and guns, you know who to vote for.

Controller: Betty Yee

319850_4242416383172_1371294887_nI can’t say enough good things about Betty Yee…she is genuine and smart, tough and effective, and of all the candidates, she has the most financial experience. She is a lifelong public servant, having worked in financial-related offices in state government before running for the Board of Equalization, on which she now serves. On the BoE, she has used her position to fight for tax equity for same-sex couples, she has advocated for the legalization of recreational marijuana (think of the tax revenues!), and she has adhered to the highest of ethical standards (for example, she rejected campaign contributions from the tobacco industry). The Controller’s primary responsibility is to track and control the disbursement of the state of California’s money, and so having an unimpeachable ethical record is important.

Betty’s main Democratic competition is former Assembly Speaker John Perez, who is an impressive political leader and was the first LGBT Assembly Speaker in California history. I’m almost afraid to write anything negative about him here, because in my experience, Perez is very hard on his detractors. One might even call him a bully. More importantly, credible sources have questioned his ethical standards. A report by the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed Perez raised money from special interest groups for charities his lover favored, a lover who played a key role in a racketeering and fraud scandal. Perez may not have acted illegally, but I think his actions showed poor judgment.

Republican Ashley Swearingen is the mayor of Fresno, and is widely considered to be a rising star in her party. Her only relevant experience is turning Fresno’s financial ship around, and she did so by cutting city jobs and forcing public employees to pay more of their pension contributions. (If you know me, you know these things make me wince). It’s a giant leap to go from Fresno to statewide office, and I don’t think she’s ready for prime time.

Treasurer: John Chiang

The Treasurer is the state’s banker, the officer who is responsible for managing the state’s investments, including state employee pension funds. Who better to serve as our next Treasurer than the person who has done a great job as the state’s Controller for the last 8 years? As Controller, John Chiang made a name for himself by enforcing a constitutional requirement holding that legislators would not be paid if they failed to pass a balanced budget by June 15, 2011. During the Great Recession, as California teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, Chiang helped to keep the state functioning and paying its bills. He also helped balance the budget by identifying $6 billion in waste that was made available for more productive purposes. Also: he was a high school mathlete (I ❤ nerds!), and he is virtually unopposed.

Attorney General: Kamala Harris

1013468_10152229059737923_797841473_nIncumbent Kamala Harris is also virtually unopposed, so I’ll keep it brief: Kamala is a rockstar. She has been a powerful advocate for consumers and privacy protections, prisoner anti-recidivism programs, victims of mortgage fraud, and same sex marriage in California. She also brings a fresh perspective to the office, as she is the first African American, the first Indian American, and the first woman to serve as the state’s top cop. I am proud that she comes from San Francisco, and I hope she runs for Governor in four years.

Insurance Commissioner: Dave Jones

Dave Jones is earnest and hard working, and he’s done some great things with his first four years as Insurance Commissioner. He has required health insurance companies to use no more than 20 percent of premiums on profits and administrative costs, and he has secured strict regulations on life insurance companies to prevent them from withholding benefits improperly. Recently, Jones held hearings on the insurance practices of ride-sharing companies to make sure that they are adequately insured to protect both their drivers and the general public. Jones’ Republican opponent, State Senator Ted Gaines, actually wants to decrease oversight of the insurance industry. Um, no. And no.

Superintendent of Public Instruction: Tom Torlakson

Incumbent Tom Torlakson and his main opponent, Marshall Tuck, have very different visions of how to improve public schools in California. A former teacher himself, Torlakson champions teachers and their unions, dislikes the nation’s growing reliance on standardized tests, and advocates for more funding.

An investment banker by trade, Tuck is an advocate for charter schools and for changing the seniority rules for teachers. Personally, I think privatization will serve to drain the public school system of its high achieving students, leaving underperforming students in the dust. (See this great article by my friend Paul Buchheit on the subject.)

On the other hand, it’s clear that the current regime isn’t working for our kids, and I’m sensitive to the argument that the teacher tenure system is broken. But! If you ask me, the major problem facing the school system is the lack of funding; California ranks 48th in the United States in school spending! Ridiculous! And sad. It’s clear that Torlakson will be a more effective advocate for more funding, and is a better choice for this reason alone.

