Monday, January 17, 2005

Matt Gonzalez: Ideologue

By now I shouldn't be surprised, but nowhere in this long SF Observer interview with outgoing D5 Supervisor Matt Gonzalez is there a discussion of homelessness. ("Matt Gonzalez Steps Away on Jan. 5," by Keith Gleason, San Francisco Observer, Jan. 5, 2005)

The interviewer must take most of the responsibility for the omission, since he never asked Matt a single question about it. On the other hand, Matt, who evidently doesn't want to talk about it, chose his interviewer well. In the four years he was a supervisor, I never heard Matt explain his views on homelessness and why he and the city's left failed to act before the advent of Gavin Newsom and Care Not Cash.

When I bumped into him in the Mission a few years ago, Matt clearly wasn't comfortable talking about Newsom and Care Not Cash; he mumbled something about not liking the computerized tracking system that then-Supervisor Newsom wanted to install to track those who get money and services from the city. Though he's now out of office, Gonzalez's views on homelessness are of more than historical interest, since he still has many followers opposing Mayor Newsom's approach just because that's the "progressive" line set forth by Gonzalez and the Bay Guardian.

Gonzalez is incoherent and unconvincing on several issues, and, unfortunately, the interviewer was unwilling or unable to ask good follow-up questions.

Take the naming rights to Candlestick, where Matt goes over the top: "People should ask Newsom, 'Why don't we just have each member of the board of supervisors sponsored by a different corporation?' Let's put corporate logos on the office doors and let's let them wear corporate paraphernalia during the meetings. Come on, people would laugh at that, even if I said to you this is going to keep all the parks open without any cuts whatsoever."

Of course no one was talking about anything but the naming rights to Candlestick, which will bring $3 million---not exactly chump change---into the Rec. and Park budget. He also calls selling the naming rights to public entities "crass," and he's right about that, more or less. Many of us don't like it, but still $3 million is a lot of money, given the city's current budget problems. Now that he and his fastidious allies have saddled us with Proposition H, we won't have that vulgar option when the next recession hits.

Or take his comments on Proposition F, which would have allowed non-citizens in the city to vote in school board elections. Matt suggests that those of us in D5 who voted against Prop. F are racists: "It didn't do well in District 5, I'm sorry to say. District 5 has a really great history as a progressive district, and yet it did not turn out[for Proposition F]. The theory is that it's a Caucasian district, that it doesn't have a lot of people of color. Certainly not immigrants, but this measure did best in immigrant districts."

The grammatical cop-out aside, this is in fact Matt's interpretation of the D5 vote on Prop. F. Like others, I voted against Prop. F because I thought it devalued US citizenship, which I think is a great thing; and the right to vote is an integral part of that citizenship. Thousands of immigrants go through the lengthy, arduous process of becoming citizens of our country. Why should their efforts be devalued by giving the right to vote, even in school board elections, to someone who just arrived, whether from Mexico or the Ukraine? There are other ways for immigrant parents to get involved with the public schools and their children's education. Prop. F struck me as misguided progressive symbolism, like Proposition N, which called for the immediate US withdrawal from Iraq.

Like his reductio ad absurdum argument on the naming rights to Candlestick, Matt makes a specious "historical" argument for Prop. F: "It's an immigrant country, and in the early 20th Century, it was many of the European immigrants that were scoffed at. It was the Irish, Jewish intellectuals, etc. At some point history kind of repeats itself." I've never heard anyone in D5 "scoff" at immigrants. I do blue collar work, and I often work with immigrants, who are almost always great people and great workers. I think it's wonderful that they can eventually become US citizens.

Matt makes a point in the interview of how economic issues define progressive politics, and he's right about that. His Living Wage ordinance now helps a lot of people in the city on the lowest economic rung of the ladder. But he and other progressives are blind to a very serious consequence of illegal immigration: it undermines the wage scale for the very workers the Living Wage ordinance is trying to help, since an unlimited supply of cheap labor makes it tougher for minimum wage workers to get more for their labor, not to mention undermining the wage scale for everyone. And immigrants often take jobs that could go to the thousands of unemployed black youth---already US citizens, by the way---that D5 and city progressives claim to be so concerned about.

And, while they were at it, why didn't the Observer ask Matt about enabling graffiti/vandalism when he invited a so-called graffiti artist to deface the walls of his City Hall office, though the city now spends more than $1 million a year trying to deal with an escalating graffiti/tagging vandalism?

What Matt seemed to think was his strength---his leftist ideology---was actually a weakness. His ideology and $1.65 will get Matt a big, strong cup of coffee at Cafe Abir. He saw too many issues through an ideological lens that wasn't helpful in clarifying things for him. The reality is that few local issues can be usefully analyzed from an ideological perspective. This was particularly true on the most important issue facing the city---homelessness. The homeless were evidently seen by Matt and other progressives as simply poor people whose rights had to be defended, instead of people who are in desperate need of help due to drugs or psychological problems. Even the shameful fact that 100-200 homeless people die on our streets every year couldn't penetrate our former supervisor's ideological armor.

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