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Candidates Question Validity Of Club, Union Endorsements

By Judith Scherr
Thursday September 11, 2008 - 09:39:00 AM

Buyer beware! An organization’s endorsement of a candidate or measure may not be as sound as the general public thinks—and in some cases, it may not be as meaningful as the organization itself would like it to be. 

That’s the warning that organizational endorsements should carry, say former mayor Shirley Dean, again a candidate for mayor, and Sophie Hahn, running against incumbent Laurie Capitelli for Dean’s old District 5 City Council seat.  

Both contacted the Planet to express concerns about the process through which local political party clubs, interest organizations and unions make their endorsements. 

They argued that, in some cases, an organization’s endorsement is skewed by one candidate or another stacking endorsement meetings with supporters, or by an organization simply ignoring some candidates, especially non-incumbents. Some clubs ignore the issues and look at more superficial phenomena such as a candidate’s funding or campaign manager, they said, further arguing that the public isn’t aware that in some cases, only a handful of people belong to a club or show up to vote. 

And some clubs exist simply to make endorsements, but do little else, they said. 

“The whole process seems pretty rigged,” Dean told the Planet. 

When asked to comment, her opponent, incumbent Mayor Tom Bates, shot back: “Certainly Shirley has criticisms because I’m getting [endorsements] and she’s not,” he said. “It’s just that she’s not winning. She says the process is flawed. Shirley’s been around for 40 years.” 

Capitelli, on the other hand, had no quibble with his opponent on the question.  

Organizational endorsements “should be taken with a grain of salt,” he told the Planet, adding, tongue in cheek, “Sometimes I think my wife and I should form 22 clubs and then I could say, ‘Look, Laurie has 22 endorsements.’” 

Organizations don’t ignore the problems. An e-mail sent Saturday by the executive committee of the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club to its membership—and forwarded by several members to the Planet—says, in part: “At our last meeting, we became aware that a large number of people (26) had joined our club for the sole purpose of trying to obtain our club’s nomination for certain specific candidates. This is common practice in many Democratic Clubs, particularly in those whose endorsements are seen to carry weight. However, we do not see ourselves as a traditional Democratic Party club. And we are worried about the affects [sic] such ‘stacking’ may have on our endorsement process.” 

In an interview Monday Jack Kurzweil, local politics coordinator for the club, acknowledged that at its Aug. 28 meeting—the last one before the Sept. 11 endorsement meeting, and therefore the last meeting at which new members are permitted to join—two persons came to the meeting, each with a stack of new memberships.  

“One person dropped off 18 memberships with checks and another person came with eight memberships,” he said, refusing to disclose which candidates the new memberships represented. 

While Kurzweil said the obvious attempt to influence the club’s endorsement greatly concerned him, the action didn’t break club rules and the new members would be allowed to vote.  

The e-mail to club members suggested a large turnout of core members would counteract the actions of those who wished to stack the deck.  

“We are somewhat alarmed by the idea that people who do not participate in the extensive work of the club would attend our meetings to effect [sic] the club’s nominating procedure. We have only recently become aware of this problem, and we have not yet had a discussion in the club on how to deal with it. All we can do at this stage is make sure that as many of our members as possible attend this next meeting so that our endorsements reflect the true political will of the majority of our members,” the e-mail said. 

Kurzweil said something similar happened within the club two years previously, again declining to be specific.  

The growing concerns will be addressed by the membership at a later date, he said, underscoring, “We are a democratic club, with a small d.”  

Capitelli said he thinks the Berkeley Democratic Club and Berkeley Citizens Action are both subject to manipulation. 

BCA Co-chair Linda Olivenbaum said all who vote at the BCA endorsement meetings must have joined 30 days in advance of the meeting. However, anyone who has ever been a member of the 32-year-old organization can pay dues and vote, she said. 

BDC Chair George Beier said in order to vote in that organization, one has to be a member of the club for at least 60 days before an endorsement meeting. If someone has been a member, but has not paid dues over the last two calendar years, that person can pay up at the door and vote, he said. 

Most of the other local clubs—the John George Democratic Club, the East Bay Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Democratic Club, the East Bay Young Democrats—have similar rules intended to keep people from joining a club just to get a candidate endorsed.  

“We’ve been burned before” by people stacking endorsement meetings, said Edie Irons, immediate past president of the EB Young Democrats. To prevent that from happening, not only does one have to join the club 30 days before the endorsement meeting, but the person has to have attended at least one meeting during the calendar year. As in most of the local Democratic Clubs, to get the EB Young Democrat endorsement the candidate must get 60 percent of the votes. 

One of Dean’s specific concerns is that she was snubbed by the Sierra Club. “They didn’t interview anyone,” she said. They endorsed Bates without hearing from anyone. 

John Rizzo, political chair of the San Francisco Bay chapter of the Sierra Club, acknowledged the fact. “We did an early endorsement of Tom [Mayor Tom Bates] before [Dean] got into the race,” he said. 

Sophie Hahn told the Planet she thinks the larger community doesn’t understand the endorsement process. She said she was surprised that she, who considers herself a progressive, would not get the endorsement of the John George Democratic Club, for example. 

“I think the system is highly manipulatable,” Hahn said.  

New to the local political arena—though she said she’s been a longtime actor in Democratic Party politics, even traveling for the party to conduct a caucus in Texas—Hahn said she was surprised that questions at the candidate interviews seemed to center more on the viability of a candidate. They asked more questions about the amount of money raised and who was running her campaign than about the issues, she said. 

Bates argued the opposite, saying many of his interviews were issue-oriented. For example, at the Berkeley Democratic Club, there was a 25-minute sit-down discussion with the screening committee. “They asked all kinds of questions—land use, development, and more,” he said.  

Dean noted that some of the clubs are very small. For example, the John George Democratic Club had only 18 voting members participate. Dean pointed out that when she was interviewed, there were only about 10 people present, “a couple of them from Oakland” and she was asked only three questions by those present. 

Union endorsements are also subject to controversy. Carlos Rivera, organizer for Service Employees International Union 1021, told the Planet that the union has not completed its endorsement process, but some candidates believe it has. Laurie Capitelli told the Planet that a person on the interview committee told him he had received the endorsement, and he has listed it on his website. Terry Doran, candidate for District 4, also claims SEIU 1021 endorsement on his website. 

All endorsements are not equal, said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who also chairs the East Bay LGBT Democratic Club, noting that the Wellstone Club, of which he is also a member, has been able to bring out 200 people to an endorsement meeting, where other clubs attract many fewer people. 

Dean conceded that organizational endorsements today are no more or less valid than they were in earlier days when she was running for City Council and mayor. (She served on the council from 1975 to 1982 and as mayor from 1994-2002.) 

“It’s business as usual,” she said. Nonetheless “People do look to these things.”