Board of Equalization: Fiona Ma

FionaFiona Ma represented the west side of San Francisco on the Board of Supervisors and in the State Assembly for many years. She and I have disagreed on some policy issues, including an ill-advised bill she wrote in 2010 that would have banned large-scale electronic music events in California. She did write some great legislation in the Assembly, including a bill that would have required more employers to provide paid sick leave and one that banned toxic chemicals in plastics and children’s toys.  She is a good fit for the Board of Equalization, which is the state’s main taxing body. She is a certified public accountant, and would bring her financial experience to that role. She is virtually unopposed.

Assembly, District 17: David Chiu

This is a funny race. The two leading candidates are both named David, they both went to Harvard, they both serve on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. They have an almost identical voting record. They both also serve on the board of the San Francisco Democratic Party with me, and so I know them both well, and consider them both friends.

Both Davids would be progressive leaders in the state legislature. But I believe that Chiu will be a more effective advocate for legislation that reflects our San Francisco values. As the President of the Board of Supervisors, Chiu has proven to be more adept at shepherding legislation and forging compromise, which skills are especially necessary in a state legislature populated with folks from all over this strange state. (For example, there’s THIS GUY. Yeah. Whoah.)

Campos is openly gay, like the two men who most recently held this seat, Tom Ammiano and Mark Leno. Campos and his supporters claim that the seat should be held by someone who identifies as LGBT. I disagree – no seat in the legislature should be a “gay seat” or an “Asian seat” or “rich white girl in yoga pants” seat. The candidate who can best represent all of the district’s constituencies should win. Period.

If you know me, you know that I have always been an advocate for getting more women (and especially mothers!) in public office. Women are generally underrepresented in leadership positions, and it’s important to include women’s voices in the decisions that affect all of us. But to propose that a specific seat is a “woman’s seat” would be ludicrous. There certainly aren’t enough LGBT folks in the state legislature (there are 8 including Ammiano, which is 7% of the total members), however, we have made considerable progress on this front in recent years. The current Assembly Speaker is an out lesbian and the previous Speaker was a gay man, who is now running for state Controller and has a good chance of winning.

David ChiuI do think it’s really gross that some well-funded haters have been sending out mail trying to connect Campos with Ross Mirkarimi’s domestic violence issues. Specifically, they claim that Campos’ vote against removing Ross from office makes him unqualified to serve in the Assembly. Regardless of your feelings about Mirkarimi, this argument is just silly. I don’t think that a person’s entire 6-year voting record should or can be boiled down to a single vote.

The other funny thing about this race: it’s really just a practice run for November. Because California has an open primary, the two candidates who get the most votes – regardless of party affiliation – will advance to the November election. And since the third David in this race doesn’t have a chance (he’s a Republican), the Democrat Davids will face each other again in November. So regardless of what happens on Tuesday, you haven’t heard the last of these guys.

Assembly, District 19: Phil Ting

I really like Phil Ting. Suuuuuper nice guy, and also good at what he does. Ting represents the west side of San Francisco, which is considerably more conservative than the side I live in. And yet he’s been a consistent vote for legislation supported by San Franciscans citywide. He has pushed for closing the Prop 13 loophole that allows corporations to avoid paying their fair share of property taxes; he has promoted the building of separated bike lanes statewide, making biking safer and easier; and he has pushed for BART to reform its safety procedures. He is also virtually unopposed.

CA Proposition 41 (Housing homeless vets): Yes

Over a decade ago, Californians voted to use hundreds of millions of bond funds to create the CalVet Home and Farm Loan Program to help veterans purchase housing. Prop 41 further refines this program to dedicate $600 million of those funds – which would otherwise go unused – toward building affordable multifamily rental housing for low-income veterans and their families. This one is a no-brainer, because it will help house some of California’s 15,000 homeless vets. It will save taxpayer dollars in healthcare and public safety by getting veterans off the streets and into safe, affordable housing. And because it uses previously approved (but unsold) bond funds, Prop 41 doesn’t create new taxes or incur any new debt.

The measure has garnered the support of both the California Republican Party and the California Democratic Party, as well as the League of California Cities, and many other folks from both sides of the political aisle.

CA Proposition 42 (Government transparency laws): Yes

This is an important one, and it also has support from both sides of the aisle. If this measure passes, it will help guarantee public access to government documents and decisions.

The California Public Records Act and the Ralph M. Brown Act require government agencies to conduct their business in a transparent way. As a former public servant I can tell you: these laws work. The PRA has completely changed the level of access that the public has to government documents by granting every person the right to inspect any public record, with a few exceptions. The Brown Act enables the public to participate in government decisions in meaningful ways, by prohibiting commissions and city councils from making decisions unless they are on a publicly-posted agenda, and requiring that the public be given an opportunity to comment on every such decision before it is made.

