06/01/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Census Organzing: Building Grassroots Power in San Francisco

[Drafted with Jan Adams]

It's not only the result on Election Day that decides who ends up in public office and the policies they pursue. Rather, the twists and turns of the structures of local government can create obstacles or openings for grassroots groups and neighborhood activists to be heard -- or excluded.

Here's a complex tale from San Francisco that shows how neighborhood activists took advantage of organizing, coalition building, and a new census that required redistricting to set the stage for a decade of progressive policies.

In a big rich city, it is hard for neighborhood groups, especially those grounded in pockets of poverty, to win influence that matches the money wealthy forces can pour into elections. A major strategy of community groups in San Francisco for the last 30 years has therefore been to divide the city up for electoral purposes, making candidates for the Board of Supervisors (the City Council equivalent) run in small neighborhood districts where door to door campaigning has a chance against big money. The city implemented such a system in 1977 and the result was a new diverse crop of Supervisors including Harvey Milk. The money interests waited for a low turnout election and won a vote to change back to citywide voting in the 1980s; grassroots activists began to be squeezed out again at City Hall.

After years of organizing, district elections for Supervisor were reinstated by initiative, beginning in 2000. A San Francisco Chronicle reporter observed the results of the new system on December 14, not entirely happily:

The clear victory for insurgents who ran for the Board of Supervisors moved San Francisco's political power base decisively to the left, breathing new life into initiatives ranging from clamping down on dot-com development to easing up on homeless scofflaws.

And then the new system ran immediately into the redistricting mandate created by the new population distribution revealed by the 2000 U.S. Census. Community groups had been well aware of the Census. For example, Chinese for Affirmative Action had put out to its members and organizers the slogan: "Justice, Money, and Power." They worked hard to explain to their members what they could gain from getting everyone counted, since federal funding aid and electoral seats would be influenced by the final numbers. And they worked hard to get federal money for outreach efforts in ethnic media and into minority communities.

Meanwhile the San Francisco elections department drifted into scandalous disarray amid charges of cronyism, lost ballots, and even lids from ballot storage boxes found floating in San Francisco Bay. Voters approved elections management and ethics initiatives in November 2001 that were supposed to reform and depoliticize the administration of city elections. Out of this came a plan for an Elections Task Force to draw the new district plans in conformity with census numbers -- and a political tussle over who would appoint its nine members. The Mayor and the Board of Supervisors each were allotted three slots -- three more were supposed to be appointed by the head of the department of elections, but the incumbent was a mayoral appointee who as under investigation for misconduct in office. A political compromise added one member clearly tied to the Mayor and two more closely allied to the Supervisors' progressive, neighborhood-oriented majority. Reapportionment on the basis of the new census finally got underway in March 2002 with an mid April deadline.

The March 15, 2002 Chronicle explained the Task Force mandate: "When drawing up the districts, the task force must consider several legal requirements and traditional redistricting principles. Among them: each district must have roughly the same population -- about 70,000 residents; the voting power of racial, political, social and language minorities cannot be diluted; and the distinct neighborhoods and commercial districts should be kept intact."

The Task Force held nine public hearings and every community group in town organized their members to speak up. On April 6, the Chronicle reported. "The panel must, by law, have a new map by Monday. The commissioners, meeting again today, are hoping to wrap up tomorrow afternoon with a final vote on a new map for the 11 supervisorial districts. Barring a successful lawsuit, their word is final. With the deadline looming, the commissioners' frustration has shown. A proposal tossed one day would show up the next in hybrid form. And with each proposal came another round of public testimony. Touch one district, and the one next to it falls, leading to dizzying consequences that will affect the city's political landscape for the next decade."

A few days later on April 13, the paper described the scene at City Hall where the commissioners held public deliberations: "'It's like a soap opera meets a slasher movie,' said Scott Trammell Moore, a gay political club activist who showed up night after night at City Hall as the nine-member Elections Task Force worked on a new map in meetings that ran past midnight.

The stakes, however, aren't Hollywood make-believe. The new lines will change city politics for the next decade, determining which candidates can run to represent which neighborhoods, affecting everything from development to social policy.

Meanwhile, out of the limelight, a coalition of civil rights and community groups were holding their own meetings about redistricting. Including such high profile advocacy groups as the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, Chinese for Affirmative Action, and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund as well as more grassroots representatives, these groups sought to work out their own plan to draw the districts. MALDEF contributed the use of demographic mapping software that enabled conferrees to test out the racial demographic implications of district lines moved as little as a block. Experienced grassroots organizers were brought in to point out where lines might agree with existing neighborhood affinities -- and where cramming together populations would cause tensions.

These issues were difficult. The African American population was declining numerically and was (and is) located in three non-contiguous areas. There was no simple way to draw a "Black district." Latinos did mostly reside more closely together -- but many are new immigrants or don't vote, so the district with the highest concentration of Latinos might very well elect an Anglo Supervisor who could also draw from equally economically precarious whites. (This happened throughout the decade.) Though many more established Asian-Americans (usually of Chinese or Philippine origin) are solid middle class homeowners and voters in several areas, more recently arrived Asian-Americans from many countries are spreading out into all the cheaper areas of the city, sometimes finding themselves in uncomfortable proximity with Black, Latino and/or poorer gay residents. Places where this was (and is) the reality became disputed territory in visualizing districts.

Conferees spent many hours trying to create a map that balanced the hopes of all groups to maintain some influence at City Hall. Their map was eventually finished, with every community represented realizing that it had to make some hard choices to maintain the coalition. It was presented to the Elections Task Force both publicly and through back channels.

Given their tight deadline, the Election Task Force achieved a small miracle of efficiency by approving a new map on schedule. Their map closely resembled the suggestions from the civil rights groups, partly because it was both historical, based on existing neighborhoods, and realistic. This was adopted by a 5-4 vote with the commissioners who were more aligned with the Supervisors than with the Mayor making up the majority.

And what has been the result? During a political period that President Obama recently referred to as a "lost decade," a shifting majority of mostly "progressive" supervisors, alongside a photogenic but less progressive mayor, have moved some innovative policies including raising the local minimum wage and requiring employers to offer paid sick leave; restricting plastic bags; and creating a citywide health insurance program for all uninsured residents.

Naturally, as we approach another census and another redistricting, the same money interests that have seen district elections undercut their power are back at work, trying to swing the structure in their favor. They want to reduce the number of Supervisors elected in districts to seven and make four Supervisors run citywide. The editor of the local alternative weekly paper, the Bay Guardian, knows the score:

You may agree or disagree with what this board has done, but nobody can honestly say that the district supervisors have ignored citywide issues or that they don't have a citywide perspective. No: This has nothing to do with citywide issues vs. district issues. It's entirely about policy - about the fact that district supervisors are more progressive. About the fact that downtown can't possibly get a majority under a district system - because with those small districts that [Chronicle columnist C.W.] Nevius complains about, big money can't carry the day. "In a district system, grassroots organizing - the stuff that labor and nonprofits and progressive groups are good at - is more important than raising money. So district supes are accountable to a different constituency.