Selling Out the Democratic Party

How many times must the public send the message before the Democratic Party decides to stop shooting the messenger? The Gore-Bush contest of 2000, the 2002 mid-term elections, the California recall, and now the astonishing near-defeat of Gavin Newsom in San Francisco's mayor's race, each contain the same crystal-clear message: choosing Republican Lite-weights to represent the Democratic Party makes a lousy political strategy.

But the Democratic establishment would rather blame Nader and the Florida freaks. Blame Arnold and the Recall Repubs. Blame last-second progressive S.F. mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez and his hipster horde. Blame "Mean" Dean and his Internet machine. Blame 9/11, late-night GOP roll-call votes ... anybody, in fact, but itself.

The sad, mostly unacknowledged fact is that in the shadow of Bill Clinton's enormous charisma and political brilliance, the Democratic Party has been steadily receding in influence across this country for more than a decade. Congress, gubernatorial races, city elections -- you name it, and they've lost it. And the reason is simple: because the Democratic Party is too busy raising money to connect with the American people.

The latest example of this misplaced sense of priorities is the mayoral victory in San Francisco on Tuesday night. The local party machine favorite, millionaire entrepreneur and boy socialite Gavin Newsom, received endorsements from every party heavyweight imaginable. The campaign of the protégé of the ultimate politician's politician and outgoing mayor Willie Brown was favored by dramatic appearances by Clinton, Al Gore and both of the state's senators.

The Democrats have sought to cast Newsom as just another idealistic Mr. Smith on his way to Washington -- with a pit stop in San Francisco. In reality, he is a budding hack who draws his support from the city's most dubious interests: Real estate magnates, landlords, and the bureaucratic crony network created by Brown. Newsom outspent his opponent, Matt Gonzalez -- a Green Party candidate running in a city where only 3 percent of the voters are so identified -- by a factor of 10 to 1. Gonzalez's troops threw an enormous amount of spontaneous energy into an often chaotic and amateurish last-second get-out-the-vote effort. Newsom's well-oiled campaign, which went into high gear a year ago, had the resources to systematically identify supporters across the city and make sure that they made it to the polling booth, or, better yet, voted in advance.

This head start was key in determining the absentee ballots, which favored Newsom by a two-to-one margin, and proved too much for Gonzalez to overcome. Many people had already voted when his grassroots-based campaign caught fire. Only a few months ago, Gonzalez's support in the polls was barely in the double-digits. On Election Day, he managed to receive 47 percent of the total vote -- and won a majority of the votes cast on Tuesday.

To win, Gonzalez needed significant support from the city's minority communities, who would have given him a landslide. But faced with a choice between two thirty-something men -- one represented the wealthy elite (Newsom) and the other (Gonzalez) drew his support from the white hipster nexus -- African Americans, in particular, stayed home in droves.

The Gonzalez campaign was a successful one, despite its flaws and defeat. It mobilized thousands of new and irregular voters, mostly very young, to not only get to the polls but to actively take part in the campaign. Why? Because it stood for something: keeping big money out of politics; taking care of neighborhoods over downtown; and an emphasis on compassionate social programs.

These were all once the home turf of the Democrats, but the party has lost its way. The forces the Democratic Party chooses to nurture and align itself with in San Francisco are parallel to those that Gray Davis rode to an epic defeat: wealthy individuals and corporate lobbies. That Newsom held on (by a slim 52-47 margin) while Davis was smothered can be credited to the fact that there is still a somewhat effective political machine in San Francisco while statewide the party is fragmented and has little if any internal discipline.

The fact is, though, that five years ago the Brown machine dominated San Francisco's politics. But now Newsom takes over City Hall facing a Board of Supervisors stocked with insurgent progressives. Lacking a truly popular base, he must rely on the loyalty of political allies to get anything done. Even in this one-party town -- Greens and Republicans combined have no more than 20 percent of registered voters -- the Democratic Party's fortunes are eroding.

Furthermore, Gov. Schwarzenegger's cynical yet populist move to wipe out the car tax has instantaneously punched a $91 million hole in this year's budget for the City and County of San Francisco, making Newsom's situation more difficult than ever. To be a successful mayor, he needs to find a way to work with these progressives right away.

If he can't, look for him to be San Francisco's version of Gray Davis, buckling to whichever special interest has the most clout. As the saying goes, if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything.

Christopher Scheer is a staff writer for AlterNet. He is co-author of "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq."

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