Angela Alioto for Mayor 2003
San Francisco Bay Guardian
Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Alioto for mayor, Hallinan for D.A., Yes, Yes, Yes on Props. H and L, and No, No, No on Prop. M – our complete recommendations for the Nov. 4 San Francisco election

FOR MONTHS, while the entire world watched the state of California go through the recall election, most of the news media have ignored the fact that San Francisco also has a high-stakes election coming up. And now that the recall is over and the local election is just three weeks away, candidates and supporters and foes of the 14 ballot measures are scrambling to get attention.

We've spent the past six weeks interviewing the candidates and analyzing the measures for what may go down as the first post-Willie Brown-era election. It's a critical time for the city, and the outcome will set the tone for years to come. Our recommendations follow.


Angela Alioto

This is a tough choice for us, one of the most difficult in 37 years of endorsing candidates for local office. And it's not the kind of problem we're used to: there are actually three good choices, three strong progressive candidates, any of whom would be far better than the front-runner, Sup. Gavin Newsom. On balance, we're endorsing Angela Alioto.

This is a crucial race, not only because it will determine who will lead San Francisco through the tough, possibly ugly days ahead – a time when, thanks to a recession that shows no end and a president and governor-elect who are very unlikely to provide significant financial aid to cities, San Francisco's already serious budget problems are likely to become catastrophic. The race also marks the effective end of the Brown-Burton machine: Mayor Willie Brown will be out of office, probably for good, and state senator John Burton's last term ends a year from now. So the next mayor will be the first postmachine mayor, the one who will help set the tone not only for public policy but also for the state of local politics. After eight years of the most corrupt administration in modern history, it's essential that San Francisco get a real change.

Newsom, sadly, does not represent that change. He's not precisely a machine politician (although he was first appointed by Brown and has been a loyal Brown vote on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors) – in fact, by almost all accounts, Brown is less than thrilled by Newsom, and some of Brown's cronies are worried the young restaurateur (who has the backing of one of the world's richest families, the Gettys, and thus doesn't need as much lobbyist cash) won't play their game. But on the real issues, the ones that will determine the city's future, he's very much in sync with the politics of the past.

Newsom opposes balancing the city budget with new taxes on big business. He told us he wants to cut spending – and although he was alarmingly vague about how he'd accomplish that, the kind of reductions needed to cover a huge and growing deficit will only come from significant service cuts. He has strong support from landlords and opposes increased tenant protections. He wants to leave the city's housing future primarily in the hands of the private sector (which has never built, and will never build, a significant amount of affordable housing). And his signature issue, the one he's basing his entire campaign on, is an attack on homeless people.

In his interview with our editorial board, Newsom repeatedly sought to defend Care Not Cash and his new anti-panhandling measure – but was unable to explain how his plan will translate into new services for the needy (especially when he won't set aside any new money for what even the city's budget analyst, Harvey Rose, says will be an expensive proposition). When you get right down to it, what Newsom wants is to make life hard enough on the city's most vulnerable residents that they'll leave town and go somewhere else. That's a cruel and inhuman approach that has no place in San Francisco.

So the number-one priority for progressives in this city has to be defeating Newsom. That will be tough: he's already far ahead in the polls (close to 20 points ahead of the closest challengers), and because it's unlikely anyone will finish with more than 50 percent of the vote Nov. 4, Newsom will go into a runoff (three short weeks later) with a huge pile of campaign cash. The three progressives who are fighting for the right to take him on all have obvious strengths and weaknesses.

Sup. Matt Gonzalez, the newcomer to the race, entered just shortly before the August filing deadline. He's president of the Board of Supervisors, a Green Party member, and a smart, committed progressive. Although he's only been on the board since 2001, he's proved he can form alliances (an unusual left-right coalition gave him the surprising victory in the board president race) and can take on tough issues (he's been willing to challenge Brown on everything from the cost of mayoral "special assistants" to business taxes to the quality of some commission nominees, even when few other progressives on the board would go along with him). He's also shown he can govern: under his leadership the board engineered a remarkably painless budget in a terrible financial situation.

By far the best debater in the field, the former defense lawyer argues he would be able to expose Newsom as an intellectual lightweight. And his entry into the race has generated a lot of energy, especially on the east side of town. In a sense, Gonzalez's campaign represents the passing of the political torch to the next generation of progressives: as the machine dies out, San Francisco has a wealth of bright young political leaders emerging, and that's one of the most hopeful signs in local politics.

But after less than three years in office, Gonzalez lacks the political and policy-making experience needed to run a city as complex as San Francisco (and lead a political culture as complex as the one we have). We're passing on him this time, with the hope that it won't be our last chance to back him for higher office.

Sup. Tom Ammiano, whose write-in mayoral campaign four years ago electrified the city, has been active in local politics for more than a quarter century. From the days when he helped fight for the rights of openly gay teachers to his four years on the school board and his nearly nine years on the Board of Supervisors, Ammiano has been an outspoken, consistent champion of progressive causes and a foe of corruption and machine politics. For many years he was the only supervisor activists could count on to take up their causes, and his office was something of a haven for tenants, labor leaders, environmentalists, neighborhood advocates, foes of downtown, and supporters of public power.

Ammiano's been far more than a self-interested politician: he lead the movement to restore district elections and the political revolt that brought the current progressive board to power. A lot of the next generation that Gonzalez represents wouldn't be in office today if not for Ammiano. And he's responsible for a long list of key legislation, from domestic partners rights to tenant protections. He's experienced and talented, and he has a great sense of humor. We'd be more than happy to see him in the Mayor's Office.

But Ammiano has made some bad political mistakes in the past two years. He's tried (somewhat clumsily) to move to the political center, in the process angering key parts of his base – without picking up much support from moderates. That's hurt his ability to generate the massive amount of political energy he would need to pull off a long-shot upset of Newsom. His campaign was late getting started and hasn't raised nearly the amount of money it will take to mount a serious fight against Newsom.

That leaves Angela Alioto.

Alioto, like Ammiano, has a long record in local politics. She served eight years on the Board of Supervisors, where she was tireless in the defense of the downtrodden and a passionate, outspoken champion for public health, low-income people, the neighborhoods, and public power. In fact, she was one of the very few politicians in San Francisco who openly, aggressively pushed for public power and took on Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in the 1980s and early 1990s, before the deregulation disaster and rate hikes put the issue on the front pages of the daily papers. She created the first public power committee on the board and helped put one of the most important issues in the city's history on the top of the progressive agenda, where it belongs.

We have some real disagreements with Alioto: She's never been much of a supporter of district elections (although, to her credit, she told the Democratic County Central Committee she would support the current district system as mayor). She's far too reluctant to talk about raising taxes on business, and told us she'd balance the budget by eliminating 6,000 city jobs.

But we like her political courage, demonstrated by her willingness to take on issues like public power when nobody else would. And we like her passion and energy, her determination to root out corruption at city hall, and her genuine concern for the people Newsom is trying to demonize. And – perhaps most important for this race – Alioto has a real chance to defeat Newsom in a runoff. Her success as a civil rights lawyer has brought her considerable personal wealth, enough to finance a credible fight against Newsom's downtown-backed juggernaut in a citywide election. And she's demonstrated an ability to draw votes from across the city, not just from the more liberal east side. She's also the only woman among the four major contenders for the top spot (for better or for worse, we don't see City Treasurer Susan Leal finishing better than a weak fifth).

So, with a tip of the hat to a legend of the city's progressive past (Ammiano) and a nod of encouragement to a representative of the future (Gonzalez), we're endorsing Alioto – the one who can make sure, right here and now, that Gavin Newsom is not the next mayor of San Francisco.