Editor's Notes

There's a fine line between an effective political coalition and a political machine


Jane Kim, the San Francisco school board president running for supervisor in District 6, has a tough question to answer. When there's already a solid progressive in the race, Debra Walker, someone who has lived in the district for years and agrees with Kim on almost all the key issues, why is Kim running?

She gave a hint at her campaign kickoff June 24 on how she's going to portray herself: "I'm not part of anyone's machine, and I'm certainly not part of anyone's master plan." It's an attractive statement — nobody likes machine politics — and the idea that she's an independent candidate makes her all the more appealing.

Except that it also says something about the progressive movement in San Francisco — and that's a little disturbing. Because no matter how you try to spin it, when you say you aren't part of anyone's machine, you're implying that maybe your opponents are.

Let me take a step back here, because this is important stuff. There's a fine line between an effective, organized political coalition that can actually win elections and a political machine, which stifles political innovation and grassroots candidates. And in part it's about motivation.

When Willie Brown ran San Francisco, it was all about Willie Brown. I've never believed the guy had much of an ideology or that any political cause really mattered to him; he loved power, he knew how to use it and he didn't want to give it up. That was the bottom line.

Now that he's pretty much out of the picture — although he was at Kim's party, he's not a factor anymore — there's a very different power balance in this city. There's nobody at City Hall (or in Sacramento, or Washington, or downtown, or anywhere else) who has machine-style control of local politics.

There are people who can build coalitions that work — Aaron Peskin, for example, did exceptionally well with putting together a campaign to elect progressive Democratic County Central Committee elections. And there are people who would love to be power brokers.

But I've been around politics here a long time, and I can tell you: Aaron Peskin doesn't have a machine. Neither does Mark Leno, or Gavin Newsom, or Tom Ammiano, or David Chiu, or anyone else. Thanks in part to district elections, there aren't many call-up votes on the Board of Supervisors these days. In fact, the left in San Francisco is famously unable to agree on much of anything half the time. Note, for example, the fact that Chiu — often called a Peskin ally — is not supporting Peskin's candidate in D-6. He's with Jane Kim.

The thing is, unlike the players in a typical political machine, most of the progressives care about issues. It's about a shared ideology more than it's about power. That's a hugely important difference.

The way the mainstream media has it, the San Francisco left is either fatally fractured and can't do anything — or it's becoming a machine. For the moment — a great moment — neither is true. Let's all keep that in mind. Because when we beat each other up with words like "machine," we undermine the whole progressive movement.

Bad way to start a campaign.


Tim, you are absolutely on point here re: Kim's campaign. But I would caution you on one point: Declaring outright that Willie Brown "is not a factor anymore" in local or state politics is a statement so overly broad as to be inaccurate. (You made that mistake in your endorsement of Kamala Harris as well, and it made me wince.)

Consider this: Who really runs this city? (Especially now that Peskin is gone). Come on, you know. Many, many who work at City Hall know damn well who it is. It sure as shit ain't Newsom. And no, I'm not saying that it's Willie himself. However, who is this person's mentor? Who made him what he is, gave him the power that he still wields today? And who does he talk to most every day? Haven't you noticed that Willie has been able to keep many of his particularly lame "finds" (hires) in their mid-to-low level jobs at a time when Gavin's budget people would be glad to slash them? What's that about?

When this particular person was out in the cold, having lost a bitter power struggle to Peter Ragone, Willie was out, too. Complained that he coudln't get Newsom to return his phone calls (Well, him and everyone else. This was during Newsom's face down in the gutter, grabbing onto Ruby Rippey Tourk for support days --- read much of 2006). But then the person I'm trying to get you to think about was brought back in, and he's been calling the shots pretty much single-handedly since then. I'm hoping to get you thinking about this, because there's a chance you're going to miss a very big move that's afoot with the coming supes' races. More later. But spot-on so far re: Kim.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 29, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

Why do political journalism if we're all going to tip-toe around the elephant in the room? The whole point of having a grizzled veteran write about politics is so they can connect the dots for casual observers and relative newcomers. If you're going to shy away from it, put away the keyboard.

