How Ross Mirkarimi Ran Away with D5

by Casey Mills on November 10, 2004

The race for District 5 may go down as one of the most contentious in San Francisco’s history. Twenty-two candidates slogged through months of campaigning, residents waded through seas of door-hangers and mailings, and every mildly political club in the city tiptoed through endorsement processes. Candidates spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, made countless deals, and called in political heavyweights from Howard Dean to Gavin Newsom.

So how did Green Party co-founder Ross Mirkarimi win so decisively? Especially in a District with just 3,000 registered Greens facing 20,000 registered Democrats? Mirkarimi ran in a presidential-year election in which Democratic visibility was extremely high, without the support of hardly any unions or the massive Democratic Party apparatus. Yet preliminary results reveal he likely won every precinct in the district.

It would be easy to shrug his victory off as evidence of the power of Matt Gonzalez’s and the Guardian’s endorsements. But this only tells a small part of the story, as both of these didn’t come until September and represent just two endorsements among hundreds made in the race. Robert Haaland, for example, had endorsements from two assemblymen, five members of the Board of Supes, four former supes, the Harvey Milk and the Alice B. Toklas club, to name a few. And Lisa Feldstein snagged both the Tenants Union and the Chronicle endorsements.

Perhaps the most effective strategy employed by Mirkarimi’s campaign was its extensive, relentless field campaign. Early on in the race, Mirkarimi went down to major transit corridors and introduced himself to countless residents. He consistently visited churches on Sundays, strongholds of black support in San Francisco. And volunteers started phone-banking months before Election Day, as well as knocking on doors in every neighborhood in the District.

This field campaign distinguished Mirkarimi’s campaign from his rivals. While other candidates may have used similar tactics, most waited until extremely close to the election to do so, and did not do so with the same regularity. The result? Many voters had a face to associate with Mirkarimi’s name, a feat extremely difficult to achieve in a race with so many candidates.

The Mirkarimi campaign also took a unique approach to gaining endorsements. Rather than fruitlessly pursuing big endorsements Mirkarimi knew a Green had no chance at obtaining, he instead sought out well-known community leaders. Mary Rogers, sometimes referred to as the godmother of the Fillmore, endorsed Ross, as did Western Addition native and political activist Danny Glover. Steve Nakago, a prominent community member of Japantown, also endorsed Mirkarimi. While these endorsements didn’t land big donations, they likely increased Mirkarimi’s credibility in communities of color, as did the campaign literature appearing in five different languages.

To some degree, Mirkarimi had the ability to tap into the massive network of Gonzalez supports that formed during last year’s mayoral run-off. Mirkarimi amassed a sizable group of young, true believers who brought both playfulness and commitment to the effort. They handed out literature and made phone calls, but also sported orange Ross shirts around neighborhoods and dressed up as Mirkarimi on Halloween. Without union support and the chunk of campaigners that comes along with it, this largely grassroots volunteer base proved essential to victory.

However, many former Gonzalez supporters were spread out across the city working on other campaigns, particularly on School Board races and for Proposition F. So, the campaign had to rely more on the Gonzalez campaign’s brain trust to pull off the victory.

Perhaps number one on that list was Mirkarimi himself, with extensive experience running successful political campaigns here in the City. The last campaign for which he was a top aide – Gonzalez’s bid for mayor – resulted in defeat, however. Those involved with Mirkarimi’s campaign believe they managed to incorporate the lessons of last December’s defeat, including the necessity of reaching out to absentee voters, into the D5 campaign.

Mirkarimi’s campaign also embraced new technology in their effort to win over the large young, counter-cultural contingent in D5. Ross’s CD, delivered door to door, included voices from the community over music, a unique strategy that likely won over some of its target audience. In addition, the campaign sent out over 3,000 text messages to District 5 voters’ cell phones, and employed an intelligent phone-banking system created by Marc Salomon, a member of the campaign staff.

All of this must be tempered with the fact that this staff had an extremely solid candidate to promote. Mirkarimi has consistently proven to have a deep understanding of the issues facing San Francisco, as well as an ability to provide a progressive voice in the City’s decision-making process. He also possesses a gravitas that likely won as many supporters as his policy positions. But other strong candidates dotted the field; Feldstein seemed to connect to voters, Haaland possessed a history of activism to rival Mirkarimi’s, and Bill Barnes’ years as Chris Daly’s aide gave him a deep familiarity with policy.

Ultimately, much credit must be given to the campaign, one which progressives can take important lessons from. Embracing technology will play a larger and larger roll in launching successful campaigns, especially among the city’s younger voters.

More importantly, expending effort on behind-the-doors deals for endorsements is ultimately not that effective. While the endorsements of unions may stuff the campaign funds box, gleaning support from prominent community activists may be a more effective way of gaining voters’ support.

And, ultimately, nothing compares to a committed field campaign that emphasizes person-to-person contact and remains determined to reach every voter.

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