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Mirkarimi endorsement splits political Harvey Milk Club

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The Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club is split over whether to endorse Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi in his reelection bid for sheriff in November. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)


In San Francisco’s upcoming November election, every vote is a vote for something else.

The Chinatown/North Beach race is not as much about incumbent Supervisor Julie Christensen and former Supervisor Aaron Peskin, as it is a referendum on Mayor Ed Lee’s policies.

Similarly, the sheriff slugfest between hopeful Vicki Hennessy and incumbent Ross Mirkarimi is a stand-in for more than just a gig with a badge.

Much like a Russian matryoshka doll, one political fight nests within another.

For the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, the progressive stalwart, choosing which sheriff candidate to endorse spurred an oft-seen progressive quandary: Whether to embrace pragmatism or ideology.

Democratic clubs are active all over this town, but few carry the punch of the Milk Club. The power of these political pow-wow organizations is singular: They collect money to send out the ever-important mailers that litter our doorsteps come election time.

One half of the Milk Club glass is advocating for “no endorsement” for sheriff. They fear that planting Mirkarimi’s face on the most prominent progressive mailers in San Francisco will tarnish chances of other candidates they favor — like Peskin, or City College trustee candidate Tom Temprano.

Linkage with Mirkarimi and his brush with domestic violence have been political hammers, wielded in 2014 to bludgeon Supervisor David Campos during his state assembly-run.

Campos lost by a scant 2,000 votes, which many say was due to opponents linking him with Mirkarimi.

Peskin and Temprano’s allies fear a similar fate if Mirkarimi’s face joins them on a Milk Club mailer.

Shrugging off that danger, Milk Club member David Waggoner told me, “The machine establishment politics will throw all of their resources at anyone they perceive as a threat.” He means Mayor Lee, and his allies, who back Hennessy.

“If they didn’t use Ross,” he said, “they’d use some other issue or ammunition.”

Waggoner and the other half of the Milk Club say Mirkarimi’s sheriff tenure is rife with wins. For example, under his watch, inmate parents have more visiting privileges with their families, and transgender inmates will soon be jailed according to their chosen gender, among others.

Political baggage be damned, they say, Mirkarimi embraces progressive causes and that makes him worth backing.

Coloring this debate is the electric District 3 supervisor race, where Peskin and Christensen will hardscrabble for every inch and every vote.

Behind the scenes, Peskin allies have tried to ensure the sheriff “no endorsement” holds fast. They’ve been unsuccessful.

Wednesday night the Milk Club will tackle its third (yes, third) vote on whether or not to endorse a sheriff’s candidate. In the first vote, the club narrowly chose “no endorsement.”

Mirkarimi’s supporters tried to call a second vote but were rebuffed, resulting in this week’s final showdown.

At that first vote, Milk Club member and sometime politician Eileen Hansen urged an endorsement for Mirkarimi.

“I’ve been a member of this club for about 30 years. This club stands for something,” she said. “We don’t do what is correct politically, we do what is right from our hearts.”

To those allies of the sheriff, his care for people of color and the poor trumps the political shadows haunting him.

Since winning office in 2011, Mirkarimi has suffered other political blows: The death of a wandering woman in San Francisco General Hospital due to a lapse by his deputies, deputies staging gladiator-style inmate fights at the county jail, and the death of Kate Steinle at the hands of Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, who had recently been released from custody.

A March poll of San Francisco voters conducted by the Milk Club reflects the political dogs hounding the sheriff. Of more than 500 surveyed voters, about 20 percent lean toward Mirkarimi and nearly 50 percent favor Hennessy.

But, as Milk Club member Hene Kelly told me, “This is not so much about Ross, as the heart and soul of the Harvey Milk Club.”

Waggoner said, “I think the club has been historically not very Machiavellian, pulling strings behind the scenes to achieve a political result. The club has been much more transparent, and accountable in the positions it’s taken and the people it’s supported.”

So far, Milk members against Mirkarimi have largely stayed silent, leaving their motivations uncertain.

Now progressives backing Mirkarimi believe those voting against him and urging a “no endorsement” are capitulating to a public witch hunt to drive him from office.

The potential political fallout of the Milk club’s possible endorsement of Mirkarimi is hard to gauge. In the end, though, the in-fighting itself may be poisonous to progressives no matter which way the chips fall.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at joe@sfexaminer.com.

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