Absentees Proved Crucial in Newsom’s Victory

By ROB WRENN Special to the Planet
Friday December 19, 2003

EDITOR’S NOTE: Rob Wrenn spent some time as a Gonzalez campaign volunteer in the final week of the campaign. He makes no claims to being an impartial observer. 


Gavin Newsom’s margin of victory over Matt Gonzalez widened slightly as San Francisco election officials finished counting absentee ballots in San Francisco’s mayoral election. 

In the unofficial statement of vote released last Friday afternoon, Newsom had 131,280 votes to 116,610 votes for Gonzalez. Gonzalez won 47.0 percent of the votes cast for the two candidates. An official statement will be available by early January.  

Turnout in last Tuesday’s runoff election was the highest turnout in any San Francisco mayoral election since the 1979 mayoral race that took place in the aftermath of the November 1978 assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.  

53.4 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the runoff. Over 39,000 more San Franciscans voted in the runoff than in the November election, an increase of about 19 percent. 

Turnout, however, was well below that in the 2000 presidential election (66.59 percent) or the recent recall election (59.16 percent).  

San Francisco has had mayoral runoffs before, but none have seen such a big jump in turnout over the November general election. The excitement generated by the Gonzalez campaign certainly contributed to the higher turnout. 


What Gonzalez Achieved 

Gonzalez did remarkably well considering what he was up against. 

Gonzalez joined the race for mayor at the last minute, or more precisely a half-hour before the filing deadline in August. Newsom’s campaign had been underway for a year by then; he raised over a half-million dollars in 2002.  

In the November election, Newsom won 41.9 percent of the vote to Gonzalez’ 19.6 percent. Third place finisher Angela Alioto (16.1 percent) and fifth place finisher Susan Leal (8.5 percent) both subsequently endorsed Newsom. Gonzalez won the endorsement of fourth place finisher Supervisor Tom Ammiano (10.3 percent). 

In the runoff, Gonzalez’ vote total was higher than the combined votes received by himself, Alioto, Ammiano and Leal in the November election. 

Newsom outspent Gonzalez by at least 10-1.  

As of the Nov. 22, 2003 filing, his campaign had reported expenditures totaling $3.96 million, a huge sum for a municipal campaign, while Gonzalez had spent about $304,000 of the $392,000 he had raised. Newsom’s expenditures up to the Nov. 22 filing work out to about $30 for each vote he ultimately received in the runoff. And that doesn’t include expenditures made between Nov. 22 and the conclusion of the campaign on Dec. 9. 

To put these expenditures in perspective, you can look at the 2002 mayoral election in Berkeley. The winner, Tom Bates, spent an amount equal to about $10 for every vote he received, while his opponent, Shirley Dean spent about $11. Final figures aren’t available, but Gonzalez may have spent about $4 per vote received.  

Newsom also benefited from additional spending by other organizations supporting his campaign. The San Francisco Association of Realtors reported spending about $72,000 between Dec. 2 and Dec. 5.  

Some of the Realtors Association money paid for a hit piece that claimed that “Matt Gonzalez wants to raise taxes on homeowners.” Gonzalez was attacked for wanting to “double the city’s real property transfer tax.” Of course, the mailer failed to mention that Gonzalez favored raising the transfer tax only on properties selling for over $2 million.  

With all the money he raised, Newsom was able to buy up phone banks, including some in other states. With paid staff to phone San Francisco voters, he was able to mount an extremely successful absentee ballot campaign.  


Why Did Newsom Win? 

According to San Francisco State University Political Science professor Rich DeLeon, who has been analyzing San Francisco elections for years, “the single most important factor was the absentee operation.” 

Of votes cast in the runoff, 37 percent came from absentee ballots, a record for a San Francisco mayoral runoff. Of Newsom’s votes, 44 percent were cast by absentees, compared to 28 percent for Gonzalez. 

Gonzalez got 11,000 more votes at the polls than Newsom, but Newsom trounced Gonzalez among absentee voters, winning them by a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent. Many votes had already been cast when Gonzalez began his big get-out-the-vote push in the final days of the campaign. 


