SF Democratic Party must stay democratic

  • by Arlo Hale Smith, Debra Walker, and Keith Baraka
  • Wednesday January 18, 2012
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Little noticed amid the current once-per-decade state and federal redistricting process is a reapportionment question involving San Francisco's local Democratic Party, which could result in significant underrepresentation for the city's eastern side – a bastion of diversity that has traditionally been key to the political empowerment of the LGBT community and other minority groups.

At issue is the apportionment of members on the Democratic County Central Committee, or DCCC, the elected governing body of a local political party that is among the most vibrant and influential in California.

Under state law as it has existed for the last decade, San Francisco allocates representation on its Democratic Party committee evenly between the city's two Assembly districts, with 12 members from each. But with state legislative redistricting all but finalized, San Francisco's Assembly districts are set to change. 

The newly redrawn eastern district (the 17th Assembly District, represented by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano) will now encompass a larger share of San Francisco, and account for about 61 percent of the city's over 260,000 registered Democratic voters. 

Meanwhile, the city's western district (the 19th Assembly District, represented by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma) will include fewer San Francisco precincts together with part of San Mateo County. It will account for about 39 percent of San Francisco's registered Democrats.

Just like state and federal legislative districts, party committees, too, undertake a process of reallocating their representation every 10 years – and it should be completed by the June primary election. That has left only a small window in which to act. Fortunately, both of San Francisco's LGBT state legislators – state Senator Mark Leno and Ammiano – have agreed to support legislation that will ensure proportional representation on the city's DCCC.

Still, no reapportionment recommendation has yet to secure the necessary consensus among Democratic committee members to win passage – or ensure successful legislative enactment in Sacramento.

Two proposals

So far, two proposals have emerged to address the proportional inequity. One would preserve the DCCC's current membership total of 24, but designate that there be 10 representatives from the western Assembly District and 14 from the eastern Assembly District. Another proposal would expand total membership on the committee to 29, with five additional members added to represent the more heavily Democratic 17th Assembly District. Either proposal will achieve proportional representation between the new districts.

But without decisive action in reaching a consensus proposal, San Francisco's Democratic Party could maintain a 50-50 apportionment split that is both fundamentally unfair and that further disenfranchises already underrepresented minority communities in the city's eastern neighborhoods. Indeed, underrepresentation among minority communities is already a concern on the DCCC, which doesn't currently include a single elected African American member.

Now is the time for the DCCC to decisively support one of these proposals or face a decidedly unappealing political scenario. Given that Republicans offer proportional representation on their elective party committee based on party registration, the local Republican Party could end up being more democratic than the Democratic Party – and that's an embarrassment Democrats should want to avoid.

If all this seems like an inconsequential political squabble, think again. 

Apart from delivering the most coveted and influential endorsements in local politics, the Democratic County Central Committee has historically been an important farm team for emerging political leaders – especially leaders who represent minority communities.   Both out gay supervisors, David Campos and Scott Wiener, began their careers by first winning election to the DCCC. And strong straight allies of the LGBT community like City Attorney Dennis Herrera (a Latino) and Board of Supervisors President David Chiu (a Chinese American) both cut their teeth in local politics as DCCC members.  

San Francisco's Democratic Party organization also plays an enormously important role in statewide politics. In partnership with organized labor and a handful of other vibrant local Democratic parties statewide, its ability to deliver a strongly progressive turnout among Democratic voters citywide can offset the influence of more heavily Republican counties elsewhere. That can mean the margin of victory for pro-LGBT and progressive candidates – as it did in then-District Attorney Kamala Harris's successful 2010 bid for California attorney general. Indeed, high Democratic turnout in San Francisco is typically an essential component of statewide coalitions to pass progressive statewide ballot measures – and to defeat those intended to hurt consumers or the environment. 

Our local Democratic Party committee should aspire to expand on its roles of encouraging tomorrow's LGBT and minority community leaders, while continuing to demonstrate progressive leadership statewide. It's hard to imagine how that can be accomplished, however, if our city's most diverse neighborhoods are systematically underrepresented on the local party committee.  

It's critical that our local Democratic Party be democratic. That's why San Francisco's DCCC must reach consensus on a proposal to assure proportional representation to all San Francisco Democrats, and why state legislators must work to enact it.

Arlo Hale Smith is an elected member of the DCCC from the 12th Assembly District; Debra Walker is an elected member of the DCCC from the 13th Assembly District; and Keith Baraka was a candidate for DCCC in 2010.