New progressive coalition stops downtown's attack on transit and sets the stage for next year's board fight
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The crowd at El Rio, the Mission Street dive bar, was reaching capacity election night when Sup. Aaron Peskin climbed onto an unstable bar stool to announce a political victory that had been very much in doubt just a few weeks earlier.
"They said it could not be done. We drove a Hummer over Don Fisher!" Peskin said, referring to the Republican billionaire and downtown power broker who funded the fight against progressives in this election, as he has done repeatedly over the years.
Indeed, the big story of this election was the improbable triumph of environmentalists over car culture and grassroots activism over downtown's money. The battleground was Muni reform measure Proposition A, which won handily, and the pro-parking Proposition H, which went down to resounding defeat.
It was, in some ways, exactly the sort of broad-based coalition building and community organizing that the progressives will need to help set the city's agenda going into a year when control of the Board of Supervisors is up for grabs.
"I just felt it at El Rio — wow, people were jazzed," said campaign consultant Jim Stearns, who directed the Yes on A–No on H campaign. "We brought in new energy and new people who will be the foot soldiers and field managers for the progressive supervisorial candidates in 2008."
Maintaining the momentum won't be simple: many of the people in El Rio that night will be on opposite sides next June, when Assemblymember Mark Leno challenges incumbent state senator Carole Migden, and they'll have to put aside their differences just a few months later.
Downtown, while soundly defeated this time around, isn't going to give up. And some parts of the winning coalition — Sup. Sean Elsbernd, for example, who helped with west-side voters, and the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), which helped bring more moderate voters into the fold — probably aren't going to be on the progressive side in Nov. 2008.
But there's no doubt the Yes on A–No on H campaign was a watershed moment. "I've never seen this kind of coalition between labor and environmentalists in the city," Robert Haaland, a union activist who ran the field campaign, told us. "New relationships were built."
During his victory speech, Peskin singled out the labor movement for high praise: "This would not have happened if it were not for our incredible brothers and sisters in the house of labor." He also thanked the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and environmental groups — and agreed that the labor-environmental alliance was significant and unique. "This is the first time in the seven years that I've been on the Board of Supervisors where I have seen a true coalition between labor and the environmentalists," he said.
It's not clear what we can expect in 2008 from Mayor Gavin Newsom, whom the latest results show finishing with more than 70 percent of the vote, better than some of his own consultants predicted. Newsom endorsed Yes on A–No on H, but he did nothing to support those stands, instead focusing on defeating Question Time proposition E, which narrowly failed.
Will Newsom continue to pay fealty to the biggest losers of this election, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and Fisher, who funded No on A–Yes on H and became this year's antienvironmentalism poster child?
Or will Newsom — who has said little of substance about his plans for 2008 — step to the front of the transit-first parade and try to drive a wedge in the labor-environmentalist-progressive coalition that achieved this election's biggest come-from-behind victory?
The Yes on A–No on H campaign was a striking combination of good ground work by volunteers committed to alternative transportation and solid fundraising that allowed for many mailers and a sophisticated voter identification, outreach, and turnout effort.
"We worked the Muni a lot in the last days, particularly in areas where we thought there were a lot of young people," Stearns said.
Polls commissioned by the Yes on A–No on H campaign showed that Prop. H, which would have deregulated parking and attracted more cars downtown, was winning by 54–39 percent as of Aug. 30. By Oct. 25 that lead had narrowed to 40–41 percent, a trend that gave the campaign hope that a big final push would produce a solid margin of victory, particularly given that more detailed polling questions showed support dropped fast once voters were educated on the real potential impacts of the measure.
Prop. A was much closer throughout the race, particularly given that both daily newspapers and left-leaning Sups. Gerardo Sandoval and Jake McGoldrick opposed it and even the Green Party couldn't reach consensus on an endorsement.
"This could have meant a lot of arrows from a lot of directions," Stearns said.
