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Candidates Exploit Ranked-Choice Endorsements

by John Wildermuth

Supervisor David Campos is endorsing Chris Jackson for supervisor in San Francisco's District 10. He's also supporting Tony Kelly, DeWitt Lacy and Eric Smith for that same seat on the board.

Supervisor David Campos speaks during a rally to protest the proposed ordinance that would make it a crime to sit or lie on public sidewalks in San Francisco at City Hall in San Francisco, Calif. on Monday May 10, 2010. (Lea Suzuki photo) Ranked-choice voting, where people can cast ballots for three candidates instead of one, has changed elections in the city and, not incidentally, made life a bit easier for the politicians, clubs and organizations that are besieged by candidates seeking their backing.

"With ranked choice, there's more of a reason to endorse more than one person," Campos said. "District 10, for example, has four progressive candidates and I couldn't choose among them or have to rank them. They all would make a good supervisor."

But politics also is built on relationships and it's tough for any officeholder to tell a friend that he will endorse someone else.

Now, they don't always have to, which can lead to different types of problems.

Matt Gonzalez, a former supervisor and 2003 candidate for mayor, is backing Kelly as his choice in District 10, which includes Bayview-Hunters Point, Potrero Hill and Visitacion Valley. But when Lacy asked for an endorsement, "I told him he could list me if he made it clear he was my second choice," Gonzalez said.

But when Lacy simply added Gonzalez as a backer, without that important qualifier, the former supervisor pulled his endorsement.

It was simply a mistake, said Lacy, an attorney making his first run for office.

"Maybe it was part of my naivete," he said. "I didn't want to offend anyone."

If Lacy, who is the top choice of the city's Democratic Party, is confused by the new world of ranked-choice endorsements, he's not alone. Every newspaper, political club, elected official and neighborhood group has its own rules for endorsements, and they can be tough to keep track of.

The San Francisco Tenants Union, for example, ranks its endorsements and requires candidates to use that ranking in their campaign material. The city's African American Democratic Club, on the other hand, endorses multiple candidates, but merely lists them in alphabetical order, with no ranking. The Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, though, only listed a top choice for supervisor in the districts where they endorsed this year, disregarding ranked choice.

Not surprisingly, some candidates, dismayed at being a second or third pick, decide that all endorsements are created equal, regardless of ranking. While the Bayview Hunters Point Democratic Club picked Lynette Sweet as its first choice in District 10, with Lacy second and Malia Cohen third, neither Lacy nor Cohen list those rankings on their campaign websites.

For Tim Redmond, executive editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, watching candidates misstate his paper's ranked endorsements is a continuing source of frustration.

"It amazes me when someone says they're endorsed by the Bay Guardian and don't mention they were the third choice," he said. "But there's nothing I can do but hope people check the newspaper."

The Guardian, which is a beacon for the city's progressive left, has no problem making multiple endorsements in a ranked-choice vote.

"We decide who meets our threshold and then decide who we like best," Redmond said. "But even if we really like Debra Walker (in District Six), it doesn't hurt to put Jane Kim second."

It's a different story at The Chronicle, where it's one endorsement to a race, ranked choice or not.

"Ultimately, only one is going to get elected," said John Diaz, editorial page editor. "The best we can do for our readers is tell them from the start who we believe is the best candidate."

And endorsements do matter in San Francisco.

A variety of endorsements, from politicians, the media and neighborhood people and groups, play an important role in vetting and validating a candidate, especially in a race with a lot of little-known contenders, said Alex Tourk, a San Francisco political consultant.

"If someone doesn't have any endorsements, it makes people wonder whether the candidate has the experience, the ability to lead or the willingness to work with others," he said.

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