Obscure S.F. Election Challenges Future of California Democratic Party

This weekend San Franciscans can choose a total of 28 delegates to represent the city in the state’s biggest political party — and you'll probably recognize at least a few of them.

It’s not necessarily popular to identify as a Democrat in San Francisco. We have clubs with the political party in the name — the Latino Democratic Club, the Harvey Milk Democratic Club, or the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club — but when taken on its own the word “Democrat” causes many a die-hard progressive to wrinkle their nose. Decades of white-washing, corruption, and shady deals with Republicans have left liberals jaded, so much so that even though 84 percent of San Franciscans voted for Hillary Clinton in November 2016, only a little more than half of the city’s voters are registered Democrats.

But there are advantages to being registered with a political party — mailers and spam emails notwithstanding. This weekend, San Francisco Democrats can cast their ballots in a little-known vote to shape the future of the state’s Democratic Party from the inside out. The biennial selection of our Assembly District Delegates — commonly known as ADEM — is upon us.

Whether they’re aware of it or not, all San Franciscans live in one of two Assembly districts. David Chiu represents Assembly District 17, roughly cut out to be the eastern half of the city. Phil Ting’s Assembly District 19 covers the western half, plus much of Daly City and Colma.

While we’re only able to vote for one assemblyperson, every other year San Franciscans have the opportunity to elect 14 brand new Assembly District Delegates to the Democratic State Central Committee,  the group of people who help determine the California Democratic Party‘s official party platform. The selected delegates, half men and half women — self-identified, of course — will help choose the party’s leadership, influence its policy decisions, and decide which ballot measures and candidates to endorse in the 2019 and 2020 elections.

It’s no small task. As the League of Pissed Off Voters reminded us this week, the 2017 Democratic State Central Committee’s vote for chair of the California Democratic Party was mired in drama. In a stark reminder that every vote counts, Kimberly Ellis, a progressive woman of color who had the support of then-Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, lost by a meager 2 percent. Eric Bauman, who won, stepped down last November over sexual-harassment claims.

With 28 total positions available, this weekend gives San Francisco Democrats a chance to send the best and brightest into the tumultuous party.

David Chiu’s slate of candidates.

Chiu has created his own slate of delegates he’d like elected in AD 17, a list that includes several well-known faces. Mawuli Tugbenyoh works in Mayor London Breed’s office as the liaison to the Board of Supervisors. Laura Foote is the executive director of YIMBY Action. And Todd David leads the pro-development group San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.

But the issues Chiu’s slate is running on — no border wall, a fair economy, LGBTQ rights — are generally easy shoo-ins for Californians.

In contrast, the opposing Reform Democrats slate raises issues much more likely to be heavily controversial if voted on at a state level: repealing the Ellis Act, creating public banks, outlawing homeless sweeps, and decriminalizing substance use. They’re not afraid of thinking big, either. No. 1 on the list is “get corporate money out of the Democratic Party.”

This bold to-do list is intentional. Peter Gallotta, who was elected as a delegate for AD 17 in 2017, says reform-centered delegates emerged after President Donald Trump won the election, when people were really disillusioned with the Democratic Party.

“In 2016, we reached a breaking point,” he says. “The Democratic Party had lost its way, and it had lost its principles. Clearly, something was wrong with the message, with the institution, with the organizing. It seemed like something was rotting.”

Rather than give up on it entirely, Gallotta took on the task of running as a delegate and changing it from the inside.

“We want to take the party back for the 99 percent, for the working people,” he says. “What does the Democratic Party stand for? Is it for Wall Street or Main Street? Is the party going to turn a blind eye to deportations, or are they going to stand up for DREAMers?”

The reform slate of candidates.

This year’s AD 17 reform slate is even more diverse than years past. Kevin Ortiz of the San Francisco Latino Democratic Club works hard to prevent displacement and gentrification in the Mission District. Jane Martin is a longtime fearless union organizer. Shanti Singh co-heads the Democratic Socialists – San Francisco Chapter when she’s not fighting for tenants’ rights at her day job. Even former-Supervisor John Avalos is vying for a seat.

But not everyone on the reform slate is so well known. Kitty Fong is running to ensure that issues affecting Asian-American San Franciscans are not forgotten or ignored. A newcomer to city politics, Fong recently worked as a legislative aide to former-Supervisor Jane Kim.

“I grew up in Chinatown in an SRO, and I know how important it is for families with children to get into affordable housing,” she tells SF Weekly. “Children should not be focusing on housing or where they’re going to sleep. They should be focusing on education.”

Policies aside, Fong says her presence on the slate would provide much-needed perspective.

“Asian-American females are lacking representative voices, especially with Jane and Katy [Tang] leaving office,” she says. “With only Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer left, we are lacking participation in all areas, from department heads to commissions. We need Asian-American representation. I want to bring their voices to a state level.”

A collaborative slate has been prepared for AD 19.

While issues of diversity, inclusivity, and reform rage in AD 17, an entirely different race is shaping up across town. After a few bumps and bruises with delegate slates from years past, Phil Ting reached out to the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) to help him curate an AD 19 slate that accurately reflects his constituency and its issues. DCCC member Kelly Akemi Groth stepped up to the plate, scrambling to schedule meetings with potential delegates over the holidays. After much back-and-forth, the slate was finalized, with big names like Brigitte Davila — the president of the City College of San Francisco Board of Trustees — next to smaller ones, like Alan Wong, who is a legislative aide to the newly sworn-in Supervisor Gordon Mar. But the selection wasn’t easy.

“We had so many awesome people who wanted to run, who had to step back for different reasons,” Groth says.

In the end, the whole process “was pretty collaborative,” she adds.

With double the candidates of AD 19 it’s likely that turnout will be bigger at the AD 17 event on Saturday. But candidates aside, it can be hard to get hundreds of people to line up on a weekend and vote for something almost no one has heard of. Nevertheless, Gallotta believes its importance can’t be overlooked. “The Assembly District election is one way that we’re able to set the agenda and build a party that we care about as Democrats,” he says. “I think our biggest hurdle is complacency. It took us two years to take the House, and it’ll take more than two years to bolster the party and win the presidential election. This is a year where we have to continue to organize and show up.”

If you’ve got that democracy itch and want to head to the polls this weekend, you can find out what Assembly District you’re in by visiting findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov.

To check on your voter registration status and to see if you’re a registered Democrat, visit sos.ca.gov/elections/cavoter. You can sign up in just a few minutes online, or do so in person at either voting event this weekend.

If you’re a member of Assembly District 17, head to the Women’s Building at 3543 18th St. on Saturday, Jan. 12 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. to hear speeches from candidates and vote.

And if you’re in Assembly District 19, trek down to 101 Lake Merced Blvd. in Daly City on Sunday, Jan. 13 from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

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