Campaign leaders Peskin, Haaland, and Stearns were so worried about Prop. A being defeated — and about not having the money for a big final telephone canvas in the final days — that they decided to make last-minute appeals for money.
"I've been a nervous wreck about this," Haaland said of the campaign on election night.
On the evening of Nov. 3, he placed an anxious call to Peskin, suggesting that the latter make an appeal for money to Clint Reilly, a real estate investor who has often helped fund progressive efforts.
Peskin agreed and asked Stearns to help him make the pitch — and the two men drove to Reilly's Seacliff home at 10 p.m. on Nov. 3.
"Prop. A just struck me as a nice, decent, positive message," Reilly told the Guardian at the election night party, which he attended with his wife, Janet Reilly, a former State Assembly candidate.
Sharing Peskin and the campaign's concerns that Prop. A was in trouble, Reilly cut a check for $15,000, which was enough to keep the phone banks going and help give the measure a narrow margin of victory.
But the money alone wasn't enough for this mostly volunteer-run campaign.
"The push we made on the last five days of this campaign was just incredible," campaign manager Natasha Marsh told us. "We had close to 500 volunteers on that last four days."
The campaign also developed an extensive list of potentially supportive absentee voters — fully half of them Chinese speaking — who were then contacted with targeted messages.
Rosa Vong-Chie, who coordinated the voter outreach effort, said the messages about climate change, clean air, and Fisher's involvement worked well with English-language voters. Chinese speakers didn't care as much about Fisher, so campaign workers talked to them about improving Muni service.
The absentee-voter drive (and the push among Chinese-language voters) was unusual for a progressive campaign — and the fact that Prop. A did so well among typically conservative absentee voters was a testament to the effort's effectiveness.
Elsbernd, one of the most conservative members of the Board of Supervisors, crossed many of his political allies to support the Yes on A–No on H campaign, and his involvement helped win over west-side voters and demonstrated that environmentalism and support for transit shouldn't be just progressive positions.
"It's great for public transit riders. It reinforces that this is a transit-first city.... Public transit is not an east-side issue," Elsbernd told us, adding that the election was also a victory for political honesty. "It shows that people saw through the campaign rhetoric."
The Fisher-funded rhetoric relied on simplistic appeals to drivers' desire for more parking and used deceptive antigovernment appeals, trying to capitalize on what he clearly thought was widespread disdain for the Board of Supervisors.
"The attacks against the board didn't work," Peskin said, noting that in election after election the supervisors have shown that they "have much longer coattails than the chief executive of San Francisco."
"I think it's a pretty thorough rejection of Don Fisher's agenda. He was not able to fool the voters," said Tom Radulovich, director of Livable City and a BART director, who was active in the campaign. "This was about transit and what's best for downtown. We should be very proud as a city."
The day after the El Rio party, at the monthly Car Free Happy Hour — a gathering of alternative-transportation activists and planners — there was excited talk of the previous night's electoral triumph, but it quickly turned to the question of what's next.
After all, progressives proved they could win in a low-turnout election against a poll-tested, attractive-sounding, and well-funded campaign. And given that the number of signatures needed to qualify an initiative for the ballot is a percentage of the voters in the last mayor's race, it suddenly seems easy to meet that standard.
Some of the ideas floated by the group include banning cars on a portion of Market Street, having voters endorse bus rapid-transit plans and other mechanisms for moving transit quicker, levying taxes on parking and other auto-related activities to better fund Muni, and exempting bike, transit, and pedestrian projects from detailed and costly environmental studies (known as level of service, or LOS, reform to transportation planners).
"There's a lot of potential to move this forward," Haaland said later. "We can talk about creating a real transit-justice coalition."
There's also a downside to the low turnout: downtown can more easily place measures on the ballot or launch recall drives against sitting supervisors, which would force progressives to spend time and money playing defense.
But overall, for an election that could have been a total train wreck for progressives, the high-profile victory and the new coalitions suggest that the movement is alive and well, despite Newsom's reelection.