Sunday, January 23, 2005

More Thoughts from Chairman Matt

I'm still mining the remarkable SF Observer interview with Matt Gonzalez for nuggets of SF progressive-think. The interview sheds light on both the mind of Matt Gonzalez and the progressive mentality in the city ("Matt Gonzalez Steps Away on Jan. 8," Keith Gleason, San Francisco Observer, Jan. 5, 2005)

Anybody can say what they want, but when I can get that close to winning an election without selling out the things I believe in, then it moves the political spectrum to the left. There's a shift in what is possible in San Francisco because the winner realizes, 'Wow, I barely got in. I've got to make overtures to the Left, I've got to shore up my Left support. And you have a completely different mayorship under Newsom than you would have if I hadn't been in the race, and if he's trounced his opponent by some large margin. That's the truth.

This suggests that Mayor Newsom's endorsement of gay marriage---or even his support for the locked-out hotel workers---was calculated because the mayor thought he had to "shore up" his "Left support" in the city. Thus, in Gonzalez's mind, the city's Left can somehow take indirect credit for both Newsom's bold initiative on gay marriage and his support for hotel workers. The problem is that there's absolutely no evidence for this, not to mention that this interpretation rather ungenerously gives no credit to Newsom himself. In Gonzalez's mind, Mayor Newsom is evidently still the grotesque representative of downtown and corporate interests depicted in his campaign and in the SF Bay Guardian's goofy Newsom caricatures.

And there's the annoyingly self-righteous tone routinely adopted by Gonzalez and his allies during and after the mayoral election: "On the one hand you had a candidate that was willing to tell the truth about very hard issues. But if you're not going to reward candidates who tell you the truth, you're not going to encourage people to be that way." Guess which candidate Gonzalez thinks was the truth-teller during the campaign?

Gonzalez seems to think he's a Big Picture guy, someone who sees the larger historical context of the great progressive struggle against the forces of darkness: "There's a very important role to be played[in SF] in anchoring the Left, or anchoring the progressive position. I did that for four years, and it's been an important place to hold the line."

I think Gonzalez misinterprets his term on the board of supervisors. His best work was actually done on the relatively small issues, like banning chain stores in the neighborhoods, the Living Wage, getting the board appointments on both the Planning Commission and the Police Commission, and ranked choice voting. Anyone who watched Gonzalez, as President of the Board of Supervisors, run a meeting had to be impressed. He always did his homework and seemed to have a good grip on the issues being discussed. He ran meetings that were both fair and more or less efficient, which is not a universal talent among elected officials. In the interview, Matt is good on the day-in-and-day-out work of being a supervisor: "No one ever calls you up and pats you on the back because you read the finance report on that obscure bond sale that's up before the board. They only pat your back when you win some big ballot measure, [or] you get some big piece of legislation passed." This sounds just right, and one gets the impression that Matt always read his weekly packet.

On the other hand, it was on the big issues where he came up short and where progressive ideology clouded his judgment, especially homelessness, which, tellingly, is not discussed in the Observer interview at all. Matt's failure on homelessness sent him down to defeat against Newsom, who seemed to understand the issue politically and morally. Matt seemed to think that the homeless were just another social group that our capitalist system produced---poor people who couldn't afford housing who had to be defended against being pushed around by the authorities. Newsom, on the other hand, understood how shameful it is for a great city to have large numbers of people living and dying on its streets. And there was the misguided Proposition F, which would have allowed non-citizens in the city to vote in school board elections, along with Proposition N that called for the immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. Both of these propositions were essentially exercises in progressive purity.

Along with a warning about how much work the office involves, Gonzalez gives incoming Supervisor Mirkarimi some bad advice: "They[D5 voters] want a strong member of the progressive community to hold the line on progressive values and be the defender of progressive values." Well, maybe. But, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on what your definition of progressive is, and the definition seems to vary, depending on who's using the term. What we definitely don't need is ideology and rhetoric, but, rather, a focus on the specific issues that concern people in District 5 neighborhoods and the city.

