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Making the Democratic Party Safe for Democracy 

Reformist Dems pour sand in the machine's money gears

Wednesday, Feb 14 1996
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Now that the local Democratic Party has proven itself able to influence elections with its endorsement, the party's Central Committee has become a fashionable place to start one's political career. On March 26, 57 candidates will vie for 24 seats -- an unheard of level of interest -- and amid the electioneering a skirmish has opened up over party priorities.

A group of "small d" Democrats, led by populists and environmentalists, is taking on the party hierarchy. Calling themselves San Franciscans for a Democratic County Central Committee (SFDCCC), they've issued a challenge to the established machine, raising critiques of big-money politics and insider wheeling and dealing.

Last week, the SFDCCC's Brad Benson issued an ethics pledge to all Central Committee candidates asking them to eschew the status quo and adopt a list of good-government reforms. The proposals are hardly radical: new campaign finance rules, conflict-of-interest safeguards, and competitive bidding on the party's consultancy contracts. But they've still tipped off a rancorous game of flanking maneuvers and alleged retribution.

Responding to the ethics proposal from the old guard is Robert Barnes, the Central Committee's political consultant. Barnes, a prominent local campaign operative, made the first strike against the reformers -- a deft pre-emptive move -- last month when he obtained the group's ethics pledge before it could be sent to candidates.

Seizing the advantage, Barnes sought to define SFDCCC and its goals before the group could make itself known. The consultant dashed off a letter to all Central Committee candidates portraying the reformers as cynically motivated subversives -- before the candidates even received the pledge request form.

"Recently, a mailer may have been sent to you by a phony organization called San Franciscans for a Democratic County Central Committee," Barnes began his letter.

"This form is being used as an organizing tool by some mysterious political entity that may not have your best interests at heart," he continued. "The purpose of this political gimmick may be to try to embarrass you or have you commit to something that has not been fully discussed by you, your colleagues and other candidates.

"Be advised, that when you sign, date and give extensive information about your campaign to a mysterious and unknown entity, you run the risk of leaving a paper trail that can be used against you in the future."

It's no surprise that Barnes would take umbrage with the reforms. As the party's consultant, he prospers from the politics of back-scratch and expediency. SFDCCC proposals would increase scrutiny of his methods.

Nothing new or ambitious, the corrective measures SFDCCC is putting forward are, if anything, tepid.

In a letter to Central Committee candidates, SFDCCC asks the aspirants to support: increased voter registration, a return to some form of district elections, and a diminution of the influence of campaign money. So far, four candidates have signed and returned the pledge and several prominent pols have endorsed the effort, including Art Agnos, Roberta Achtenberg, and Supervisor Tom Ammiano.

Specifically, SFDCCC asks for support of the following suggested innovations:

* No Central Committee member could raise more than $1,000 in the first year after his election, unless he was running for another elective office. The proposal would freeze fund-raising for an entire year since Central Committee races come every two years.

* Require the Central Committee to produce a detailed accounting of revenues and expenditures, electoral endorsements, and activities.

* Require the committee to competitively bid contracts for printing, mailing, and consulting, including the publication of criteria for the contracts and the results of the bid process.

* Create a written contract between the party and its consultant that would include full disclosure of all other campaigns the consultant is working on.

This last item directly addresses Barnes' power, explaining his apparent hostility to the ethics pledge.

Under current rules, the party's consultant can work for as many outside campaigns as he or she wants, and this has been the case for almost a decade. This year, Barnes is working for four local campaigns: Carole Migden's Assembly bid, Prop. A (the Moscone bonds), Prop. B (the ballpark initiative), and Matthew Rothschild's judicial race.

As party consultant, Barnes' main job is producing the Central Committee's slate card, a mass mailing of the committee's endorsements in elections. The twin roles as slate card boss and campaign consultant place Barnes in a conflict of interest. It also gives him immense power, because the slate card is funded with contributions from the candidates and campaigns the Central Committee endorses. Since the party consultant delivers thousands of dollars for the Central Committee slate card from campaigns he is working on, it's only natural for people to call into question the legitimacy of the party's endorsement.

