Last Thursday, the Bay Area Reporter revealed that Supervisor Tom Ammiano was running for Assembly in 2008. Mark Leno, the current incumbent, is said be heading up Ammiano’s campaign, and John Burton is allegedly on board. The former School Board member and longtime progressive supervisor is already an electoral lock for the November 2008 race, adding to San Francisco’s trend of virtually uncontested races for major offices. The San Francisco Bay Guardian and many San Francisco progressives once attacked these backroom endorsement deals as the evil work of the infamous “Brown-Burton Democratic Party Machine.” But now that even former insurgent candidates like Tom Ammiano---whose 1999 mayoral run against Willie Brown targeted “the machine”—have been granted entrée to machine politics, San Francisco appears to be entering an era where Democrats are one big happy family. This is good news for Mayor Newsom, who will be the first Mayor since Dianne Feinstein in 1983 who will not face a serious Democratic challenger for re-election.
Anyone who picked up a San Francisco Bay Guardian from 1973-2003 is familiar with the “Brown-Burton” machine. This machine was blamed for much of what was wrong with San Francisco, including PG& E’s longstanding energy monopoly, downtown “Manhattanization,” the transfer of a national park to the machine-controlled “Presidio Trust,” the backroom handoff of Sala Burton’s congressional seat to a political newcomer, Nancy Pelosi, and to other nefarious deals made outside of the requirements of the Sunshine or Brown Acts.
In 1999, the Bay Guardian went all out for Tom Ammiano in his race against “the machine” backing incumbent Democrat Willie Brown. Ammiano was trounced, but a year later “anti-machine” district supervisor candidates, all but one Democrats, swept to a veto-proof majority of the Board of Supervisors.
In 2002, longtime anti-machine progressive Harry Britt sought to build on this momentum by running against perceived machine-candidate Mark Leno for San Francisco’s eastside Assembly seat. Carole Migden and the Harvey Milk Club lined up with Britt, while the Democratic Party establishment backed Leno. But Leno prevailed, ending what would be nearly the last electoral fight among Democrats.
This last battle between “reform” and “machine” Democrats would occur in 2003’s mayoral race. Candidates Ammiano and Angela Alioto were longtime anti-machine politicians favored by the Bay Guardian, while Gavin Newsom was closely connected to Nancy Pelosi and other members of the Democratic establishment..
When Matt Gonzalez beat both Ammiano and Alioto, few realized that this spelled the end of insurgent Democratic Party challenges. But, in retrospect, the signs were there: Alioto endorsed Newsom over Gonzalez despite vilifying her Pacific Height neighbor throughout her campaign, while Ammiano, still bitter over Gonzalez’s entry into the mayor’s race, barely campaigned for the Green in the runoff.
The District 5 Supervisor’s race in 2004 then ended insurgent Democratic Party politics in San Francisco for the foreseeable future. That race pitted Democrat Robert Haaland against the Green Party’s Ross Mirkarimi, with a host of other Dems and Greens in the race.
What was significant about the race was that Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who at that time was a constant and reliable anti-tenant vote on the Board, endorsed Haaland. He endorsed the pro-tenant Haaland despite there being multiple candidates closer to Dufty in ideology. Dufty also endorsed Haaland despite the Milk Club—of which Haaland is a major player-- leading the effort against Dufty in that race
Haaland won Dufty’s endorsement despite this history. Haaland had even more bitterly opposed Leno in his Assembly primary against Harry Britt in 2002, but this also did not stop Leno from endorsing Haaland for Supervisor.
Some conjectured that Dufty had gotten something in return for endorsing Haaland. There’s no way to verify this, but no prominent gay or lesbian candidate ever made a serious move to run against Dufty in District 8. This lack of potential candidates persisted even though the incumbent’s anti-tenant, pro-downtown voting record through 2005 appeared to make him vulnerable to a progressive challenger.
Now Dufty only faces Alix Rosenthal, a straight woman with little base in the district, no serious money, and no real chance to win. Haaland has endorsed Dufty, and only clever action by Rosenthal campaign manager Rick Galbreath prevented the once anti-machine, insurgent Milk Club from doing likewise (the Club made no endorsement).
Dufty’s more progressive and pro-tenant voting record in 2006 made the rallying around him a bit easier. But if Dufty, Ammiano, Leno, Haaland, the Milk Club, the Alice B. Toklas Club, a strong majority of the San Francisco Democratic Central Committee and State Senator Carole Migden are all one big happy family, then Democratic Party insurgencies against the “machine” in San Francisco are over.
Gavin Newsom will be an immediate beneficiary of Democratic Party unity around the machine. Newsom is virtually guaranteed to face no serious Democratic Party challenger, a position enjoyed by none of his three predecessors, Willie Brown, Frank Jordan, or Art Agnos. Newsom’s 2007 campaign will be about setting the stage for a statewide race, as his re-election---and his endorsement by all of the above politicians and groups plus local labor unions-- is assured.
The notion of a “Brown-Burton” machine was never a good way of explaining San Francisco politics, since Phil and John Burton were among the leading progressives of their eras while Willie Brown left the solidly progressive camp in the mid-1970’s. Dianne Feinstein was never a member of “the machine,” and it certainly did not hurt her political career. Mark Leno’s identification with “the machine” has not prevented him from becoming one of the Assembly’s most progressive members, and Tom Ammiano will be a solid progressive as well.
The true historic role of San Francisco’s Democratic Party “machine” was as traffic cop. Machine leaders decided who would run for open seats, avoiding expensive and divisive collisions among ambitious Democrats. That’s the tradition that has continued with the Ammiano appointment as the designated Democrat for the Assembly.
Since the anti-machine insurgents were elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2000, no incumbent supervisor has come anywhere close to being defeated. In this November’s races, no incumbent is even being seriously challenged. The only potential for any rocking of the Democratic Party’s boat is in the race to replace Ammiano
David Campos, currently on the Police Commission, is the designated Democrat for the seat. But School Board member and Green Party member Mark Sanchez is a close friend of Ammiano’s, and if he runs, the future Assemblyperson will not endorse against him. A Campos-Sanchez race would not change the dynamic of a unified local Democratic Party, but it would at least allow voters, rather than political insiders, to decide on their representation.
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