Progressives Challenge Incumbents in City College Board Race

by Casey Mills on September 6, 2006

Three seats will be up for grabs on the San Francisco City College Board of Trustees this November, and incumbents will seek re-election for every one of them. However, three challengers – two well-known progressives and one virtually unknown candidate – will seek to unseat them. The incumbents include Lawrence Wong, Anita Grier and Johnnie Carter, with political newcomer Johnny Knadler and long-time activists John Rizzo and Bruce Wolfe representing the challengers. While those seeking re-election often succeed in City College Board races, Wolfe and Rizzo’s ability to shore up strong progressive support could make the battle a close one.

Wong stands as the longest-running member of the Board, serving for 12 years and taking advantage of the body’s lack of term limits by seeking yet another 4-year term. An openly gay Chinese-American who ran against Aaron Peskin for Supervisor in 2000, Wong received perhaps the most press surrounding the race so far when he narrowly won the Democratic Party’s endorsement last month.

Earlier this year, the Bay Area Reporter newspaper held a 35th anniversary event at the Fairmont Hotel. The site of one of the many hotel boycotts across the city due to the current labor dispute between hotel workers and management, the event’s location caused many politicians and individuals who support labor to refuse to attend.

Wong, however, decided to go. This move prompted labor to fight vehemently against his endorsement by the Democratic Party, and it wasn’t until some yelling, screaming, and parliamentary shenanigans before Wong just managed to snag a nod from the party.

Carter gained his seat during the Willie Brown administration, appointed by Brown when John Burton’s brother, Bob Brown, died suddenly in 2001. Carter worked alongside Supervisor Fiona Ma as aides to John Burton, and now works for State Senator Don Perata.

Carter earned the Democratic Party endorsement without much controversy, but wasn’t able to secure the Opponents hope to paint Carter as a ‘machine’ candidate who often serves as a rubber-stamp for City College administration policy.

Grier, on the other hand, prompts consensus among many insiders as having the best chance at re-election. She’s an African-American woman, who while some could level charges of being another ‘machine’ candidate, has managed to avoid angering any core constituencies. She did, however, run against Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval in 2004.

Of the three challengers, Johnny Knadler appears to be the biggest wildcard. A former student who says he got into the race because he hears of so many problems from students and faculty, Knadler represents an outsider candidate who will have a tough time building up name recognition citywide.

Rizzo and Wolfe, on the other hand, pose threats to the incumbents. Rizzo serves as President of the Sierra Club’s Bay Chapter and serves on the Golden Gate Park Concourse Authority. Wolfe has served on both City College’s and San Francisco State’s student Government, and sits on the San Francisco Sierra Club’s and the San Francisco Community Land Trust’s boards.

As Green Party members, both failed to secure the Democratic Party’s endorsement. They did, however, manage to rack up a slew of endorsements that reveal a relatively unified progressive block to be behind them. Rizzo has six endorsements from the Board of Supervisor’s progressive side, while Wolfe has four. Both earned nods from Public Defender Jeff Adachi, Matt Gonzalez, and the progressive half of the School Board. Rizzo even managed to snag Local 2 and the Harvey Milk Club, the latter of which only endorsed one candidate this election cycle. Wolfe narrowly missed the Milk Club’s endorsement.

However, as I’ve argued before, it takes more than endorsements to win a race. Rizzo and Wolfe are up against incumbents in a city-wide race, and have to count on strong turnout from progressives and strong ground campaigns to win. They are also both straight white men running against three candidates of color, which could play a role.

Rizzo’s message of connecting City College more to the city, building more student housing, and creating a transit plan for the school should resonate with voters, while Wolfe’s long experience working in student government and fighting the good fight in countless battles against school administration should as well.

It will be up to them, however, to get their messages to voters and score an upset on Election Day.

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