SF Election Proposal Hurts Tenants

by on January 5, 2016

Avalos proposal for special elections ensures low voter turnout

San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos recently announced a proposed charter amendment that would remove the mayor’s power to appoint supervisors. It’s a very bad idea. While it’s no surprise that Avalos wants to weaken Mayor Ed Lee’s power, this proposal disenfranchises two key progressive constituencies: tenants and low-income voters.

Here’s why Avalos’ progressive colleagues should reject this proposal.

Anti-Tenant Plan

Under Avalos’ plan (which needs six supervisors to reach the ballot and then must be approved by voters), should Jane Kim win the State Senate race in November her successor would be picked by the supervisors, not Mayor Lee. This interim appointee could not seek election. Kim’s replacement would instead be picked through either a special election or regularly scheduled one if it falls within 180 days.

There is no “regularly scheduled” election in 2017. This means that Avalos is promoting a plan by which the next District 6 supervisor could be chosen in an extremely low turnout spring 2017 special election.

Who will be voting in that election?

Based on decades of past voting, it will not be the primarily low-income residents of the Tenderloin or 6th Street. Rather, it will be the D6 condo owners and affluent renters who disproportionately vote in low-turnout special elections.

I’ve done voter outreach in the Tenderloin long enough to know it would take a huge influx of money to ensure SRO tenants vote in a D6 only special election. A progressive candidate is not likely to have such funds. And even if they do, this money is better  spent winning the support of those who always cast ballots in low-turnout elections.

Simply put, Avalos’ plan disenfranchises the Tenderloin. The proposal harkens back to the 1975 district election lines that divided the neighborhood into two districts separated by Leavenworth Street. Progressives soon regretted drawing the lines in such a way and the 2000 district boundaries kept all of the Tenderloin in D6, which has remained the case.

If Scott Wiener proposed a plan that would increase the power of SOMA condo owners to elect the next D6 supervisor Avalos and his colleagues would be rushing to denounce it; that Avalos is the sponsor should not alter this opposition.

The Plan is Anti-Democratic

Avalos’ plan is also profoundly undemocratic. The voters of D6—or of any district impacted—did not elect any of the supervisors who would be appointing the interim successor. They did have a chance to vote for the mayor, whose selection power Avalos seeks to terminate.

There is neither democracy nor accountability in Avalos’ plan. Voters angry over Mayor Lee’s appointment of Julie Christensen had the opportunity to unseat the mayor in the November election; they have no ability to unseat any of the supervisors voting for an interim replacement.

Incredibly, Avalos’ plan puts a supervisor in place that is not accountable to the district for any of their votes! Since they will not face voters, they can ignore the district’s needs.

Why would a “progressive” want to promote a process that appoints someone to office who is entirely unaccountable to voters? I know Avalos opposes Mayor Lee but disenfranchising low-income voters is the wrong way to address his grievance.

Current System Works

Avalos says his plan is needed because “The mayor spent so much of his time not even campaigning for his own election but campaigning for his appointee on the Board of Supervisors. It shows that something is really amiss.”

I reached the opposite conclusion from the D3 election. The fact that voters rejected the mayor’s D3 choice shows the system is working. The current process forces the mayor to pick someone who can win an election. When the mayor’s choice falls short, voters replace them.

In contrast, Avalos’ plan gives voters no power to hold an interim choice accountable. It then relies on low-turnout special elections to unfairly skewer district representation to benefit affluent high propensity voters at the expense of the poor.

Avalos’ plan also throws out progressive ranked choice voting in mayoral elections in exchange for returning to the former system of December runoffs when the leading candidate gets less than 50% (not the case this year but usually so).

I originally opposed eliminating mayoral runoffs due to the massive citywide excitement generated by the Newsom-Gonzalez runoff in 2003. But since that time voter turnout in non-presidential races has so declined that choosing a mayor by a December runoff makes little sense. Avalos may believe he could have beaten Lee in a 2011 runoff but he is wrong; this new plan is a classic case of a solution in search of a problem.

The Board’s progressives will be tempted to show unity with Avalos’ plan to reduce Mayor Lee’s appointment power. But a measure that allows districts to elect supervisors via special elections is not progressive. It is reactionary and elitist.

That Avalos would promote such a plan when it could first impact the city’s most low-income district (D6) makes it particularly outrageous. Low turnout special elections are never “progressive.” Avalos’ proposal will also make it much more difficult for a progressive like Rafael Mandelman to win in D8 should Wiener win the State Senate race. The tenant votes needed for a progressive victory in D8 will not be there for a special election.

San Francisco faces many problems in 2016. The method of appointing replacement supervisors is not among them. If Avalos and other supervisors want to strike a blow against Mayor Lee, they need to find ways to do so that do not involve disenfranchising tenants and low-income voters

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He describes earlier efforts to disenfranchise the Tenderloin in The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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