Tim concedes there was once a political machine in San Francisco, and that the machine, for a time, had Willie Brown at its helm. Fine. Solid point. Which candidate does Willie Brown now support? He's made it obvious: Jane Kim.

For a time SF's political machine was dominated by Phil, John, & Sala Burton. Nancy Pelosi is their successor. Who does she support? Madame Speaker has made it very obvious: Jane Kim.

One of the strongest flanks in the Burton-Brown machine was Chinatown and their powerbroker Rose Pak. Who does she support? She's made it bleedlingly obvious: Jane Kim.

This is simple, simple stuff. Pelosi, Brown and Pak are not progressives, by any stretch. So why avoid what's self-evident? Jane Kim is the last gasp of a political machine, albeit attractively repackaged. We can see who brung her to the ball and should she get elected, she's gonna dance with them. It's perfectly natural. She's not running because she differs w/ Walker on the issues; she's running because she has powerful backing. There's no way around that conclusion if you're a progressive.

Which elements of San Francisco's machine support her progressive opponent, Debra Walker? The Women's Political Committee? Nurses? Labor? That's not a "machine," those are core Democratic interest groups. Those aren't indiscriminate power-grabbers, those are ideological fellow-travelers. It passes the smell test, by the exact standard Tim set up. What does the THC have in common with developers?

If Jane Kim were merely the Asian President of the School Board, that would be one thing. But then wouldn't seriously be talking about her, would we? So why are we talking about her? I can draw a diagram with brightly colored arrows. It's not just a bad way to start a campaign, it's a bad candidacy.

Posted by Progressively poor on Jun. 29, 2010 @ 10:13 pm

I agree with you on this one Tim. It's disingenous. Running as the outsider having just moved into the district might not be such a good idea either.

Posted by mwbsf on Jun. 30, 2010 @ 8:17 am

Jane has got my vote...she's smart and hot so I say 'bout time for a change...but seriously, I wonder if Ms. Kim thinks if her "machine" comment has been over analyzed, or taken out of context by the sf media "machine" digging for a story when there isn't...?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 30, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

Jane Kim is running because Richard Marquez can't stand Debra Walker---folks have been whispering about this move for months.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 30, 2010 @ 5:16 pm

Jane Kim is no progressive: her record on the Board of Education makes that abundantly clear. She has supported budget proposals that hit the poorest schools hardest. She has repeatedly refused to compel SFUSD to sunshine its intentionally convoluted budget plans, leading to avoidable layoffs - and those layoffs inequitably impact the schools who serve children of color.

That's not a progressive agenda. Signing on to the Superintendent's budget plan in the face of other, more equitable alternatives is not progessive. Saying that you don't want to support it doesn't make voting in its favor okay.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 30, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

I'm not so sure this is Rose Pak, Willie Brown et al's "last gasp." I think it's a cynical yet brilliant effort at cranking up the old machine. At renewal, if you will. B/C of Jane's Green Party background, and b/c she is a young woman of color, progressive leadership a la Bay Guardian, Daly, etc. will feel like they can't criticize herself sharply. Meanwhile, she really isn't a progressive anymore, cannot be one, given who has purchased her campaign for her.

The Weekly's column today was REALLY stupid -- as they totally don't get that the idea of a progressive machine, is, as Tim quite rightly pointed out, ridiculous. And of course the Weekly has no clue re Jane's connection to the old machine that's been out of power.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 30, 2010 @ 5:42 pm

When I say there's no machine any more, I don't mean to say that there aren't people who have influence, or that money isn't important. What I'm saying is that, right now, the center of political power in SF is very diffuse. The very fact that Jane Kim is running against Debra Walker is a testament to that.

Posted by tim on Jun. 30, 2010 @ 6:59 pm

to further a political agenda, spread the spoils around to favorite pets for votes, and to accumulate power into the hands of a few leaders. Why would SF need a machine, thats the way SF is run already?

