The Revolution is Canceled

How the grand plan for district elections could backfire

The August sun is still warm in the early evening when the guests arrive at the little get-together on Russian Hill. Jonee Levy and her husband, Harvey Hacker, have asked a dozen or so of their neighbors to come over for a political soiree to meet Aaron Peskin, a candidate for district supervisor.

The guests picking at the foie gras have clearly led comfortable lives. This neighborhood, at the base of the crooked block of Lombard Street, has long been the home of conservative, old money. The women favor a young, modern look, with black pantsuits and carefully tousled hair. The men keep whatever hair they have left closely cropped.

Jonee, who has had a few glasses of wine, greets everyone with a lolling, east Tennessee accent. On the deck overlooking North Beach, she speaks in conspiratorial tones about Peskin's carpetbagger competitors. After discovering a reporter in the crowd, Harvey, with a nudge, says to Peskin, "Hey, Aaron, how about we go out back and smoke some grass roots."

When it's time for him to speak, Peskin, a short man with a thick, black beard, begins on a personal note by telling the group that every morning he wakes up at the crack of dawn and goes for a swim in the icy waters of the bay. "And the only reason why I mention it," he says, "is because that's how I feel launching this political campaign." The neighbors chuckle politely. He proceeds to talk about the opportunity of district elections, and the importance of electing someone who cares about the neighborhood. He speaks eloquently about blocking mammoth development projects and tearing down the antennas hung like Christmas ornaments on Sutro Tower. Of course, playing to the fiscally conservative crowd, Peskin leaves out any talk of rent control, or his efforts to save families from Ellis Act evictions, or that Supervisor Tom Ammiano, considered by many in the neighborhood to be the second coming of Mao Tse-tung, has given Peskin his endorsement.

How is it that one of the city's most hard-core neighborhood activists is now currying favor with the moneyed elite, forced to bite his tongue on the issues he's passionate about? Welcome to the new era of district elections.


In 1996, when an odd alliance of left-wingers and conservatives placed the concept of district elections on the ballot, it was with the hope of electing more of the Aaron Peskins of the world. The populist reform was supposed to bring back the good old days of the late 1970s, when officials like George Moscone and Harvey Milk ran the city and San Francisco became famous for its bold social policies. When voters approved the measure four years ago, the city's left-of-left liberals had visions of an Ammiano revolution. Ethnic minority groups hoped for more diversity. Republicans dreamed of one day electing one of their own to the board. Everyone believed it would be cheaper to run a campaign in the new system and easier to elect a broader cross section of supervisors.

But as the races have begun to take shape across the city, it has become apparent that district elections could actually quash the political ambitions of those who supported the process. Rather than expanding the political spectrum, district elections will likely narrow San Francisco's ideological representation, pushing the city, like the rest of the country, further toward the middle. There will be no Ammiano revolution. Ethnic minorities could actually be at a disadvantage in the new electoral system. Don't bet on any Republicans winning office either. And though it will be cheaper to run a campaign, money will still play a significant role -- in the worst possible way.

Even the concept's backers are having second thoughts.

"District elections could be a huge setback for the progressive cause," says Richard DeLeon, a professor at San Francisco State University who championed the "progressive movement" in his book Left Coast City. DeLeon was commissioned to draw the new district lines in 1996 with the express purpose of emphasizing liberal, conservative, and minority voting blocs. But because the city's demographics have changed so drastically in the last 20 years, no matter how he sliced up the pie he couldn't give any community a clear majority. "There might be less representation for minorities. The liberal segments of the city could actually lose seats. Across the board there will be a shift toward the center."

A perfect illustration of these unintended consequences is the battle for North Beach -- quite possibly the most vicious race in the city -- in which the candidates who were supposed to do best under district elections look as though they will have the hardest time of it. The district has more Chinese-American residents than any other in the city, but the two Chinese-American candidates, Lawrence Wong and Rose Chung, will almost certainly cancel each other out and have little impact on the race.

Chung, a Republican, is likely to do more harm than good to her party as well, by taking votes away from the other Republican in the race, Mike DeNunzio. The Grand Old Party had high hopes for District 3, considered the third-most-conservative ward in the city. But now both of its candidates are long shots to even make the runoff.

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