1989 local elections and the defeat of Propositions S and P - 10 November 1989

All over America last Tuesday, people were going to the polls to vote for every office from governor to dog-catcher, and everything from Aids research to prohibiting smoking in all public rooms and places.

They were not voting for president or for senators or congressmen – 1989 is, numerically, an odd year. Every even year, a third of the Senate and the whole House of Representatives comes up for election, or re-election, and of course once every four years, in the even years, we have a presidential election.

Now we’ve got that straight, you’ll understand why in the odd year the state and local elections can be more important to more people than the elections to Congress because they focus exclusively on the issues that most directly affect people’s daily lives.

There were, to be sure, one or two local races that would reverberate nationally: New York City voted in its first black mayor; and in Virginia, the earliest of the slave states and throughout the 1950s and '60s the most implacable opponent of integration, Virginia seemed in a hair’s-breadth split in the vote to be likely to have the first black governor of any state in American history.

Here in California, there was no race for governor. That comes along next year. And here in San Francisco, only two city offices were at stake: the city attorney and the city treasurer. The rest of the ballot listed twenty-three propositions or referendums, or referenda, on which you vote a simple yes or no. In all of them, a majority decides the issue.

Referendums on the most controversial issues of state and city politics are an old California custom. And while there’s a powerful case to be made against the system, it does make the pace of reform and change quicker as against in national congressional elections. For instance, choosing a man, a woman because of their stated positions and then hoping that, in the time-consuming turbulence of congressional debate, your man, your woman will prevail, assuming – which is a big assumption – that they held to the positions that got them elected.

The San Francisco shopping list is an interesting reflection of what really concerns people in the day to day government of their lives. The first item, Proposition A, proposed a bond issue, a public loan, for public building safety including, it says here, earthquake hazard reduction. Well, in view of the recent inconvenience, not to vote for that would be like voting against Mother or Santa Claus. Needless to say, it got a whopping 7-1 vote of approval.

And then the board of supervisors, the elected city council, wanted to have their salaries increased by close to 30 per cent. They didn’t get it.

There were, however, two propositions of all-consuming interest to San Franciscans, and in the weekend before the election, the rights and wrongs, the advantages and the hideous risks were debated in print and on the tube with a heat and intensity you’d rather expect from a proposal to abolish the Constitution of the United States.

One was Proposition S, defined on the ballot in two plain words: domestic partners. It would allow unmarried couples who worked for the city, including homosexual couples of both sexes, to register at City Hall as a "domestic partnership", entitled, like married couples, to hospital visitation rights and bereavement rights enjoyed by all other registered city employees.

It looks on the surface like a very mild, humane concession, but most people – including the gays and lesbians, always separately distinguished here – most people believe it would be only a first step to giving homosexuals the legal benefits – healthcare and property and inheritance rights – of any other married couple.

The fate of this proposition, it’s fair to say, was being watched around the nation because of San Francisco’s signal importance in all controversies about homosexuals.

As you must know by now, San Francisco has a very large population of homosexuals. In proportion to the city population, much the largest in the nation, something like 120,000 in a city of 700,000, most of them compactly resident in one sprawling district below the two high hills known as Twin Peaks. It’s large enough to constitute an actual electoral district and, for I should say 20 years at least, has regularly sent two or three city fathers (I suppose you’d call them) to the city council.

Before Tuesday’s vote, most of the city’s political leaders were in favour of the proposition as an overdue concession to gay and lesbian couples who are forbidden, under California state law, to marry. It was resolutely opposed by (among others) the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco on two grounds: one moral, one economic.

That it would, I quote, “further undermine the sanctity of the family” or, rather, defined here as the “nuclear family”. Secondly, anticipating the extended law I hinted at, that it would greatly increase the taxpayer’s liability for medical care. Obviously beneath that objection lies the sleeping fear of much bigger outlays for the treatment of Aids.

