San Francisco and the Rise of the Political Entrepreneur

San Francisco and the Rise of the Political Entrepreneur

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EDITOR’S NOTE: San Francisco’s crazy politics have been big news around the country since November. First, four independent candidates—including two women of color—staged upsets in the Board of Supervisors election. Then, last week, the imminent departure of ex-Mayor Gavin Newsom and ex-District Attorney Kamala Harris to Sacramento (Newsom is the state’s new lieutenant governor and Harris is attorney general) set off a new round of jostling, with Newsom appointing—and the new board approving—two surprise replacements: City Administrator Ed Lee as interim mayor and Police Chief George Gascón as district attorney.

To understand what happened and what it all means for the city’s minority voters, especially Asian Americans, NAM’s Nina Martin talked to David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee and a professor of political science at San Francisco State University.


San Francisco has entered a new era of entrepreneurial politics. What does that mean?

Another way to describe it is “political free agency.” In the past, if someone wanted to run for office here, it was essential to work their way up through the local Democratic Party. And only after they had “paid their dues” and shown themselves to be a viable candidate in a minor office—for example, the community college board— would the party back them for the Board of Supervisors. With party support came money, volunteers, endorsements from other elected officials and a base.

Now the rules of the game have changed. We have ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, in which voters choose their top three picks for an office so there’s no need to hold a runoff election between the top two vote-getters. We have district elections, in which only residents of a particular district elect the supervisor from that district. And we have public financing of campaigns. A candidate no longer needs as many votes or as much money to win a supervisor seat. Therefore, the local Democratic endorsement and support is no longer as essential as it once was for winning.

Last November, we saw three of the four candidates—Jane Kim, Mark Farrell and Scott Weiner—defeat Democratic County Central Committee-endorsed candidates to win supervisor seats. We saw a first-time candidate who was virtually unknown—Malia Cohen—defeat much better-known and -funded opponents in District 10. These political free agents raised their own money, fielded their own volunteers and gathered their own endorsements to win.

With Ed Lee, you have San Francisco’s first Chinese-American mayor. And Jane Kim and Malia Cohen are both minorities. Do you see this new kind of politics—and the reforms that underlie them—as benefiting minority communities?

The appointment of Ed Lee to fill out the last year of Gavin Newsom’s term is unquestionably a historic milestone for the Asian-American community, one I am very happy about personally. But the Chinese-American community has yet to achieve the long-held dream of electing a Chinese-American mayor of San Francisco. Until that has been accomplished, in my opinion the Chinese-American community has not yet fully arrived politically.

It’s true that thanks to these changes in San Francisco’s voting system, you got the election of Jane Kim, who is Korean American, and Malia Cohen, who is African American. But it’s not enough to look solely at the outcome. You also have to look at the process. And from my perspective as a grassroots advocate, ranked-choice voting and other “reforms” such as district elections is still a work in progress and we should consider making modifications to make the system work better for minorities and immigrants.

How are reforms that result in more Asian Americans or other minorities being voted into office problematic for those same minorities?

Any time there’s a change in voting laws or procedures, the burden falls on minority communities the hardest, because they have the least amount of resources to educate their voters about those changes. Immigrants, African-American, and low-income communities, which already have very low voter turnout, find themselves having to spend resources not just on traditional voter turnout, which is very resource-intensive, but also on educating their communities about using new voting systems. The burden is much greater for these communities than for white affluent or middle-class voters, who are already voting at a high rate and are more able to adapt.

For an organization like ours, where funding is already a struggle, we have to find money, not just to get people registered and to the polls, but to educate them about the changes affecting how they vote. Then, after the election, we have to interpret the results for them and explain for instance why Lynette Sweet [an African-American candidate in historically black District 10 who ended up losing to Malia Cohen] got the most first-place votes, but no, she did not win because after second- and third-place votes were transferred, the top vote-getter was eliminated and the third-place candidate pushed past the pack and won.

A recent analysis of ranked-choice voting in November’s elections found that low-income communities were really confused.

