Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Political Notebook: Spanjian tries to break gender barrier in D8 supervisor race


Laura Spanjian flashes her trademark smile as she files for District 8 supervisor with the assistance of Jocelyn Wong, a campaign services coordinator in the Department of Elections. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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If history is any guide, the next District 8 supervisor should be gay, male, and Jewish. Those are the CliffsNotes characteristics of the two men who have held the seat since 2000, when the supervisors reverted to being elected from districts rather than citywide.

 It also sums up Harvey Milk, who in 1977 became the city's first openly gay politician by winning the then-District 5 seat, which covered the burgeoning gay enclave of the Castro as well as the Haight. When the district was redrawn nine years ago, the seat not only covered the Castro but also included Noe Valley, Diamond Heights, and Glen Park.

Already Scott Wiener and Rafael Mandelman, two gay men who are both Jewish, are running to replace Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who is termed out of office next year.

Now Laura Spanjian, an out lesbian who is second generation Armenian American, is betting her years of political experience will help her break through District 8's gender barrier. Last week Spanjian officially entered the race, becoming the first female candidate to file her paperwork with elections officials.

She told the Bay Area Reporter that her gender should not be a handicap with voters.

"Absolutely, I think a woman can win in District 8," said Spanjian, who turns 38 next month. "District 8 responds to authentic candidates running grassroots campaigns and that is exactly what this campaign will be about."

Another out lesbian, Rebecca Prozan , who also is Jewish, is expected to enter the District 8 race but has yet to declare when she will officially file her paperwork. Should either Prozan or Spanjian capture the seat, they would be the first out lesbian to win a district-based supervisor election.

"There is a double standard of what a woman needs to bring to the table. She will need to get up earlier and stay up later walking precincts, but I think Laura is going to do great," said Emily Drennen , who identifies as bisexual and recently completed a training program for Democratic women looking to run for public office called Emerge, on whose board Spanjian sits. "She is going to have a lot of support from other women."

Female candidates have tried to win the District 8 seat but three times now have come up short. Back in 2000 Eileen Hansen , an out lesbian who is now a member of the city's Ethics Commission, ran and lost against Mark Leno , a sitting supervisor appointed by then-Mayor Willie Brown. In 2002 Hansen ran again and came out on top in the general election with 36 percent of the vote but fell short by nearly 2,000 votes in the December runoff against Dufty. [Leno that year won election to the state Assembly, leaving his supervisor seat up for grabs.]

Dufty easily bested his opponent Alix Rosenthal , a straight attorney, to win re-election in 2006. Writing on a local political blog earlier this year, Rosenthal said any woman running for the District 8 seat will "have an uphill battle based on their gender" because of the heavy percentage of male voters in the district.

In an interview this summer Rosenthal, who is backing Mandelman, told the B.A.R. that she wasn't saying she lost her race "because I was a woman" but that "this seat is hard for a woman to win."

But former Supervisor Susan Leal doesn't buy into such arguments. An out lesbian herself, and a former District 8 resident, Leal said when she successfully ran citywide for re-election to her supervisor seat in 1994 – a year after being appointed to fill a vacancy on the board – her largest base of support came from voters in the Castro, Noe Valley, and Glen Park.

"I think you are selling gay men short to say they always vote for the guy. They go for the smartest candidate who is a good guy and is hardworking. That describes Bevan and Laura is a candidate in Bevan's mold," said Leal, who joined other Spanjian supporters August 6 to see their preferred candidate officially kick-start her campaign.

Spanjian worked on several of Leal's political campaigns, and later, went to work for her at the city's Public Utilities Commission as an assistant general manager for external affairs, a position she still holds, when Leal served as its general manager. Leal used a sports analogy to best describe Spanjian.

"She always leaves it on the field. She gives it her all," she said.

The woman Leal succeeded on the board, Roberta Achtenberg , also was on hand to support Spanjian last week. An out lesbian who lives in Noe Valley, Achtenberg also dismissed any notions that a woman could not be elected District 8 supervisor.

