Nice guys may finish first

// Published August 18, 2008 in San Francisco Chronicle
It's early in the cattle stampede for seven supervisor seats in San Francisco. But wonder of wonders, there's a novel issue trumping all others: civility.

Voters are channeling Rodney King, asking why their elected reps and mayor can't get along. For all the do-good policymaking (latest examples: a cigarette ban in pharmacies and fines for not separating garbage among three cans), there's a decidedly nasty tone to local politics. Pure hearts don't go with pure-minded politics in this town.

The board fights among itself, and when that gets old, there's always Mayor Gavin Newsom. He and his team are on hair-trigger alert to fire back as well. The mayor has whipped out his veto pen repeatedly to stop board plans for more police patrols and TV broadcasts of board meetings. The board has responded with overrides to carry the day.

The jousting comes off as civic self-destruction to voters, and this exasperation isn't lost to many of the 42 contenders in the district contests for the board. "I get asked this constantly as has everyone else in the race: How will you stop the bickering?" said Denise McCarthy, running in a nine-candidate scrum for a district taking in North Beach and Russian Hill. "It's a bigger issue than I expected, and I was somewhat surprised."

Others are hearing the same message. Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, running for a second term from the Lake Merced area, has held three to four house parties a week for the past month, attracting up to 40 voters at each. "They're asking how we're going to behave and get along without killing each other."

In a third race, Mission district candidate Mark Sanchez hears the same fed-up question. Voters "want the supervisors to be more civil than they are now," he said. "They want the supervisors to behave."

For now, candidates are going with the flow, promising temperate conduct and nodding along with the criticisms. The city's ranked-choice voting system offers an additional reason for candidates to promise Boy Scout deportment. If a candidate can't be a first choice, then a second or third spot on a voter's ranking list still helps. That's because if no candidate gets an outright majority, a computer tosses out the bottom finisher and distributes the loser's votes to the remaining candidates, according to each voter's secondary choices.

Coming off as an amiable, compromise-minded sort helps in this mission. Instead of sharp-edged combat a smart candidate wants the Nice Guy label to land a spot somewhere on every voter's preferred list.

With ranked voting, "it doesn't do me any good to talk smack about another candidate," explained Sanchez who sits in the top tier in a seven-candidate district race.

But the peace and good vibes campaign season only lasts until Nov. 4. Then it will be time for the allies to line up and see where political futures are headed. It could be a new day as voters intend - or rerun of the blood sport we have now.

Some low points: Last year,

Supervisor Chris Daly suggested Newsom was a cocaine user. This year, the mayor's spokesman Nathan Ballard reacted to a Daly plan to ban cars on lower Market Street by commenting "Chris Daly is not exactly the president of Mensa."

Though Daly remains the primo poster-boy for City Hall dysfunction, the label is widening. Ballard got off a shot at three diehard foes (supervisors Jake McGoldrick, Aaron Peskin and Daly) who orchestrated endorsements of a slate of mostly anti-Newsom supervisorial candidates and positions on ballot measures. The results amounted to "lunatic fringe issues," Ballard said.

The November vote may well be a memory test for this crop of candidates. Can each stick to their present-day pledge of good conduct, or will they fall backward into the mud pit?

One candidate who should benefit from the civility issue is Mary Goodnature, running in the Outer Mission district. "People want to know if I'm really like my name. I tell them most of the time." In this city's tempestuous politics, she gets points for honesty.