We’ve come a long way since ranked-choice voting was first introduced in San Francisco in 2004. But even after six years’ experience with it, we still saw widespread ballot exhaustion in November. A sizeable percentage of voters in some low-income and minority precincts did not fully vote their ballots. Moreover, an alarming number fully voted their ballot but none of their candidates made it into the final round—so in essence, their votes did not count toward determining the final outcome of the election. In my view, any system where significant numbers of voters do not contribute to the final selection of a winner needs to be re-examined and modified. One possible solution would be to allow voters to rank all the candidates instead of only three. That way you could reduce the number of exhausted ballots. We should take a hard look at it and consider alternatives.

The fact that we ended up in this election cycle with a diverse group of winners should not lull us into complacency. Just because we may be pleased with the outcome in a single election doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look under the hood of this new system and ask hard questions like: Are minority voters being fully enfranchised?

For me an important question is: Did I as a voter fully understand how the system worked and do I feel my vote counted? Because if not, the legitimacy of the election maybe be thrown into doubt and nobody wants that. Politicians want not only to win but they want a mandate to lead. So long as there are doubts about the system, a true mandate will be elusive.

What other problems do you see with the rise of free-agency politics?

The elimination of traditional runoff elections, and the lower barrier to entry for candidates, has produced some unintended consequences. In runoff elections, only the two strongest candidates could make it into the final round, and they would be intensely scrutinized and vetted by the media before the actual vote. Under ranked-choice voting, because there’s only one election, candidates are not vetted with the same intensity. And since there are fewer barriers to running, there tend to be more candidates. So you can have a dynamic where there is a large field with no clear front-runners and little or no scrutiny of the candidates.

Since the media typically cover only a few candidates, the burden falls on the voter to learn about every candidate in the field. For minority and immigrant voters, that burden may be too great and they may lack the necessary information for making an informed choice that is in their best interest.

The case that’s often cited is Ed Jew, who was elected to represent San Francisco’s District 4 on the Board of Supervisors in 2006. He ran in a big field, he wasn’t vetted, he didn’t have any major endorsements, but thanks to ranked-choice voting, he won. He turned out to live in [the suburb of] Burlingame, not San Francisco. He was forced to resign and later pleaded guilty to mail fraud and extortion. So that’s a case where the process failed. A candidate who would have been disqualified under the old system passed under the radar and won election.

What does the rise of free-agency politics mean for Asian-American candidates running to be San Francisco’s next mayor? After all, Jean Quan, who was the underdog in the Oakland mayor’s race, won because of ranked-choice voting. Is state Senator Leland Yee a shoo-in?

The mayor’s race is very much up for grabs. In fact, Leland Yee, looking at what happened in Oakland, has to be feeling like he can’t take this race for granted.

In some ways, Yee looks less like Quan than [the man she defeated, former State Senator] Don Perata. Both Perata and Yee started their careers in education, both held local office before being elected to the state legislature. Both served in leadership in the Legislature. both had been away from local politics for a while before they decided to run for mayor.

Don Perata entered the Oakland mayor’s race as the clear favorite, and in a traditional runoff election he would probably have won. Leland has a fundraising advantage and high name recognition from his leadership position in the state Senate. In a traditional election, he could spend the first nine months of the campaign essentially coasting—just doing outreach and raising money and saving his resources for the runoff, because he knows he’ll make it into the final round, while his opponents would have to fight amongst themselves for the right to challenge him in the runoff.

But under ranked-choice voting, which is how the San Francisco mayor will be picked this time, the rules are changed. There’s only one election. This time, there’s also campaign financing, so the other candidates can compete on a more level playing field. With the lower barrier to entry, we may have a large field of candidates. And just like Don Perata, Leland Yee has never run in an election with ranked-choice voting, which requires candidates to build coalitions and campaign in a very different way than in traditional run-off elections.

What about Yee’s opponents?

Yee’s major opponents—including David Chiu, who was just elected to a second term as president of the Board of Supervisors, and City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Assessor Phil Ting—do have experience running and winning under the ranked-choice system. Then there is the possibility that the only declared female candidate so far—Joanna Rees, a successful business owner—may garner enough second- and third-place votes to pull off an upset. That’s what happened with Jean Quan in Oakland.

Bottom line: Leland Yee cannot take this election for granted.