Potrero Hill Democratic Club Struggles to Reach Voters

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Like many others, shelter-in-place orders and likely lingering constraints on large gatherings in the face of public health risks has forced the Potrero Hill Democratic Club (PHDC) to reorient its political organizing efforts.

PHDC meetings can draw up to 50 people to the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House for presentations on such issues as how to adjust to climate change and reduce the cascade of cash flowing into political campaigns. Attendance can swell to upwards of 200 individuals during electoral debates. 

“We obviously can’t have meetings at this time and that’s a big limit on what the group can do,” said newly elected PHDC president Bill Barnes, a Utah Street resident. “How do you communicate with people and engage in political activity without being able to have meetings? It’s a tough thing.”

A chronic core PHDC goal has been to register Democratic Party supporters to vote. This year it plans to expand efforts to increase access to mail-in ballots.

“There are always going to be some people who want to go to the polling place in person and that’s great but one of the things we can do to increase turnout is by providing people vote-by-mail ballots,” said Barnes. “If for some reason people can’t make it to the polling place for work or health or for any reason, we can make sure their vote gets counted.”

Barnes was elected president at a February PHDC meeting, before Mayor London Breed’s shelter-in-place order. He replaced Colleen McCarthy, who at the beginning of the year became a field organizer for Swing Left, an organization that assists Democratic Party candidates win Republican-held seats. McCarthy decided to step down given the amount of travel her job demands.

Barnes has engaged in San Francisco politics for three decades. He was a campaign manager for Mayor Ed Lee, chief of staff for state Assemblywoman Fiona Ma and served as a legislative aide for multiple City supervisors, including progressive Chris Daly and moderates Michele Alioto-Pier and Jeff Sheehy. He currently works as a policy advisor in the City Administrator’s Office.

Past PHDC presidents include Tony Kelly and Joni Eisen, who founded the organization in 2007 and serves as second vice-president.

Barnes believes that it may be more difficult to engage people in politics and prioritize voting when they’re concerned about their health, their family’s well-being, and potentially crushing economic challenges. He plans to expand the number of PHDC newsletter recipients and connect members remotely.

In addition to Secretary Patrick Doyle, Treasurer Sara O’Neill and at-large members J.R. Eppler, Bob Boleau and Myles Tucker, John O’Neill, a software engineer at Fitbit, a company that sells fitness-based smartwatches, serves as technology officer. 

Barnes noted that Eppler, who functions as Potrero Boosters president, recently setup a Zoom conference call for that organization. PHDC will likely be doing the same. 

“We intend to do all those things this year that we normally would do. We are just going to try to do them in slightly different ways,” said Barnes.

PHDC members are being asked to reach out to households in which someone has turned 18 recently, as well as keep an eye out for new residents who may have to update their voting address. While there’s no shortage of condominium and apartment projects popping up, Barnes said the Potrero Annex-Terrace housing complex experiences constant turnover and is a particular area of focus.

In late summer and early fall PHDC will field volunteers to communicate its political endorsements, principally through flyers hung on people’s doors. To garner a club commendation a candidate in a single seat race must receive at least 60 percent of votes cast by regular members. For multi-seat races where a candidate may not need a majority to win the threshold drops to 50 percent.

Barnes said that PHDC’s annual summer Shop Local Silent Auction may have to be held online this year. According to Eisen the sale and membership dues are the only way the organization raises money.

“Unlike most clubs in the City we don’t accept money from candidates we’ve endorsed,” she explained, referring to a pay to play practice in which contenders compensate for the slate cards that organizations distribute. Eisen said supporting clean elections was one of the values she instilled when founding the organization.