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News + PoliticsOpinionOpinion: The local Sierra Club is no longer an environmental leader

Opinion: The local Sierra Club is no longer an environmental leader

A takeover by conservatives has undermined the progressive authority of the group's local endorsements

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A lot has been written about the amount of real estate and tech billionaire money that is attempting to influence voters’ decisions on ballot measures and help elect the candidates they are backing.  The UK Guardian writes that they are using their “financial and organizational muscle to push the famously progressive city into adopting policies that are tougher on crime and homelessness, and more favorable to business and housing construction.”

Unlike the above, a Sierra Club endorsement has the power to influence voters without a large expenditure of money.  The image of the organization fighting for the environment has been carefully crafted over the years.  Unfortunately, we have recently learned that it is remarkably easy to take over and replace leadership at the local level of the club.  This has enormous consequences as the change in endorsements redefines who is and is not an environmentalist.

Voters used to be able to trust that the local club’s endorsements reflected environmental values. No more.

For those of you who are not members, the Sierra Club is a national organization that is divided into chapters and groups.  Some states are represented by one chapter.  Sierra Club California has twelve chapters.  Each chapter is made up of groups.  The San Francisco Bay Chapter is divided into eight groups. 

The local Sierra Club has a serious weakness in that very few of its tens of thousands of SF Bay Chapter members vote in annual elections for leadership positions.  It is a largely volunteer run organization where every member is eligible to vote for group and for chapter Executive Committee members. 

In a recent election, the leading candidate for the Bay Chapter Executive Committee received fewer than 450 votes.  Leading candidate vote totals for group Executive Committees in seven of the eight groups of the Bay Chapter were all less than 100.  In one group, only six members voted.  In San Francisco, where in previous elections, candidates received 120 to 150 votes,  three new candidates received more than 240 votes. 

After the election this past November, almost all of the veteran leadership in San Francisco—the long-term volunteers who have a deep knowledge of and commitment to local environmental issues—have been pushed aside.  

The Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club now has elections where candidates who have never before attended a meeting win elections to serve on Executive Committees at both the group and chapter level.  

I’ve been a Sierra Club member since 1998.  I served on the Executive Committee for the San Francisco Group from 2016 to 2022.  I have served as vice chair of the Executive Committee, Chair of the Conservation Committee and as the group representative to the SF Bay Chapter Executive Committee.  This spring, when my membership expires, I will not be renewing it. 

Because of the recent change in leadership in the San Francisco Group, progressive candidates and ballot measures are no longer being endorsed.

Until this election, the Sierra Club has never endorsed Scott Wiener.  Not when he was a San Francisco supervisor.  Not his first two State Senate campaigns.  As an SF Supervisor, he chaired the committee that approved the paving of the Western end of Golden Gate Park for a soccer field.  He is well known for trying to weaken CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act. 

Wiener recently introduced SB 1227 which would exempt most new projects in downtown San Francisco from CEQA review.  He also recently introduced legislation to remove oversight for development of the Outer Sunset from the Coastal Commission.  If passed, it could be used as a template for developers in many other coastal communities in California.

These are not positions the Sierra Club traditionally supported. But this time, he got the endorsement.

The Sierra Club is endorsing Supervisor Catherine Stefani for State Assembly in District 19.   Supervisor Stefani is a very conservative Democrat representing one of the most conservative supervisor districts in San Francisco.  I don’t recall anything she has done to warrant an endorsement by an environmental organization. 

The endorsement of Stefani and the endorsement of Matt Haney for State Assembly, District 17 reminds me of a quote from Noam Chomsky.  In his 2020 book, published with Robert Pollin, “Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal.”

Chomsky observes, “Both political parties have drifted right during the neoliberal years, much as in Europe. The Democratic establishment is now more or less what would have been called “moderate Republicans” some years ago.  The Republicans have mostly gone off the spectrum.  Comparative studies show that they rank alongside fringe right-wing parties in Europe in their general positions.”

Although it is near the bottom of the ballot and normally doesn’t draw much attention, an enormous amount of money is being spent to influence the outcome of the Democratic County Central Committee election.  If conservatives can replace progressives on the DCCC on March 5th, the candidates and issues that will be endorsed or opposed in November will be dramatically different.

There are two slates of candidates, progressive (Labor and Working Families) and conservative (SF Democrats for Change).  There are 14 seats on the ballot for the DCCC for Assembly District 17 and 10 for District 19.  As I look at the two slates, the Chomsky quote from above comes to mind.  Moderate Republicans from some years ago may be to the left of the Democrats for Change slate.

For the District 17 seats, the Sierra Club endorsed 11 candidates—eight conservative, two progressive and one that is not on either slate.  For the District 19 seats, the Sierra Club endorsed six candidates—five conservative and one progressive.

If you are a Sierra Club member and have received the club’s endorsement recommendations, I encourage you to take a closer look.  Most of the recommendations are the same as the real estate and tech billionaire recommendations.  I agree with the slogan that is on the slate card for the progressive DCCC candidates.  “For a city that works for everyone, not just the billionaires.” 

I agree with one recommendation the Sierra Club makes in the San Francisco March 5th primary.  I’m voting yes on Prop A, Affordable Housing Bond.  It is nice to see the new leadership of the SF Group of the Sierra Club take some time out of its constant advocacy for market rate housing to support an initiative that will house poor and working-class people.  Without more affordable housing, in the future, San Francisco will have a mostly wealthy and white population. 

Everyone who can’t afford market rate ($3,000 for a one bedroom or $5,000 for a 2 bedroom) will be priced out.  The wealthy will enjoy all the environmental benefits of living in compact, walkable communities with excellent public transit, while those who are poor and the working-class will have to spend hours every day commuting in from the suburbs.  The $300 million Prop A Bond is far less than the billions we need to maintain diverse communities and slow gentrification and displacement, but it is better than nothing.

Lastly, the Sierra Club advises its members to vote yes on Prop C, the Real Estate Transfer Tax Exemption and Office Space Allocation.  This measure will largely subsidize luxury housing and will reduce the funds available for affordable housing.  Some believe, and perhaps the new leadership of the SF Group of the Sierra Club does as well, that making it easier and cheaper to build market rate housing will magically produce affordable housing.  It does not.  Affordable housing is not profitable for developers to build without public subsidy.  Without greater advocacy for affordable housing subsidies, the environment all of us live in will suffer.

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