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The Harding Theater: Mindless preservationism

Not even David Tornheim, of Central City Progressives, can claim that the Harding Theater on Divisadero is of great historical value, even though, yes, the Grateful Dead and The New Riders of the Purple Sage played there in the early 70's. Nor is it an architectural gem. In fact, it's now a vacant eyesore since the last owners, the Berean Christian Fellowship Baptist Church, sold it to a developer who's going to turn the property into 18 two- and three-bedroom apartments.

Tornheim laments the passing of this rather undistinguished building: "It's part of history. This is part of what makes San Francisco so beautiful, having these historic buildings to remind us of what is possible...The new buildings that go in are never close to what the old buildings are" (SF Observer, Jan. 11). But all that's old is not beautiful or of historic significance. There are many old buildings on Divisadero that would improve the look of the neighborhood if they were demolished. The Harding Theater is not a beautiful building, and it has little historic significance, the Grateful Dead notwithstanding. Whatever replaces it won't have to look very good to surpass it aesthetically.

Sue Valentine, of the Alamo Square Neighborhood Association, is quoted in the SF Observer: "We'll have housing on Divisadero, which we're excited about." Sue may just be the exitable type, but it's hard for the rest of us to get excited about new housing that will naturally be occupied by the well-off, which means that the gentrification of the Divisadero corridor will go up a notch or two.

This is what may underly the anxiety about the destruction of the Harding: the fear we all have of the gentrification of the neighborhood and of the city in general.

At least the development will have parking spaces for all 18 of the new apartments, so that our new neighbors won't be competing with the rest of us for already-scarce street parking.

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The Matt myth

Matt Gonzalez

Recent D5 history is being rewritten as fast as it's being made. Randy Shaw on Beyond Chron offers this on Matt Gonzalez: "It is a measure of how much Gonzalez changed local perceptions of the Greens that candidates like Ross Mirkarimi can run as a Green in District 5 with his party affiliation becoming almost irrelevant."

Ross could run without worrying about being a Green, because party affiliation is often irrelevant in SF, especially in District 5, one of the most progressive districts in the city. The thing is that there's a lot of leftist political testosterone in D5, and Gonzalez, in spite of his low-key persona---or maybe even because of it---was able to embody SF progressivism in D5. His race against Terence Hallinan for District Attorney in 1999 provided him with name recognition in progressive circles, which in turn helped him get the SF Bay Guardian's endorsement in 2000. This was enough to give him sufficient visibility to win easily. I was one of the candidates in the 2000 D5 race, and it was clear that Juanita Owens, the Democratic Party candidate, was not a formidable opponent for Gonzalez, especially after Mayor Brown gave her the kiss of death---that is, his endorsement. After that, Gonzalez could have declared himself a member of the Republican Party, and he still would have beaten Owens in the run-off.

The elephant in the room that progressives still go to great lengths to avoid talking about: Gavin Newsom and the homeless issue, which Shaw's piece doesn't mention, and neither does Michael Gause's in BeyondChron. Gause also raises the question of the Gonzalez legacy: "Matt Gonzalez's insurgent run for mayor of San Francisco in November and December of 2003 has achieved almost mythical status with the passage of time due to its mobilization of thousands of hipsters, artists, and other people long disaffected with politics." The hipster juggernaut!

The trouble with "disaffected" political dilettantes is that they think it's all about them, not policy or the political process. While they may roll out for an occasional issue or an anti-war demo, hipsters and artists don't usually follow the political process, go to meetings, or read up on the issues, which are strictly for squares. Writing about politics and rock music in the New Republic, Michael Crowley quotes Alice Cooper, who has it right: "Why are we rock stars? Because we're morons. We sleep all day, we play music at night, and very rarely do we sit around reading The Washington Journal...Rock is the antithesis of politics. Rock should never be in bed with politics" (New Republic, Nov. 5, 2004)

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