Posted by matlock on Jun. 30, 2010 @ 11:28 pm

I like the way that Jane's comment that she's NOT part of a machine or master plan - a perfectly reasonable comment to make in district elections, where many candidates have clearly been part of someone's master plan, even if you think there's effectively no machine - is spun by commentors here until she IS part of Willie Brown's big bad machine. The line drawing - from Willie, to Nancy, to Rose, to Jane being a puppet of a machine - fits nicely into a crude conspiracy theory, even though Tim's argument was that there is NO machine.

Tim, there are more than progressives in this race, so her comment wasn't necessarily directed at her fellow progressives, which is the point of your whole commentary.

As for why she's running, isn't personal ambition and thinking you can do a better job than the other candidates the reason most people run? Just because there may be other progressive candidates running doesn't mean that everyone sees them as good, or the best possible, candidates. I live in 9 and I don't remember everyone bitching about why there were 3 or more progressive candidates running in the last election. Nor was Daly suddenly called "not a progressive" when he got campaign support from non-progressives.

A little less spin, folks. You may not want Jane to win, but calling her "not progressive" or owned is doing exactly what Tim was cautioning Jane against.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 30, 2010 @ 11:49 pm

Tim, we get it. You are protecting Debra Walker from the big bad Jane Kim who DARED to say that she was not part of a machine.

What an un-progressive thing to do!

Be honest with your readers, Tim. You've tried to muscle endorsements for Debra Walker, and have tried to intimidate Jane Kim out of the race. Need the links to remember what you've written?

At least be up front with your readers about your bias.

It's too bad that you can't be objective about Jane Kim. She really does have much to offer.

Posted by lmasche on Jul. 01, 2010 @ 6:56 am

"She really does have much to offer. "

And what might that be (that Debra Walker doesn't have)?

Oh, wait... another guest already answered that:

"Jane has got my vote...she's smart and hot so I say 'bout time for a change"

I see. Well, she's certainly attractive. And very ambitious. But I guess I just want something more in a supe.

I don't think Jane's not progressive. Her newfound friendships do trouble me, but when push comes to shove, I think her votes and Debra's votes would be about 95% the same. But with Jane, you do get this vibe that it's mostly about Jane. I supported her enthusiastically for school board, but leaving so soon after being elected and hopping districts leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe I could overlook even that, except that we already have a great candidate in Debra Walker -someone whose 25 years of service to the community without running for everything proves that she's not just in politics to climb the ladder. I'm not saying that you have to do this, but it's something that I think is meaningful to consider.

Worst of all, the consequence of Jane running for this district (which is not a good fit for her), is likely to be not Jane winning, not Debra winning, but throwing the race to a business-backed candidate like Theresa Sparks.

Posted by Greg on Jul. 01, 2010 @ 8:13 am

Political parties can be described as conspiracies to take political power. Not secret or illegal conspiracies, but one or more people getting together to achieve a goal.

In the nonpartisan electoral realm, other formations must take the place of these parties, because the party cannot play the same role, especially when everyone is a member of the same party.

It goes without saying that Brown and Burton ran a well public cash-oiled machine, funded by shrewd pay to play management of public largess. Part of the dynamic of machine politics is that some are in, some are out, and that money lubricates the entire process.

Newsom abandoned the pay to play approach, and true to his neoliberal predilections, opened the door to development in a way that Brown could only have dreamed of, and did not have the political inclination to leverage each and every give away. He felt that rewarding developers as a class was sufficient to not exact a price.

Newsom has been caught flat footed twice on DCCC races. Had they rustled up candidates in '08 or '10, they easily could have swamped progressives and taken the DCCC endorsement out of play. In '08, progs surprised the mods/conservatives, but there was no excuse in 2010, hand exposed.

But there remain powerful interests in play that must be courted at best or not crossed at worst. And the various political coalitions that operate in the City, the Peskin/Stearns alliance, Leno's growing constituency, Yee is cultivating one as well, are aspirants to power, power which will require all sorts of promises of enrichment.

