September 2012

Potrero Hill Democratic Club Gets Political

Sasha Lekach

Politically-inclined Southside residents have been gathering at the Potrero Hill Democratic Club (PHDC) for years, to debate local, state and national issues, and share ideas about how to address challenges associated with the environment, budget deficits, campaign finance, equity, education, public safety and more.

Currently led by club president Joni Eisen, a Hill resident and artist with a custom cake business, the club reemerged in 2007 following a seven-year interruption in its previous almost quarter-century history. Now in its fifth year as the newly established Potrero Hill Democratic Club, the group has recently tackled district supervisorial elections, state policies, and presidential campaigns. In 2008 it hosted a debate with four Democratic Party candidates for the state senate: Joe Alioto Veronese, assemblyman Mark Leno, state senator Carole Migden and former assemblyman Joe Nation. PHDC also helps out with various community-minded events, including coastal cleanups, and tabling at Sunday Streets and the annual Potrero Hill Festival. 

The 84-member club serves as a forum for political debate, with a chance for all sides of an issue to present their arguments before the group endorses a candidate, proposition, measure, stance or bill. The club gives voting power to Dogpatch and Potrero Hill residents who pay $25 annual dues. Non-residents may join the club for $20 per year, but can’t cast a vote.

PHDC meets on the first Tuesday of the month at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House (Nabe). At last month’s gathering the first discussion topic was a proposed development at 8 Washington Street, along the waterfront. Jon Golinger, president of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers — which successfully pushed for Proposition B, which encouraged limits on the use of Coit Tower as a way to preserve the landmark — was on hand to debate why the project’s proposed heights needed to be reevaluated. Arguing for construction of the mixed-use apartment building on what’s now a parking garage to continue as planned was Alec Bash, who has worked with the Port of San Francisco as a planner and consultant.

Issues with the building’s height, labeled by opponents as a “wall on the waterfront,” prompted an historic referendum — the first in 20 years — to overturn the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ approval of the project. However, if the board modifies the building’s height at their meeting the day after Labor Day, the issue won’t go on the ballot. If the supervisors maintain their position on the building, the referendum will be voted on in 2013, stalling the project for another year-and-a-half. 

Golinger brought a copy of the 520-page referendum that was produced to “defend all charges we had not given voters enough information.” He hopes to keep the waterfront and Embarcadero free of large scale buildings, and argued that Hill residents have a stake in the issue, as views of the area may be obstructed and development could set a precedent for how the Central Waterfront is developed. He distributed signs urging District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen to stop construction of “the wall.”

Bash, who admitted that “it’s much more fun to be anti-development,” believes that the project “is a good development” that won’t change the already built-up Telegraph Hill neighborhood, and would improve the quality of the waterfront approaching Broadway. He touted locally-based developers Pacific Waterfront Partners, as well as the opportunities for cafes, restaurants and shops to open up on the building’s ground floor.

Audience members grumbled that the project was just another luxury residence for rich San Franciscans. The development — which opponents believe was pushed along with “spot zoning,” that allows for exceptions to height and other limitations which could set a precedent for other projects — won’t include units for low-income families. Bash argued that opponents are falsely asserting that the building is another “Millennium Tower,” which rises 58 stories high alongside the Bay Bridge. “This is not a high rise building,” he said, with the plans outlining an 84-foot tall edifice reaching no more than 10 stories high.

A vote was called on whether or not to endorse reevaluating the building’s height, which would stall the project. Several members thought more information about the referendum, project plans and waterfront development was needed before a decision was made. But by the end of the meeting a quorum of voting members was present, and the club endorsed the campaign “No Wall on the Waterfront” with seven in favor, four opposed and one member abstaining.

Eisen, who became the club’s head following her involvement with Clean Elections, which pushes for public financing of political campaigns, gave a quick overview about the Disclose Act. Assembly Bill 1648, penned by Assemblywoman Julie Brownley, D-Santa Monica, would require full disclosure of who funds political advertisements of candidates and measures. The bill is being blocked by Republican lawmakers. PHDC endorsed efforts to pass the legislation before attempting to place in on the ballot through an expensive signature collection campaign, and renewed their pledge to lobby Senate president pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles. Last summer, club volunteers tabled in Esprit Park, urging residents to send a postcard to Perez’s office, and registering people to vote for the fall election.

Kierith Jones, who heads the South of Market-Potrero Hill-Dogpatch group of Organizing for America, suggested that club members come to a phone banking training session, or get involved in registering people to vote. She emphasized the work San Francisco volunteer groups do in “battleground” states, such as Colorado and Nevada. Volunteer Arthur Murrillo, who will serve as a delegate at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina this month, shared his experience phone banking. “We need to create excitement in San Francisco,” he said.

Club treasurer Hilary Cohen touched on the group’s financial status, reporting that there was $1,300 available in the bank, and suggested a push to recruit more due-paying members. She also inquired about what members wanted to hear about during her monthly financial report. Two separate endorsement meetings will be held this month to discuss different measures and candidates that will appear on the November ballot. 

In the back of the Nabe’s community room — which has sweeping views of downtown and the Bay — Eisen and her husband, Chuck Bennett, also a club member, had set up a small buffet of snacks, including Potrero Hill grown plums and green beans from the longtime Hill couple’s Pennsylvania Street home garden. At the end of the two-hour meeting, the food table served as the social area for schmoozing and finishing up a few bottles of wine that appear to spice up the Tuesday night meetings, which are held after many members endure full work days.

According to Eisen, who is a Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association member and is involved with Rebuild Potrero, both Rebuild Potrero and PHDC are interested in registering voters and establishing and protecting neighborhood gardens. Eisen, who has previously supported Rafael Mandelman’s and Rebecca Shearin’s campaigns for the Democratic County Central Committee, jokingly said she was “dragged” into San Francisco’s political scene when Hill residents noted that the previous Democratic Club had been suspended. She agreed to go to a planning meeting to revive the club, but only if it was held at Farley’s.

 “I know this is a real Democratic town,” Eisen said. “I saw it as a way to get more access to political leaders in the City.” She helped put up posters around the neighborhood that stated, “Potrero Hill Democratic Club will rise again.” Rise it did. Five years later, she encouraged someone to run against her in next year’s executive board race, which will be held in the beginning of next year, “I’m not going to do this forever,” she said.

Eisen lamented the constant loss of ambitious young members who get involved and offer their expertise, but inevitably move to bigger things, such as graduate school in public policy or Washington, D.C jobs. Although the demographics of last month’s meeting leaned toward older, long-term Hill residents, according to J.R. Eppler, a lawyer who settled with his wife on Utah and 17th streets in 2009, the club has “a good mix of members.” Eppler got involved in the club to learn more about local races and be part of the community. “Potrero Hill has strong, vibrant neighborhood associations,” he said.

Longtime member and 35-year Potrero Hill veteran Bob Boileau served on the club’s executive committee before 2000, and continues to attend meetings and stir up debates. He said the club draws larger crowds when there’s a hot issue — such as parking meter plans or a District 10 race — and that new faces are always popping up. Of the relatively new leadership, he said, “Joni and the executive team have been keeping it interesting.”

Potrero Hill Democratic Club meetings are held the first Tuesday of the month at 7 p.m. at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House at 953 De Haro Street. For more information: 648.6740 or www.phdemclub.org.

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