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Pelosi Wins Democratic Contest for Burton Seat

April 08, 1987|KEITH LOVE and DAN MORAIN | Times Staff Writers

SAN FRANCISCO — Party activist Nancy Pelosi won the Democratic nomination Tuesday night in a special election to decide who will succeed the late Rep. Sala Burton in the 5th Congressional District, which encompasses three-fourths of the City of San Francisco.

In a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1, Pelosi's primary victory virtually assures her of being elected in a June 2 runoff. She will face Republican Harriet Ross, a deputy public defender.

With 100% of the precincts reporting, Pelosi topped her nearest challenger, Democratic Supervisor Harry Britt, 36% to 32%. Ross won the Republican side with 2.8% of the vote. Pelosi needed 50% plus one vote to win Tuesday's special election without a runoff.

"I am very happy and I owe it all to my campaign organization, which worked very hard to target our vote and turn it out," Pelosi said, adding that if she is elected June 2, she will make increased funding for AIDS her No. 1 priority.

Low Turnout

Despite mild, sunny weather, voter turnout was a relatively low 39%.

The Democratic establishment backed Pelosi, a 46-year-old mother of five who has raised large sums for her party's candidates. Younger, more liberal activists and the city's powerful gay community backed Britt.

Britt, 48, was hoping to become the first openly gay person to be elected to Congress for a first term.

The election was held to replace Burton, who died on Feb. 1.

There were 14 candidates on the open special primary ballot.

Pelosi, the front-runner in recent polls, had a large get-out-the-vote operation in the streets, as did Britt.

The registrar of voters said 27,000 absentee ballots had been turned in, constituting about a quarter of the vote.

Britt had counted on a heavy turnout of gays, who make up 15% of the voters in the district. All of the candidates promised to make increased federal funding to combat AIDS a top priority if elected. But it was a special issue for Britt, who noted that he has already lost many friends to the disease.

The six Democrats in the race disagreed on few issues. They all opposed U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, opposed offshore oil drilling and called for cutting military spending.

The race was a test of how much politics has changed in San Francisco since the death in 1983 of Democratic Rep. Phillip Burton, who had held the 5th District seat since 1965.

For years, Burton's influence in the City of San Francisco--three-fourths of which is in the 5th District--was so dominant that no one sought the offices of mayor or supervisor without talking to Burton or his allies.

Burton's influence was felt even in this election because he drew district boundary lines in 1980 to ensure that his brother, former Rep. John Burton, won election in the neighboring 6th Congressional District. But in doing so, Phillip Burton made his own district somewhat more conservative by moving large blocks of liberal precincts out of his district and into the 6th District. Those included voters in the Haight-Ashbury District and a slice of the predominantly gay Castro Street area. Both would have been Britt strongholds.

Powerful San Francisco Democrats who lined up behind Pelosi in Tuesday's special election included Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, a longtime Phillip Burton ally, and also Assemblyman Art Agnos and Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy.

Changes in Electorate

In the old days that would have been enough to virtually put Pelosi in office, but changes in the electorate that were evident even before Phillip Burton's death made the special election much more difficult to predict.

Soaring housing prices and a loss of manufacturing jobs drove out many of the solid labor votes that the Burton machine had counted on. Replacing these voters were more independent, affluent young professionals. Britt and Pelosi waged a major battle for those voters.

Also, homosexual and renters' rights groups have become increasingly involved in the city's politics, and many of them saw Britt as more likely to back their agenda as a congressman than Pelosi, who boasts of her close contacts with national Democrats, many of whom she has raised money for over the years.

Pelosi made a special effort to reach older ethnic voters by stressing her role as a mother of five.

For gays, Tuesday's election was an important test of their political clout. Britt raised money from gays all over the United States.

"We won't have a chance like this in a long long time. Now is the time to do it," said Ben Gardiner, a Britt volunteer. "There is no place in the country where we have this concentration of gays."

Top Priority

For many of San Francisco's gays, AIDS was the big issue, the reason both to vote and volunteer for Britt, who promised to make AIDS research funding his top priority. AIDS research is especially important here, where 1,844 people have died of AIDS, another 3,086 have AIDS and several thousand others have AIDS-related conditions.

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