For the first time since San Francisco reinstated district elections in 2000, an incumbent supervisor is not assured of victory a week before Election Day. Since downtown businesses, BOMA, the Plumbers Union, the Police Officers Association, and other opponents of Supervisor Chris Daly have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on mailers attacking him, Daly’s negatives have been raised enough to put his once-certain re-election in doubt. In a district where only 13,000 residents cast ballots for supervisor in 2002—1/3 the number cast in most districts—the impact of these anti-Daly mailers has been huge. Supervisor McGoldrick easily withstood a similar onslaught against tougher opponents in 2004, but, unlike Daly’s, a seasoned campaign manager ran his campaign. This race resembles both the Agnos-Jordan mayoral contest in 1991 and the Phil Burton-Milton Marks congressional race in 1982— and will ultimately be decided by the number of low-income, infrequent voters who cast ballots.
District 6 Supervisor Chris Daly was considered such a shoe-in for re-election that downtown interests could only find Rob Black, a former aide to conservative Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, to become what appeared to be a token opposition candidate. But Black’s very obscurity has helped him in this race, as anti-Daly forces have succeeded in making this race not Daly vs. Black but a referendum on Chris Daly.
In detailing how a seeming electoral walkover became a tight race, one myth must first be dispelled.
Contrary to conventional accounts, Daly’s problems are not a function of changing district demographics. The notion that thousands of new, more conservative condo owners have flooded District 6 since 2002, and that this is the cause of the tighter than expected race, is false.
The biggest population increase in District 6 since Daly last faced voters is found in the large number of SRO’s now housing poor people through city programs. More new permanent residents in District 6 are low-income tenants than condo owners. Ironically, had Gavin Newsom accepted progressives’ wishes and not implemented Care not Cash, District 6 would not be as progressive a district.
Black is killing Daly among condo owners, and they vote at a much higher percentage than do SRO residents. But since the number of new low-income permanent residents in District 6 is far greater, the condo impact is diluted.
Much as some progressives want to believe that Daly’s progressive policies have spawned a class-based backlash, that is not why he now faces a close race.
Like Art Agnos and Phil Burton, Chris Daly has tremendous confidence in his understanding of policy and his practice of politics. The positive side of this confidence is that all three men—and Phil Burton’s accomplishments on behalf of the poor are rivaled only by President Lyndon Johnson among post-WW2 politicians— listen more to their own hearts and minds than to any advisors.
In Agnos’ case, this meant allowing homeless people to camp in front of City Hall even though the media, the electorate, and his own political and policy advisors told him this was a big mistake. Agnos did not feel comfortable removing people from the Civic Center Park until he was satisfied that he had adequate services for the homeless population in place.
Agnos’s stubborn insistence on allowing what became known as “Camp Agnos” won him attacks from the center and right, and then attacks from the left when he finally broke the camp up. A mayor that won in 1987 with 70% of the vote, and was cruising to an easy re-election, made a decision that brought him challengers from across the political spectrum.
These challengers included a former police chief named Frank Jordan. Like Rob Black, Jordan had no voting record that he could be criticized about. While Black blames Daly for problems—homelessness, dirty streets, drug dealing, crime—that a single supervisor has little or no control over, Jordan’s similar attacks on the city’s incumbent Mayor Agnos were viewed by voters as legitimate and effective—-regardless of the fact that Agnos inherited all of these problems from Dianne Feinstein.
Jordan pulled off an astonishing upset victory by framing the race as an up and down vote on Agnos. Black is hoping to win with a similar strategy toward Daly, and appears to have succeeded in convincing many voters that crime problems in District 6 are Daly’s fault, not that of the Mayor who controls the Police Department.
A critical difference between Agnos’s situation in 1991 and Daly’s is that the supervisor does not face division among his original progressive base. Enthusiasm for Agnos’ re-election campaign was largely confined to his longtime backers and those who were part of his Administration—-in contrast, progressive activists are now spending all of their free time fighting for Daly’s re-election.
This latter point explains why Black backers hope November 7 will bring a repeat of 1991, while Daly supporters can look to the 1982 Burton-Marks race for encouragement.
After Ronald Reagan won the White House and Republicans won control of the US Senate in 1980, the national party thought it could take down progressive icon Congressman Phil Burton in 1982. Republicans thought—as downtown interests do about Daly—that the incumbent’s focus on legislative achievements had created a distance with his constituents that could be exploited.
The national Republican Party told liberal Republican San Francisco State Senator Milton Marks that it would spend millions on his behalf if he took on Burton. Marks was not only popular, but the district had become more conservative; in order to help his brother John keep his Congressional seat, Phil Burton had moved thousands of conservative voters into his own district in the statewide reapportionment following the 1980 census (this was the legendary reapportionment where Burton successfully eliminated five incumbent Republican congressional seats).
Just as San Francisco’s corporate elite thought demographic changes in District 6 made Daly vulnerable, national Republicans thought Phil Burton’s redrawn congressional district made him ripe for defeat.
Phil Burton did lack personal contact with most of his constituents—but Republicans underestimated the loyalty of his base. After early polls showed a tight race, Burton’s field campaign ground Marks into the dust. Burton won by a shocking 18 points, and proved that a politician known for his legislative genius also knew how to win elections.
Can Daly repeat Burton’s feat? His negatives are much higher than Burton’s, but his base is just as passionate. In recent weeks, skilled progressive organizers have jumped into the campaign, hoping to make up for months of a weak, unfocused campaign that Daly appeared to be running himself (he also ran his two prior campaigns).
As for the polls showing Black ahead, David Binder is San Francisco’s best and most accurate pollster. But people who have been calling District 6 voters over the past month reach about five live people an hour, so how Binder has been able to obtain a representative sampling to support his findings is unclear.
A poll taken last week found the race tied, and joined with Binder in finding a large undecided block. But keep in mind that campaign consultants and pollsters feel that District 6 is the hardest community in San Francisco to extract accurate polling data
Chris Daly has expended most of his political capital helping low-income people who do not make campaign contributions and usually do not vote. His re-election now depends on these voters showing their appreciation by casting ballots on his behalf.
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