Democrat vs. Green 

While the election was portrayed as a contest between a Democrat and a Green, it was also a continuation of the ongoing electoral contest between progressives and centrists in San Francisco. 

Gavin Newsom and Matt Gonzalez are both members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Gonzalez is currently president of the board. Before the November election, Newsom hadn’t been endorsed by any of the other nine members on the board.  

After he came in first in November, two supervisors, Bevan Dufty and Fiona Ma, both Democrats, endorsed him in the runoff. But five supervisors, also Democrats, supported Gonzalez, who also garnered the support of former Mayor Art Agnos, also a Democrat. 

With limited support among elected Democrats at the local level, Newsom relied on high-profile Democrats at the state and national level, including Al Gore and Bill Clinton, who made campaign appearances for him during the runoff. 

Newsom also won endorsements from most of the Democratic presidential candidates, with the notable exception of Howard Dean—who may have gotten the word that many of his rank-and-file supporters in San Francisco were backing Gonzalez. Some Gonzalez volunteers I saw sported Dean buttons alongside their Gonzalez buttons. 

It’s quite possible, indeed likely, that a majority of the Democrats who voted in the runoff voted for Gonzalez, the Green candidate, over Newsom, the Democrat.  

San Francisco’s registered voters are 53.9 percent Democrats, 12.5 percent Republicans, 3.4 percent Greens and 26.9 percent “decline to state.” In the absence of exit polls, it can’t be said with certainty how members of various parties voted, but it’s likely that Republican voters provided Newsom with his 6 percent margin of victory.  

In a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle after the runoff, the chairman of the San Francisco Republican Party asserted that Republican votes “saved San Francisco.” The New York Times reported that an informal survey of Republicans found that 85 percent had voted for Newsom. 

Professor Rich DeLeon looked at how voters in Newsom’s and Gonzalez best precincts in November voted in the October recall and gubernatorial election. His “voting pattern analysis” appeared on the San Francisco Sentinel website shortly before the runoff election. 

One generalization he arrived at: “Voters in top Newsom precincts were the most supportive of the Davis recall… and they were clearly the least supportive of Bustamante.” In Gonzalez top precincts, voters were strongly opposed to the recall and strongly supportive of Cruz Bustamante. 

All five supervisors who backed Gonzalez were elected with him in the 2000 election that marked the return of district elections in San Francisco. Four of these supervisors—Aaron Peskin, Jake McGoldrick, Gerardo Sandoval and Chris Daly—were elected for the first time, defeating candidates backed by incumbent mayor Willie Brown. Together with Tom Ammiano, first elected in 1994, they constitute a progressive majority on the current board of supervisors. Supervisor Sophie Maxwell may also vote with them. 


Where Gonzalez Won 

In the last mayoral election in November 1999, Tom Ammiano was the progressive standard bearer. He entered the race even later than Gonzalez did this year and waged a dramatic and successful write-in campaign that led to a runoff with incumbent mayor Willie Brown, who got 39 percent of the vote to Ammiano’s 25 percent. 

But in the December 1999 runoff, Brown defeated Ammiano by a comfortable 60 percent to 40 percent margin, and Ammiano carried four of the 11 supervisorial districts—the same four districts Gonzalez carried this year, while losing the other seven. Election officials also report results from 25 neighborhoods. Gonzalez won in ten of these neighborhoods, one more than Ammiano won in 1999. 

Gonzalez dramatically improved on Ammiano’s performance in many areas of the city. 

Get-out-the-vote and “visibility” activities were key to Gonzalez’ relative success. 

Gonzalez’ stronghold was the Mission District, a neighborhood where over 80 percent of the residents are tenants. He captured 74 percent of the vote in the predominantly Latino neighborhood that is also home to many young white progressive voters.  

In the days preceding the election, I walked two precincts in the Mission. While Latinos are the largest ethnic group in the Mission, in one precinct where I walked a large majority of the names on the voter list were not Latino. Store and apartment windows in every block featured numerous Gonzalez signs—including some in windows of apartments with no registered voters, suggesting that Gonzalez was admired by many of the Latino immigrant non-citizens living in the area. 