"I don't see any reason why it should be hard for any woman or person with the competence to win this election. I am confidant she is going to do what it takes to win this election," said Achtenberg, who has been in the same book group with Spanjian for 11 years and first met her in 1994.

Spanjian has already won over Paul Day , a gay man who lives in the district and works for the University of California at San Francisco. He said he first met her during last year's No on 8 campaign and believes her "fresh approach" makes her the best person to be the next supervisor.

"I think she has a strong shot. She has a vision," said Day, adding that he likes the fact that of the four candidates, she is the only one who is not a lawyer. "I find that refreshing."

Two dozen family members and friends, including her girlfriend Susan Christian and her father Philip Spanjian, showed up outside City Hall last Thursday morning to support Spanjian, who pledged to be an "independent, reform-minded supervisor" should she be elected. Also among the crowd was former Supervisor Leslie Katz , an out lesbian who hired Spanjian as a City Hall aide.

Spanjian unveiled a campaign theme of "Smart City, Sustainable Neighborhoods" with the J and I in her name dotted by green leaves. She said her focus should she be elected would be on strengthening San Francisco's eco-friendly policies while at the same time ensuring the city is not only for the "eco-elite."

She also denounced the tendency for San Francisco political races to be seen as moderates versus progressives.

"I will be an independent, reform-minded supervisor who puts smart solutions ahead of divisive politics and the factionalism that all too often prevails at City Hall," said Spanjian. "There is too much 'us and them' infighting today at City Hall, instead of arguing whether it's our city or their city, we need to work for a smart city."

So far none of the sitting supervisors have endorsed her supervisorial bid, but state Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto); Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco); and San Francisco school board president Kim-Shree Maufas are backing Spanjian in the race.

Campaign cash at issue in D8 race

Along with jumping into the District 8 contest, Spanjian issued a challenge to her opponents in the race to limit political donations to $150 per person. When Dufty first ran seven years ago he capped contributions at $100 per person and only accepted donations from people who lived or worked in San Francisco.

He also refused to accept any money from political action committees, corporations, and registered lobbyists. He imposed the same restrictions during his re-election campaign.

Spanjian told the B.A.R. she will not accept money from PACs, corporations, or registered lobbyists, however, she will not decline donations from people who work or live outside the city. She also said she plans to accept public financing for her campaign and adhere to the spending cap doing so will require. As of now the spending limit is set at $140,000, though it may be raised to $143,000 for next year.

"I am prioritizing contributions to people who live or work in San Francisco," said Spanjian, explaining that she will accept money from people who reside outside the city but will not be proactively "asking them for money."

She said she imposed the low dollar amount to ensure her campaign is accessible to the public, particularly during an economic downturn.

"This is a tradition that was started by Supervisor Bevan Dufty and it has worked well for our district and our city," she said.

Mandelman and Wiener said they were unaware of Spanjian's challenge until informed about it this week by the B.A.R.

Mandelman said he is willing to consider it, adding that he already had pledged to stick to the public financing cap in the campaign. He is not restricting himself from taking money from PACs, corporations, or lobbyists, though he said it "sounds like a very good idea."

"I do think as the lefty in the race I am going to have historically a harder time at raising money. I have to figure out how to raise money to run an effective campaign and I think that is the most important thing," said Mandelman, president of the more left-leaning Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club. "I think taking public financing is the most important pledge. Unless the cap comes off, I will not spend more than that."

Wiener told the B.A.R. he sees no reason to limit donations to less than the $500 cap per person that candidates for local office are already required to meet. And he said he would be "extremely reluctant" to take money from PACs or lobbyists, but would not rule it out.

"I think that is a reasonable limit and I am going to comply with that and all other campaign finance laws," said Wiener, adding that so far he had not taken any PAC or lobbyist money. "I am going to work with Laura and the other candidates to have a transparent and open campaign."

For the time being, he said he has not decided on whether to accept public financing.

"It is very likely I will take the public financing and adhere to the cap," said Wiener,  "but I will be making that decision down the road."

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check Monday mornings around 10 a.m. for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column looks at the absence of SF's state legislators at the recent AIDS budget cut rally.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBT political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @

Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail mailto:.

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