Say No to 2017 SF Special Election

by on January 10, 2017

Tenant rights bootcamps, not a special election, should be the model for progressive activism in 2017

If media reports and City Hall scuttlebutt are true, some San Francisco progressives are considering collecting signatures for a November 2017 special election. As stated in the SF Examiner, the election would force newly appointed D8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy to face voters a year earlier. The election would also include “ballot revenue measures along with other politically-charged issues like free City College, funding for immigration defense and affordable housing.”

A special election would be a colossal mistake. It would also reflect a one-dimensional approach to activism that puts all eggs in the electoral basket while ignoring the daily organizing that builds support for progressive change.

I think back to the days when I used to criticize progressive activists for not paying enough attention to electoral politics. Now the pendulum has swung way too far the other way!

A Losing Strategy

A special election makes no sense for progressives on a practical basis. Rafael Mandelman is a much stronger D8 candidate in a large turnout 2018 election than he is in a far lower turnout 2017 race. And while some may believe that 2017  gives Mandelman a free shot at winning—-since the seat would still be up in 2018—a 2017 defeat would badly weaken his future chances (as Josh Arce’s weak SF DCCC performance in June damaged his supervisor’s race).

According to a 2016 analysis by the SF Department of Elections,  a San Francisco special election would cost taxpayers roughly $3.7 million. This does not include public financing (which would be available in the D8 race) or unexpected costs. Why would Mandelman backers want to saddle their candidate with responsibility for such a misuse of taxpayer dollars?

As for a ballot measure to fund affordable housing, the city has not yet spent the $310 million from the November 2015 affordable housing bond. One gets the impression that some activists are throwing out hot button issues like housing, immigration and City College as an excuse to have an election—even if the projected November 2017 turnout means that none of the initiatives would win.

Ignoring Organizing

Too many activists confuse electoral outreach with ongoing organizing. The two are very different. Election campaigns build activist solidarity and inspire grassroots action. But there is a big difference between getting people to vote a certain way and the more time consuming process of engaging them to join ongoing campaigns for change.

Campaign phone calls or even volunteers knocking on voters doors do not build permanent relationships (unless the door knocking is of the UFW/Obama2008 model in which volunteer recruitment was as much as goal as securing a vote).  And with big money playing such a major role it takes a more sustained engagement with people for progressives to refute the opposition’s  information.

So if ongoing organizing is essential, why do some progressives prefer putting initiatives on the ballot and running Astroturf campaigns for their passage? It’s certainly easier. But this short-cut approach rarely results in big victories. It also diverts financial resources from ongoing organizing and campaigns to political consultants and mailers. Constantly focusing on elections makes it harder for a progressive organizing and campaign infrastructure to take hold.

A Better Agenda

Instead of wasting time, money and people resources on a November 2017 election, progressives should be following the example of the Tenant Rights Bootcamps launched by the San Francisco Tenants Union in 2015. These events attracted new people into tenant activism, going beyond the usual suspects regularly seen at City Hall rallies and eviction protests.

Similar events could occur on transit, immigration and other issues. There is a hunger for activism in response to Trump and organizational leaders must provide an outlet.

And for progressives who believe that “moderates” now have a 6-5 Board majority, what better way to build pressure on swing supervisors than by holding forums on key issues in their district?

That’s how activism used to be practiced in San Francisco. This was before the focus shifted so heavily toward election campaigns.  Those prioritizing elections should recognize that strengthening year round organizing and issue activism is critical for progressives to win major elections.

The two biggest local elections in 2014 and 2016 saw the candidates backed by most progressives—David Campos and Jane Kim—lose. And Campos lost in an Assembly district that excluded vast portions of the city’s moderate/conservative voters.

It is easy to attribute these outcomes to individual factors, but that can be a cop out. A more accurate analysis is either that the progressive agenda is not supported by the majority of voters or that its majority support is weakened by negative opposition campaigns.

If you believe the latter, the best way to defeat negative campaigning is through a more informed electorate. And that’s why ongoing organizing, not a November special election, should be the progressive priority this year.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He will be speaking on the “Unseen World” of the Tenderloin at the CA Historical Society, 678 Mission Street this Wednesday at 6pm. He will also be signing copies of his book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco,


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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