On election night, I followed Gonzalez volunteer Ben Murillo, who was very familiar with the Mission, into apartment buildings on Mission Street, where we banged on doors in search of anyone who hadn’t voted yet.  

We also went into a half dozen bars on Mission, Gonzalez signs in hand. We got a good reception in each bar, and were greeted with cheers and applause in a couple of them. We ended our get-out-the-vote activity when we sat down with a well-dressed couple in their forties who had offered to buy us drinks. It turned out that they knew Matt Gonzalez and were long-time San Francisco residents who were very familiar with the city’s political scene. 

The mostly young, mostly white, hip crowds that frequent these bars were part of Gonzalez’ base of support.  

Other neighborhoods that backed Gonzalez include the Western Addition, Potrero Hill, Bernal Heights, Haight Ashbury and Noe Valley. Areas that backed Gonzalez tended to have more youthful populations and large white tenant populations living in relatively affordable (by San Francisco standards) apartments.  

Gonzalez lost in more affluent white areas like Pacific Heights, Sea Cliff and West of Twin Peaks, and Newsom’s best neighborhood was Marina/Pacific Heights—where he won 70.3 percent of the vote, a margin a bit larger than Gonzalez’ win in the Mission. 

Newsom also carried areas where Asians or American-Americans were the largest ethnic group. But in these areas, Gonzalez improved greatly both in comparison to his vote in the November election and in comparison to the vote for Tom Ammiano in the 1999 mayoral runoff.  

In the runoff, Gonzalez won 43 percent of the vote in Chinatown, a big improvement over the 19 percent he won in November and a lot more than the 34 percent Ammiano won in 1999.  

Gonzalez didn’t do very well in predominantly African-American Bay View/Hunter’s Point, capturing only 35 percent of the vote. But this was still a big improvement over the eight percent he got in November, and it was achieved despite active opposition from Mayor Willie Brown. 

In addition to a very successful effort to get supporters to display signs, the Gonzalez campaign also sent a “Mexican bus” and a fire truck, both festooned with signs and full of volunteers, on tours of the city. Gonzalez also did very visible walks with lots of supporters in various parts of the city.  

Gonzalez also won the support of numerous artists and musicians. On election night, people arriving at the 16th and Mission BART station were greeted with live music and Gonzalez doorhangers. 

SurveyUSA’s computerized telephone polls showed Gonzalez slightly ahead or in a virtual tie, inspiring supporters to work harder and contributing to the higher turnout. Gonzalez supporters believed they could actually win despite Newsom’s commanding lead in the November election. And these polls kept Newsom supporters from becoming complacent. 

As it turned out, more traditional polls, including one commissioned by SEIU Local 250, which showed Newsom with an 43 percent to 35 percent lead with 14 percent undecided, proved more accurate. 


Why Matt Gonzalez? 

I interviewed 20 Gonzalez volunteers on the Sunday before the election and asked them why they were supporting Gonzalez.  

“Anyone but Newsom” was not what was motivating them to participate in the campaign, and few even mentioned the opposition candidate. They admired Gonzalez and saw him as a different kind of politician, repeating invoking two words to describe him: “honest” and “integrity,” followed by “thoughtful” and “down-to-earth.” 

Tracy, a 28-year-old Noe Valley tenant, had worked on the campaign for a month when I talked to her. Before Matt Gonzalez, she had “never seen a candidate speak to the issues I care about: the needs of working class people.”  

A 21-year old member of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition liked Gonzalez’s stands on public transit, bicycles and tenants rights. She described Gonzalez as “pro-people rather than pro-business.” 

Quite a few people framed their reasons for supporting Gonzalez in a broader political context. One woman, a homeowner living near Alamo Square, had joined the massive anti-war protests in San Francisco earlier in the year. That was her first involvement in protest activity; for her supporting Gonzalez flowed naturally from that involvement. 

