Friday, January 9, 2009

Those Clowns in Francisco Are At It Again

Like many Americans, I was particularly energized by this year’s presidential campaign and overall politicized climate. But rather than just focus on national political issues, I took a little more time exploring local politics. My neighborhood is a working class neighborhood with a lagging commercial corridor filled with 99 cent stores and crime has been a hot button issue with a high profile murder dominating the news earlier in the year. Our supervisor was up for election and I took in my first-ever supervisorial debate back in October. My candidate won, and since I know him in passing, I’m excited to have the ear of someone at City Hall. I had the day off this past Thursday and was therefore excited to go to City Hall for the swearing-in of the new slate of city supervisors.

Boy, did that experience bum my high.

After each of the supes was sworn in, there was a public election of the President of the Board of Supervisors. But before the supervisors could vote on their new President, the floor was open to the public to weigh in on the choice. Now, San Francisco politics often get made fun of on the national stage but I think for all the wrong reasons. I guarantee you that most of those who laugh at our city's political reputation have never been to a supervisors’ meeting. Any topic up for vote is met with a parade of public Joes and Janes weighing in on the topic at hand. First off, let me say, I am glad this is the case. Public debate over civic decisions is a great component of democracy. At these meetings there is always lots of intelligent discussion. That said, there’s always a level of lunatic fringe on display as well—some guy or gal getting up to blow hard and pontificate about the state of things, yet wildly off-topic. You stare at your feet and wonder when their two minutes will be up. That’s a classic SF political moment and ripe for ridicule.

In any event, the public got to weigh in on this election…for about 30 minutes. Glad I brought my book. Not only was it long in the tooth, it really seemed like a waste of time. I honestly couldn’t believe that any supervisor was going to be swayed by what was being said. Come on. They all had to have made up their minds. Right? I’ve seen Milk. I know how SF supervisors handle their business. I know the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” mode of politics. This had to be a done deal.

But boy was I wrong. The actual election was one of the most bizarre and depressing things I’ve seen in a long time. Currently SF has a good method of electing supervisors. Supervisors need to win a majority of the vote in their district to win the election, but because 7-8 people run for each seat, very rarely does a supervisor win the majority on the first ballot. Runoffs are needed and in the past, people have had to head back out to the polls to cast their ballots for the top two vote getters. SF has moved to ranked-choice voting, where you put down your top three candidates on the initial ballot. Once the top two qualifiers are identified, the board of elections can conduct the runoff through the ranked-choice tallies. Simple, yet brilliant.

You would think that voting for the President of the Supervisors would run the same way, but that’s not the case. I’m not sure I can do this justice, but I’ll give it a shot.

In the first round of voting, Sophie Maxwell received 5 votes, and a smattering of supervisors got a couple of votes a piece. You need a majority of 6 votes to win. Nobody got six, so a revote was needed.

In round 2, the roll was called, and Sophie Maxwell got 5 votes and John Avalos (my supe) got 4 votes, and Ross Mirkarimi received 2 votes. No winner. Let’s do it again. People with only a few votes (Ross Mirkarimi, we’re looking at you) were asked to withdraw their candidacy. This request was declined.

In round 3, the supervisors voted the exact same way. Maxwell 5, Avalos 4, Mirkarimi 2.

In round 4, the supervisors voted the exact same way. WTF I was thinking to myself. How long does this go on for?

After round 4, Michela Alioto-Pier makes a passionate plea on behalf of Sophie Maxwell. Fair enough. Let’s try to move out of deadlock with some straight talk and campaigning. Eric Mar of District 1 gets up and makes a passionate plea for considering the candidacy of David Chiu. David Chiu? What? Huh? Did I hear that right? You mean the guy who got no votes through four rounds of voting? (Now to be fair he might have gotten 1 vote in the first round, I can’t be sure). But regardless, What The Fuck? Two candidates have almost enough votes to win, and now we make a plea for someone who hasn’t gotten one vote. What kind of ridiculous political theater is going on here?

It all gets hazy after this. In round 5 Maxwell holds onto her 5 votes and Chiu picks up a couple of votes. In round 6 Avalos votes for Chiu, but other people keep voting for Avalos. Does that make any sense whatsoever? Not to me, especially because Avalos voted 2nd, given his name is at the top of the alphabet. He votes for Chiu and other people are still supporting him? WTF?

In round 6, it moves into a 5 to 5 tie between Maxwell and Chiu. Strangely, the other vote does not go to Avalos. Gadfly extreme Chris Daly casts this rogue vote. Who does Daly vote for? Why that would be himself of course . WTF? Now I don’t know many people who like Chris Daly. This guy seems like the ultimate grandstander. I saw in the paper last week how he bragged about always voting for the winning board president. Well I can see why you can’t lose when you’re playing some dirty pool like that.

In round 8 David Chiu won. You remember him. The guy no one voted for the first 4 times around. Well that guy is your new Board President. I repeat, What The Fuck?

Now keep in mind I didn’t keep copious notes on this, and some of my info might not be totally accurate, but this is a pretty good snapshot of what went down. Now let me also say I know that politics is about alliances and deal making and what not, but this sort of political theater was disheartening. At an event where the city should be celebrating moving forward, where the city should be celebrating the new blood that will run the city, it’s frustrating to see such a blatant display of backroom politics on public display.

And don’t ask me what was proven, what alliances were made, and what factions were formed? I don’t know. I couldn’t figure that out. But it all smacked of politics as usual. The kind of politics that have made Americans so distrustful of their elected leaders. The hope that the Obama election has provided has made it feel like we could be at the dawning of a new era in American politics. With the coming Obama inauguration as a backdrop, I found it particularly disheartening to witness such a public display of politics as usual, especially in a town like San Francisco.

If my take on this is too skewed, jaded, or cynical, please let me know. For another view of the event, one that is more positive and hopeful, check out my good friend Valerie Soe’s thoughts on Beyond Asiaphilia.


Anonymous said...

Stick to filmmaking. Your post lacks even a modest understanding of politics. You couldn't even explain ranked choice voting correctly. WTF, I think is your favorite cliché.

Anonymous said...

Hey Danny,

Good post--sorry it was a bummer for you. I've spent a lot of time on during the presidential campaign so my tolerance for political shenanigans is a bit higher than yours, I think. But it's good to have a fresh view on the process so that the pols don't feel like no one is keeping an eye on them. Give'em an inch & they'll take a mile, and so forth.
Thanks for the link, too!


Danny Plotnick said...

Don't get me wrong. I understand why stuff like this goes on and understand that it probably needs to happen to some degree. Clearly Sophie Maxwell was never going to get the progressive vote. And clearly, though many of the progressives were pulling for Avalos, his past connections to Daly may have doomed his chances. And at that point, a more conciliatory candidate needs to come forward. So people initially vote for who they want and when that is clearly not going to work, a compromise candidate comes into play. Fair enough. But just to watch it play out in a public forum was the bummer for me. Especially moments like Mirkarimi not stepping down, others voting for Avalos when he no longer was, and Daly voting for himself.

Good seeing you there.