A Challenge to Politicians’ Musical Chairs

In June, voters may get to decide if politicians can run for their old seats — just as several former supervisors prepare to run (again).

Sup. Aaron Peskin on election night, after winning the race for District 3. Nov. 4, 2015., Photo by Gabrielle Lurie

Residents of the Presidio, Marina, and Pacific Heights still have 11 months before they cast their votes for a new supervisor to replace Mark Farrell, who’s termed out after eight years in office. Months away the election may be, but the race is already heating up. It’s getting expensive, and it’s getting dirty. In an ethics quagmire, Nick Josefowitz, a solar entrepreneur and former member of the BART Board, has donated $82,000 toward a ballot measure that would eliminate one of his key opponents.

Drafted by Corey Smith, who works at the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, the charter amendment would create stricter limitations on former mayors and supervisors who — after a four-year break in the position — can run for their old seats again. It’s a tactic that’s rarely been used in the past, with one big exception: Sup. Aaron Peskin won the District 3 election in November 2015, despite having held the seat for a full eight years between 2001 and 2009.

For District 2, this freedom to rerun allows former Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier, who served from 2004 to 2011, to campaign for office again — against Josefowitz. If this measure passes, she may be bumped out of the race.

In a Medium post, Smith describes how his desire to diversify the political pool spurred his authoring of the amendment. “But I also don’t believe we can move into that better future if we keep electing people from the past,” he writes. “While experience is valuable, it’s also important for the next generation of Democratic leaders (with a capital D) to start gaining experience to prepare us for the 21st- and 22nd-century problems. Climate change, housing affordability, and homelessness are just the tip of the iceberg challenges my generation is going to face in San Francisco, and our concerns will drive us to the best possible solutions.”

When former supervisors run for office again, Smith argues, they use their advantage of name recognition and connections to fund their races, pushing newer politicians to the side. “That inability to give young people a chance threatens the ability of my generation to lead today, and into the future,” he writes.

In some ways, this would apply to Josefowitz: At age 34, he’s fairly young to run for office. But fundraising doesn’t seem to be a problem for the millionaire — he’s already raised more than $140,000 for his campaign, and there’s still nearly a year to go before his name is on a ballot.

The measure could benefit Smith himself, who has acknowledged to SF Weekly in the past that he’s considered running for District 5 supervisor. Should he choose to do so in 2020, there’s a chance he’d be running against former District 8 Sup. Bevan Dufty, who — after a restructuring of political districts in 2012 — now lives within District 5’s borders. Dufty held a seat on the board between 2002 and 2011, before working as the “homeless czar” for the Mayor’s Office, and finally landing a spot on BART’s Board of Directors.

Creating space for new politicians to emerge from the masses is certainly an important value when considering a changing San Francisco, but for former Sup. John Avalos, this measure is not the right way to go about it. Instead, he argues, it’s simply taking power away from the voters. After spotting a fiery exchange on Twitter last week between Avalos and Smith, we reached out to him for a comment.

“The current situation does not in any way affect people’s ability to run for office,” he tells SF Weekly. “It doesn’t limit in any way. I encourage people who are interested in running for office to run for office. It’s really great that young people want to participate in our political process, and in policy-making. That is so essential for our democracy.”

Avalos fears that this policy will only be used to target individuals, like himself. “People are saying we don’t think that someone in the past who’s held office — like me — should ever run again. There are people who dislike me and probably never want me in office again.”

Smith argues that this policy is not personal, and the ballot measure does specify that those who are currently in a re-elected position, like Peskin, would not be affected. While the timing is not coincidental — there appear to be more people than ever interested in running for their old seats — Smith points out that “at any point in time this will always go back to an individual.” It’s a reasonable assertion: Any move to alter politicians’ power will always be taken personally by someone involved.

Either way, Avalos argues this policy will simply provide those heading to the ballot with a shorter list of names to vote on. “It boils down to limiting voter choice, and if you’re okay with having fewer choices, then you can vote for it,” he says.

With four candidates already running for District 2’s supervisor seat, six for District 8, and another six for District 10 — all spots that won’t be voted on until November 2018, allowing even more candidates to sign up — fewer choices might not seem like a bad thing for overwhelmed voters. But numbers don’t always equal variety: All four candidates running for the District 2 seat fall into the moderate spectrum of city politics. And without Peskin running against Julie Christensen for District 3’s spot in 2015, there wouldn’t have been a progressive candidate on the ballot to vote for.

Or, Smith believes, maybe there would have been — if Peskin hadn’t been such a formidable and fundable opponent.

The Department of Elections will have to certify that the measure has 51,340 signatures in order for it to qualify for the spring ballot — and with verifications on each one required, it’s safest for Smith and his cohorts to gather 71,000 to be safe. But sharpen your pencils, because with the amount of pressure (and money) it’s already received, this one’s probably going to be waiting for your vote on June 5.

Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor.
nsawyer@sfweekly.com |  @TheBestNuala

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