In District 6, Jane Kim Takes On the Machine

by Randy Shaw on October 5, 2010

On April 30, 2008, more than two years before the November 2010 election, San Francisco Bay Guardian Editor Tim Redmond publicly urged Mark Leno to endorse Debra Walker for District 6 Supervisor. Redmond argued Walker was “going to be the consensus progressive candidate to succeed Chris Daly.” Redmond again promoted Walker’s election on January 29, 2009, but warned “the rumor mill is abuzzin” that School Board member Jane Kim might enter the race.” Rather than challenge Walker, he said, Kim “ought to stay on the school board, where she is doing a great job, and then look for other offices.”

After she formally entered the race, the Guardian criticized Kim for stating she was “not part of anyone’s machine.” Redmond believes that “when we beat each other up with words like ‘machine,’ we undermine the whole progressive movement.” He ignores Walker’s own insistence that she is part of the “progressive machine” that helped “take over the Democratic Party,” and that “will take District 6 back for the people.” The effort by the young, Asian-American progressive Jane Kim to challenge an increasingly insular Democratic Party machine pulls the curtain away from the backroom nature of San Francisco politics, and exposes the Bay Guardian’s new insider status.

There are many qualified Supervisor candidates in San Francisco’s District 6. This article is not about the entire field, but rather addresses how San Francisco’s self-described “progressive” political machine has worked to de-legitimize a progressive challenger who has won a citywide election, and has ample funding and a broad grassroots base (Jane Kim) in favor of its hand-picked candidate, Debra Walker.

Defining “The Machine”

According to Redmond’s June 29, 2010 column, “there’s a fine line between an effective, organized political coalition that can actually win elections – and a political machine, which stifles political innovation and grassroots candidates.” He concludes: “unlike the players in a typical political machine, most of the progressives care about issues. It’s about a shared ideology more than it’s about power. That’s a hugely important difference.”

If Redmond is correct, the “Burton machine” long criticized by the Guardian stifled political innovation, denied grassroots candidates, and was about power not issues. In contrast, the political coalition that Debra Walker herself labeled a “progressive machine” is about issues and shared ideology, not power.

Let’s see if the facts support Redmond.

The “Burton Machine”

Congressmember Phil Burton and his brother John were issue-driven politicians who likely accomplished more for the poor, the disenfranchised, and for economic and social justice than any politicians of their time. Phil Burton virtually invented grassroots politics in modern San Francisco, and recruited Asian-Americans and blacks into his political coalition at a time when they were largely excluded from local politics.

Far from “stifling political innovation,” the Burtons virtually reinvented San Francisco’s grassroots campaigns. And the candidates they mentored – such as Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi – are as issue-driven as anyone in the Senate or Congress today.

Phil Burton also launched the political career of a young African-American from Texas named Willie Brown. While Brown’s politics changed after Burton’s death in 1983, during the 1960’s and through his fierce defense of George McGovern at the 1972 Democratic Convention, Brown was primarily seen as a wild-eyed radical pushing such crazy issues as gay rights.

While the Guardian often describes a “Brown-Burton” machine, Willie Brown and John Burton took very different courses after Phil’s death. Brown’s power was strictly personal, as became clear when his chosen Supervisor candidates were defeated in the 2000 elections.

I cite this history because the Bay Guardian relentlessly attacked the “Burton machine” despite its progressive leadership, political innovation and support of issue-driven candidates. Now, let’s assess whether the current San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) leadership is about issues – which for Redmond means it is not a “machine” – or power.

DCCC Endorses Prozan, Rejects Kim

The DCCC has made multiple endorsements for Districts 10 and 8, but Debra Walker is its sole choice in District 6. Why was Jane Kim, a citywide elected School Board member and progressive Asian-American woman, not endorsed as the DCCC’s second choice?

It’s not because Kim is not solid on progressive issues. Nor is it because she lacks a “shared ideology” with the progressive Democratic machine.