The polls reported a majority of San Franciscans in support of the law, which indeed was approved this summer by the city’s ruling council, the board of supervisors. But, as with the second hotly debated proposition, the question on election day was whether more opponents than supporters would get to the polls.

The second big hassle was over Proposition P: the abandonment of the city’s 29-year-old baseball park, Candlestick Park, which lies on a windy, chilly hill south of the city, and the building of a new park in downtown San Francisco.

After the earthquake, which the old park and stadium splendidly survived, off-the-cuff commentators jumped to the conclusion that the new park was doomed since it would be built on soft landfill and, therefore, be more vulnerable than old Candlestick Park.

Perhaps they jumped too soon. Powerful, not to say cunning, arguments in favour of a new park came from the proponents. A spontaneous outcry of opponents that the construction would cruelly bite into the money that ought to go to repairing the earthquake damage and helping its homeless victims was smartly countered by the published facts of the way the park would be financed.

The cost of this new 45,000 seat stadium is $115million. It will not take a penny from the earthquake relief funds. A hundred million dollars will be privately subscribed, enough to finish the stadium. The extra $15million in city taxes would not begin to be paid until 1994, and after that, the mayor proposed a hotel tax fund starting in the mid-90s that would be returned from ballpark revenues, which would then be used for new civic programmes. The park, said the mayor, could be, would be, a money-maker for the city treasury.

For the city’s baseball fans who may be more interested in home runs than revenues, there was, however, a heartrending threat. The owner of the Giants – the local team that played in and lost the World Series – the owner announced some time ago that if the new ballpark is not voted, he will leave Candlestick Park to somebody else’s devices and will move his team, the beloved Giants, to another California city. This is like suddenly announcing that Manchester United will move to Brighton.

At this point, the ballpark issue and the homosexual issue became subtly interwoven. The Giants’ owner put up $5,000 to support the campaign for Proposition S, the homosexual issue. Five thousand dollars is not much, but it could be enough to convince a lot of voting gays and lesbians that the Giants’ owner is a fine liberal type whose quid deserved a quo on election day.

Well, that was the state of the jousting between the pros and cons on the morning before the election, and then on Monday evening the Mayor of San Francisco, Mayor Agnos, released a bombshell in the form of a revelation of skulduggery on the part of opponents of the new ballpark.

During the previous day or two, the city had received a snowstorm of flyers, pamphlets, making a simple, heartfelt plea. This was not the time, wrote the anonymous author, to rifle the city treasury for a baseball stadium when there were so many thousands homeless and unemployed from the disaster of 17 October.

Until Monday evening, all we knew was that this gallant appeal came from a committee run by a San Francisco historian, but Mayor Agnos revealed that the pamphlets had been paid for by a contractor, Mr Luckenbill, who built a sports arena in Sacramento, the state capital 90 miles away.

Could it be, mused the mayor, that this man and a developer who also put up money for the pamphlets might want to lure the Giants to Sacramento as the contractor is known to be eager to snatch the Los Angeles team, the Raiders, and relocate them in Sacramento?

Mayor Agnos did more than muse. He thundered on the eve of the voting, “After the earthquake on October 17th, there was no looting in San Francisco until now. What we are seeing is a Sacramento developer, Luckenbill and his cohorts, trying to loot San Francisco of its baseball team in order to complete a financing package that is necessary for him to get the Raiders to Sacramento.”

This disclosure made streaming headlines in the San Francisco papers on the morning of the election, and possibly the most damning item of the story was the sentence, ‘Mr Luckenbill was unavailable for comment.’

Well in the result, the homosexual domestic partners proposition was defeated by a fraction, and so was the new baseball park. Perhaps the fatal snag in the way of its supporters was an alternative proposition, which would improve at much less cost the old park by building over its stadium a retractable roof, which would make the chill summer evenings a bit cosier for the fans.

Anyway, the Zinoviev letter, I mean the Luckenbill flyer, comparing the costs of a park with the costs of earthquake relief may have struck a chord in voters who hadn’t read that the fundraising for one had nothing to do with the other.


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