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This is an archived article published in December 2003
Democrats win unconvincingly
in San Francisco and Houston

By Nick Swift

Two mayors named Brown found themselves out of term time in the United States in late 2003, and both were replaced in ‘runoff’ elections by their own preferred, Democratically – at least, nominally – oriented, candidates. In Houston, Texas, Lee Brown was succeeded by Bill White, and preserved Houston’s status as a Democrat island in a sea of Republicans. The significance of that occasion seems fairly straightforward, except, perhaps, within the context of what happened in San Francisco.

On the map of the United States, that city is on the extreme left, and the 9 December 2003 nail biter that very nearly saw a Green Party candidate replace Willie Brown reveals it to be so politically as well. One finds oneself choosing from among ways to describe it: Matt Gonzalez made the winner, Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, look like a Republican (a suggestion Newsom and his allies ridicule); Gonzalez and the Green Party out-Democrated the Democrats; he grabbed the values traditionally espoused by the Democratic Party and ran with them, because (which is how the Green Party, the ‘progressives’, see it, anyway) those values are no longer being paid more than lip service by the Democrats themselves; the Greens were and are doing no more and no less than continuing the process of devolving power to ‘the people’ and away from the moneyed corporate interests that, however the facts may be otherwise interpreted, turn out indisputably to have been on the side of the eventual winners, in both San Francisco and Houston.

The claims of Gonzalez and his Greens command attention if only by virtue of the results. Gonzalez, the President of the Board of Supervisors (a post he retains) and a former Democrat himself, entered the race only four months before the election on 4 November 2003 that saw him win 20 per cent of the votes, just under half Newsom’s figure. His campaign, which sprouted modestly in his own Haight-Ashbury area, working hard to focus those politically least enthusiastic and with such a sense of disenfranchisement as to be almost a cliche, students and people in the arts, spent a little more than one-tenth of the Newsom campaign’s $3.6 million (with, some estimate, another $4 million in contributions). The Newsom camp, attacked by Gonzalez as in the pockets of ‘downtown’, were sufficiently worried to call in the heaviest artillery – Bill Clinton and Al Gore – to speak for their candidate. Newsom himself is acknowledged to owe his political career to the outgoing mayor, and his campaign drew on the skills of seasoned professionals, whereas the Greens relied largely on the contributions of volunteers.

With all that, Gonzalez got 47 per cent of the vote, compared with Newsom’s 53 per cent. (It is also acknowledged that Newsom only won by the exercise of the absentee vote.) For that reason, if no other, what happened in San Francisco deserves close attention.

At least two ironies (unless they’re really the same thing) and one certainty emerge, then: respectively, that Newsom’s main criticism of Gonzalez was that he was without the practicality (what does ‘impractical’ mean when you get nearly half the votes?) and the determination (see the third paragraph above) to do what needs to be done to help San Francisco surface in the wake of the financial plunge of Silicon Valley; that the Democrats have something to feel good about under the new Republican Terminator governor; and that the San Francisco Greens approach the future with renewed determination and organization. Their realism is already evident in Gonzalez’s declaration of appropriate support for the new mayor.

In the most expensive race in Houston’s history, businessman and avowedly non-partisan Bill White’s $9 million campaign that concentrated on ameliorating the city’s daunting transportation challenges, implementing improvements outlined by the Quality of Life coalition he jointly chaired with a Republican business figure, and enhancing effectiveness and responsibility at City Hall, carried him to first place with what some perceived as a true ethnic coalition. A former chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, and CEO of the Wedge investments group, White won 63 per cent of the votes, and is thus mayor of Houston for the next two years.

He defeated Orlando Sanchez, a Cuban-American city councilman for six years and a near-winner in the 2001 mayoral election. Sanchez also addressed the (hardly avoidable) transportation problem, and showed himself an ally of taxpayers in his approach to economic and efficiency issues. His Republicanism is thought to have proved at odds with the sympathies of Americans of Mexican extraction, yet failed to win him as much support from the Republican camp as he had hoped for. Sanchez is an executive with an asset management and banking company, and his campaign spent $3.3 million. They said they wished they’d had more.

It will, no doubt, be objected that there is only one San Francisco. The metaphor of ‘grassroots’, however, is a reference not to the smallness of the visible product, but to the depth of its basis; and, even, its depth is a further allusion to its breadth. It is the ultimate ground out of which the buildings downtown grow, in San Francisco, Houston and everywhere else; and a respect for the arts can stem, if from nothing else, from a familiarity with them and their history sufficient to indicate that the artist has proven, time and again, to be the lightning rod for bolts from the future.

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