Yes, No, YES! - district elections

  • by Jon Golinger
  • Wednesday November 8, 2017
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"You can stand on the outside and throw bricks at Silly Hall or you can take it over."

- Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk lost before he won.

Not just once or twice, either. The first three times Milk ran for elected office, he got outspent by establishment-backed opponents and out-organized by experienced politicians. And he was outvoted on Election Day.

In his first run for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1973, Milk ran a quintessentially grassroots campaign as a populist Democrat without campaign staff, endorsements, or much money. He planted himself in his neighborhood and talked to everyone in sight as they came by the Castro Camera door, one by one. His strong liberal positions on legalizing marijuana and keeping government out of private sexual decisions were perfectly in tune with the views of his neighborhood and he swept the Castro district, earning more votes than any other candidate in the area. If Milk had been running to represent the Castro at City Hall he would have won in a landslide. But Milk lost. His 16,900 votes were not enough to win under the "at-large" system for elections for the Board of Supervisors. While the makings of a movement to replace the at-large system of supervisor elections with a district-based system had begun by 1973, the 32 candidates for supervisor that year still had to place fifth or higher in the citywide vote tally to win one of the at-large board seats. Milk placed 10th. That meant he was out. But he wasn't done.

In 1975, Milk again ran for supervisor and again he overwhelmingly received the support of the voters in the Castro and surrounding neighborhoods. But again, the establishment-backed candidates and those with more money and more name recognition prevailed under the at-large system. They could pay for mailers to every part of the city and Milk could not. He could only talk to people. And he talked to thousands of them, earning enough votes on Election Day to come in seventh in the race for six seats on the board. Closer but, again, Milk lost.

After an ill-fated run the following year for a state Assembly seat against rising star and future mayor Art Agnos, Milk was fed up and just about finished with politics. Three strikes and you're out. But then the people changed the game. The voters of San Francisco finally threw Milk a pitch he could hit.

Efforts to replace the at-large system of supervisor elections with a district-based system that would empower neighborhoods and reduce the impact of big money on local campaigns had begun to move out of the realm of idea and into the world of possibility in 1972. That year, a grassroots coalition of neighborhood groups, labor unions, and civic leaders calling themselves Citizens For Representative Government began to come together to change the way supervisors were elected. The goal was to create a more responsive and inclusive board that better represented city voters: geographically, ideologically, and ethnically. Under the at-large system, no Asian-American had ever been elected to the board and only a few African-Americans, Latinos, and women had ever been elected. Not a single openly gay person had ever represented San Francisco, which had become the epicenter of gay politics in America. Landlord and property interests dominated the board and tenants were largely unrepresented. A civil grand jury issued a report calling for reform of the system for electing supervisors finding that, under the at-large system, the Board of Supervisors had become completely unrepresentative of the changing population of San Francisco.

After forming an umbrella organization called the Community Congress in early 1975, the pro-district elections forces held a series of meetings throughout San Francisco to persuade reluctant San Franciscans of the merits of district elections. In early 1976, the coalition held 18 community meetings and a weekend long "congress" to draft the proposed district boundaries using an inclusive, community-based process instead of leaving the important district line drawing decisions to so-called experts.

In November 1976, the reform forces went to the ballot with a new district elections initiative, Proposition T. The "No" campaign was bitter and unrelenting, charging that Prop T was part of an elaborate vote-fraud plot that would "take over the entire city" and inject "Potentially Corrupt Ward Ghetto Politics Into Our City!" But, by a slim margin, the broad coalition and organizing efforts of the reformers paid off this time and they finally succeeded in convincing voters it was time to give a new system a try. On Election Day, Prop T passed with 52 percent of the vote. The stage was set for the city's first district elections for the Board of Supervisors in November 1977.

In the historic first district elections on November 8, 1977, San Francisco voters elected neighborhood representatives to City Hall. But the result was not a dramatic change in the membership of the Board of Supervisors. A majority of the incumbent board members elected under the at-large system chose to run in their respective home districts. Each one of the six incumbents who ran won. However, to replace the five members of the board who declined to run, San Francisco voters chose a diverse mix of liberals and conservatives, three men and two women, and the first African-American female supervisor, Ella Hill Hutch. And the voters of District 5, covering the lively Castro and the happening Haight-Ashbury, elected the first openly gay person in California history. District elections elected Harvey Milk and changed San Francisco.

But in a head-spinning sequence of events, barely one year later an unthinkable, earth-shattering, double-murder scene played out at City Hall that created just the opening the opponents of district elections would need to try and change San Francisco back.

Excerpted from Chapter 1 of Jon Golinger's new book "Saving San Francisco's Heart: How to win elections, reclaim our city, and keep SF a special place," published by Bay Guardian Books. "Saving San Francisco's Heart" is available at neighborhood bookstores like Dog Eared Books in the Castro or through the publisher at