San Francisco's beleaguered Elections Commission, ridiculed as ineffectual in advancing instant runoff voting, once again has been hit by controversy, this time over allegations that its vice president, Michael Mendelson, may have illegally endorsed the man who appointed him – District Attorney Terence Hallinan – for the Dec. 9 runoff.
Mendelson was among 30 “prominent attorneys” listed in a Hallinan campaign mailer in October as backing the DA against challenger Kamala Harris. The men are longtime friends and former law partners. Before becoming an elections commissioner, Mendelson supported Hallinan in previous campaigns for DA and during Hallinan's seven years on the Board of Supervisors.
The city charter explicitly prohibits members of the Elections Commission from engaging in political campaigns, and Harris' campaign plans to file a complaint with the city Ethics Commission about the matter.
With Mendelson's name on the mailer for all to see, one might conclude that his apparent endorsement is a clear-cut case of an elections commissioner overstepping the bounds of neutrality. But he says he didn't do it.
Mendelson insists he did not endorse Hallinan and hasn't seen the mailer in question. “I've not endorsed him since becoming an elections commissioner,” says Mendelson. “And if [my name] appears, it's without my permission.”
Mendelson says he learned about the mailer after fellow commissioner Richard Shadoian, with whom he has frequently clashed, brought it to his attention during a conversation at City Hall on the night of the Nov. 4 election. He says that he called Hallinan and told him to remove his name from campaign materials and that the DA said he would “take care of it.”
Hallinan campaign spokeswoman Laurie Beijen called the episode an “innocent error” and insisted that her boss took immediate steps to rectify it. “Terence has known Mr. Mendelson for a long time, and [Mendelson] has long been a supporter. I'm presuming that someone in the campaign mistakenly included him [among the endorsers] without taking into account his current position on the Elections Commission,” she said.
Asked how the matter was rectified since the mailer went out in October, Beijen pledged that Mendelson's name would not be included in any endorsement lists the campaign produced between now and Dec. 9. However, as of last week, Mendelson was still listed as a Hallinan endorser on the campaign's Web site. After SF Weekly inquired about the matter, his name was removed.
Under the city's campaign code, false endorsements are punishable by fines of up to $5,000. If the Ethics Commission determines that Mendelson violated the law by endorsing Hallinan, he could be removed as a commissioner.
Insisting that he has done nothing wrong, Mendelson says that he is “neither perplexed nor upset” by the episode. “It's not a big deal,” he says.
But some of his fellow commissioners see it differently.
“I think he should at least step down as vice president of the Elections Commission,” says Shadoian. “And in view of the way the commission's integrity has been compromised by this, I would like to see [Hallinan] ask him to resign from the commission altogether.”
Shadoian disputes Mendelson's contention that Shadoian approached him about the matter, saying that it was Mendelson who greeted him on election night at City Hall by saying, “Did you hear what Terence did to me? He used my name without permission.” Shadoian and another commissioner, Tom Schulz, have said that the matter has been a topic of private conversation among the panel's seven members since at least late October, and that commission President Alix Rosenthal had – without success – encouraged Mendelson to address the matter publicly so as to limit the damage to the panel's credibility.
“Do I accept his explanation? No,” says Schulz. “Unless he's willing to say that his appointing authority [Hallinan] made a mistake, and do so clearly and openly so as to restore the commission's credibility on the matter.
“Appearances are important in these things,” he adds. “I've had people asking me what an elections commissioner is doing endorsing a candidate, and I'm sure I'm not the only one hearing it. It is a big deal.”
The commission, created by voter initiative in November 2001, has been beset by controversy almost from the time it first met in January of last year. Entrusted with supervision of the city's historically troubled Elections Department, the panel became embroiled in a fight with Mayor Willie Brown three months into its tenure after firing the department's former director, Tammy Haygood, who had been handpicked by Brown.
Distracted by Haygood's yearlong and ultimately unsuccessful effort to win her job back, the commission has until lately made little progress to advance the rollout of an instant runoff voting system that was approved by voters in March 2002 and was supposed to be in place last month. City and state elections officials, after months of finger-pointing, have signaled that they intend to make IRV a reality in time for next November's municipal elections.
Mendelson has been an especially assertive member of the panel, taking the lead in the move to oust Haygood and playing a prominent behind-the-scenes – and, critics say, obstructionist – role in the panel's involvement with IRV. Until recently, at least, he had been a fixture at the Elections Department, sources say, assuming the role of mentor to the department's new director, John Arntz. In July, Mendelson led an unsuccessful attempt to remove Rosenthal as commission president, and since then their working relationship has soured.
Although careful to avoid criticizing Mendelson, Rosenthal, who is also an attorney, expressed disappointment that the latest brouhaha appears to have once again cast the panel in an unflattering light.
“My No. 1 goal since becoming president has been to get the commission out of the newspapers,” she said. “This doesn't help.”