Muting Quiet Voices

Muting Quiet Voices

Jun 20, 2024

Phoenix Project

Tom Ammiano served on the San Francisco Board of Education from 1990 to 1994, the Board of Supervisors from 1994 to 2008, and the California Assembly from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of the Phoenix Project’s Advisory Board.

Supervisor Connie Chan came to San Francisco in 1991. Then 13, Chan, her mother and brother, settled in Chinatown, where they struggled and eventually thrived.

Connie Chan’s story resonated with District 1’s Chinese-American voters who played an important role in electing her to public office. The supervisor, whose native language is Cantonese, acts as an important connection between Chinese-Americans and City Hall where they have often been overlooked.

Two efforts by billionaire-backed political action groups will make it far more difficult for candidates like Connie Chan to be elected and for underserved communities to gain power at City Hall. The first was the 2022 process to redistrict the city’s 11 supervisorial districts which drew sharp criticism from several sitting supervisors, among them Rafael Mandelman who represents District 8 which includes the Castro. “This district has reliably elected an LGBTQ person since Harvey Milk,” Mandelman said. “I don’t think that would be the case anymore.”

The Redistricting Task Force, a nine-member panel appointed by the mayor, the Department of Elections, and the Board of Supervisors, was charged with weighing multiple factors when redrawing district maps. The most important was maintaining the voting power of “communities of interest” defined as “a contiguous population which shares common social and economic interests that should be included within a single district for purposes of fair and effective representation.”

This was the last consideration for GrowSF, TogetherSF and Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, the billionaire-bankrolled PACs. Their lobbying efforts were carefully crafted to return San Francisco to a time when it was governed by wealthy, white elites. It was the first move in a concerted effort to create a San Francisco for the 1%.

In the case of Chan’s district, the billionaires pushed to graft Sea Cliff, formerly part of District 2 and home to some of San Francisco’s wealthiest residents, onto District 1. About 60% of District 1’s residents are low- and middle-class renters, many living in rent-controlled apartments. Forty percent are Asian-Americans, including many non-English speakers. Large concrete monuments, separating Sea Cliff from District 1, serve as stark reminders of the uneasy relationship between the two communities.

The billionaire-backed redistricting plan sought to reverse the great strides San Francisco made toward introducing diversity to the Board of Supervisors. Much of that change can be attributed to district elections, first instituted in 1977. That same year saw the election of Harvey Milk, the first-openly gay man, Ella Hill Hutch, the first African-American woman, and Gordon Lau, the first Chinese-American, elected to the Board of Supervisors.

Unfortunately, these wins proved short-lived. In 1980, San Francisco returned to city-wide elections. The results were impossible to ignore: The Board of Supervisors again became largely white and largely male. By 2000, the city was ready for another reversal, reinstating district elections, again, with dramatic results. 

The billionaires won the recent redistricting battle. The second phase of their plan was to target the elected officials with strong track records as champions of the working class and underserved. In 2022, GrowSF board member Joel Engardio narrowly defeated District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar. Mar’s district has been gerrymandered to remove many of the constituents that had elected him in his previous run.

Now the billionaires are aiming at Chan, following Mar’s defeat, the only remaining Chinese-American on the Board of Supervisors, and District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston. Chan and Preston are longtime advocates for renters and underserved communities. GrowSF created the “Clear Out Connie” and “Dump Dean” PACs to unseat them in the November 2024 elections. Their opponents are being lavishly funded by billionaire-backed PACs. 

The billionaires aren’t resting on their laurels. In fact, they’re collecting signatures for a November 2024 ballot measure to return to city wide elections. The map of the city’s supervisorial districts is redrawn every 10 years after the federal census determines population changes. At the same time, The League of Women Voters is proposing a ballot initiative to drastically reduce political influence, a worthy effort that will be opposed by the city’s billionaires.

The fight for San Francisco’s soul continues. A city once praised for its diversity could see the efforts of ethnic and racial minorities to be adequately represented at City Hall thwarted. The result would be wealthy elites will continue to profit at their expense.

 

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