John Rowson, a tenant living in the Richmond district, liked Gonzalez because “no one represents anti-war people.” John Walsh, a 33-year-old Green Party member who works at City College, said he was “tired of the wealthy running the country.” 

One of the organizations that backed Gonzalez was the Sierra Club, and John Rizzo, the group’s San Francisco chair, saw the campaign as the “culmination of the past year.” With the war in Iraq, the recall election and country moving to the right, the campaign offered an alternative progressive direction.  

The Sierra Club’s endorsement of Gonzalez was based on an evaluation of votes cast by Gonzalez and Newsom on issues including pedestrian safety, clean air and airport expansion. The Sierra Club awarded Gonzalez an “A+” while Newsom earned a “D.” 

Two of the people I interviewed turned out to be artists, and both talked about the problems artists have in finding affordable “live-work” space. They saw Gonzalez as someone who was committed to helping artists remain in San Francisco. 

A few of the volunteers came from outside California. I talked to one young Green Party member from Florida who had joined a group of about 17 Greens from Oregon who drove to San Francisco to help on the final weekend. A few volunteers also came from other parts of the Bay Area, including Berkeley.  


What Happens Now? 

Can progressives build on the momentum from this election? Will the thousands who volunteered for Gonzalez, some working on their first election campaign, stay active? Can Gonzalez win if he runs again for mayor in 2007?  

According to Rich DeLeon, “the November 2004 board election will be the key test.”  

Four of the progressives elected in the November 2000 election will be up for re-election, including Gonzalez.  

Gonzalez carried his own District 5 with 62 percent of the vote. But Newsom carried the districts represented by McGoldrick, Peskin and Sandoval. DeLeon expects Newsom and his big business allies to support efforts to oust all three Gonzalez allies.  

In his concession speech, Gonzalez noted that Democratic officeholders who supported him would be targeted for supporting a Green candidate. “We have to be there to support them,” he said. 

Gonzalez, however, got 45 percent in both McGoldrick’s Richmond district (District 1) and in Peskin’s North Beach/Chinatown district (District 3). In both districts, he picked up a large majority of the votes that went to Alioto, Ammiano and Leal in the first round. The relative strength of Gonzalez in these districts bodes well for McGoldrick and Peskin, who should also benefit from the fact that the election for supervisor will take place at the same time as a high turnout presidential election. 

District 11 (the Excelsior and Ingleside) Supervisor Sandoval may have a harder time holding his seat as Gonzalez got only 41 percent of the vote in his district. 

Progressives will have to survive this crucial test. DeLeon says that Gonzalez will have “solidify and consolidate his base” to have a shot at the next mayoral race. 

If Gonzalez runs for mayor again, DeLeon says that his campaign will need more professional management to succeed. The campaign will have to raise and spend a few more dollars per voter and will have to develop its own voter data bases and absentee operation.  

It seems clear that Gonzalez will also have to broaden his base beyond the neighborhoods that traditionally have supported more progressive candidates. 

To accommodate the crowds on election night, the campaign headquarters at 13th and Mission put up tents. Reportedly, there was room for 2,000 people. By the time Matt Gonzalez took the stage to make his concession speech, the tents and the rest of his spacious multi-room headquarters were packed wall-to-wall with his supporters.  

While a few cried or looked dejected, the overall mood was remarkably upbeat for a defeated campaign. Many believed that they had accomplished something important. They greeted Gonzalez with thunderous applause and many stayed after the speeches were over. 

“There is a certain inevitability to what we are trying to accomplish,” Gonzalez told the crowd. “It doesn’t matter whether we win one particular race in this city.” 

It was clear that the campaign was seen by Gonzalez, and by the speakers who preceded him, as a beginning. If the phenomenal energy and enthusiasm that permeated the campaign doesn’t dissipate, and if those who volunteered or voted for the first time stay engaged, then what Gonzalez had to say may turn out to be more than just brave talk. 

As Gonzalez went on to say: “It really matters whether or not we can regroup, whether or not we come back and whether or not when Mayor Newsom is wrong we are there to oppose him.”