Supervisor Vallie Brown refuses to concede election, won’t rule out recount
Outside District Attorney-elect Chesa Boudin’s impromptu Saturday night victory party at the El Rio there was — no joke — a Lamborghini covered in rhinestones.
Boudin placards were affixed to the doors and sitting on the dashboard, but every other millimeter had been adorned with glittering faux gems; it was as if someone with a Lamborghini in the garage had figured what the hell and ordered a Bedazzler off late-night TV.
Inside Chesa Boudin’s impromptu Saturday night victory party, it felt as if the home team won the World Series. The place was fog-up-your-glasses crowded, and, as you negotiated your way out to the patio, snippets of conversations hit your ear:
“ … friends with Bernie Sanders … ”
“ … ending mass incarceration … ”
“ … Hugo Chavez … ”
“ … why’d you stick your hand in it if it was boiling?”
(I made the last one up).
Out back, the subject of their discussions and the man of the hour, Boudin, shook hands and accepted well wishes — and, generally, looked like a walking ad for black coffee. He was spent. His colleagues from the public defender’s office were spent, too; they burned through packs of Marlboros and said that the stress of waiting on election returns was as bad as standing by for a jury verdict — worse, even: Unlike the Department of Elections, juries don’t put out daily 4 p.m. tabulations indicating how things are going.
Boudin hadn’t expected the election to be called so quickly. Few had. He was visiting his incarcerated father in New York and hopped on a plane to head back to the city when he got the news. And what comes next is anyone’s guess. While interim DA Suzy Loftus’ concession mentioned “a smooth and immediate transition,” nobody knows quite what that means.
Loftus — placed in office by Mayor London Breed only weeks before the election to replace the Los Angeles-bound George Gascón — is in the position of serving, awkwardly, until January. Breed, who was out of town over the weekend, must undertake the unpleasant duty of convening a discussion she clearly never thought she’d have: sitting down with Boudin and Loftus and figuring out how to work out the transition.
What comes next, at least procedurally, will be determined soon enough.
What comes next, in the bigger picture, is less clear.
But, before looking forward, let’s look back: Well, how did we get here?
In the midst of the United Democratic Club’s endorsement meeting, board members received text messages from the Suzy Loftus campaign — right in the midst of the debate period, no less.
These text messages urged a No. 1 endorsement vote for Loftus — and no endorsement at all beyond that.
Let the record show that San Francisco elections are run through a ranked-choice system (more on that in a moment). And let the record also show that DA candidate Nancy Tung is a board member at the United Democratic Club.
But the club higher-ups acquiesced. Loftus was awarded the No. 1 endorsement and there was no No. 2.
Now, it’s not our intention to lead you into the fetid rabbit hole of San Francisco club politics, that perfect amalgamation of Tracy Flick and the Soviet politburo. But there’s something telling here. The United Democratic Club is a conduit for big-money donations from big-money players. It’s not unimportant. But it’s still a club. It’s still folks showing up after work and drinking Diet Coke and sitting on folding chairs.
So this was odd. For multiple reasons. Because, say what you will about ranked-choice voting, it is the way we do things in San Francisco. Them’s the rules of the game.
When you show up for a football game in a rugby uniform — you lose. When you fail to formulate a ranked-choice strategy in a ranked-choice election — let alone execute one — you lose.
This didn’t need to happen. Some two-thirds of the first-place votes in the DA’s contest went to moderate-leaning candidates. If these candidates truly thought Boudin would be a disaster for this city, they could’ve coordinated on a ranked-choice strategy. They did not: Multiple sources tell your humble narrator that just such an offer was proffered from Team Tung to Team Loftus.
Team Loftus denies this. What’s not in question, however, is that shortly thereafter, Loftus accepted Breed’s nomination — not 24 hours before ballots arrived in voters’ mailboxes. This was seen by her opponents as a crass reach — and many San Francisco voters felt similarly. Explanations of the appointment as anything other than a political boost to a favored candidate polling revealed to be stuck in a morass of a race with little name recognition rang hollow — and for Loftus, a candidate whose genuineness is a major selling point, this was an awkward position.
It was beyond awkward for her opponents — this obliterated any hope of the 1-2 ranked-choice strategy that would’ve likely won it for Loftus. On the very October day Breed announced Loftus’ pending appointment, a chagrined opposing campaign operative told me “If Chesa wins, this is why.”
So, Boudin was given an opportunity. He seized it with both hands. The candidate took Cantonese lessons so he could interact with Chinese-speaking voters. Great amounts of money and effort were poured into Chinatown. He secured the No. 1 endorsement of the Singtao Daily newspaper as well as several Chinese community organizations.
