A wave of panic swept over Democratic Party leaders in the days preceding San Francisco’s December 9 runoff for mayor. As election day approached, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, Nancy Pelosi, Diane Feinstein, and other Democratic luminaries descended on San Francisco to beat back Matt Gonzalez’s insurgent Green mayoral campaign.
Their efforts paid off, barely. Millionaire Gavin Newsom, the hand-picked representative of the city’s Democratic Party machine, won a narrow victory with 52.8% of the vote to Gonzalez’s 47.2%. Newsom is a rising star within the Democratic Leadership Council, the powerful Clintonite grouping in the party.
San Francisco is among Democratic leaders’ most prized possessions. It’s been under Democratic control for four decades and, until now, was considered the most thoroughly Democratic city in the country. The local party is a powerful fund-raising machine and a farm for future national leaders.
Losing City Hall to a Green, especially after the rebellion against former Democratic Governor Gray Davis, would have been a major blow to the Democratic Party’s prestige. The idea that a left-wing alternative to the Democrats can be built would have been strengthened, stimulating further challenges to the two-party system elsewhere, including nationally around figures like Nader.
Movements Can Win Elections
The Gonzalez campaign proved that a mobilized movement is fully capable of challenging corporate cash in elections. Newsom’s campaign raised over $5 million, mostly from downtown corporations like Bechtel and The Gap, outspending Gonzalez 10 to 1. The Gonzalez campaign, on the other hand, emerged as the concentrated expression of a growing anger at big business and its party machine.
Thousands of people, many young and previously uninvolved in politics, energetically volunteered for Gonzalez. His campaign generated a “buzz” across the city, uniting hotel workers with artists and punks, LGBT activists with immigrant organizers. The character and scale of the campaign was like nothing seen in San Francisco elections for decades.
Only 3% of San Franciscans are registered Greens, but Gonzalez won the majority of registered Democrats and independents to his side. Newsom only took City Hall by mobilizing Republicans who account for 15% of registered voters.
Commentators have attempted to dismiss the near-success of the Gonzalez campaign as an aberration, a quaint episode from the wacky capitol of the “Left Coast.” In reality, the class polarization in San Francisco fueling the campaign foreshadows the political explosions being prepared in cities across the country.
San Franciscans didn’t vote along party lines; they voted along the class divide. The voting breakdown shows Gonzalez won decisive victories in almost every working-class neighborhood, while Newsom swept San Francisco’s wealthy enclaves. The bursting of the dot-com bubble has meant unemployment and budget cuts for working-class residents, bringing class contradictions to the fore just as economic troubles have polarized cities across the U.S.
In the run-up to the campaign, Gonzalez used his position on the Board of Supervisors to push through an increase in the minimum wage to $8.50/hour. He campaigned against Newsom’s anti-homeless “Care Not Cash” program, instead proposing more housing and medical facilities for the homeless. His program included increased funding for education and transportation, including free bus service for the young and elderly, new clean energy initiatives, and support for rent control and tenants’ rights.
While Gonzalez’s program clearly differentiated him from McCandidate Newsom, it was not sufficient to galvanize a significantly higher voter turn-out, which remained under 55%, nothing special in San Francisco. Doing this would have required offering more than a long list of cosmetic fixes to the city’s dire social problems. The campaign’s major weakness was its failure to develop a more explicit class appeal to fundamentally transform the lives of working and poor San Franciscans.
The election threw the traditional bedrocks of Democratic support into ferment. Local Democratic Party clubs, unions, LGBT organizations, and environmental and women’s groups erupted in heated debates, with many breaking ranks with the Democratic Party and supporting the Green candidate.
However, most union leaders and traditional “progressive” organizations loyally backed Newsom and the Democratic Party. These leaders, who continually justify support for Democrats by pointing out that they “aren’t as bad as Republicans,” showed the complete absurdity of the logic of lesser-evilism.
In the San Francisco election, there was no Republican “greater evil” in the race. The choice was between the Green Gonzalez, a pro-worker progressive who had a clear shot at victory, and the big business Democrat Newsom. What was there to lose by supporting Gonzalez? If the leadership of the unions and other mass organizations had campaigned for Gonzalez, he would clearly have won.
Newsom’s recent high-profile stand in favor of same-sex marriage rights can be significantly explained as a bid to shore up LGBT support lost during the election campaign. This shows that even when a radical alternative does not win an election, building a serious threat to the political establishment will always force more reforms than lobbying efforts.
History is on our side. The Gonzalez campaign was another indicator of the narrowing social base for the two parties of big business. Nader’s 2000 campaign, the growing success of the Greens at the local level, the falling voter turnout, and the voter rebellion against Grey Davis, all show the volatility of U.S. politics and the growing space for political alternatives to emerge and win.