Political Notebook: Gay SF treasurer Cisneros hopes electoral luck returns in 2024

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday March 27, 2024
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The president of the Irish Senate, Jerry Buttimer, center, was welcomed to the Castro district by a local diplomat and elected officials, Irish Consul General Micheál Smith, left, city treasurer José Cisneros, Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, and state Senator Scott Wiener. Photo: Rick Gerharter
The president of the Irish Senate, Jerry Buttimer, center, was welcomed to the Castro district by a local diplomat and elected officials, Irish Consul General Micheál Smith, left, city treasurer José Cisneros, Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, and state Senator Scott Wiener. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Ahead of St. Patrick's Day gay San Francisco Treasurer-Tax Collector José Cisneros helped welcome to town gay Ireland Senator Jerry Buttimer, who as leader of his chamber is known as Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann. He presented Buttimer with a mayoral certificate of honor before a meeting of the city's human rights commission.

The next day Cisneros joined his husband and longtime commission member, Mark Kelleher, at the Twin Peaks bar in the city's LGBTQ Castro district to treat Buttimer to one of its Irish coffees. Joining them was Micheál Smith, consul general of Ireland, whom the couple has become friendly with since he took over the diplomatic post in 2022.

Along with rubbing shoulders with the out Irish political leader, who hails from San Francisco's sister city of Cork, Ireland, Cisneros likely was hoping some proverbial Irish luck also rubbed off on him as he prepares to officially launch his bid for reelection on the November 5 ballot. He is seeking a sixth term this year.

When it comes to the electoral process, Cisneros has been exceedingly lucky since he first ran for his citywide position in 2005. In each successive election no one has challenged him on the ballot.

It is likely his streak of uncontested elections will carry through this year. As of Tuesday, Cisneros was the only candidate listed as having pulled papers for the fall race with the city's elections department.

"I haven't heard anything as far as an opponent. Certainly, plenty of people tell me they don't expect anybody else would enter the race," Cisneros told the Bay Area Reporter in a recent interview. "My feeling is I still have to take the election seriously. I think it comes as part of taking the job seriously."

The filing deadline to enter the race is in early August. So far City Attorney David Chiu and San Francisco Sheriff Paul Miyamoto also have yet to draw opponents as they seek reelection in the fall.

Even if they face no opponents, they will still appear on the November 5 ballot. Cisneros told the B.A.R. he will campaign for his position no matter what happens.

"I certainly hope to get engagement and even support from members of the community who I hope want to see the great work we have done in the office be able to continue," he said.

Cisneros is the only LGBTQ person to hold one of the city's seven elected executive positions. As of now, it doesn't appear that the fall election will change that fact.

Having turned 68 in January, Cisneros will turn 72 in 2028 when his next term would be up if he does win reelection as expected. The B.A.R. asked Cisneros what his reaction has been to the debate raging around how old is too old to seek public office stemming from the ages of this year's presidential candidates, with Democratic President Joe Biden, 81, and his Republican challenger, Donald Trump, 77.

Cisneros joked he wasn't too keen about being lumped into the same age group as the presidential contenders. Nonetheless, he said he "appreciated the question" since it has grabbed public attention of late.

Biden and Trump have refuted contentions they are too old to stand for election this year. To Cisneros, the answer comes down to the individual candidates.

"We have seen people young and old be able to do not only a competent job but an excellent job," he said. "I certainly want this job because of the great results we have been able to produce out of our office and I would like to keep that going."

Unlike other elected positions in the city, San Francisco does not impose term limits on its treasurer. This September, Cisneros will mark two decades in the office, as former mayor Gavin Newsom, now the state's governor, appointed him to fill a vacancy in 2004.

Over the past 20 years Cisneros has twice seen his normal four-year term changed. He only served a two-year term before seeking a full four-year term in 2015 because voters had approved a ballot measure moving his and several other citywide races to being held in odd years.

