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Our Big, Dumb Ballot

At City Hall, an incoherent set of voter initiatives produces incoherent results.


Editor’s note: Read more post-election reactions here.

Reached on his cell
one day after the election, political consultant Jim Ross said he was doing what a lot of locals were doing: buying beer, lots of beer, and coping with the possibility of civilizational collapse.

The ascension of Donald J. Trump makes it hard to think about the ramifications of our own local elections, but ramifications there are, and no amount of booze will change that. San Franciscans were saddled with a truly ridiculous ballot: We voted on 25 local measures and 17 more state propositions. It was, in short, a goddamn mess. And the results we returned as voters were a mess, too. San Franciscans voted yes on Proposition Q, enabling cops to roust homeless campers, provided that there are places to house them—but voted down Prop. K, the sales tax that would have helped to fund that housing.

Are San Francisco voters illogical, or just cruel? Neither. “This is what you’d expect when you present voters with 25 confusing, conflicting, and controversial ballot measures and expect them to make an informed and intelligent decision on each one,” says Ross. “It’s not indicative of the San Francisco electorate. It’s all about what happens to regular voters when presented with too much.”

Ross is primarily working for left-leaning causes these days. Consultant David Latterman is a dyed-in-the-wool moderate. But on this they agree. “Blame assholes like me who help put this stuff on the ballot. Not the voters. We need to rethink this crap that only makes consultants rich,” says Latterman.

There is certainly plenty of blame to go around. Moderate supervisors tossed several potential wedge issues onto the ballot, including Mark Farrell’s Prop. Q and Scott Wiener’s Prop. R, which would have directed the SFPD to create a Neighborhood Crime Unit. Progressives were behind Props. D, H, L, and M, all of which would have curtailed mayoral power. Backers of Mayor Ed Lee raised upward of $2 million to beat back these measures, while homeless advocates and other activist types put their efforts into battling Prop. Q. In the end, there was little money and attention left over for passing Props. J and K, both of which were necessary to come up with $150 million a year in homeless and transit funding. And that’s a drag because all of the above legislators—who are tasked with divvying up the city’s $9.6 billion budget—assumed that these measures would pass. Now that they haven’t, the city will have to come up with other ways to fund some of its biggest priorities.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin accepts his share of the blame for this fiasco. “City Hall, due to a lack of leadership across the board, from the Mayor’s Office to the Board of Supervisors to subsets thereof, put a crazy amount of stuff on the ballot,” he admits. “We collectively messed up.” Peskin doesn’t fault the mayor for going to the mattresses to prevent his power from being stripped away, but Lee, Peskin feels, could have supported the Prop. K sales tax measure while also fending off progressive assaults. “If you can’t pat your head and rub your belly at the same time, you don’t deserve to be in this business,” he says.

But, again, all of this pales compared with what our next president might do. Controller Ben Rosenfield estimates that $478 million of the city’s budget comes directly from federal funds. An additional $915 million is derived from the state, but more than half of that is federal money. Trump, who during his campaign bemoaned the killing of “beautiful Kate” Steinle by an undocumented immigrant, could conceivably revoke 20 percent of San Francisco’s General Fund to punish us for being a sanctuary city.

Does that make it hard to concentrate on local politics? “Ya think?” asks and answers Peskin. You might want to reach for another beer.


Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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