Last year, Governor Brown tried to gut these laws by making it optional for local governments to comply with many of their requirements. State law requires the state to reimburse local agencies for the costs of compliance, and Brown was looking for ways to cut costs. The state has consistently failed to reimburse local agencies for these costs, and the local bodies have used this as an excuse not to comply.

Prop 42 will eliminate any future attempts to gut these bills by expressly requiring local government agencies to comply with all aspects of the PRA and the Brown Act. It also eliminates the state’s responsibility to reimburse local agencies for cost compliance, thus removing this excuse for non-compliance.

The measure is supported by the California Democratic Party, the California Republican Party, most labor unions, Common Cause, League of Women Voters and professional journalists. Every major newspaper in California has endorsed it. The only real opposition comes from the Green Party of California, which objects to the additional costs that local governments may incur.

SF Measure A (Emergency infrastructure bond measure): Yes!

There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that California is due for another major earthquake. And many of the facilities that house the City’s emergency infrastructure are not seismically sound. This is a recipe for disaster. Literally.

Prop. A is a $400 million general obligation bond measure that would fund seismic retrofits and improvements to this infrastructure, including upgrades to the city’s Emergency Firefighting Water System, neighborhood police and fire stations, and new structures to house the police crime lab and motorcycle unit. All eleven members of the Board of Supervisors voted to place Prop. A on the ballot, and no one of note opposes it. A two-thirds majority is needed for it to pass, and I really really really hope that it does. For all of our sakes.

SF Measure B (Waterfront development): No!!

Prop B will require voter approval for any future construction projects on the San Francisco waterfront that exceed existing height limits. The measure would immediately delay the construction of every development along the Bay until voters have a chance to approve each one separately.

Let me start by saying that I have been a real estate attorney for 14 years, including eight years as a Deputy City Attorney for the City of Oakland and General Counsel for the Oakland Army Base development on the Oakland waterfront. I served on the boards of two community organizations in San Francisco that are generally skeptical of development, and I actively opposed 8 Washington, the waterfront condo project that was soundly defeated by ballot measure in the November 2013 election. Earlier this year, I worked for the Golden State Warriors on the development of their San Francisco arena project, which was originally sited at Piers 30-32 just south of the Bay Bridge, and has since moved to Mission Bay. Having worked on both sides of the issue, I have put a lot of thought into the subject of waterfront development. And Prop B…is a disaster. Let me tell you why.

The proponents of Prop B include the local chapter of the Sierra Club, California Democratic Party Chair John Burton, former Mayor Art Agnos, and the Affordable Housing Alliance. They argue that Prop B “takes away the blank check given to developers to develop luxury condos and high-rise hotels without regard to traffic, the neighborhoods, or the long-term health of the waterfront development.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Every major development in San Francisco undergoes a years-long planning process that involves extensive neighborhood input and community meetings, environmental review, and approval by the City’s Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. In addition to this, any development on the waterfront is also subject to approvals by the State Lands Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, and sometimes also requires state legislation permitting the project to take place on property subject to the state’s complicated tidelands trust laws.

The project that is ultimately approved is the result of many years of negotiation with the City, other public agencies, and with the neighbors, and rightly so. Our waterfront is a precious resource, and we should carefully consider what goes there. However, this ballot measure guts that entire process by giving power to people (the voters from all over the city – not just the neighborhood) who barely understand the project’s complex details, or the tradeoffs and concessions that have been made over the years.

If this measure passes, the ballot questions it mandates will be very simple – developers will have to state the amount that the project is proposing to raise the height limits. But they won’t provide the context of a height increase – like, for example, what the building heights are adjacent to the project, the sales tax revenues the project will generate, the jobs it will create, the amenities it offers. It is a vast oversimplification of a project – often reducing it to a simple tagline – and one that usually makes the project look bad because it is increasing the building heights allowed on the waterfront.

I opposed the 8 Washington project (No Wall on the Waterfront!), and I was happy that it lost last year. That project had gone through the entire planning process including approval by the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. But it was a bad project, and so the opponents put it on the ballot and we were able to defeat it. But not all projects are 8 Washington, and so not all projects should automatically go to the voters in perpetuity. Some projects are not controversial at all, and shouldn’t be delayed or sidelined by politicizing them.