Two years ago voters adopted another ballot measure that changed the odd-year city elections to being held during the presidential elections in even years. Thus, Cisneros is currently finishing up a five-year term.

Cisneros is San Francisco's longest-serving openly gay elected official at the city level. The previous record holders, Tom Ammiano and the late Harry Britt, both served on the Board of Supervisors for 14 years.

And he could extend his record by another eight years, as Cisneros didn't rule out running for reelection again in 2028.

"I haven't decided if this will be my last term that I will seek. I try not to predict the future, even when it comes to me," he said.

In the meantime Cisneros is focused on his tasks at hand as the city's tax collector. Due to a number of voter-approved ballot measures in recent years, he and his staff have been rolling out a variety of new taxes since he last stood for reelection.

"I don't take any positions for or against taxes, but each of these taxes becomes a major significant effort. Our office, in a relatively short period of time, has to set up a system for collecting the new tax," noted Cisneros.

There is the commercial vacancy tax, which kicked in last year and impacts landlords with storefronts that have been vacant for more than 182 days in a calendar year. Another is the overpaid executive tax for businesses with wide disparities in pay between their top executive and lowest paid employees.

The newest one Cisneros and his staff are working to implement is a tax on vacant homes. While it is facing a legal challenge, they have been devising ways to figure out which property owners will need to pay it should the courts allow it to stand.

"We have been very busy," said Cisneros, noting that, "nearly every year for the last four or five years, voters have voted in new taxes in San Francisco."

While he demurs when asked for specifics about how his office ensures that individual taxpayers pay the right amount in taxes they owe to the city, Cisneros said his office is diligent in its approach and enforcement.

"We are very vigilant in making sure everyone pays the taxes they owe," he said.

In a year where both the state and city are grappling with record budget deficits, the work of his office is particularly critical. With the growth of work-from-home policies due to the COVID pandemic and a glut of businesses giving up their office spaces downtown, Cisneros and the city's former controller, Ben Rosenfield, who retired in February, worked on recommendations they presented to Mayor London Breed and the Board of Supervisors earlier this year for how to once again reform the city's tax structure in light of the current economic trends.

"In general terms the reality is that working from home is affecting the city's revenues," said Cisneros. "That is a major change. We all have to be responsive to changes when they happen in order to keep the ship afloat."

Among the ideas presented in their final report were reducing the rates of the Overpaid Executive Tax by 90%; and reducing the rates of the Commercial Rents Tax by 25%, while preserving the same dedicated funding for early childhood care and education. It also suggested shifting away from calculation of taxes based on payroll in San Francisco toward sales in the city.

"What we were working on with business leaders and labor and the community overall was to see is there an agreement on how San Francisco business taxes could be changed to better meet the needs of the time," said Cisneros.

Those conversations are ongoing, Cisneros said. Ultimately, it will be up to Breed and the supervisors to decide what measures, if any, to place on the fall ballot to be approved by voters.

"The difficulty we are seeing in the local economy here, particularly in the downtown area, is troubling, and it is having an impact on the revenue the business tax is collecting for the city," said Cisneros. "That is why a couple months back the mayor asked Ben Rosenfield, at the time the controller, and me as the treasurer to begin a conversation working with the community here to see if everyone in the city can come together on a tax reform ballot measure that could stabilize the city's revenues."

With his reelection race now aligned with that of the presidential campaign, Cisneros acknowledged his own campaign isn't likely to receive much attention from the press or by voters. Nonetheless, he hopes they continue to have trust in him to do the job as treasurer and tax collector.

"I and the office do incredibly important work for the city. We bring in billions of dollars in revenue and keep the city's investments safe," Cisneros said. "It is why I am proud of the fact we can stand by our continuing to do the job well and continue bringing in revenue for the city. I want the chance to do that for four more years."

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on how the new leaders for the San Francisco Democratic Party are likely to impact its endorsement in the mayoral race.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Threads @ https://www.threads.net/@matthewbajko.

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or email [email protected]

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