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Political Machines

Among the most interesting election processes I’ve ever witnessed is currently taking place across the bay in San Francisco. Gavin Newsom and Matt Gonzalez are vying for the mayoralty in a hotly contested run-off.

Sure, it’s a relatively minor election (compared to, say, the recent California gubernatorial recall), but it’s smallish size has allowed a depth of coverage that has revealed a number of fascinating aspects.

It’s important to understand that the latest polls, for what they’re worth, show the run-off to be a dead heat. This surprises locals, as Gavin had a resounding lead in the initial election (41% to Gonzalez’ 20%). Gonzalez has been able to gain support from people who originally voted for others.

Perhaps the crux of the matter is political party affiliation. Gavin Newsom is the Democratic Party Candidate. Matt Gonzalez, represents the only other viable party in San Francisco– the Green Party. (Political Fun Fact: currently president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Gonzalez might currently be the highest ranking Green in the U.S. Another Political Fun Fact: In the 2002 Gubernatorial Election, the Green candidate, Peter Camejo, outpolled the Republican candidate in San Francisco.)

With Matt’s current poll standing and his party affiliation, a fascinating result emerged — the Democratic Party is campaigning scared in San Francisco. Democrats have pretty much owned the city since, I don’t know, probably the 50s. Their dominance has never been seriously threatened in this liberal union town.

But as the Democratic Party drifted toward the center, a dissatisfied electorate emerged. It first came to light in the last mayoral election, when Tom Ammiano got incumbent and presumed shoo-in Wille Brown into a run-off. It came into sharper focus with the 2000 Board of Supervisor elections, where far-left candidates prevailed over Willie-backed ones. The presence of this dissatisfied electorate is now firmly felt by the city’s politicos, and, clearly, it’s caught them off-guard.

So, now the Democratic Party is closing ranks around its own. The SF Democratic Party officially endorsed Newsom, meaning the California Democratic Party can now throw money behind his campaign. And the standard Democratic racial and ethnic groups are endorsing Newman — black leaders backed him earlier in November, and last week Chinese American leaders followed suit.

In one of the more bizarre expressions of Democratic Party machinations, Angela Alioto, who attacked Newsom’s politics in the initial election, ended up endorsing him in the runoff. This move was in exchange for a promise that Alioto would be given a “vice mayor” role in Newsom’s administration (no such position actually exists). But also, Alioto, who had served as vice chair of the state Democratic Party for eight years, feared Gonzalez attempts at building the Green Party.

These are the outcomes of the gears turning in machine politics. Alioto and the leaders of minority groups have acted not on principles based on policies (which are more closely aligned with Gonzalez), but on devotion to the Democratic Party, their organized religion of choice. Even though the Democratic Party isn’t really doing right by it’s fundamental principlines — it’s doing right by whatever political favoritism and cronyism that has enabled it to thrive over the last forty years. It’s calling in favors from trusted special interests, special interests that are now backing the candidate less truly interested in supporting their cause.

On this point, one thing that I haven’t seen in the news is the stance of another classic Democrat special interest – labor. I wonder if they’re being quiet, because labor realizes that their best candidate isn’t the Democrat.

Before this election, Newsom wasn’t really a machine politician. He was just a handsome guy, Kennedy-esque, successful local businessman, representing one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods, who promoted policies that tended towards business-friendliness. However, in order to become mayor, he gave himself over to the machine, obviously assuming that it would guarantee election. The surprising outcome is that this allegiance might be doing him more harm than good. A perceived independent candidate with his ideals would likely be farther ahead in the polls — the residue left by his glad-handing with the machine has engendered a lot of suspicion from San Franciscans (particularly the race-baiting driven by Willie, and the explicit politics of endorsement with Angela).

Such that, even though Newsom has outraised Gonzalez by a factor of 10 ($3.8 million to $391,000), the polls have the two in a dead heat. San Franciscans grew increasingly tired of Willie Brown’s back-room shenanigans, his greased-palms political appointees, his handing of contracts over to people with “juice.” Many are tired of this cronyist politics, and see Gavin simply as Willie’s successor. After their success in the 2000 Board of Supervisors election, this mayoral campaign feels like a culmination of the far left’s insurgence, and San Francisco has a remarkable opportunity to make municipal political history.