Eight years ago, political consultants orbiting ascendant Supervisor Gavin Newsom commissioned a poll showing likely voters viewed homelessness as San Francisco's biggest problem. Yet no politician to date had proposed a dramatic solution.
"It was considered the third rail of politics," consultant Jim Ross recalls. "But for voters, it was the number-one issue in town."
The rest of the story is familiar to San Franciscans: 2002's Proposition N, backed by then-Supervisor Newsom, promised to partially replace welfare payments made to homeless adults with the promise of shelter instead. It passed resoundingly, and Newsom rode Care Not Cash into the mayor's office.
Last week, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced that he and his supporters had 75,614 signatures for a proposed ballot measure that would make city government workers contribute more of their salaries toward pensions. This measure doesn't display the cynicism of Newsom's poor-bashing Care Not Cash measure; pension costs need to be contained to prevent the city from being pushed to the financial brink. But Adachi, like Newsom, is shrewdly tapping into the electorate's mood in a way that paves the way for a possible run at higher office.
If I'm right, Adachi really has peered around a corner and seen a public that has finally become fed up with politicians throwing money at public employee unions. San Francisco may end up on a better fiscal footing. And, unlike the result of the consultant-driven campaign that used Care Not Cash to goose Newsom's political career, the city could get a visionary mayor.
In San Francisco, political success has traditionally meant genuflecting to unions representing government employees. No less than former patronage army general Willie Brown copped to the inner workings of that system in a February column in the Chronicle.
"The deal used to be that civil servants were paid less than private-sector workers in exchange for an understanding that they had job security for life," he wrote. "But we politicians, pushed by our friends in labor, gradually expanded pay and benefits to private-sector levels while keeping the job protections and layering on incredibly generous retirement packages that pay ex-workers almost as much as current workers."
Brown isn't the only one having such epiphanies. The current recession has decimated state budgets, leading to slashed public services, all while making government jobs seem Midaslike when compared with the devastated private sector.
Adachi's proposed measure doesn't so much reverse this trend as make it less disastrous to live with the consequences. It would require thousands of city employees who currently pay nothing or 7.5 percent to contribute 9 percent of their salaries toward their pensions. Police and firefighters, whose contributions were raised to 9 percent from 7.5 percent by a ballot measure passed in June, would see their contributions bumped up to 10 percent. The measure will also require employees now paying 25 percent of dependents' health insurance to pay 50 percent, all with the claimed goal of saving the city $167 million in the first year.
Adachi insists he isn't preparing for a 2011 mayoral bid. "The honest answer is no, that's not anything I'm planning now," he says. "I'm going to be focusing on getting this passed. This is an issue that has to be raised and run from the outside, and that's what I'm doing." I don't often say this, but I hope Adachi's being disingenuous, and that he really is laying the groundwork for a 2011 mayoral campaign.
To hear a rep from the AFL-CIO or the Service Employees International Union tell it, a continuous thread of moral righteousness extends from the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike to current contract negotiations between public-sector unions and the City of San Francisco.
But a steady grind of City Hall news about unions has caused this line to fray. In April came word that Deputy Police Chief Charles Keohane would retire. He earned $516,118, and would receive pension benefits worth around $250,000 yearly. In June, the civil grand jury released a report, Pension Tsunami: The Billion-Dollar Bubble, warning that exploding pension and health-care costs threatened to bankrupt the city.
"During recent periods of economic prosperity our city officials, along with compassionate voters, created relatively generous pensions for many city employees," the report said. "But with the recent economic downturn and loss of millions in the city's pension fund, these increasing costs threaten to jeopardize the city's financial future."
According to Adachi, costs in the current fiscal year of $413 million would increase to $1 billion in just five years, because at least 900 city retirees currently make more than $100,000 annually, with some earning nearly $300,000. With exploding benefit costs come deficits, he wrote in a February Chronicle editorial: Five years ago, the city was paying $175 million in retiree and pension costs; next year it will triple that amount, and in 2012 will pay out $675 million.
Pension abuse news continues apace this month, as hundreds of workers are expected to retire early in order to capitalize on a union-negotiated "wellness program," whereby employees have been able to cash in up to tens of thousands of dollars each in accumulated sick time, a perk unheard of in the private sector.
Jeff Adachi read the report and was duly appalled. But by June he had already been plotting for half a year to tackle pension reform. His most prominent public moments had previously been annual arguments before the mayor and Board of Supervisors to resist budget cutters' demands that he reduce staff. Mismanagement of city expenses such as pensions was making it harder for managers like him to provide essential services, he argued.
In his February Chronicle editorial, Adachi warned of pension overload, and testified in favor of a pension reform measure backed by Supervisor Sean Elsbernd. "We're spending 28 times more on pensions and health-care costs for city employees than we are to fix our streets," he said during a recent interview. "This is the first year in San Francisco history that we have no summer school for kids. When we consider the fact we spend one out of every five dollars on pension and health-care costs, it simply makes sense to make it sustainable."
That began what's beginning to look like a real political fight. Already, San Francisco Labor Council executive director Tim Paulson has been quoted as saying, "It's Adachi's singular decision to act like [Republican gubernatorial candidate] Meg Whitman and unilaterally attack gardeners, nurses, firefighters, and the lowest-paid workers." Newsom, meanwhile, reportedly blasted Adachi for not consulting him first.
And local lefty wags sympathetic to public employees have been cobbling a counter-argument that looks something like this: It's fat-cat financiers, not lowly government employees, who caused our economic debacle. Yet Adachi is accepting money from billionaires so he can stick it to the little people.
This point is augmented by the fact that $245,000 of the measure's $314,295 in campaign donations came from venture capitalist Michael Moritz and his wife, Harriet Heyman. Another $10,000 came from Ron Conway, known during the 1990s as "The Godfather of Silicon Valley." Another $10,000 came from former money manager David Crane, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's policy director.
But by tapping the Bay Area's community of Democratic technology investors, Adachi has created more of a bonus than an onus for his campaign. Silicon Valley libertarians are known for backing candidates and causes they believe will bring efficiency and creativity to government, involvement spanning the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and Barack Obama.
Adachi has so far built a ground operation of 150 volunteers and paid workers. And he told me that, once the pension reform measure passes, he'd like to begin speaking out about other ways San Francisco government doesn't function the way it should.
"There are so many things that people aren't aware of that go on behind the scenes, that has a profound effect on the quality of life, and this problem with the pensions is a part of that," he says. "If you aren't going to address them, there are consequences, and we look forward to bringing these issues to the public." He declined to specify what other problems he planned to bring up.
When I noted that using an insurgent political operation as a soapbox is a good way to get elected mayor, he again demurred.
That very well may not be a mayoral candidate I heard talking. But I'm hoping it was.