SPUR, San Francisco League of Conservation Voters, San Francisco Democratic Party, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Parks Alliance, the San Francisco Labor Council, San Francisco Young Democrats and the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club all oppose Prop B. And I hope you will too.

SF Superior Court Judge: Kimberly Toney Williams

1801320_537387049704436_5677438617197010097_oThis was a tough decision for me. The San Francisco Democratic Party interviewed each of the candidates at our endorsement meeting in March, and I was impressed with all three. They each would bring very different qualities to the bench.

Carol Kingsley is an attorney of 25 years who’s specialized as a mediator, skilled at sifting through disputes and convincing parties to cooperate. She is a crusader for stricter gun laws, since her husband and eight others were slain in the 1993 killing spree at 101 California. And while anti-gun advocacy would normally be a plus for me, impartiality is an important quality in a judge, and her background might concern litigants in cases involving guns.

Daniel Flores is a defense and civil rights lawyer with 13 years of experience and an impressive list of endorsers from all over the San Francisco political spectrum. He is a courtroom litigator with experience in big firms and his own practice, representing clients ranging from businesses to tenants fighting against their landlords. In the Democratic Party endorsement process, he was not afraid to declare his views on a wide range of political subjects, which made me wonder about both his judgment and his ability to be impartial.

Kimberly Williams is a Deputy District Attorney with 18 years of courtroom experience. She has handled both criminal and civil cases, and she has spearheaded the efforts to implement community justice courts to help those who commit low-level crimes find a path towards stability and self-sufficiency. In the Democratic Party endorsement interview, she was cagey about her political views, as she clearly understands the level of neutrality that will be expected of her if she is elected. She was also the only candidate who struck me as having the demeanor of a judge – she seemed thoughtful, smart, self-effacing and kind. Even though she’s a prosecutor, she understands that it is important to work to remove defendants from the cycle of incarceration and recidivism. And personally, I love that she would bring the perspective of a black single mother to the bench.

Note: A candidate can win outright with a majority of the votes in the June 3 election. But if no one exceeds 50 percent, the top two will compete in a November runoff.

US Congress, District 12: Nancy Pelosi

Remember: Nancy represents one of the most progressive districts in the country, and conservatives nationwide are constantly vilifying her based on her “San Francisco values.” And yet, not only has Pelosi refused to be marginalized, but she has earned the support of enough of her colleagues to become the most powerful woman in Congress. A remarkable feat indeed.

Her accomplishments In 21 years in the House of Representatives are far too many to list here. She has stood up for reproductive rights, immigrants, women, and the poor. She fought hard to protect the social safety net when the Republicans in Congress proposed their dramatic spending cuts in 2013 and eventually shut down the government. She helped shepherd Obamacare through the House, which was an incredible achievement in itself. If the Democratic Party takes Congress back in November, Pelosi will be Speaker again. And wouldn’t that be sweet.

US Congress, District 13: Barbara Lee

Barbara Lee speaks for me. She has been a consistent voice for progressive values in Congress since her election in 1998, and has taken many stands that were not politically popular nationwide, but that represented her district’s leftward leanings.

She earned my respect in 2001, when she was the sole member of Congress to vote against the authorization for George Bush’s “War on Terror” in the face of fierce post-9/11 nationalism. At the time, she was widely condemned for her vote, but history has proven her right. IMO, the military overreach that resulted from that Congressional authorization has been vast and damaging beyond measure.

In 2013, she also voted against CISPA, the bill that allowed federal intelligence agencies to share cyber-security intelligence and information with private entities and utilities. (Go girl!) You can trust her to vote to protect reproductive rights and civil rights, to more strictly regulate Wall Street, and to support public education. She is virtually unopposed.

US Congress, District 14: Jackie Speier

jackie-speierI love Jackie Speier. She is fearless, thoughtful and smart, and she also has a remarkable personal story. In 1978 she was left for dead on a tarmac in Guyana with her boss Congressman Leo Ryan during the airstrip shootings that triggered the massacre at Jonestown. In her extraordinary career in public service, she has championed consumer protections, banking reform, and increasing federal funding to public transit in the Bay Area, particularly to Muni and for the electrification of Caltrain, an important component of the California High-Speed Rail Project. She has been tough on PG&E after the San Bruno explosion, and recently she has taken on the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses and in the military. I can’t say enough great things about Jackie! Also: she has no credible opposition.