From Democrat to Green in San Francisco Union Switches Mayoral Endorsement to Third-Party Candidate

June 2004

Unions are not known for their support of third-party candidates, especially when there’s also a Democrat in the race, but Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 2 endorsed Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez in San Francisco’s 2003 mayoral election. Gonzalez nearly won that election, garnering 47 percent of the vote against Democrat Gavin Newsom.

The decision to endorse a third-party candidate involved intense debate on Local 2’s executive board, questions from the membership, and the allocation of significant member time to the Gonzalez campaign. According to Local 2 Vice President Lamoin Werlein-Jaen, the endorsement, though unusual, follows naturally from the principles that inform the way Local 2 looks at the relationship between politicians and unions.


Instead of “checkbook politics,”simply donating to political campaigns, Werlein-Jaen says that unions should mobilize rank-and-file members, “in a mass way,” to support certain politicians. Which politicians deserve that support, he notes, depends not on their party affiliation but on the policies they advocate.

“The marriage between the labor movement and the Democrats has ill served us,” he adds. “We have to put policies first, before political parties.”

Local 2 participates in elections to build union power: “Our members’ interests at work are entwined with their interests in the community,” Werlein-Jaen explains. “As a union, we need to address both. Building our participation in elections strengthens us at the end of the day, win or lose, because the politicians can’t take us for granted.”

Simply donating money, he notes, allows the endorsed politician to take the union for granted. “If you can say, ‘We have this apparatus and we’re willing to use it,’ it builds respect for the union.”

Local 2 put about 50 members on paid release time to work on the Gonzalez campaign. They developed a Get Out the Vote campaign in District 11, a working-class, people of color, immigrant area of San Francisco where many members live. The Get Out the Vote effort gave the union the direct benefit of teaching a set of its members organizing skills that can be used in a variety of campaigns.


Final candidate endorsement decisions at Local 2 are made by the union’s executive board. Officers, rank-and-file members, and candidates themselves make suggestions to the board about whom to endorse. Members discuss upcoming elections in a variety of membership meetings, says Werlein-Jaen, as part of ongoing discussion about the local’s political program and organizing campaigns.

However, Jon Palewicz, who is current chairman of the internal Local 2 Election Committee, questions the level of member participation in the endorsement process. He says, “The members usually just go along with the suggestions of the officers. If this weren’t true, then why not have a full-membership endorsement primary, say, 90 days ahead of time?”

Local 2 initially endorsed Democrat Angela Alioto, a long-time ally, in the mayoral election. They chose her over another progressive candidate and union ally, Tom Ammiano, who was, according to one rank-and-file member, very popular with the membership.

“She had a better shot of winning against Newsom,” explains Werlein-Jaen. “We did a lot of searching about that one, but Newsom represented the most backward elements of downtown and business interests. We felt he must be defeated at all costs.”

But in the first round of balloting, the Green Party’s Gonzalez defeated Alioto. Neither of the top two vote-getters, Gonzalez and Newsom, won a majority, so they faced each other in a run-off. Gonzalez had also been, in the past, a close ally of Local 2. “Matt came in late,” Werlein-Jaen said, “after we had endorsed Alioto. He changed the dynamics of the election dramatically.”

After Alioto’s loss, the local’s officers recommended a Gonzalez endorsement to the executive board. The board invited Gonzalez to address a packed meeting of over 250 members. Werlein-Jaen recalls that some members expressed concern about union support for a third-party candidate.

“The Democratic Party is still viewed as the best option amongst our members, in terms of what people see going on in the world,” he notes, adding that the progressive electoral politics that have swept San Francisco in the last five years have had “some particular race and class blind spots. Our members, who are overwhelmingly working-class people of color and immigrants, have not traditionally viewed themselves as part of the progressive electoral movement.”

Once members, many of whom are Latino, met Gonzalez face to face at the mass meeting, Werlein-Jaen reports, “they really gelled around his campaign. People felt like it was a good fight.”

During the campaign, Newsom owned non-union restaurants, which he has since sold. “He careered on selling himself to business,” Werlein-Jaen notes. “He has opposed housing rights, living wage proposals, and a measure to de-privatize the electrical company.”



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Newsom was also the only San Francisco District Supervisor (equivalent to a city councilperson) who did not boycott the Marriott Hotel during Local 2’s long and eventually successful campaign to unionize that facility.


The popularity of the Gonzalez campaign put a scare into the Democratic Party. Before the run-off, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senator Dianne Feinstein had all made “get out the vote” trips to San Francisco.

According to Palewicz, the choice to endorse the Green Party candidate was a rational—but not necessarily a radical—decision by Local 2. “Gonzalez’s agenda could have been either Gore’s or Clinton’s,” he observes, “or just a bit to the left of that when compared to Gavin Newsom’s. But when you try to get a complete outsider elected, you wouldn’t believe the kind of power the Democratic machine brings in to try to defeat you.”

In terms of building HERE Local 2’s power, Werlein-Jaen sees the Gonzalez endorsement and campaign work as a definite plus. “Even though Gonzalez did not win,” he notes, “Local 2 is stronger at the end. We have more political unity, more members trained as organizers, and growth. Plus, our work on Gonzalez’s campaign put us in contact with a whole bunch of new allies.”

Local 2 may need to call on those allies as it looks ahead to a difficult contract fight in coming months.

Since his election, Mayor Newsom has made national headlines with his defiant stand for legalizing gay marriage and has walked the picket line in northern California in support of striking southern California grocery workers. But Werlein-Jaen worries about future economic decisions the new mayor might make.

“In the last 15 years, the Democrats have drifted to the right in terms of their economic positions, while at the same time positioning themselves progressively on social issues. It’s very effective.” But the starting point for Local 2, says Werlein-Jaen, “is that Newsom was a boss in our industry, and backwards to boot. He built his career on attacking poor and working people.

“After the election, most of the labor community said we were wrong,” Werlein-Jaen acknowledges, “but I think we made an important statement—that we have to look beyond party labels to the actual policies. We can’t let politicians take unions for granted.”