My “not involved in partisan gerrymandering” op-ed has people asking lots of questions already answered by my op-ed

November 17, 2022

San Francisco District 4 supervisor Gordon Mar conceded his re-election race last night, wishing luck to supervisor-elect Joel Engardio. Mar couldn’t resist adding that, of voters within the previous D4 boundaries, a majority continued to support him.

A spicy thing to say while conceding, perhaps, but true. As Joe Eskenazi wrote on Monday,

there’s no point in denying that redistricting is the difference in this race. Engardio’s home was grafted into District 4, along with three precincts. He leads Mar by 490 votes, and he is +529 in those three precincts.

These aren’t just any three precincts. They’re the three most conservative in all of San Francisco, voting 22%, 26%, and 26% for Donald Trump in 2020, versus 12% citywide. By annotating a map published last year in the Chronicle we can see that Mar, a progressive, would have stood much better chances had his district instead, or additionally, been expanded east to encompass the progressive-leaning Inner Sunset. This map was approved by a slim 5–4 majority of the Redistricting Task Force aligned with Mayor London Breed.

Progressive voter index map of District 4 (Central/Outer Sunset and Parkside). The area just south of Sloat, north of Lake Merced, newly added to District 4 by mayoral appointees, is colored the least progressive color (0-10 on PVI scale). There was no expansion east into the Inner Sunset, which is much more progressive (from 38 to 87 on the PVI scale).

Such observations are upsetting to Andy Mullan and Mike Chen, who in the Chronicle this week defend the results of San Francisco’s chaotic redistricting process. Calling it “Trump-like rhetoric” for progressives to say districts were gerrymandered, they conclude:

Redistricting strengthened democracy in San Francisco. It addressed our absurd and unequal population imbalances, and our city is better for it. We can’t let anyone fault our democratic processes to delegitimize election results they don’t like. Whether it’s from the far right or the far left, it’s unacceptable for anyone to use “Stop the Steal” rhetoric to undermine our democracy.

That’s a pretty strong reaction to people merely noting that the new districts were one factor in Engardio’s (and possibly D6 supervisor Matt Dorsey’s) wins. Why might “moderate” supporters of the mayor, Engardio, and Dorsey feel so defensive?

“I had brought a clipboard to a knife fight”

The reality is that a collegial, nonpartisan exercise in democracy wasn’t what those of us watching the Redistricting Task Force witnessed. Nor was it the experience of Task Force member Raynell Cooper, whose statement beginning on page 36 of the task force’s final report makes a compelling read:

I applied to and was appointed to this Task Force at age 26, looking for a way to get more involved in making San Francisco better without getting too deep into the City’s notoriously toxic political climate. I worked (and still work) as a planner for SFMTA, so I felt like my energy would be best spent on this nonpartisan and ostensibly nonpolitical body, where I could contribute my community engagement skills and lifelong passion for maps without having to ruffle too many feathers.

I approached this process the same way I approach everything in my career in the public sector: attempting to do what’s best for the people while working within difficult and oftentimes frustrating constraints. My understanding of the task at hand was that we were to take in data and public feedback and discuss how to make the best possible map based on those inputs, without consideration for the desires of political interests unwilling to speak publicly about what their intentions are and why.

But it became clear to me in the final days of the process that I had brought a clipboard to a knife fight.

Like many of us watching, Cooper initially had faith in the process. He wanted, and expected, fair districts, not a factional gain for one side or another. Yet in the end, he concluded that

the central decision of this map, removing Tenderloin from its cross-Market neighbors in Central SOMA and moving it to District 5, is not an appropriate adjustment based on public input.

We heard virtually unanimous opinion from the residents of Tenderloin, Central SOMA, and District 5 that the previous alignment of those neighborhoods made sense. The Tenderloin community in particular was consistent, persistent, and clear about their desire to remain in the same district as SOMA. […] It was profoundly disappointing to see the majority of my colleagues make a decision that explicitly prioritized the desires of well-off communities over the needs of the most underprivileged.

The map was required to equalize district populations, and after a decade of uneven development, that led to tough choices. Rather than deliberate those choices honestly, openly and transparently, however, a 5-person bloc of members aligned with Mayor London Breed turned redistricting into a circus. Rapid-fire, dramatic changes were made at the last minute by this slim majority, often with little justification.

The task force’s worst move—splitting the long-connected Black communities in Potrero Hill and Bayview—was later reversed, but provides a stark illustration of gamesmanship for factional advantage. Mayor-appointed member Matthew Castillon introduced the change at 11:49pm on April 9th, eleven minutes before the soft deadline for a substantially complete map. Task Force member Cooper, again:

On April 9th, what seemed like a settled matter resurfaced out of nowhere with a new motion to move Potrero Hill out of District 10 springing out of a convoluted series of edits as if it were just an organic set of edits necessary to balance the numbers. That motion would have put Potrero Hill in District 9, a new home for the neighborhood that to that point had not been contemplated. It failed, but after a hastily called recess the vote was reversed and Potrero Hill was off to District 9 and the Portola added back [to] District 10.

