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    Campaign Reflections

    Zoe Dunning

    Zoe Dunning

    In the period between the primary election and this general election, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the political process, what it is like to be a candidate, and how I personally want to spend my time and energy.

    My proudest accomplishment in the public policy realm was my contributions to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT). It was the perfect storm—an issue that is morally righteous, that impacted me personally, with colleagues who were passionate, smart and strategic, and during a time when the public was eventually moving to support the efforts to right a wrong. DADT repeal was a much cleaner and distinct policy issue than, say, homelessness or taxes or health care. The nearly 18 years I spent trying to influence decision makers—the White House, Congress, the Pentagon, the media, the public—were worth it.

    After retiring from the Navy, and after successful DADT repeal, I missed public service. I love my private sector consulting work and team, but it isn’t the same as the work to make a positive difference in others’ lives through public service. After working at the national level on military policy, I turned my focus to local politics. I got involved with the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, worked actively on several local campaigns and eventually ran for Democratic County Central Committee.

    My decision to run for office in 2012 did not come lightly. I knew the campaign would take a lot of effort and require sacrifices, but I’m not afraid of hard work. I ran, in part, because I thought I would prefer to be a decision maker, rather than influence decision makers. I thought I could be an effective leader, and do some good for the city and the party.

    I enjoyed my four years on the DCCC. Despite some of the nastier infighting between “progressives” and “moderates,” I learned a lot, met some really amazing folks committed to important local issues, and developed friendships with colleagues. It was a positive enough experience I agreed to run for reelection this year.

    The 2012 election, although a crowded field, was a cakewalk compared to this year’s crazy DCCC field and election. As we saw, current and former elected officials with high name recognition entered the field in an effort to sway the balance of power. Millions of dollars poured into the race from a variety of special interests. In the end, the Democrats of San Francisco spoke loud and clear that they wanted a change, and most more moderate incumbents such as myself got swept out of office. That campaign changed me. I enjoyed meeting voters at farmers’ markets, transit stops and on their doorstep. I don’t particularly like fundraising, but I did it and managed to secure about $40K in donations, almost all from friends and family who believed in me. I’m still humbled and amazed at people’s generosity and willingness to help me achieve my dream. Many believed it was a step for possible higher office, m aybe even D 8 Supervisor should Scott Wiener get elected to the Senate. Supporters believed I have what it takes in the rough and tumble world of San Francisco politics.

    Looking back, I realize I was naïve, thinking I could make a big difference, and believing I could be independent—voting how I saw was best on each issue that came before the committee, allied with neither progressives nor moderates. But the reality of San Francisco politics is that you pretty much have to pick a team or be left on the sidelines. Because of my distaste for some of the personalities on the progressive side, and to be honest, the bullying I saw imposed on committee members that did not comply in lockstep with the progressive party line, I leaned moderate.

    As a result, I ended up on the so called “Progress Slate” for the 2016 election. With that came an Independent Expenditure (IE) Committee that put out its own mailers and campaign literature. While it was helpful in providing resources and support, candidates like me have no say in their campaign or messaging, to be compliant with campaign finance law. I was aghast when a terrible hit mail piece was sent supporting our slate and me, with my photograph on it, slamming women of color on the opposing slate. There were other strategies and efforts put forth by the IE that I had no control over, but that I felt reflected poorly on me and my campaign.

    I was also approached, unsolicited, with donations, which put me in the position of deciding what to accept and what, if any, to decline. Money and volunteers are the lifeblood of a campaign, so to turn anything down is a big deal. Late in my DCCC campaign I was approached with a sizable donation from someone I didn’t know, hoping to keep moderates in control of the DCCC. Many colleagues fighting for re-election accepted the money. I was the only one who didn’t—it just felt odd and a little slimy.

    But the worst part of a campaign is the opportunity cost. What do you give up while you are busy knocking doors, dialing for dollars, meeting with endorsers or going to events? Exercise, eating healthy, time with loved ones, your paid job. All of these things suffered while I pursued this goal. My support network was, well, supportive. But I was missing the things that matter most to me—my loved ones and my personal health.

    For all of these reasons, I’ve decided to withdraw from any pursuits for future political office. And I’ve never been happier. It’s hard to step away from a dream, but it’s also easier when the dream turns out to be different than you had hoped. I have nothing but respect for my colleagues who continue to serve in public office, or who run for public office. It is a big sacrifice for them and their families. I can’t imagine what Hillary Clinton has gone through these past two years. Going forward, I hope to apply my passion and skills toward a particular issue—veterans, LGBT rights, and women’s issues are possibilities. In the meantime, I am enjoying detaching for a while from local politics. For me, life is too short to fight other Democrats.

    I’m grateful for all of the support and great feedback I get from the readers of this column. Rest assured, I am not going away—just transitioning to the next big thing.

    “I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn’t have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little looking out for the other fella, too.” Jefferson Smith, in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

    Zoe Dunning is a retired Navy Commander and was a lead activist in the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. She served as Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club and as an elected Delegate for the Democratic National Convention. She is a San Francisco Library Commissioner and is the former First Vice Chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party.