The slate controversy at the DCCC

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There’s nothing like a combination of insider politics, a struggle for control of the local Democratic Party and the ongoing discussion about the need for progressives and moderates to get along better to make for a complicated political story.

Which is exactly what’s going on with Alix Rosenthal’s effort to put together a Women’s Slate for the Democratic County Central Committee.

I’ve spend way too much time trying to figure it all out, but it raises enough interesting issues to make it worth discussion in the progressive community.

The background: For four years, the progressives have controlled the DCCC – and thus the powerful local endorsements for the local Democratic Party. That’s taken considerable organizing – and it’s worked to a great extent because of a remarkable degree of unity among a famously fractious bunch.
In the past two elections, every progressive group, the Harvey Milk Club, the Tenants Union, the teacher’s union, the nurses, the Sierra Club -- and the Bay Guardian – has endorsed essentially the slate of candidates. There are problems with that approach – it’s easy for some people or some groups to get excluded, and you get complaints of machine politics – but in reality, there weren’t a lot of people who identified as progressive getting left out. Quite the opposite – the slate organizers were working hard to recruit people to run. Serving on the DCCC isn’t glamorous and it’s a lot of work. (It’s also at times unpleasant -- the arguments are harsh, sometimes more so than necessary.)

In 2012, we have a different problem: The people who are called moderates have convinced a lot of high-profile canidates (former Sup. Bevan Dufty, Sup. Malia Cohen, School Board member Hydra Mendoza) – people who will win on name-recognition alone – to run. Combined with the retirement of Aaron Peskin, and the all-but certain re-election of incumbents like Scott Wiener and Leslie Katz (who remains to this day the only member of the DCCC who refuses ever to take my phone calls) and you have the makings of a conservative victory.

Let me take a second on this “moderate” tag. Moderates in San Francisco are people who are liberal on social issues – like, frankly, 80 or 90 percent of the city – but conservative on economic issues. Conservative is the right word here: The moderates don’t typically support higher taxes on the rich and big business, don’t support development controls, are weak on tenant issues, don’t think that housing should be a right of all people and pretty much buy into what in the Clinton era we called neo-liberalism.

The progressives (who have economic policies more like the Democratic Party of FDR and Lyndon Johnson) and the moderates (who have economic policies more like the Democratic Party of  Walter Shorenstein, Dianne Feinstein and Bill Clinton) have been fighting for decades over the future of a city where there aren’t a whole lot of Republicans.

So when I say conservative I'm not talking about Reagan or Santorum -- but I'm talking about a very different economic vision than mine.

And while I’m all in favor of being civil and polite to everyone and respecting friends and colleagues who disagree with you, I guess I’m enough of an old commie (with a lower case “c”) to believe deeply in class struggle and the idea that the rich and powerful don’t give up without a fight.

And having a good working relationship with the conservative Democrats (hey, I’m on great terms with Scott Wiener – we talk all the time and I respect him and like him personally) doesn’t mean I’m ready to give up the notion that in the United States and California and San Francisco, 2012, there’s a class war going on. We didn’t start the war, but we have to fight it to survive -- and to keep the city from becoming an ossified playground of the very wealthy.

Okay, enough background and rhetoric. On March 29, Rosenthal – who is also my friend and I respect and often support – sent out an email that announced that all of the women running for DCCC were going to work together on a slate:

“The female candidates for the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) have banded together to form a slate of our own. It's called Elect Women 2012, and it includes all women running this June in both Assembly districts in San Francisco, moderates and progressives alike. The slate is intended to provide a support network for both new and seasoned candidates, to develop an amicable working relationship between moderate and progressive candidates, and above all to get more women elected to public office.”

 
That’s all good. More women in politics is good. Supporting new candidates is good. A working relationship between progressives and moderates is good.
But here’s the question, and it’s not a new one in San Francisco: Is it a good idea, both politically and as a matter of strategy, to promote the interests of people who largely disagree with you on issues? If a slate of women helps knock off a progressive man in favor of a conservative woman, is that a positive change?

Rosenthal doesn’t think that’s going to happen. We’ve had a couple of long discussions about this, and she’s looked at the math and the current list of candidates, and she thinks her slate is more likely to help a couple of progressive women (Petra DeJesus, for example) who might not otherwise win.
“You need to touch the voters three or four times before they know who you are,” she told me. “The winners will be people who are on several slates, and the progressives have more slates than the moderates.”