And it showed: Boudin, the radical, received an outsize portion of No. 2 votes from Tung, the law-and-order candidate. Sans a ranked-choice strategy, a goodly portion of Tung and Leif Dautch’s voters — perhaps put off by the appointment — didn’t mark any No. 2 at all. That was monumental.
As was the fact that the city’s movers and shakers did not disgorge vast sums of money in this race, as they did in the mayoral election. It seems criminal justice and criminal justice reform is not something that interests San Francisco’s ascendant players as much as, say, development and taxation rates.
The Independent Expenditure campaign was relegated to the Police Officers Association. The bellicose police union marshaled $650,000 from fellow unions nationwide to boost Loftus and denigrate Boudin with almost parodically over-the-top ads hailing him the “No. 1 choice of criminals and gang members,” and emblazoned with an assemblage of mug shots of conspicuously Caucasian thugs of the sort you’d expect to see in a Quinn Martin production.
These were disseminated after most conservative-leaning voters likely mailed in their ballots — but did help galvanize Boudin’s backers and establish him as the reformer in the field.
It’s hard to overstate how toxic the POA is in San Francisco politics right now. And how ineffectual.
So things worked out the way they worked out. Not unlike London Breed herself, Boudin rode a compelling life story and the perception of unfair high-level election meddling to victory.
That parallel was lost on few.
In 2016, Mayor Ed Lee’s third inaugural speech was drowned out by nonstop booing. That’s quite a feat. Along similar lines, Mayor London Breed was last week re-elected, to her first full term, with nearly 71 percent of the vote — and it was a disastrous election for her.
It was, in fact, the second consecutive election in which the mayor — and the city’s establishment players, and its newspaper of record’s endorsements — were smoked. (To be fair, everyone is pleased voters passed Prop. A, the $600 million housing bond, and a teacher housing measure. But success has 1,000 fathers — and, in fact, Supervisor Norman Yee and his board colleagues pushed Breed to put another $100 million on that bond).
Breed’s considerable wrangling on behalf of Loftus may well have backfired. And her handpicked successor and former aide Vallie Brown was upended in District 5 by Dean Preston. Breed, you may recall, timed her exit from her District 5 supervisor’s seat so that her successor could run not in last year’s high-turnout, even-year election, but this year’s low-turnout, odd-year contest.
That bit of gamesmanship should’ve made things easy for her handpicked incumbent. And yet it wasn’t enough.
The composition of the board was already skewing highly to the left — but now it just got personal. Preston nearly unseated Breed from her D5 perch in 2015; he opened every debate speech by noting that he’s a Democratic Socialist and ran an “unapologetic, progressive, Democratic Socialist campaign,” in his words.
So, he did that — and won. He beat the mayor’s handpicked successor, who was running with support from the Democratic Party, the Chronicle, and most every vestige of the establishment. At fewer than 200 votes, it stands to be the closest ranked-choice district election in city history, but, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a win is a win is a win.
It remains to be seen how much of an effect the early October revelation that Vallie Brown in 1994 evicted low-income black tenants had on this race. But what may have hurt even more than long-ago deeds was Brown’s present-day decision to decry these tenants as freeloaders who refused to pay rent — and depict these older black women as unthinking pawns of Dean Preston who couldn’t possibly have acted independently.
That was both demonstrably false and a questionable decision.
Brown’s consultant, Leo Wallach, says the supervisor isn’t yet ready to concede the election. Nor is she ready to rule out calling for a recount.
That’s Brown’s decision to make. This, too, may be questionable: In 2001, Tony Hall edged out Mabel Teng by 39 votes in District 7. After a recount, the margin was cut down — to 38 votes.
Will a recount help Brown make up nearly 200 votes? As former tenant Mary Packer replied when asked if she’d vote for the woman who evicted her: “No way, Jose.”
So, that’s how we got here. Have San Francisco voters indicated a desire for progressive criminal justice reform and leadership? Or have they just rewarded the two best-run campaigns? It’s hard to say.
Regardless, elections have consequences.
San Francisco’s problems — economic and racial inequality, unchecked property crime, misery and drug-use on the streets, obscene housing costs, unsheltered and unwell residents, Steph Curry’s broken hand — are real and unrelenting.
But the looming dynamic is one of dysfunction, in which nobody is incentivized to compromise. San Francisco has long been a town that values good intentions over accountability. Because it can. But, at some point, our leaders will need to lead.
If any of this was going through the minds of the election-night revelers at El Rio, it didn’t show. Boudin’s campaign staff eventually pushed him out of the bar — yes, literally; he presumably went home and got a few hours of sleep. Everyone else stayed until closing time and lived it up.
They stumbled out past the glittering Lamborghini. Nobody had broken its windows. Not yet at least.