Progressives battle downtown over economic and political reforms

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A four-alarm fire that displaced 31 residents of an apartment building at Fillmore and Haight helped create a political drama.
James Miller

Battles between progressive members of the Board of Supervisors and downtown power brokers such as the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce defined City Hall politics for much of the last decade, until the new politics of “civility” and compromise took hold this year, a dynamic that has favored downtown interests. But now, a pair of important, high-profile issues headed to the full board on Tuesday has revived the old dynamic. And in both cases, wealthy interests are putting enormous pressure on the board.

The first involves a proposal – put forward by Sups. Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell, the two most conservative supervisors – to gut the city's system for publicly financing campaigns because downtown is threatening a lawsuit. They propose to end San Francisco's program of giving publicly financed candidates more money when a privately funded candidate exceeds the spending cap because the Supreme Court recently struck down similar provisions in Arizona.

This week, after convening in closed session to discuss the threat of litigation by downtown groups, the board voted 7-3 – with Sups. David Campos, Jane Kim, and Eric Mar opposed, and Sup. Ross Mirkarimi absent because he rushed out to large structure fire in his district – for the Elsbernd/Farrell measure, one vote short of the supermajority needed to amend the current city law.

Campaign finance reform advocates such as Steven Hill argue that it's unfair to modify the city program right in the middle of an election season in which Mayor Ed Lee and the wealthy independent expenditure groups supporting him are poised to spend millions of dollars to defeat a large field of mostly publicly funded mayoral candidates.

Hill and his allies are appealing to Mirkarimi – who told the Chronicle that he is leaning toward supporting the amendment when the measure returns to the board on Tuesday – not to support what they consider an overly broad capitulation to downtown's threats. They're also lobbying Sup. John Avalos to switch his vote, while downtown players are putting the screws to supervisors as well.

In an interview with the Guardian, Mirkarimi clarified his stance, noting that he was the sponsor of the original public financing law and his goal is to protect it, even if it needs to be modified to withstand a legal challenge. “I'm looking for alternatives to fortify San Francisco's program,” he told us, noting that he missed some of this week's discussion and he's hoping something can be done to retain provisions that level the financial playing field with wealthy candidates.

Meanwhile, downtown forces are pulling out the stops to kill Sup. David Campos' legislation that would prevent San Francisco businesses from pocketing money they set aside for their employees' health care under a city mandate that they provide health coverage – totaling about $50 million last year – legislation that gets its first hearing tomorrow (Friday/30) at 10 am.

Board President David Chiu has put forward competing legislation that is more to the Chamber's liking, letting businesses (mostly restaurants that are even placing surcharges of customers' bills, ostensibly to subsidize their legal obligations) keep the money. But Campos and his labor allies believe they have the six votes they need to pass the legislation, thanks largely to moderate Sup. Malia Cohen's pledge to support the measure.

While even some supporters have quibbled with the timing of this measure, Campos notes the urgency of keeping money intended for workers in their hands. “It's an outrage and the longer we wait, the worse it gets,” Campos tells us, noting that the practice, “is what many of us consider fraud.”

Unfortunately, even if the board approves the measure this Tuesday, it will still need the signature of Mayor Lee to become law. While he hasn't formally taken a position, given that his political base is the downtown crowd, he's expected to veto the measure. But we'll ask him about it tomorrow when he's scheduled to meet with the Guardian for an endorsement interview at 2 pm.