Like so many Democrats, the Peskin formation (if Aaron could fashion up a "machine," he would) succeeds only when the opposition falters. Our opponents are magnetized, made coherent by the draw to create the conditions where they can all feed at the public trough while our side depends on the incoherent nonprofits to provide institutional support.

If Peskin had been successful at building a political machine, we'd see much more coherence to liberal and progressive initiatives. But to a certain extent, Arthur Evans is correct in that progressives are a gang that can't shoot straight, and our aim is queer for a diversity of reasons.

What we do know is that the progressive coalition is on the rocks, unable to organize the way it did in 2000 because over the past ten years, so many of them got money thrown at them after progressive electeds got into office, and as a result have grown fat and lazy, unable to organize anymore.

Whether any of these formations rise to the level of Brown's cynicism is not the important question. What matters is the character of these conspiracies to sieze political power through the ballot box or to build coalitions to prevail in elected bodies, what trade offs they're willing to make and to what extent must the particular interest be served in order to provide sufficient cash to fend off contenders?

Public financing was supposed to obviate these conflicts. But when a candidate for District Six maxes out on public financing in an initial filing, given the low number of interested voters in D6, the general low income of interested voters in the district on one hand, and the lucrative development opportunities unlocked by the public process on the other hand, it is cause for thoughtful pause.

We do not yet know the significance of this unprecedented fundraising coup. Once the filings are made public and are cross referenced against previous campaigns, both for School Board as well as going back further into the Brown machine era, only then can we draw conclusions as to whether we are seeing the the Brown machine rising again.

The fundraising footprints of all candidates speak volumes as to whom they will be beholden if elected. I'm sure that some will view this as an attack, but disclosure and objective analysis of political cash are the cornerstones of progressive values.

The candidates have played their hands as they've seen fit, let the cards fall where they may.


Posted by marcos on Jul. 01, 2010 @ 8:18 am


After your comment, I re-watched the SFYD debate to see what the differences were between Jane and Debra. Have you seen it?

Debra did a fine job. Jane just did much better.

For me, I believe Jane will be a stronger, more effective advocate for the things I care about. It really DOES make a difference who is the supervisor--not just on votes, but also on legislative priorities and ability to navigate bureaucracies.

I can already hear your response, and I agree that decisions shouldn't be made off of one performance. But there is a thoughtfulness about Jane's approach that Debra lacks. That said, I can see why you would support Debra. I don't have anything against her (except certain positions).

Posted by lmasche on Jul. 01, 2010 @ 8:56 am

For the record, I believe, and have always believed, that anyone has the right to run for any political office they want. That's democracy, it's how it should work and if Jane Kim wants to run for supervisor, nobody should try to stop her. (And by the way, if there were a big, bad progressive machine, this wouldn't be happening. When Willie Brown was boss, his troops were always kept in line; nobody ran for anything unless he said they could, and the penalties for defying him were severe. The progressives are going to be split in D-6; that's a clear sign of how little control any one person or group has over left politics right now. And that's a very good thing. Nobody -- not even a progressive leader who I respect and agree with -- should have the power to impose his or her will on the body politic at the level that Brown once did.)

That said, let me suggest that having every right to run for office doesn't mean that it's always a smart strategic decision for the causes you support. Ralph Nader had every right to run for president in 2000; given the outcome -- the election of George W. Bush, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the banking system collapse, the worse recession since the 1930s etc. -- it's entirely reasonable to ask whether Nader's decision to run and take votes away from Al Gore in swing states was a strategic mistake. I wasn't a big fan of Gore either, but in retrospect, I think the United States and the world would be a lot better off today if he'd won and Bush has lost -- and I think that most people who supported Nader's agenda (and that includes me) would agree with that.

