How Jane Kim Defeated the San Francisco Democratic Machine

by Randy Shaw on November 8, 2010

As I walked around the Uptown Tenderloin on Election Day, I was again struck by the audacity of Jane Kim’s challenge to the San Francisco Democratic Party machine. Affixed to nearly every building were large, glossy Debra Walker campaign posters highlighting her impressive organizational endorsements. The expensive display followed Walker’s weekend mail blitz featuring three negative pieces attacking Jane Kim. The mailers accused the young Asian-American progressive of “unethical campaign activities” and of having a “checkered record.” They also claimed that Kim “moved to District 6 just to run for office.” These attacks, and those leveled against Kim in the Bay Guardian, help explain why so few independent progressives are willing to challenge San Francisco’s increasingly insular Democratic Party machine. But Jane Kim and her campaign fought the machine, and they won. Her victory is a major breakthrough for San Francisco’s progressive movement.

I can only imagine the teeth gnashing at the Bay Guardian when it became clear that their more than two-year campaign to first clear the field for Debra Walker, and then demonize any strong progressive challengers, had failed. District 6 has long been viewed as one of the core Bay Guardian neighborhoods, and Walker’s defeat by roughly 9% of the vote does not speak well for the paper’s political clout in the city.

But opposition from the Bay Guardian was just one of the hurdles that Jane Kim had to overcome. A greater obstacle was the San Francisco Democratic Party’s refusal to give her its second choice endorsement. The Party was so intent on keeping Kim’s name off its omnipresent slate cards that it was even willing to help “downtown” candidate Theresa Sparks as a preferred alternative to the anti-machine Kim.

Machine Endorsement Hypocrisy

San Francisco progressives initiated ranked-choice voting after the two candidates in the 2002 District 8 Supervisors race split the progressive vote, with one losing to moderate Bevan Dufty in a runoff. The Kim-Walker-Sparks District 6 race paralleled that earlier contest, except now progressives had ranked choice voting to ensure that the votes of the second place progressive would boost the leading progressive candidate.

Yet the progressives who control the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) did not use ranked choice voting in the D6 race. The DCCC made no second place choice, picking only Debra Walker.

This increased the chances that the moderate candidate they claimed to oppose – Theresa Sparks – would win. Specifically, it meant that voters relying on the DCCC slate card would get no guidance on who progressives saw as the second best choice, and might make Sparks their second choice instead of Jane Kim.

Why would self-identified progressives increase the chances of the alleged “downtown” candidate beating Kim? After all, according to Bay Guardian City Editor and Walker backer Steve Jones, Walker supporters “were unhappy with Kim’s late decision to enter the race, concerned it might split the vote and allow downtown-backed Theresa Sparks – who could be viewed as a ‘machine’ candidate on the other end of the political spectrum – to steal the seat for the moderates.”

If Walker supporters on the DCCC were really worried about preventing Sparks’ election, they would have endorsed Kim as their second choice. But the machine had a greater priority: it wanted to send a message to other progressives that anyone who tries to follow Kim’s lead of running without the machine’s permission will get no DCCC endorsement, in addition to facing the full opposition of the machine’s organizational and media allies.

As I previously wrote, the progressive machine, which the Bay Guardian’s Tim Redmond claims is “about a shared ideology more than it’s about power,” rejected Kim but had no problem giving a second-place endorsement to Rebecca Prozan in District 8. Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenants Union described Prozan as having “terrible positions” on tenants’ rights.

The Democratic machine tried to designate Jane Kim and the grassroots movement of multi-racial, ethnically diverse activists backing her as unworthy of progressive support. But the forces of change surrounding Jane Kim would not be denied, and her campaign reminded the city of the power of broad-multi racial electoral coalitions fueled by the drive for justice.

District 6 is Progressive, Asian

As a young Asian-American professional, Jane Kim is close to the perfect demographic for the changing District 6.

When the Bay Guardian’s Steve Jones’ advised Kim to run for Supervisor in the heavily Asian-American but politically conservative District 4 (he claims the best of intentions), he and many others were likely unaware that nearly 25% of District 6 voters are Asian-American. The Uptown Tenderloin has long housed Southeast Asian and Chinese-American seniors and families, working-class Filipinos have a deep history in the South of Market, and young Asian Americans make up a fair share of those living in the new SOMA housing built since 2000.

Kim worked hard in all of the above neighborhoods, and won each handily.

Of the San Francisco’s three most progressive supervisor districts (5,6,9), District 6 has far and away the most Asian-American voters. Jane Kim was always a perfect fit for the district, which is why the repeated efforts by the Bay Guardian and the Walker campaign to portray her as an “outsider” never took hold.

Absentee Voting Weakens the Machine

Jane Kim took a large lead over Walker in the initial absentee ballot count, and continued to outpace her top challenger among people who did not cast ballots in a polling booth. In contrast, Walker won Election Day voting by around fifty votes.

The difference is the impact of voters going to the polls with slate cards, with the overwhelming favorite in San Francisco being the Democratic Party card. These slate cards are handed out everywhere on Election Day, and thousands take them to the polls and vote accordingly.

The Party slate card is a critical source of the machine’s electoral clout. It helped both Walker and fellow DCCC top choice Rafael Mandelman in District 8 do far better in election day in person balloting than in absentees.

But with every election, a higher percentage of the electorate is voting absentee. In fact, a majority of San Francisco voters in this election voted absentee. This reduces the electoral power of the slate card, and of the increasingly insular San Francisco Democratic machine.

There are some very principled people on the DCCC. But in politics, less idealistic and more “insider” voices often dominate, and they have foolishly narrowed the Democratic Party’s reach by treating many progressives of color, as well as much of San Francisco’s progressive Asian American community, as not part of the club.

None of the top DCCC endorsees in Districts 6, 8, and 10 won this November, and none even came close to winning. In fact, when you think of all the money and all the mailings and all the insider, backroom deals and all of the feeding of stories to the Bay Guardian and all of the parties and all of the intrigue – when you put it all together, the machine’s power all paled in comparison to Jane Kim’s grassroots, door-to-door campaign that focused on listening to voters.

It’s an inspiring message. And I urge those thinking of running for Supervisor in District 5 in 2012 to spend the next two years working for the community, talking with residents and business owners, and not spending any time worrying about the Bay Guardian or the DCCC. Jane Kim revealed that these forces are like the Wizard of Oz after Toto pulled back the curtain — still capable of making a lot of noise but with their lack of power nakedly exposed.

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