The guys who she agrees should really be on the DCCC and might have a close call (Matt Dorsey, for example, a gay man, or Dr. Justin Morgan, an African American man) won't win or lose on the basis of a competing women's slate.

Rosenthal ran for office on a pledge to bring more women into the DCCC and into public office, and that’s an important goal – right now, there’s not a single woman among the citywide elected officials in San Francisco. (That hasn’t always been the case -- the mayor for 10 (awful) years was Dianne Feinstein, and in the past decade or so we’ve had a female treasurer, assessor, district attorney, city attorney and public defender. But right now: All guys.

The Board of Supes is a bit lopsided, too – seven men, four women.

And for the same reason that putting people of color into office almost by definition changes the perspective of politics, electing women is a progressive value. No matter how sympathetic the straight white men are, there are things we never had to experience and will never really understand.

That said, I would much rather have (mostly progressive) white guy Aaron Peskin run the Democratic Party than (mostly conservative) Asian woman Mary Jung – and so would Rosenthal. “No question, no doubt about it,” she told me.

Now that Jung has all but announced that she wants to be the next party chair, and since a number of the women on the slate will support her over a progressive (and would support her over Rosenthal) – is this doing the movement any good?

Gabriel Haaland, a transgender man and former president of the Harvey Milk Club, points out that “the Milk Club could simply endorse all LGBT candidates for our slate, and there are some who have argued for that over the years. But we don’t -- because we work in coalitions, and that kind of slate undermines the whole concept of coalition politics.”

Hene Kelly, who is on the women’s slate but has insisted that the mailings make it clear she isn’t supporting some of the other candidates who will be connected with her, thinks the Rosenthal plan is a bad idea.

“There are people on this slate I could not and would not support because they don’t share my beliefs,” Kelly told me. “These are nice people, but they don’t see San Francisco the way that I do. Mary Jung and I don’t believe in the same things.”

Rosenthal says that the very fact that so many people who disagree on issues can work together on a slate shows that women can get along and end some of the divisiveness on the DCCC. Kelly – who is a passionate and often fierce fighter – disagrees: “I’m not that easy to get along with.”

Kelly is part of what will be a progressive coalition slate – including women and yes, men – and Latinos, African Americans, LGBT people, young people, older people … a mix. An imperfect but generally San Francisco mix. And all of them share the same political values.

Some of the people who don’t like the women’s slate are, indeed, men – and Rosenthal is at least a little proud of that. In another email talking about a Chronicle story, she notes:

“I have already received panicked calls from some male candidates and leaders, it seems there is quite a buzz about us and about Heather's article. Which is great.  I hear that Malia said some good things, as did Supervisor Wiener.”

Wait -- Scott Wiener and Malia Cohen are happy about the slate? This is supposed to be good news? I like Scott and we’ve worked together on issues we agree on, but I didn’t endorse him for office; on the most critical things, we don’t agree at all. And interestingly, there is not one progressive woman quoted as opposing the idea in the Heather Knight piece in the Chron.

I think the panic is not, alas, about men fearing the power of women. There isn’t a progressive man I know who would be unhappy with Hene Kelly running the party.

The question is about whether this effort might help shift the balance of  power away from the progressives – and, frankly, whether all this talk about getting along together is an excuse for watering down what we want to do and what we believe in.

Maybe Alix Rosenthal is right, and her slate -- which will spend about $25,000 in what amounts to co-op advertising -- will help bump a couple of progressive women to the top and help the left hold on (narrowly, because it will be close) to the DCCC. Maybe the moderate/conservative crew will win a majority, and some of the moderate women will be impressed by the help Rosenthal gave them and elect her chair (which would be a lot better than some of the alternatives).

Maybe politics should be less rancorous and we should all get along better – except that, in my 30 years of experience, getting along with the moderates has always, always, always, led to a watering down of the progressive program and agenda. 

Maybe I’m just a straight white guy who doesn’t get it – and I’m happy to cop to that possibility.

I agree that there aren’t enough women in local political office, that we need to encourage and promote progressive women candidates, that much of the leadership (such as it is) on the left is male -- and that needs to change.

But I’m not sure that working to help elect people who disagree with you on the key economic and political issues is good for the values that I think Alix Rosenthal and I share.

It’s tricky, but at least we should be thinking and talking about it. Nicely. I promise.