letter to the editor

Letter to the Editor: District Elections Result in Representatives With Narrower World Views


I’ve been waiting for decades for some newspaper to publish what I’ve been saying ever since I voted twice against district election of supervisors in the 1970s. I’m a transplanted New Yorker (moved here in 1970) and have lived all but several years in the west half of the city, and in the Richmond since 1986. I worked for many years doing psychiatric social work with homeless mentally ill addicts in the Tenderloin, South of Market, and Haight Ashbury. I’ve been leading walking history tours of the Inner Richmond and the Tenderloin for City Guides since 2007. I’m the author of The Tenderloin District of San Francisco Through Time, which traces that area’s actual history (as opposed to other more idelologically based interpretations) and shows how that storied neighborhood changed from a mid 19th century middle- and upper-class family neighborhood to the nearly unsolvable mess that is today. I lecture from time to time on these subjects.

My friends have heard me tell more times than they care to remember about the city’s increasing resemblance to George Orwell’s Animal Farm ever since San Francisco voters decided to give up one of the most significant portions of their hard won franchises by voting for district election of supervisors. This presumed panacea for the city’s social ills of the 1960s and 1970s was supposed to get more neighborhood representation on the Board of Supervisors. Instead, it has gradually given us a younger, more ideological, and more socially and politically immature type of paid politician, with a much narrower and more parochial world view than the older unpaid citizen politicians who used to sit on the Board. 

As you pointed out, this was done by that old, time tested method, ward politics (as a New Yorker, I know more than I want to about how those work), used so successfully in the 19th and early 20th centuries by minorities to take power from majorities. Certainly this has been worsened by the other causes you enumerate, but at least for me, regaining the franchise to elect all twelve of our supervisors would have the most basic and far reaching effects.

I hope your editorial is also printed in the Sunset Beacon.

Peter Field

3 replies »

  1. Mr. Field,
    Since you are a historian than you certainly realize that San Francisco is both a City AND a county. We don’t elect two sets of government officials, one for the city and one for the county. People have district elections in San Francisco because most people want to feel that their district supervisor actually represents their specific concerns, and that “historical” has been the reason why district elections originated in the first place — not as a panacea for social ills, but because city-wide elected supervisors ignored parochial issues and frustrated citizens voted to have district elections. City wide supervisors were more easily cajoled by large financial interests who can fund political adverts and also astro-turf political campaigns, something that is less easy to do when supervisors get elected by various districts by the people who live in those districts.

    City wide elections actually had “minorities” in the form of vastly funded financial organization taking power from the majority of people who live in the city. The fight over the freeways and urban “renovation” such as what happen in the Western Addition was not about “ward politics” or “narrow-minded parochial interests” at all.

    Other than a cute meme, I don’t know what animal farm has got to do with anything at all about this matter. If you are hinting at pigs creating a totalitarian regime, then what on Earth are you and your friends talking about. If the city is dysfunctional, it’s not because of the supervisors or the district elections. The mayor and the city bureaucracy are more attributable to the cities systemic issues, and the mayor can actually can do something about the systemic issues because the mayor appoints people to head some of those city agencies.

    Tossing out a misplaced allegory is not a coherent argument, even if you have heard your friends say it. That kind of argument is equivalent to the “some people say” type of argument. “Some people” may say what you heard, but other people heard something else, and most of them voted to have district elections when they voted yes for Prop G in November 2020.

    Full disclosure, I was one of those yes votes.

    Here are two sources for the history:


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