Organizational Endorsements Don’t Sway San Francisco Voters

by Randy Shaw on August 30, 2011

In the 2011 mayor’s race, John Avalos has won top backing from the San Francisco Democratic Party and is expected to gain the support of the San Francisco Tenants Union and the Bay Guardian. Yet Avalos is far behind Ed Lee in the polls, with Lee lacking any of the key organizational endorsements once thought to impact elections. Welcome to today’s San Francisco, where the small number of people deciding club and organizational endorsements now exert little influence over the electorate. The club-stacking and internal infighting over endorsements continues, but almost as a satire of a process that once could make a difference between victory and defeat. Recent elections have shown that city voters do not need the mediating influence of club power brokers, whose own clout depends on politicians believing otherwise. And “power brokers” is a good term, because the candidate most often identified as backed by such people – Ed Lee – is also getting the fewest endorsements among the major candidates.

On Election Day last November, the Tenderloin neighborhood was covered by large Debra Walker posters listing her top organizational endorsements. It was an impressive list. In fact, I wonder if any non-incumbent candidate in a contested race has ever had a broader array of organizational endorsements – for a race they would lose by nearly double-digits.

When I compared Walker’s endorsements to Jane Kim’s, it told me that the days when power brokers could use such vehicles to elect a candidate were over. All those epic battles – the Milk and Toklas club-stacking controversies in the Agnos-Molinari race, the rush for “early” endorsements of favored candidates (as occurred with the Sierra Club’s early pick of Leland Yee this year), and the constant creation of new club endorsement vehicles by power broker wannabees – now occur largely as satire.

Endorsements and Power Brokers

The voters have figured out that those screaming the loudest about San Francisco politics being controlled by “power brokers” include those whose own power depends on their control of an unrepresentative and undemocratic endorsement process. And when this undemocratic process results in the endorsement of candidates who can afford a slick endorsement mailer to 100,000 or more San Francisco voters, the power-brokers have done their job.

There was never a golden era of club endorsements in San Francisco, but until the late 1980’s there was a sense that certain clubs were representative of particular political tendencies. I think the battle in the gay and lesbian community around the 1987 mayor’s race was the turning point. I was so naïve in 1987 that when I was asked to join the Harvey Milk Club so that I could vote to endorse Agnos I replied that I did not think I was eligible because I was straight.
I bet a lot of folks back in those days believed in the integrity of political clubs, which during the late 1970’s through the 80’s played a critical role in building local political activism, particularly in the gay and lesbian community.

But by the 1990’s, endorsements and slate cards were largely controlled by power-brokers who assembled the funding needed for mass mailings. The late Robert Barnes became a master of this process, generating hostility from some progressives for engaging in an electoral strategy that they would soon adopt (Barnes regularly pointed out this progressive hypocrisy, which endeared him even less to his rivals).

Ignoring Voters

The most remarkable feature of the endorsement/slate card industry is that its lack of connection to electoral success. Candidates raise funds to mail certain club cards because their consultant – who may have separate business relationships with said clubs – advises it. A particular club’s dismal track record of winning endorsements is irrelevant; what counts is the club’s reputation in the political consultant industry.

This explains why so much money is spent promoting the endorsements of entities that impact few voters. And why certain endorsements continued to be touted despite their lack of electoral success.

I argue in The Activist’s Handbook that San Francisco voters are particularly impacted by the San Francisco Democratic Party endorsement in highly partisan presidential or gubernatorial election cycles (1992, 1994, or more recently, 2004 and 2008). In contrast, the local Democratic Party’s endorsements had very little impact last fall because Jerry Brown was far ahead in polls and voters did not go to the polls in a highly partisan mindset.

This explains why Avalos benefits little from winning the Democratic Party endorsement in the nonpartisan, 2011 mayor’s race. And by ignoring qualified Asian-American candidates for its third endorsement slot, the current Democratic County Central Committee further weakened its card’s influence.

San Francisco voters do not need a self-selected group of backroom dealmakers telling them which candidate is the best choice for mayor. Instead, voters can directly ask candidates about their views during the many events they hold almost daily, or follow news accounts.

If the early polls hold and Ed Lee is elected mayor with the fewest key organizational endorsements of any winner in history, the power brokers behind the slate card and endorsement industry might have greater trouble securing candidates’ money in 2012.

That’s bad for them, but good for the democratic process.

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