I honestly believe that progressive candidates for office should be thinking not just about themselves and their own careers but about the issues and causes they care about. Is the cause of fair taxation, protecting services for the needy, tenants rights, public transit, public power and the rest of the progressive agenda better off when two candidates are running and potentially hurting each other, with the result of electing a candidate who doesn't share our views on those causes? That's not a question about democracy or anyone's right to run; it's about political strategy.

Maybe there's no problem in this race. Maybe Jane Kim and Debra Walker will both run upbeat, postive camapigns, their supporters won't go negative and, with ranked-choice voting, a progressive will still win. (And by the way, they are both clearly progressive candidates. So is Jim Meko, and so are others in the race.) Maybe Jane Kim really believes that she can better represent, promote and advance the progressive cause. Maybe she'll convince me this fall that she's the best candidate in District 6; the Guardian won't be making an endorsement until September or October, and, as always, we'll talk to all the candidates first.

I've always like Jane Kim, we've always supported her for School Board and I think she could have a bright political future in San Francisco. But it's still fair to ask her to explain why she's running in this race, this year.

Posted by tim on Jul. 01, 2010 @ 9:11 am

If the "cause you support" is Jane Kim -- and that is exactly the cause she supports -- then, yes, it is a smart strategic decision.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 01, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

@Greg - I have the same view.

Posted by D6 Resident on Jul. 02, 2010 @ 6:26 am

Yes, it's fair to ask why Jane Kim is running in the race. But I notice that you have never asked the same of Debra. Is your logic that she who files first need not answer such questions? Does the individual who files first get automatic 'frontrunner' status?

Oh right. You already wrote in the Guardian that Debra Walker was the frontrunner and progressive "consensus pick" for D6 way back in 2008, didn't you. That's right. In 2008.

Why don't you ask Debra Walker why she chooses to run against the President of the School Board, a young, progressive, woman of color who is a civil rights lawyer and immigrant advocate, someone who has deep community organizer roots in D6?

Face it, Tim. Your writings on this race are not balanced. You should just admit that you support Debra Walker and end this charade. At least then you'd have more credibility, IMHO.

Posted by lmasche on Jul. 02, 2010 @ 9:09 am

is akin to Clarence Thomas being a "person of color." She's attended elite private schools all throughout her life yet she believes she's qualified to make decisions on the part of ALL San Franciscans. She KNOWS what's best for us, even if we don't.

The elitism here is astounding. Jane Kim is a non-attendee of San Francisco Public Schools who makes the decisions on what's best for the parents and students of the district. And a non-resident of D6 (until 3 months ago) who thinks she knows the district better than every other candidate.

In short - Jane Kim knows what's best for you.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Jul. 02, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

There's a fine line between an effective, organized political coalition that can actually win elections and a political machine, which stifles political innovation and grassroots candidates. And in part it's about motivation.

Translation: People we support belong to effective organized political coalitions. People we don't support belong to political machines.

Welcome to the machine, Tim.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 02, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

Gonna be some big changes around this city. I can't wait. I'm starting with the imposition of a city income tax on all income above $50,000 a year. That will bring in enough money to support a bond act to build maybe 10,000 new units of affordable housing. Then we'll put a moratorium on the construction of new market-rate housing, cut Muni fares, ban cars from one out of every three streets in the Mission ... Boyoboy, it's going to be fun.

And I'm so glad that with my machine power, all of that is going to happen really soon.

Posted by tim on Jul. 02, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

is just a taste of what we'd get if the progressive machine had complete and total control of the city.

I especially like this one : "we'll put a moratorium on the construction of new market-rate housing." Boy - THAT will certainly help with the cost of housing in this city.

In short what Tim advocates is not a vision, it's a total nightmare.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Jul. 02, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

Jane Kim didn't LIVE in the district in 2008! No one could have predicted the kind of chutzpah it takes to move to the district and then file to run for supe before the packing tape is off the moving boxes.

The question Tim is asking is more pertinent in Jane's case, because any candidate who does that better have a REALLY good reason if they want significant support from their community. So far Jane hasn't given one.

Posted by Greg on Jul. 02, 2010 @ 5:06 pm