The biggest little election of 2016 resulted in a clear winner who was actually chosen by a majority of voters — no Electoral College shenanigans required.
For the second year in a row, a lobbyist group closely allied with the real estate industry and corporate interests tried to take over the San Francisco Sierra Club to silence its strong record in support for waterfront and environmental protections. As they did last year, this group fielded a slate of candidates in the annual Sierra Club Executive Committee elections and reportedly signed up hundreds of new Sierra Club members for the sole purpose of voting in the election. After having their candidates defeated by a 3-to-1 margin in 2015, this time the Real Estate Slate spent thousands of dollars on a slick mailer and ads prominently featuring endorsements from State Sen. Scott Wiener, Board of Supervisors President London Breed and Breed’s Chief of Staff Conor Johnston. Their mailer proclaimed that the SF Sierra Club currently doesn’t care about “true solutions to fight climate change” because they don’t endorse building high-rise luxury condo towers up and down San Francisco’s historic waterfront. Of course, neither did the two-thirds of San Francisco voters who rejected the 8 Washington high-rise luxury condos in a landslide.
When this year’s Sierra Club election ended and the votes were tallied in mid-December, the result was another landslide. The Save SF Sierra Club candidates — Becky Evans, Linda Weiner, Sheila Chung Hagen and Katherine Howard — defeated the Real Estate Slate by a wide margin. Their victory is a resounding endorsement for keeping the SF Sierra Club a strong environmental champion for years to come that will stand up to the real estate industry and corporate lobbyists to protect our waterfront and environment.
The result is also a stinging rejection of the deceptive tactics being used in increasingly bold ways by corporate front groups like the YIMBY/BARF group that has tried and failed to hijack the SF Sierra Club two years in a row. Enabled by politicians such as Wiener, Breed and Assemblymember David Chiu, they are trying every trick in the book to cloak their wolf’s agenda in sheep’s clothing. Another example of this sleaze is the recent disclosure that a local club that is fraudulently using assassinated Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s name, image and reputation to funnel corporate money into San Francisco elections is refusing to stop despite being asked to do so by Kennedy’s family.
The results of the SF Sierra Club election show how to expose and defeat this sort of deceptive politics. Instead of ignoring the challenge and praying it would go away, Save SF Sierra Club leaders took it seriously from Day 1. They reached out to allies for help and built a diverse coalition of affordable housing advocates, tenant groups, community and political leaders and environmentalists to stand together. Taking nothing for granted, they raised the resources needed to send out their own mailers to voters and reached out by phone, email, social media and word of mouth to turn out the vote.
As a result, instead of silencing the SF Sierra Club’s strong environmental voice, the failed takeover attempt only made it stronger. The threat motivated, focused and unified people who care about our environment to engage supporters, build a strong coalition and do the detailed, day-to-day outreach work that constitutes successful organizing.
The result is both a stronger environmental movement and a road map to use in the months and years ahead showing how to fight back against well-funded and deceptive opponents — and win.
Jon Golinger is an environmental attorney who lives in North Beach.