When it comes to winning a club endorsement, it’s all about making sure your supporters can vote. But for some politicians, it’s about disqualifying members who like your opponent. Supporters of State Senator Carole Migden are pushing to have the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club schedule an early endorsement vote in December, and tonight the Club will consider their proposal to decide who is eligible. Under this proposal, long-time members whose dues have lapsed would be disqualified – while East Bay lawyers who work for Migden’s spouse would be able to vote. And because the December vote would be at a “special meeting” – rather than a “general meeting” – Leno supporters who joined the Club in October and have strong ties with the community would be ineligible. Everyone expected the Leno-Migden Senate race to get contentious, but rigging the membership of a prominent political club is excessive.

“Club-stacking” – the practice of a campaign having its partisans join a political club at the last minute to manipulate an upcoming endorsement vote – has plagued San Francisco politics for decades. It is unseemly to rig a club with new “members” who have never been part of the organization – which is why the Milk Club and other groups have taken steps in their by-laws to avoid stacking. At the same time, however, you don’t want to cut off long-time club members with a long history of involvement just because their annual membership dues have lapsed.

But that’s exactly what Migden supporters in the Milk Club are trying to do. At the October 2nd P.A.C. meeting, a proposal was made – to be voted on at tonight’s meeting – to retroactively disqualify any members who had not paid their dues as of September. While this will prevent stacking between now and December, it will disenfranchise long-time club members whose dues have expired – but were not notified that they should pay up because the Club has scheduled an unexpected early endorsement for the June 2008 primary.

Some of these people are veterans of the Club – including former Club Presidents and prior recipients of the Club’s “Volunteer of the Year” award. Some are well-respected advocates in the LGBT community who have been the backbone of various progressive campaigns, but haven’t been to a Club meeting lately. Despite the fact that I frequently attend Milk Club meetings, I was shocked to learn that – according to their proposal – even I would not be able to vote in the early endorsement process.

So who could vote on the early endorsement? Anyone who paid their dues before September – including Migden supporters who have little or no connection with the Club. What do Lauren Disston, Christy Chandler, Geri Webb, Laurel Headley, and Julie Salamon have in common? They are all East Bay attorneys who work in the Law Office of Cris Arguedas – i.e., Carole Migden’s wife – and donated money to the Milk Club earlier this year. To my knowledge, they have not attended a general membership meeting before – but under the proposal would be eligible to vote in the endorsement.

In other words, the Migden campaign simply stacked the club earlier this year to prepare for the December endorsement vote. Once they brought in enough people, they moved to cut off additional members – without the courtesy of letting old-timers know that the Club was contemplating an early endorsement. President Brian Basinger had to go ahead on his own to notify all members whose dues had lapsed via e-mail that they could be disenfranchised from voting -- in one of the Club’s most important decisions of the year.

But there’s another wrinkle in the Migden proposal to schedule an early endorsement vote in December that would further disenfranchise members. Under the Milk Club’s by-laws, a new member can only vote in club endorsements if there have been 3 general membership meetings since they joined. So if you joined the Club in June, you have to wait until the August general membership meeting to vote – which further helps discourage the process of “stacking.”

So if the proposed endorsement vote in December were classified as a “general meeting,” anyone who joined the Milk Club in October would be eligible to vote. But the Migden proposal would label the early endorsement vote a “special meeting.” In that case, anyone who joined the Club in October could not vote in the early endorsement because it would not be their 3rd “general meeting.”

If that sounds like absurd semantics, it is. There is no rationale for calling it a “special meeting” other than to disenfranchise certain members. Who joined the Milk Club as new members in October? At least one local elected official, as well as a dozen local activists with legitimate claims in the community. Old members whose dues lapsed over six months ago would likewise be treated as “new” members if they re-joined in October.

If the Club moves tonight on this early endorsement proposal, members who have been a major part of the organization would be disqualified from voting -- whereas those who just gave a check this year to become new members but have no other affiliation would not. It's a fundamentally unfair process that would de-legitimize the coveted Milk Club endorsement.

To preempt getting ambushed, Migden’s primary opponent – Mark Leno – sent out a letter to all Milk Club members this weekend. “A small group of my opponent’s supporters,” he wrote, “is trying to engineer an early endorsement, which would deny the club a transparent and inclusive endorsement process. I am writing to you today to request that you reject this proposal.”

Meanwhile, Supervisor Chris Daly has urged supporters to attend the Milk Club meeting and support the Migden proposal. Daly is upset at Leno for running against Migden – because “it takes both Leno and Migden off the list of possible mayoral candidates [against Gavin Newsom.]” Now, according to Daly, anyone who opposes the early endorsement motion is a “Newsom apologist.”

But the early endorsement proposal has nothing to do with partisan politics. It is about whether to disenfranchise members – and the old practice of “stacking” a Club for the purpose of influencing one electoral outcome. The Milk Club is a progressive club, and I thought we were above this type of machine politics. Unfortunately, I fear that tonight’s meeting will be contentious.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Harvey Milk Club meets tonight at 7:00 p.m. at the Women’s Building, at 3543 18th Street – between Valencia and Guerrero. As a private citizen, Paul Hogarth is a member of the Milk Club and has endorsed Mark Leno for State Senate. He does not play an advisory role for the Leno campaign. Send feedback to paul@beyondchron.org