The high-profile race is on for SF’s next mayor, D.A. and sheriff
By David Downs
San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi walks the working-class Portola District on a windy, sunny Friday in September, talking to store owners and shaking hands. While most Asian shopkeepers appear little more than bemused at the display of electioneering, big shifts promise to occur this fall.
When they head to the polls on Nov. 8, San Francisco voters have a choice between the status quo and pressing forward for the next eight years. Medical cannabis patients face new taxes, dispensaries fight to normalize their locations and cultivators might face a significant change in the climate of law enforcement.
Who becomes the next Sheriff, District Attorney and above all Mayor of San Francisco will shape the next eight years of policy, and eight years has been a lifetime in the marijuana movement, says one San Francisco political consultant who agreed to speak on background.
“I think it’s fairly safe to assume whoever’s elected will be driving pot policy in town for the next eight years. You look at what the community has done as far as marijuana— eight years is a completely different world, and to argue different wouldn’t be prudent.”
She said cannabis supporters can’t afford to check out, fail to register, then not vote. “I think it’s dangerous if they don’t.”
2011 is the first year that the City holds so-called “instant run-off voting” (see “Instant Confusion” sidebar). Literally every vote counts and even the experts don’t know who’ll win.
“Putting everybody on record is important,” she said.
WHERE THEY STAND
Patient advocacy group Americans for Safe Access consistently gets the candidates’ positions on record, says long-time San Francisco activist and member of the City’s medical cannabis task force—David Goldman.
Cannabis law reform is a sideshow in this election, he said, an issue for candidates to step around. They get little political juice supporting it or attacking it.
“I think they’re scared of the issue,” he says. “I think they’d rather run from it.”
Exhibit A: San Francisco Mayoral candidate Ed Lee. The former city manager took the reigns of the city in January when Mayor Gavin Newsom became Lt. Governor. Lee promised to stay out of the 2011 Mayor’s race, then broke his promise August 7 and entered it.
Lee has taken no position on medical cannabis, Goldman says. In fact, his lack of a position on much of anything makes Lee the “No drama Newsom.” After years and years of rancorous theater in City Hall, voters seem ready for a humble functionary, as opposed to Newsom’s live Entourage.
Lee is widely favored to win, says Goldman and others. As of late September, about 31 percent of respondents favored Lee. Behind him: City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Assemblymember Leland Yee.
The next mayor could back a medical cannabis tax at the Board of Supervisors or veto one sent to his desk, notes Goldman.
While Lee’s taken no stand, Assemblymember Yee has a conflicting record. He helped block a dispensary in the Sunset District—but now he’s pro-marijuana. Herrera did not return emails and does not list cannabis as an issue. In the back of the pack, mayoral candidate Phil Ting wants to tax medical cannabis, while pro-marijuana candidates Bevan Dufty opposes a tax, as does John Avalos and Joanna Rees, says Goldman.
Zoning laws ban dispensaries in “95 percent” of the city, says Goldman. With more and more clubs opening in SOMA along Mission Street, the San Francisco Planning Commission is considering sending to the Board of Supervisors recommendations to tweak dispensary laws. A movement is afoot to insert an “anti-clustering” clause into regulations, which would prevent more clubs from opening in the zones they’re currently permitted.
The next Mayor could make push back against anti-clustering legislation, open new parts of the city to clubs or trade anti-clustering for broader zoning. Lee and Herrera haven’t taken a position, says Goldman, while Yee again, actively blocked a permitted club from opening in the Sunset last year.
With instant runoff clouding the outcome, Goldman advises marijuana proponents to partner with the entire field.
“We like the idea that people get involved in different campaigns so that no matter who wins, we have people there, so they can say, ‘He’s been on our side’.”
Aside from the Mayor’s race, San Franciscans elect a new District Attorney, and a new Sheriff who’ll shape law enforcement policy against growers and users, and lobby nationally for change. Frontrunner George Gascon was appointed District Attorney by Newsom in November 2010. The former SF Police Chief was a registered Republican—but became a Democrat, notes the political consultant.
On the job for two weeks as District Attorney, he did not support a California bill to make felony marijuana cultivation a “wobbler,” which would have given prosecutors the discretion to charge the crime as a misdemeanor, notes Goldman.
Since then, however, Gascon has said he would not prosecute San Francisco cultivators operating in compliance with state law, and dropped charges against a cultivator who was busted. “We thought that was pretty cool,” Goldman says.
While Gascon promises to maintain the status quo, runner-up candidates David Onek and Sharmin Bock have gone further—openly stating drug use is a medical, not a criminal issue. Former police commissioner and criminal justice academic David Onek points to his endorsement by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, who authored the “wobbler” bill.
“The drug war is a total failure,” Onek says. “I think the system is bankrupt.”
“Bottom line [is] I’m 100 percent in support of medical marijuana and absolutely, I will never prosecute those who are abiding by state and local law.”
Onek sees a bigger problem at the state and national level and intends to use his position as a high-profile DA to lobby for large charge. “The criminal justice system is completely broken.”
LEGACY OF THE SHERIFF
Onek also enjoys the endorsement of outgoing Sheriff Michael Hennessey—a huge criminal justice figure. Voters elected Hennessey eight times and he’s served for 32 years—the longest-serving sheriff in San Francisco history.
An ACLU prisoner’s rights lawyer when he took over the job, Hennessey fought cops to institute progressive jail reforms. Sources call him a visionary for bringing into jails education and rehabilitation services that have been replicated across the state and country.
Hennessey hopes to pass that torch of reform on to Ross Mirkarimi, the city Supervisor who helped craft San Francisco’s dispensary laws. Mirkarimi is thought to lead in the Sheriff’s race, over the San Francisco Police Officers Association’s pick—Chris Cunnie.
Mirkarimi said he was NORML’s 2006 National Hero, and when he’s not handling his duties as Sheriff, he’ll be using his position as a bully pulpit. “I believe very strongly in decriminalization and eventually legalization. We should not be incarcerating anybody for marijuana use.”
This year the state undergoes “realignment,” wherein state prisoners and the money to jail them are transferred back down to the county level. San Francisco will have enough room for the 700 returning prisoners, but realignment present enormous opportunities to demonstrate how to spend limited police funds progressively, Mirkarimi says.
“We can demonstrate to the rest of California how we can reform the criminal justice system, improve public safety and reduce recidivism,” he says.
Mirkarimi says medical cannabis activists locally, and statewide are on the defensive, feeling abandoned by the Obama Administration.
“We are just treading water in San Francisco when everyone says they’re for access to medical cannabis, but then nobody really wants to go to the next step.
“I don’t think we can just take this defensive posture. I think we need to move forward.”
2011 is the first year the San Francisco Mayor, D.A. and Sheriff will be elected via instant runoff, also called “ranked choice voting.” The process favors alliances among longshot candidates over well-funded frontrunners with well-oiled political machines. And it’s cheaper than actual run-offs. Here’s how it work:.
1. San Francisco voters rank up to three candidates in order of preference for the same office.
2. If a candidate receives a majority (50 percent +1) of the voter’s first-choice selections, that candidate is declared the winner.
3. If no candidate receives a majority of the first-choice selections, the candidate who received the FEWEST number of first-choice selections is ELIMINATED.
4. Voters who selected the eliminated candidate as their first choice will have their vote TRANSFERRED to their second choice. The votes are then recounted.
5. If any remaining candidate receives a majority of the votes, he or she is declared the winner.
6. If no remaining candidate receives a majority of the votes, the process of eliminating candidates and transferring votes to the next-ranked candidate is REPEATED until one candidate has a winning majority.