SF Dem Candidates Differ on Party Panel Makeup
Once again control of the local Democratic Party in San Francisco is up for grabs this June.
Every two years Democrats spar over seats on the Democratic County Central Committee, referred to as "the D triple C." The party’s oversight panel plays a key role in local elections by endorsing candidates and weighs in on policy debates at City Hall.
The DCCC has also long been a launching pad for those looking to enter local politics and be elected to public office. It has proven to be a good groomer for LGBT candidates, particularly in Assembly District 17, which covers the gay Castro district and LGBT-friendly neighborhoods such as the Mission, Bernal, South of Market, and Noe Valley.
There are currently 12 LGBT people on the DCCC, and this year 17 LGBT candidates are running for the DCCC’s 24 seats, 14 of which are designated for residents from AD 17. The other 10 seats are for residents of Assembly District 19, which covers the city’s western neighborhoods.
The jockeying for the DCCC comes as the odd-numbered seats on the Board of Supervisors are up for grabs this fall. The winners of the party race on the June 5 primary ballot will determine which supervisor candidates win the local Democratic Party’s endorsement.
And they will help pick the party’s next chair this summer as the incumbent, former supervisor and board president Aaron Peskin, opted not to seek re-election. Choosing his successor will be the first order of business for the new DCCC members after they are sworn into office.
In years past the DCCC race has largely been viewed as a battle between moderates and progressives for control of the local party. Progressives currently hold a majority on the DCCC, but how much clout they have had over City Hall is a matter of debate.
Voters have mostly rejected the committee’s endorsed candidates for local races in the last two city elections. Some contend the committee’s sway with voters has been diminished partly due to sitting supervisors also being members of the DCCC.
Five supervisors currently serve on the DCCC: John Avalos (District 11), Eric Mar (D1), David Chiu (D3), David Campos (D9), and Scott Wiener (D8). All are seeking re-election this year, and District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen is also running for a DCCC seat.
Should the six be elected to the DCCC, it would constitute a quorum of board members and trigger sunshine laws and other rules governing the supervisors.
That outcome has raised anew suggestions that the local party ban municipal elected officials from serving on the committee.
Openly gay state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), an ex-officio member of the DCCC given the office he holds, told the Bay Area Reporter that he is "a little conflicted" about having city supervisors sit on the committee. He has endorsed Wiener’s DCCC re-election bid as well as former supervisors Leslie Katz and Bevan Dufty, but Leno prefers to see most of the seats go to people who have not held political office.
"I’d like to think the central committee is a good entry level post for community activists. There are a limited number of seats, so any elected or former elected takes a seat away from a new person," said Leno in an interview, adding that at the same time "everyone has a right to run."
DCCC Treasurer Alix Rosenthal, a contender to become the next party chair, told the B.A.R. municipal elected officials should be banned from being able to serve on the committee. She called the DCCC "a great way to get your feet wet" in local politics, especially for future candidates.
"But with all of the electeds holding positions on the DCCC, it is nearly impossible for a newcomer to get elected to the body now," she told the B.A.R. in response to a candidate questionnaire. "Moreover, most of the supervisors sitting on the DCCC are too busy to come to most meetings, causing us quorum problems. And the supervisors are often conflicted out of voting on matters of local concern."
Wiener, who has served on the DCCC since 2004 and was a past party chair, told the B.A.R. he believes he "still has a role to play" on the committee in addition to being a city supervisor. He does not foresee, however, seeking the chairmanship again this year.
"Never say never but it is a big job and I am sure the DCCC will find the right candidate," said Wiener, who would not disclose whom he would vote to be the next chair. "I think it would be great to have someone else be chair. I work 18 hours a day as supervisor. It takes a lot of time to be chair."
The Bay Area Reporter sent questionnaires to all 51 candidates seeking DCCC seats this year. Twenty-five people responded in the AD 17 race. In AD 19, incumbent DCCC member Bill Fazio wrote to say he is declining to answer any questionnaires this year, while 14 people filled it out.
Few support banning electeds
In 2010 then-Mayor Gavin Newsom placed on the November ballot a measure that would have banned supervisors and the mayor from running for seats on the DCCC. Progressives painted the proposal as sour grapes by moderates upset that they had lost control of the local party.
Not only had a progressive DCCC slate swept into office, in 2008 it also ousted Wiener as chair and, in his place, elected Peskin. Voters rejected Newsom’s measure, but the number of supervisors doing double duty as DCCC members has again drawn attention to the idea of a ban.