Regardless of the merits of the move itself, blatant unfairness of the proceedings led to myself and three other members walking out of the meeting. It had become apparent to me earlier that day that not all members of the Task Force were voting based solely on how their own hearts or minds felt about the issues at hand and in that moment it became apparent to everyone else. The issue of Potrero Hill and the Portola was brought back to assuage outside political interests, not due to any genuine change of heart by a member of the Task Force. I was stunned by what I had just witnessed and knew that I would be compromising my morals by remaining in that meeting that evening.

Will Jarrett’s excellent reporting in Mission Local is full of shocking details about this vote, such as that after a 1:30am recess for the members to “move our cars,” one mayor-appointed member mysteriously flipped her vote, and the motion went from failing to passing. Chair Rev. Arnold Townsend later agreed that the map, which he had just voted for, represented “ethnic suicide,” and admitted he was being leaned on by Mayor Breed to vote against his conscience, writing in a text, “I have no choice.”

At the next meeting, I went to City Hall in person in solidarity with Black San Franciscans from Potrero Hill and Bayview, listening to their heartfelt testimonies for two hours before lining up to make my own comment. No one who was in that room could have failed to be affected by the overwhelming sense of injustice and of resistance.

The task force ultimately reverted its change to D10, but held firm on splitting the Tenderloin from Central SoMa. That split had itself been made suddenly after six months of meetings, only 20 days before the deadline; had itself been denounced in hours of near-unanimous public comment; and had been reverted and un-reverted multiple times, including in a surprise at the end of a marathon meeting at 2:53am, which drew public outcry from no less than the League of Women Voters—hardly a “far right or far left” organization.

The influence on this election

It’s worth emphasizing that gerrymanders are bad because they harm communities, not because they help or hurt specific candidates. The Tenderloin and Central SoMa are both poor neighborhoods with many people living in SROs, are both unusually diverse for San Francisco, and have noted histories as LGBTQ+ friendly neighborhoods, with the Compton’s Transgender Cultural District spanning both. Honey Mahogany, who is trans and a progressive, clearly would have had an easier time campaigning within one of the draft maps that kept the Tenderloin and Central SoMa together.

But the bigger issue is that, regardless of who won, both D6 candidates campaigned by running to the center. Not only did Dorsey, as a former spokesperson for SFPD, unsurprisingly emphasize a police-centered vision for public safety over issues faced by affordable housing tenants and the trans community, but Mahogany appeared to pivot her campaign in a “tough love”/”tough on crime” direction as well. Regardless of which candidate won, their platform and priorities would have been more tailored to appeal to the wealthier, whiter, more cis and straight, new D6.

Meanwhile, back in district 4, the decision to avoid expanding into Inner Sunset had another cost. It left district 4, which grew little from 2010–2020, way under population. Districts are only supposed to differ from equal population by up to 1%, but they can deviate by 5% if that is the only way to keep recognized communities whole. The task force abused this leeway, creating dramatic deviations across the board even while separating the Transgender Cultural District between 5 and 6 and the Sunset District between 4 and 7. Fully half of the final districts exceed a 4% deviation:

District Total Population Deviation % Deviation
1 75,727 -3,818 -4.80%
2 75,950 -3,595 -4.52%
3 79,301 -244 -0.31%
4 75,998 -3,547 -4.46%
5 83,506 3,961 4.98%
6 76,009 -3,536 -4.45%
7 78,689 -856 -1.08%
8 83,420 3,875 4.87%
9 81,563 2,018 2.54%
10 82,146 2,601 3.27%
11 82,684 3,139 3.95%

The result of this is that if you live in Joel Engardio’s low-density, semi-suburban neighborhood, where a quarter of voters opted to re-elect Trump, your vote is 9.9% more powerful than that of a Tenderloin resident. I had to double-check my math on that because it’s such a dramatic difference, it’s hard to believe.

You almost have to admire the chutzpah, then, that when Andy Mullan and Mike Chen write, “This attack on our local democracy is… shameful,” they’re talking not about the redistricting that created that disparity, but about criticism of it.

At the end of the day, unless someone sues and gets a court to overturn this map, we’re stuck with it, and a win is a win. But we don’t have to be happy about it, and we shouldn’t forget the injustice that’s been done. No one has disputed that Mullan and Chen’s favored candidates are the legal winners of their elections. But whether Mullan and Chen like it or not, those wins will always have asterisks next to them.

And several citywide results point in a more progressive direction. Against the wishes of Mayor Breed, voters passed Prop H (even-year elections) by a 42-point margin, 71%-29%. Voters passed Prop C (homelessness oversight) and Prop M (empty homes tax) over opposition both from Mayor Breed and from Chen’s Ed Lee Democratic Club. And Prop J, affirming the car-free status of JFK Promenade, which had a moderately strong negative correlation with support for Joel Engardio, passed by 26 points, 63%-37%.

Maybe that’s why “moderate” supporters of the mayor are so sensitive about their redistricting coup getting noticed: They know they won’t be able to hold progressives back forever.

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