Many times over the past few years, committee and Democratic club endorsements have been criticized as the product of soft payola from a campaign to the Central Committee or a club. Barnes is often at the center of these accusations. But he denies corrupting endorsements. "I always behave ethically and legally," he says.

Yet just last week, one Democratic club president said that Barnes offered his organization $3,000 if it endorsed Carole Migden, the Moscone bonds, and the ballpark initiative. Barnes denies the allegation.

Still, the club president, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, pointed out the obvious: If Barnes carries considerable clout when approaching a club as an independent consultant, imagine how much power he has filling the dual roles of slate card consultant to the party and consultant to the campaigns seeking a place on that card.

Real or perceived, the conflict and appearance of corruption damage the integrity of the endorsement process.

"[The endorsement process] is totally mercenary and obscene," says Greg Day, a candidate for Central Committee who was first elected in 1994. "[Money] detracts from grass-roots politics. It has had an effect on the entire political process." Day is one of the few candidates who has already signed the pledge.

Besides trying to eradicate the party's insider mentality, Benson and his allies are also trying to reshift priorities at the Central Committee from an obsession with slate card mailings to more grass-roots outreach and voter registration.

The slate card, a mailer of party endorsements, goes out to every registered Democrat in the city. As a campaign tool, the slate card is powerful. Many observers attribute the card with the 1994 defeat of Republican Supervisor Annemarie Conroy. Every other candidate endorsed by the party won as well.

No one argues against an effective slate card operation. But one can't help notice the disparity between the time the party spends vote-trading and funding its slate card and how much energy and how many resources are spent on voter registration.

A review of campaign disclosure statements filed by the Central Committee reveals an apparent lack of interest in what should be a natural party priority.

According to available campaign disclosure statements, between 1991 and 1995 the Central Committee spent a total of $828,000 on consultants, mail, rent, fund-raising, and voter registration. But only 6.8 percent -- or $56,951 -- of that sum went to register new voters.

When the party does register voters, it does it in a sporadic way that inadvertently ignores the most disenfranchised communities.

Most of the voter registration work by the party is done during presidential and gubernatorial election years when the state party and elected officials cough up considerable sums of money.

Moreover, Day points out, the vast majority of the registration work takes place on Market Street and in the heavily traveled center of the city, where paid registration-gatherers can make the most money. Consequently, poor neighborhoods are often ignored. (The local party pays 50 cents for new voter affidavits. It pays an extra 25 cents if the voter's phone number is included.)

Barnes defended the party's registration efforts, pointing out that Willie Brown and Assemblyman John Burton spent approximately $10,000 on voter registration in public housing projects during the mayor's race. But Barnes' defense also supports the party's critics. Here was a valuable grass-roots organizing project. But it only happened because a political campaign saw a temporary advantage in registering the voters. The party simply has no ongoing efforts to organize in low-income communities.

Day blames the party's lack of voter registration work on the escalating cost of political campaigns. For instance, he points out, Carole Migden has raised nearly half a million dollars for her Assembly race. But she is virtually unchallenged. The more money she and her fellow elected officials raise from the finite reservoir of party donors, the less money there is for the Central Committee to fund voter registration.

Natalie Berg, the new Central Committee chair, says she will sign the ethics pledge and admits the party needs to clean up its act. "I remember reading a newspaper article some 12 years ago about the undue influence consultants have on the system," she says. "I was disturbed by it then, and I am still disturbed by it."

But while Berg is talking the reform line, Barnes is allegedly trying to punish candidates who have signed the pledge.

More than one candidate who has signed or plans to sign the pledge says he feels he was not endorsed by some Democratic club because of Barnes' involvement.

"Let me put it this way," says Leanna Dawydiak, a police officer and Central Committee candidate. "I have got no endorsements at any of the clubs he is involved in."

But Barnes dismisses the rumors. "The pledge isn't on my radar screen," he says. "I could care less.

About The Author

George Cothran

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