Muni Reform Could Fail if Activists Don’t Mobilize

by Paul Hogarth on October 29, 2007

In a normal election, Proposition A – a Muni reform measure endorsed by Mayor Newsom, the Democratic Party, the Sierra Club and labor – would pass easily. And Proposition H – Republican C.E.O. Don Fisher’s parking initiative that would set back our planning policy 30 years – would go down in flames. But this election is not normal.

With no serious Mayor’s race, turnout is abysmal; as the Chronicle reported last week, there has never been a lower number of early absentees returned at City Hall. And Fisher – who had pledged not to campaign last August – is now sending out hit pieces almost daily. Last year, progressives rescued Supervisor Chris Daly when there was a palpable fear that he could lose. With the election only eight days away, a new sense of urgency is needed to prevent San Francisco from taking a drastic step back in the fight against global warming.

San Franciscans striving for a more livable city may not realize what benefits Prop A would bring. Muni is literally at its breaking point, and an extra $26 million a year – without the political fallout of raising taxes – is an opportunity that does not come every day. Prop A allows the M.T.A. to more flexibly manage parking, traffic and Muni – which are all intertwined – and requires the M.T.A. to set some emission reduction standards. Above all, Prop A would protect our transit-first policy by overriding the passage of Prop H.

And there are few things worse than the passage of Prop H. Downtown office parking would triple – making the current nightmare of rush hour traffic in the Financial District look benign. Affordable incentives for new housing would be out the window. Smart-growth housing in the Neighborhoods would be a relic of the past – along with sensible planning solutions. Property owners could eliminate bus stops in front of their homes to build a driveway, and Hummers would be classified as “low-emission” vehicles. And if it passes Prop H could never be tweaked – without another vote by the electorate.

Back in August, Supervisor Aaron Peskin cut a deal with Don Fisher to let Prop H die a quiet death – and spare Prop A the wrath of multi-million dollar attacks. But within a few weeks, it looked like Fisher was backing out on his word. A lawsuit was filed against Prop H for its faulty signature gathering, but the Prop H committee sent a lawyer to defend it. A questionable court ruling threw out the lawsuit, keeping Prop H on the ballot.

Then in mid-October, Fisher sent out the first of several “No on A” hit-pieces in the mail – which included blatant misrepresentations of fact such as “the Board of Supervisors controls the M.T.A. Board.” At the time, a spokesman for the Prop H committee said that the terms of their deal with Peskin was not to stop campaigning against Prop A – but that they would agree not to promote Prop H.

Never mind that this was a lie. Late last week, they even went further by sending out hit pieces in favor of Prop H. A glossy mailer paid for by Don Fisher hit San Francisco mailboxes on Friday – which claimed that Prop H is “good city planning.” Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier is featured on the front, as she laments the loss of “so much parking.” With Don Fisher’s fortune, expect a daily deluge between now and the Election.

If this was any typical election in San Francisco, Prop A would win by a landslide and Prop H would fail miserably. But this is not a typical election. With Gavin Newsom, Kamala Harris and Michael Hennessey sailing to re-election, voters – and activists – are complacent. Which means that the dynamics could drastically change.

Progressive candidates and measures rely on a healthy turnout of liberal voters – as well as a well-organized grass-roots campaign with scores of volunteers. But we’re not seeing that this year. SEIU Local 1021 has done a good job running phone-banks and lit drops out of their office, but we have not seen the number of volunteers that such a campaign would have in other elections.

Voter turnout so far has been pitiful. Only 15,000 ballots have been mailed to City Hall – compared with 69,000 four years ago. And who has voted does not bode well – in a very tenant-heavy town, renters barely exceed homeowners. Over 2,500 registered Republicans have turned in their ballots – or ten times the number of registered Greens. And the two districts with the lowest turnout so far are District 11 (which boasts the highest number of union members) and District 9 (which has the most progressive voters.)

The outcome can be shifted between now and Election Day – but it will require a volunteer effort to reach voters in progressive precincts and remind them that they must vote. Some progressives have been working on Quintin Mecke’s protest campaign for Mayor, but let’s get real. The outcome of the Mayor’s race is not in question, but there is still time to save Prop A and defeat Prop H. Mecke has given voters a choice simply by running – but now is the time for progressives to realize where they can make a crucial, last-minute difference.

The “Yes on A / No on H” campaign is seeking volunteers every day between now and the Election to do phone-banking, literature drops, canvassing, Muni outreach and more. With progressive activists getting involved now, the struggle to preserve a transit-first city that leads the fight against global warming can be saved.

Because, after all, it is Our City.

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