County's Measure B questions status quo, Gordon says
For the past couple of decades in San Mateo County, according to former supervisor and current state Assemblyman Rich Gordon, most candidates elected as county supervisor have won the countywide vote and the vote in the supervisor district in which they lived.
The obvious question: If a candidate is likely to win his or her district, why oppose a ballot measure that would have candidates run only in the district, nullifying the expense and complications of a countywide campaign?
Measure B would switch from countywide elections to by-district elections. San Mateo County is alone among California's 58 counties in using at-large elections to elect supervisors.
Opponents of Measure B — among them, supervisors Carole Groom and Rose Jacobs Gibson and Sheriff Greg Munks — assert that supervisors elected at-large are accountable to all voters. "Your influence and ability to have your voice heard will be reduced if we turn to a system where elected representatives are only interested in their district," the ballot argument says. By-district elections, they add, would lead to influence by "special interests" and a shift toward parochial concerns by individual supervisors.
"I think that a large part of what this particular measure is about, it's a debate," Mr. Gordon told the Almanac. "It's a test between the status quo and those who want change. I think those who want change may not be fully organized as a group, but I think they represent folks in under-served communities. I think those are folks who are concerned about how expensive campaigning has become."
Among the backers at a "Yes on B" website: candidates for supervisor Shelly Masur and Warren Slocum, Supervisor Dave Pine, Portola Valley Mayor Maryann Moise Derwin, council members Peter Ohtaki of Menlo Park and Elizabeth Lewis of Atherton, and Virginia Chang Kiraly of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District board.
The San Francisco-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights sued the county in April 2011 on the substance of this measure, as they threatened to do in 2010. That was before the formation of a county Charter Review Committee, which recommended that the board approve a ballot measure to let the voters weigh in. Mr. Gordon's was the lone supporting vote on the Board of Supervisors.
In interviews, candidates have said that reaching likely voters via direct mail takes about $40,000, given the county's 340,000 registered voters. By-district elections would shrink that pool by 80 percent. "I think you have to wonder, if the cost of running for office is reduced, does it make it easier for candidates?" Mr. Gordon asked. That answer would be yes? "I don't think there's any other answer," he said. "(Activists) in under-served communities see an opportunity for greater diversity if there were district elections."
Are by-district elections a threat to incumbents? The Almanac asked Ms. Groom, Ms. Jacobs Gibson and Sheriff Munks for comments.
Threat to incumbents?
Sheriff Munks emphasized the supervisors' need to focus on countywide issues such as the homeless and the jail, and the value of the winnowing function of fundraising. "There's got to be some sort of vetting process," he told the Almanac. "The way to do that is to go to the public and find people willing to support you."
And about the fact that Warren Slocum acquired family loans of $143,000? "Some people are in a position to loan themselves money and some people aren't," Mr. Munks said.
Speculating on public funding for elections, he imagined up to 200 people with "no credentials, no experience and no qualifications (saying) 'I want to run for office.' If everybody is treated equally, where do you draw the line?" he asked. "Believe me, I'm not insensitive to the (idea) that it's more difficult to run countywide. I'm not suggesting that running by-district is not plausible. I see the other side and I see that (running at-large) is a hurdle and makes it tougher to run.
Measure B, Mr. Munks conceded, would lower the cost of campaigns and encourage a broader base of candidates."I think these are positive outcomes. What is the clincher for me, I think, is the breadth and depth of experience and qualifications of candidates would be less." And if voters want to try something different? "That's what democracy is all about. Good people will step forward and there will be more of them," Mr. Munks said.
In a voice mail, Ms. Groom replied to the question on the threat to incumbents by elaborating on the ballot argument against Measure B. The board deals with regional issues, and at-large candidates are "much more engaged" with those issues, she said. In unincorporated areas, where the board acts as city council, if Measure B passes, "they'll only have one representative instead of five and I think that's a lack of access to government."
Asked about the effect of running countywide, Mr. Gordon said it did lead to relationships with people outside District 3, which includes Portola Valley and Woodside. "I think it goes to the core argument of folks who support countywide elections," he said. "You're going to have to pay attention to issues outside your own district."
But such attention is a fact of life in governing bodies, he added. In the Assembly, he votes on timber resource issues in the northern end of the state and water resource issues at the southern end. "I get elected from a district, but I vote on issues that affect the entire state," he said. "I may not necessarily know people in those districts."
Would opponents of Measure B support statewide elections for state Assembly and Senate candidates? Citing the regional issues that supervisors deal with, Ms. Groom called the comparison "apples and oranges."
"I do believe that having countywide elections is beneficial to incumbents," Mr. Gordon said. Countywide campaigns "are expensive, more money has to be raised, it's much harder to do a grass roots campaign, (and) consultants become an important factor," he said.
"The more expensive a race, the more personal wealth a candidate must have. That may be daunting to some folks who are interested in running for the Board of Supervisors."
San Mateo County limits donations to supervisorial candidates to $1,000 per donor. Candidate Shelly Masur has raised about $183,000, all in donations, campaign finance reports show. Warren Slocum raised $224,000, including $143,000 in family loans.
Finance reports show Mr. Slocum's expenses included $15,000 on consultants and $126,500 on campaign literature, including $87,400 in the first 20 days of October. Among Ms. Masur's expenses: $30,600 on consultants and $18,700 on polling.
"Overall," Mr. Gordon said, "the more voters you have to reach, the more consultants will charge." He has used a consultant for every election he has run in except a school board election early in his career, he said.