Challengers to Milk Club leadership’s handpicked candidates sweep elections (see end)
If anyone wants to talk to you about the inner workings of San Francisco Democratic club politics, there is an emergency protocol you can undertake: Back away, steadily, do not break eye contact, and, once you’ve crossed the room’s threshold, run like hell.
At times, it feels like there are more Democratic clubs in San Francisco than there are Democrats. And, while endorsements and grooming future leaders and releasing slate cards and funneling money through PACs is important, the acrimonious inner workings of how these clubs function is a matter most people would choose to avoid.
Until it’s lit ablaze and hurled in your face. And, in a manner of speaking, that happened.
Honey Mahogany, the Milk Club’s incumbent co-president — also a well-known drag performer and Supervisor Matt Haney’s legislative aide — wrote a broadside on Sunday to her 5,633 Facebook followers that began circulating more widely on the Internet.
In it, Mahogany lamented that in tonight’s election, three white men and a white woman had opted to run for offices within the Milk Club against Mahogany’s chosen slate of largely female, trans, and person-of-color candidates. (This will happen at 7 p.m. tonight at the Women’s Building.)
This Caucasian quartet, Mahogany wrote, “decided to attack the Black and Brown Transgender slate that was carefully put together for the Milk Club this year.”
This, she continued, “is white supremacy at its worst. … Enough co-signing white supremacy and transphobia. I call on our allies to stand up. This is the time. If you say you support Trans Women of Color, if you say you support, the leadership of Women, if you say you support the leadership of People of Color, then you will step aside and let us lead.”
That is, don’t contest tonight’s election. Drop out. Let the hand-picked slate run unopposed.
And yet, these aren’t the only candidates running against the slate. There are more — and they’re not white men.
It’s an interesting position for the president of a Democratic club — which is, presumably, also small-d democratic — to decry a contested election as a betrayal and demand opponents withdraw. Mahogany is the incumbent leader and those on her chosen slate would figure to be the likely favorites in this election. As she may well be too.
Why do this, then? Why deploy these scorched-earth tactics when you’re the incumbent with a presumed strong base of support? Why accuse your opponents of “white supremacy at its worst” when you could simply play up the huge benefits of empowering women, trans people, and people of color?
Because, Mahogany tells me, a great deal of effort is put into assembling these slates, and the custom has been for club members to pass them pro-forma. “It’s only now,” she says, “that we have substantial trans and person-of-color leadership that people are choosing to run against the slate.”
There is, in fact, some truth to this.
There hasn’t been a contested presidential election for more than a decade (though, in earlier decades, these elections were fiercely contested, with proxies for Willie Brown crossing swords with proxies for Roberta Achtenberg and club presidents being challenged and ousted and all the purges and tricks and People’s Front of Judea-Judean-People’s Front elements endemic to San Francisco club politics.).
And yet, more minor offices have been contested from year to year, with the treasurer’s election being contested as recently as last year; the candidate not favored by Milk Club leadership, in fact, won that race.
So, while a contested presidential race is rare these days, the person running to unseat Mahogany as president, Kevin Bard, is an African American (asked to assess his chances tonight, he replies, “I’ll do just fine.”). And Kaylah Williams, an African American woman; Stephen Torres, a Latinx man; and Jackie Thornhill, a white trans woman; are also running against the slate.
Mahogany’s “decision to exclude us is actively silencing our existence, and it is an unjust act of convenience to do so,” reads a rebuttal attributed to all four candidates. “New leadership is not fostered if simply anointed by current leadership.”
Williams, a candidate for “Outreach Chair, was, in fact, on Mahogany’s slate until she earlier this month chose to nominate Thornhill for “Events and Fundraising Chair” against a slate candidate. Mahogany confirmed to me that Williams was removed from the slate following this act; she had been running unopposed, but a slate-backed candidate is now competing with her.
As president, incidentally, this was well within Mahogany’s purview. Williams’ act could be viewed as insubordination.
And yet, it’s also a narrative-straining move. If you’re going to claim you’re being undermined by white, cis men, you really can’t also punish an African American queer woman for the crime of seeking to advance a transgender woman.
And, by now, you’re likely backing out of the room. In the grand scheme of things, what does it matter who the next Milk Club outreach chair is?
On the one hand, it doesn’t. On the other hand … it still doesn’t. But, on the third hand, it’s hard not to view this nasty public fight over private jobs as an adjunct and spillover of the nasty public fight over a private job culminating last week in the Board of Supervisors’ selection of Norman Yee as its president over Hillary Ronen.
Many of the figures involved in the current fight are proxies of the supes involved in the prior struggle: Mahogany is Haney’s legislative aide; Lee Hepner and Edward Wright, two of the white gay men running against the slate, are, respectively, Aaron Peskin’s aide and Gordon Mar’s aide. Candidates Kate Usher and Brad Chapin either worked for or heavily backed Jane Kim, as did Thornhill and Wright (of note, it seems highly unlikely that Haney, Peskin, Mar, or Kim know much about this, let alone called these shots).
Once again, an angry in-house fight has ceased to be an in-house fight. For city progressives, unity continues to be a hypothetical concept.
As such, the fight over who’ll lead the Milk Club may indicate more about the state of left-leaning politics in this city than who actually wins. The level of personal discord is high, fissures are clearly visible, and public ad-hominem attacks are increasingly occurring among ostensible ideological allies.
San Francisco fancies itself a sophisticated city, but the political order of the day seems to be distilling purer and purer versions of identity politics.
Honey Mahogany’s lament that the Milk Club has been dominated by white men is a legitimate one. This has long been a very white club in what is, frankly, a very white city.
Nobody understands this better than Gwenn Craig, a former Harvey Milk lieutenant, a Milk Club member since 1976, and the club’s president from 1981 to 1983. She’s also an African American lesbian.
“We have always had a problem in the Milk Club of not attracting enough diversity,” she says. “It’s always something the club has needed to do a better job of. It needs more deliberate, direct attention.”
The Milk Club used to have racial caucuses; Craig and the Black Caucus left en masse in the 1980s and formed their own club, spurred in part by disputes regarding whether to support Art Agnos or Frank Jordan for mayor (she came back).
Craig has no problem calling out the Milk Club for its clumsy past and present on race matters. But, after reading Mahogany’s Facebook post, she came away deeply disturbed.
“I don’t think people of color should ever demand a seat at the table by saying don’t even challenge us,” she says. “Fairness is what we’re looking for here — the fair ability to compete. But competition is allowed. If someone wants to compete against me, come on: I will put my credentials up against yours, I will put my ability to lead up against yours. I don’t think any person of color should insist that you are forced to vote for me because the club can’t put anyone against me because I am a person of color. That is not the fairness we ask for.
“I admire Honey Mahogany a great deal,” Craig continued. “I think she has represented the Milk Club really well at City Hall. And, if she’s a good president, she will prevail. People will recognize that she’s a good leader.”
Craig then issued a warning to the Milk Club that could double for the Board of Supervisors and San Francisco and California writ large:
“There are groups in this country who are doing actual harm who we would describe as white supremacists. These are not people who are in the Milk Club. We need to focus on where the real fight is. Mike Pence has an agenda for us. We cannot tear each other down over who’s gonna be corresponding secretary.
“We have much bigger battles to fight.”
Update, Jan. 16: Kevin Bard said he’d do just fine. He did, winning the presidency of the Milk Club by a scant four votes. In fact, every candidate who challenged the slate put forth by co-presidents Carlo Gomez Arteaga and Honey Mahogany came out on top. To wit: