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Learning the lessons of the June election

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Jon Golinger’s book is “Saving San Francisco’s Heart.” (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

So many times during this spring’s election season I found myself at my desk in the middle of the airy storefront on Mission Street that served as headquarters for the Jane Kim for Mayor campaign, looking up from my laptop and saying out loud to nobody in particular, “I just wrote about this in my book and now I’m living it. Weird.” The whole mayoral special election was a surreal experience like that.

The June 2018 mayoral election was never supposed to even happen. It only came to be because of the timing of former Mayor Ed Lee’s sad and sudden death from a heart attack last Dec. 12. If he had passed away a couple of months later, the city charter would have required the election to finish out the rest of the mayor’s term to take place this November instead, giving voters nearly a year to evaluate the best candidate for the most important job in town.

Instead, we had a lightning fast snap election – the first mayoral special election and the first mayoral election held in June in our city’s history. Other than London Breed, who became acting mayor and thus effectively the incumbent by virtue of being president of the Board of Supervisors, and Mark Leno, who had already been running for mayor for months, every other candidate had to decide to run, file and quickly put together an entire campaign operation over the Christmas holidays when they expected to be at home relaxing with their family and friends, recovering from an intense Trumpified 2017 and recharging their batteries for 2018.

I am proud of Jane Kim for taking the leap of faith and deciding to do the intense work of being a challenger in an uphill campaign for mayor in such a tough political environment. Although we didn’t win, I will forever be honored that she chose me to be her campaign manager.

Rather than recount some of my fun, colorful war stories from this past election – and I have plenty – I think it’s more valuable right now to take this moment between elections to focus on applying some of the lessons learned from the past one to the next one, which is already less than 100 days away. Especially for the scrappy but growing band of us in San Francisco who fight for candidates and issues that challenge the power of big corporations and the wealthy elite, learning from our losses is critical to finding ways to win.

Here are three lessons from this past campaign that can be immediately applied to improve the chances of winning the next one:

· Republican Backing & Corporate Money Has to Hurt. Republican voters and corporate money evading campaign laws and flowing through Citizen’s United loopholes have decided every close city election in recent memory, including this mayor’s race. This makes no sense: Do liberal San Francisco voters really want the party of Donald Trump and self-interested corporate CEOs to pick and choose who leads our city? Candidates who appeal to those forces need to be quickly and consistently called out, so voters know who they really are. San Francisco voters are smart – but they need information.

· Voting Takes Place for a Month, Not a Day. With the dominance of vote-by-mail, election day is really 30 days beginning the first week of October in a fall campaign, rather than the first week of November. This means that for a general election, campaigning needs to begin in earnest not after Labor Day but after the calendar flips to August (as in now). Grassroots campaigns need to spend their money early to reach mail voters and keep raising more, rather than save it until Election Day when most people have already voted.

· Tell A Compelling Story. We all tend to trust how we feel about a candidate as a person more than their promises about the policies they will promote if they win. Those feelings come from our understanding of and belief in a candidate’s story – where they came from, what drives them, what their values are. A candidate’s issues should reinforce the story of who they are and why they are the best choice for the job, not the other way around. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez just taught us all a master class in how a populist progressive can tell her story in a substantive way — now let’s learn from it.
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Jon Golinger is the author of “Saving San Francisco’s Heart: How to win elections, reclaim our city, and keep SF a special place,” published in 2017 by Bay Guardian Books, available at bookstores or at www.jongolinger.com

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