Making the Democratic Party Safe for Democracy

Reformist Dems pour sand in the machine's money gears

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.

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