David Chiu Talks About Grassroots

by Paul Hogarth on July 14, 2008

“H. Brown has attempted to swiftboat me with an unfair, vicious smear campaign,” said District 3 Supervisor candidate David Chiu. “Voters who care about the future of San Francisco should know I have the most complete track-record on progressive issues than any other candidate in this race.” Chiu met with Beyond Chron on July 11th to talk about Grassroots Enterprises, the company he co-founded in 1999 that helps clients of various political persuasions use the Internet for grassroots campaigns – which is now under scrutiny for some of its affiliations. “Ultimately,” said Chiu, “we’re a technology company that licenses software.” Only six percent of their clients are conservative, he said, and Chiu explained that two right-wing figures at the company were hired by its Board of Directors over his personal objection. Chiu said he does not interact with most of the clients at Grassroots, and it’s the Washington DC office that really “calls the shots.” After explaining these connections, Chiu concluded by asking voters to look at the years of work he has put in for progressives.

With the endorsement of Supervisors Tom Ammiano, Ross Mirkarimi, Chris Daly and Aaron Peskin, David Chiu has long been considered the progressive front-runner in the District 3 race. But at every debate, perennial eccentric candidate H. Brown (who doesn’t live in the District and admits that running for office is a “hobby”) has attacked Chiu’s progressive credentials by citing his various affiliations at Grassroots Enterprise. Former Christian Coalition Executive Director Randy Tate is on the company’s Board of Directors, and ex-NRA spokesman Bill McIntyre is the current Executive Vice President.

Chiu co-founded Grassroots while a staff attorney at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights – where he managed online communications for a coalition of 50 civil rights, social service, religious and labor organizations. It was doing this work that inspired him to start the company. “There weren’t many technology tools at the time for organizing,” he said, “so we started with the premise of providing it to people of all backgrounds.” Chiu launched Grassroots Enterprise with a former law school classmate – and with his connections from a prior stint on Capitol Hill, hired ex-Clinton White House spokesman Mike McCurry as the company’s first CEO.

“It’s important to understand that Grassroots is – first and foremost – a technology company,” said Chiu. “We have never claimed to be a partisan organization. Since our inception, we have always felt our technology should be used by people of all stripes.”

According to Chiu, the “vast majority” of clients at Grassroots have been progressives like the Sierra Club and the ACLU – and only 6% of their clients have been conservative. Chiu says he personally has only worked with progressive and Democratic clients, and he runs the San Francisco office – which is “100% left.” As Chief Operating Officer, his current responsibilities involve making sure the firm is well run (e.g., workers get paid) – but he doesn’t deal with much of the client work. “Just like the Deputy Manager of a law firm is not responsible for managing cases,” he said, “I’m not involved at that level.”

Although Grassroots does have Republican clients, Chiu added there are limits as to who the company will work for: they have never worked for anti-gay organizations, and they have never worked for the National Rifle Association. “If we ever took on such clients,” he said, “I will tender my letter of resignation from the Company. And I have actually made that clear to our Board of Directors.”

But the company put Randy Tate (former head of the Christian Coalition) on its Board of Directors – and hired Bill McIntyre (former spokesman for the N.R.A.) as its Executive Vice President. The decision to bring them on, said Chiu, was made by the Board of Directors in Washington DC – and despite his vehement objections. “I have a status as a co-founder of the company,” he said, “but I am not on the Board that makes key hiring decisions. As one member of the managing team, my opinion is valued – but it does not always win.”

Despite his opposition to hiring Tate and McIntyre, said Chiu, the Board chose to politically diversify its team as part of a basic business decision. “We were such a left-leaning company when the Bush Administration and the Republican Congress were running D.C.,” he said. “I have stayed because the overwhelming number of clients and the impact we were having far outweighed the benefit that the company might bring to the 6% of our clients who are Republican.”

Whether or not such an explanation is adequate, Chiu has asked San Francisco activists and District 3 voters to evaluate his own record – and said any reasonable conclusion would find him the most solid progressive in the field. “Other candidates may care deeply about the issues,” he said, “but I’m the one who’s really been there – putting my money where my mouth is.”

“On civil rights,” said Chiu, “I’ve been an attorney at the Lawyers Committee. I worked hard in the mid-1990’s as a U.S. Senate staffer against the Defense of Marriage Act. I’ve been a strong advocate for marriage equality within the Democratic Party – and I was a founding member of API Equality to educate the Asian-American community about these issues.”

On tenants’ rights, he said, “I’ve chaired the largest housing non-profit in District 3 [Chinatown Community Development Center.] I sued on behalf of CCDC when the state under Pete Wilson was making them check the immigration status of their tenants. Right now, I’ve been representing tenants in one of the largest Ellis Act eviction cases.”

On immigrant rights, Chiu led the campaign to let non-citizen parents vote in School Board elections. As a neighborhood activist, Chiu says he pushed developers to build higher levels of affordable housing. He worked as an aide to U.S. Senator Paul Simon to oppose death penalty bills. And on workers’ rights, he represented sweatshop workers – and was one of only 2 Small Business Commissioners to support paid sick leave.

Ultimately, it will be up to District 3 voters to decide.

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