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The Billion-Dollar Bet: Which Pension Reform Measure Will Pass and Survive Legal Challenge 

Wednesday, Aug 31 2011

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"Admittedly, that puts in jeopardy areas of our proposal that aren't included in Jeff's," Elsbernd continues. But he still chose to "cut the legs out from under a 'yes-yes campaign'" because he and his colleagues believe Adachi's plan to be legally dubious. Should it pass, "we'll end up losing all our pension savings."

In this race, there will be no silver medal for second. And if either pension measure is successful, but subsequently invalidated by a judge, San Francisco will revert to the status quo — meaning the city will be another year older and hundreds of millions of dollars deeper in debt.

Jeff Adachi's mayoral declaration was a moment not unlike Kurt Cobain's suicide: People were shocked, but not surprised. "If you're the candidate who's driving the No. 1 issue in the city, why wouldn't you run to lead the city?" veteran consultant Jim Ross asks.

Neither the consultant backing the city plan nor Adachi's plan — Duane Baughman and Tad Devine, respectively — opted to speak to SF Weekly. So it remains uncertain what strategies they've devised to push either measure. A number of local political consultants had ideas of how they'd play this chess match, however.

With the majority of local political power swearing fealty to Lee's pension plan, it's his race to lose, says David Latterman, a mayoral consultant for David Chiu and USF lecturer. "The city version is going to be an easier sell," he says. "Everybody under the sun is endorsing it. It's like one of those school bond measures." As long as the elfin mayor remains near-universally popular, it figures his pension measure will enjoy trickle-down approval. Should Lee's opponents' barbs stick, however, a change in strategy may be called for.

Last year's Prop. B campaign was plotted by Adachi in collaboration with political naifs. The city's professional consultants — who desired to work in this town again — did not deign to cross labor and take the job. Adachi's analytical mailers, which crammed sheaves of tiny text onto both sides of the paper, were no match for the emotional appeals of the winning side (Single mothers threatened! Minorities threatened! Bad medicine!).

This year, however, Adachi has competent professionals calling the shots. You may or may not see images of the empty swingsets or gaping potholes befitting a broke city — but a successful Adachi campaign will go right for the gut. "Last year, Jeff ran a very rational campaign when politics is a more visceral thing," Ross says. This time around, "Adachi's is very much the position that his is the real reform measure. ... He'll be saying you can't trust [the city plan] because it was written by the people benefiting from it."

In a winner-take-all scenario, it's not enough to hold up your measure — you've got to knock the other guy's down. Negative campaigns don't work so well here when directed against candidates, but, Ross reminds, "negativity around ballot measures people don't mind." Adachi's treasurer, Craig Weber, says he's sitting on around $220,000; the city plan, per Elsbernd, has not yet raised any funds. But then the race has hardly started. And with the possibility of big money on both sides, things could get ugly — and fast. "No holds are barred," Elsbernd says. "We're going to go out there and beat Jeff's" measure.

Neither firm heading these races has a reputation for shyness. Baughman famously sent out campaign fliers in the 2004 District 11 supervisorial race emblazoned with a swastika implying the incumbent, Gerardo Sandoval, was anti-Semitic. A judge ruled the ads violated campaign finance laws, but Sandoval was unsuccessful in his subsequent civil lawsuit and ended up owing Baughman tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Both Adachi and Elsbernd agreed that the pending campaign could be "a bloodbath." But it needn't be unless its backers want it to be. And that's not clear.

Adachi reveals to SF Weekly that, even after declaring for mayor, he has still met with labor leaders — a number of whom confirmed that "back-channel communications" have been ongoing for months. Adachi claims he continues to push for some manner of "safety valve" to increase worker contributions in the event of truly dire times to somehow be included in the mayor's pension plan. If this comes to pass, he says he'll disassociate himself from his own plan. Barring that, Adachi says he hopes to cut a deal to keep the tenor of the pension campaign civil enough that voters don't reject both plans. "There's little to be gained by a huge political fight between the two campaigns," he says. "I want to see pension reform win. Our plan is better — but I want to have pension reform win in November. If voters decide to not choose either one, that'd just be a disaster for the city."

No one foresees a clear or easy path to victory for Adachi — in either contest. Still, on a recent foggy morning at a SOMA cafe, Adachi didn't behave like a man facing an uphill battle. He jauntily spoke at a breakneck clip, exuding the energy of a true believer — a term even some who don't admire him or what he's doing still feel compelled to apply. After knocking back a massive mug of hot chocolate, he bolted off to parts unknown to tend to his billion-dollar bet.

Adachi, it would seem, is feeling lucky.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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