How do we know that the DCCC did not reject Kim based on issues? Because the DCCC had no problem endorsing Rebecca Prozan as its second choice in District 8.

Prozan has garnered few (if any) progressive endorsements. In fact, Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenants Union describes Prozan as having “terrible positions” on tenants’ rights – such as backing the lifting of the annual cap of 200 condo conversions.

Shouldn’t the issue-driven coalition that Redmond says is not a “machine” have been alarmed by Prozan’s tenant stands? After all, progressives sent multiple mailers attacking Bevan Dufty’s positions on tenant issues in the District 8 race in 2002, and these issues distinguish progressive from non-progressive candidates in many supervisorial races.

The DCCC endorsed Prozan and not Kim, because that’s how political machines operate. Machines reward those willing to “play ball” and punish potentially winning progressive “outsider” candidates like Jane Kim who they do not control, and whose victory weakens the machine’s power.

The Milk Club and the Machine

Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, progressive gay activists associated with the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club attacked the Alice Toklas Club as a haven for the politically ambitious and as part of the Democratic Party “machine.” Now, the Milk Club has become the progressive mirror image of its longtime adversary.

Although the President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors makes few commission appointments, when current DCCC chair Aaron Peskin was Board President he appointed four past Presidents and one former Executive Board member of the Harvey Milk Club to commissions (one was a re-appointment).

Two of these appointees, Debra Walker and Rafael Mandelman, are DCCC members who subsequently voted to elect Peskin as DCCC chair. They are now running for Supervisor in Districts 6 and 8, dominating progressive club endorsements.

While some of these former Milk Club officials have done an excellent job, they were not appointed due to their unequaled experience in the field; at least two had not even attended a meeting of their commission prior to their appointment.

In fact, Peskin initially appointed Mandelman to the Building Inspection Commission’s “landlord seat,” but after running into problems with the landlord community –Mandelman is a tenant, but inherited a share of rental property in the Sunset that allowed him to qualify as a “landlord” – swiftly re-appointed him to the Board of Permit Appeals.

Peskin clearly wanted to appoint Mandelman to any City Commission – for the purpose of building his resumé when he ran for District 8 Supervisor two years later.

So that’s how it works. People rise to the top of a particular political club, and are rewarded with a commission appointment. They then use their increased name recognition to win election to the DCCC – and if they align with the DCCC leadership, get anointed as the “consensus” progressive choice for supervisor. They often even use the same political consultant, Jim Stearns, who is running Walker’s campaign.

The machine progressives then get the Bay Guardian’s endorsement, as both Walker and Mandelman will on October 6. And while the Guardian goes through the charade of interviewing candidates and making believe that its decision is based on what’s best for the progressive community as a whole, it deviates from the progressive machine’s choice as often as the SF Chronicle backs candidates opposed by corporate and downtown interests.

What’s Wrong With a Progressive Machine?

Once we acknowledge that the San Francisco Democratic Party is a progressive machine, the question becomes: what’s wrong with this? Debra Walker made this point at her campaign kickoff – and while it’s not clear why she feels District 6 needs to be “taken back for the people” after ten years of Chris Daly, her larger point deserves discussion.

I’m glad that Aaron Peskin is DCCC President, and that progressives control a DCCC majority. But it does not build progressive power for the DCCC to act as a political machine that rewards only one portion of its broader constituency, and turns away those who do not fit its preferred demographic.

I found it quite illuminating that the Guardian’s City Editor Steve Jones told Jane Kim late last year that she should run in the very conservative, Asian-American majority District 4 rather than District 6, where her progressive views are in sync with voters. He was in effect saying that as an Asian-American Jane should run among “her people,” implying that demographics prevailed over issues and political stands.

In a city filled with young people and Asian-American Democrats, the DCCC’s slap in the face to Jane Kim does not serve broader progressive interests. Nor are progressives served when those seeking to run for office feel they must choose between “playing ball” with political insiders and giving up their dreams.

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