Public Defender Jeff Adachi submitted signatures yesterday for a November ballot measure that could reshape both San Francisco and national politics. If it qualifies, we are about to embark on a campaign that could bitterly divide progressives, while empowering San Francisco’s moderate and conservative forces. Organized labor will prioritize defeating an initiative that would raise pension contributions for city employees, and whose passage in “liberal” San Francisco could inspire further attacks on public sector compensation throughout the nation. But some progressives will support a measure that promises more funding for social programs and nonprofits, even though the initiative includes no specific earmarks. This initiative will dominate San Francisco’s November ballot, and be framed by the national media as a litmus test for plans to cut local and state employee pensions across the country.

Jeff Adachi delivered what could become the 800-pound gorilla for San Francisco’s local elections in November: signature petitions for a ballot measure that would require city workers to contribute 9 to 10 percent of their pay to their pensions, and to double their contributions to dependents health care coverage from 25 to 50 percent.

Why Now?

Organized labor is understandably furious. Many wonder why Adachi would put his measure on a ballot when labor and its allies are focused on electing Jerry Brown, passing Prop 25 to end the 2/3 requirement for passing a state budget, and maintaining progressive control of the Board of Supervisors.

I put this question to Adachi when he told me of his plans to mount this signature-gathering drive. My feeling was that his chances for victory would be much greater in the non-general election year of 2011, and that this would avoid having his measure negatively impact other progressive candidates and measures on the November 2010 ballot.

But Adachi felt strongly that San Francisco’s fiscal crisis did not allow a one-year delay. From his perspective, the initiative’s pension and health care changes were already long overdue, and should not be deferred.

As for labor’s charge that he failed to consult them on a measure they could potentially support, Adachi was probably correct in concluding that city employee unions would never voluntarily agree to a measure raising their pension and health care contributions. Adachi figured that if he had to go to the ballot anyway, there was no reason to delay until 2011.

Dividing Progressives

While labor is unified against Adachi’s initiative, the same is not true for the city’s progressives.

Many progressives, particularly those employed by city-funded nonprofits, are troubled by the steadily widening gap between city employee compensation – particularly in the police and fire departments – and that available to non-city employees. For example, city contracts with nonprofits offer no pension contributions for employees, so nonprofit employees would be thrilled if the city began paying 90-91%of their pension costs.

Since former Mayor Dianne Feinstein decided in the early 1980’s to contract out virtually the city’s entire homeless program to nonprofits, the disparity in compensation between city and nonprofit employees – and the sheer number of the latter – has steadily grown.

Everyone talks about this unfairness but nothing is done. I wrote in 2007 about the City giving first year police officers 8% raises while nonprofit workers got only 2.4% – and 2007 was a boom year. The past two years have seen city-funded nonprofits get no raises to go along with their lack of pensions, and city departments are not even increasing contracts to cover nonprofit employees’ increased health care costs.

Labor’s campaign will correctly argue that Adachi should have exempted lower-wage city employees, that his measure does nothing to address often ridiculously high salaries for city manager, and that blaming city employees for budget priorities their unions opposed is unfair. But I see a lot of progressives going to the polls figuring that city employees have a pretty good deal even with Adachi’s changes. And these progressives will be attracted by the initiative’s claim that it will redirect $170 million in savings to MUNI, parks and other critical services.

This alleged $170 million in savings, sure to be a major campaign issues, is not earmarked toward any specific purpose. Since the initiative does not alter the budget process, opponents can argue that it simply gives more money to the same political elite to continue its misguided budget priorities – including the failure to adequately fund MUNI, maintain parks, or fairly compensate nonprofit employees.

The Nation is Watching

Adachi’s measure would join with Sean Elsbernd MUNI charter amendment to create a one-two punch against public employees on San Francisco’s November ballot. The national media will have a field day with the prospect of “liberal” San Francisco, and Nancy Pelosi’s home turf, voting to cut public employee compensation.

While this is not the message Adachi wants to send, it will likely be the one that is heard. It emerges at a time when the entire Republican Party and corporate Democrats are in a full-fledged media campaign to redirect public anger over the fiscal crisis toward excessively compensated public employees, and away from banks, oil companies, hedge fund managers, and an under taxed and poorly regulated private sector.

Having spoken with Adachi, I know he is driven by his deep concern that, absent immediate action, San Francisco’s fiscal crisis will soon get much worse. He has no desire to encourage a nationwide stampede of extreme anti-public employee measures, with proponents arguing that “if they went for it in San Francisco, it’s obviously needed here.”

Yet that could well be the result of the timing of his measure, and Adachi could have avoided much of this downside had he waited until 201l. But he may have other career plans that year, so get ready to see an all out war on the streets and airwaves of San Francisco – with national implications – once his measure qualifies.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.