Few of the DCCC candidates who responded to the B.A.R. ’s questionnaire support banning municipal elected officials from serving on the party committee. Others suggested supervisors be given ex-officio membership similar to state and federal officeholders.
Among the AD 17 candidates, only eight supported such a restriction. The other 17 candidates said they opposed the idea.
Campos explained that not only does he believe the policy is unnecessary, he fears such a ban would lead to less minority members on the DCCC.
"As a Latino man, one of the reasons I’m running is because many in that community fear that if I don’t run, it may be that there will be no Latino representation on the DCCC, which was the case years ago," he wrote.
As the only Asian DCCC incumbent in AD 17, Chiu also said he was running to ensure a diverse ethnic makeup on the committee. He said he would agree to resign from the DCCC, however, if the federal and state officeholders given ex-officio status did the same.
"But unless that happens, it does not make sense to have a local Democratic leadership that consists of federal and state electeds and grassroots activists, but no local electeds," wrote Chiu, the current board president.
Others, such as Dufty and school board member Hydra Mendoza, both of whom are policy advisers to Mayor Ed Lee, simply stated that they "respect" the voters’ decision from two years ago.
City Attorney spokesman Matt Dorsey, running for a full-term to the DCCC after being appointed to a vacancy earlier this year, added another reason to keeping the status quo.
"The Democratic Party is - and should remain - a democratic party," wrote Dorsey, a gay man and one of the few HIV-positive people in the race. "If Democratic voters don’t want supervisors serving on the DCCC, they have the prerogative to not vote for those supervisors."
Katz, a lesbian who serves on the city’s Port Commission, had a more nuanced reply. Against an outright ban, she said she hopes "such officials would self-regulate and recognize the problems that now exist by holding two offices."
She added that, "I am opposed to those who jump into the race without" a commitment to the party "but am hesitant to restrict people in their exercise of their right to run."
So did lesbian former state Senator Carole Migden, a onetime chair of the party, who does not support a ban but did state that "the committee may be better served by more activists and fewer elected officials."
Gay attorney Rafael Mandelman suggested that should all six supervisors win a seat on the DCCC - something he noted would be "unprecedented and seems a bit ridiculous" - he would encourage them to step down in favor of a designated successor. Doing so, he noted, "would be an opportunity to give new activists, ideally women and people of color, an opportunity to get a seat at the DCCC table."
Among the crop of LGBT activists from AD 17 looking to move into local Democratic Party politics this year are transgender educator Jamie Rafaela Wolfe, AIDS activist Stu Smith, and Zoe Dunning, a lesbian retired naval officer who pushed for repeal of the military’s ban on out gay and lesbian service members.
Only Stu Smith said elected officials should not run for the DCCC, while Wolfe and Dunning told the B.A.R. they would not support an outright ban.
Wolfe wrote that she "would appreciate seeing more non-elected officials occupying" seats on the DCCC in order "to bring more diversity." But rather than limiting membership of elected officials, Wolfe favors letting "engaged Democratic voters decide who they want representing their party."
Dunning said she "would consider proposals to establish a limited number of ex-officio positions for municipal electeds, freeing up the DCCC elected seats for the rest of us."
Among the 14 candidates from AD 19, they were evenly divided on the issue. Neither incumbent Arlo Hale Smith nor Kevin Bard, a Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club board member, supports banning electeds from the DCCC.
Bard said he is "open to smart ideas on this matter."
Arlo Smith had worked with several DCCC members to increase the number of seats to 29 but their proposal was rejected. Although some electeds have had a positive impact serving on the panel, Smith said others have not and there has been negative consequences.
"It tends to increase ’partisan’ bickering on the [panel] as concern over SFDCCC endorsements becomes exaggerated by the need of these officials to gain endorsements for themselves, and candidate/ballot measures they support," wrote Smith.
Teacher Trevor McNeil was among those supporting a ban because he doesn’t believe having electeds on the DCCC is good for the party.
"I think at the worst it’s a way for electeds to get around fundraising limits, and it certainly does not help bring new voices to the party," he wrote.
How the panel comes down on the issue of having electeds serve on the DCCC likely will be swayed by who is elected the next chair. Should they be re-elected to the party committee, look for Rosenthal, Migden, and Mandelman in the mix to succeed Peskin.
Rosenthal, who has generated debate with her all-female slate of DCCC candidates, has called for the next chair to be a woman.
Migden and Mandelman both told the B.A.R. their preference is to have an LGBT chair.