Thursday, July 15, 2010

Adachi breaks from the pack

Matt Smith makes a useful attempt to put Public Defender Jeff Adachi's initiative on pensions in the context of recent city history:

Eight years ago, political consultants orbiting ascendant Supervisor Gavin Newsom commissioned a poll showing likely voters viewed homelessness as San Francisco's biggest problem. Yet no politician to date had proposed a dramatic solution. "It was considered the third rail of politics," consultant Jim Ross recalls. "But for voters, it was the number-one issue in town."

Ten years ago voters were clearly upset by the growing squalor on our streets. But the reason progressive politicians and journalists, who have dominated city politics since the reintroduction of district elections in 2000, neglected the homeless issue is due to nothing but sheer intellectual muddle. The homeless were seen as only poor people, victims of a predatory capitalism.

That the homeless proliferating on city streets ten years ago were visibly addled by drugs or suffering from crippling psychological problems only confirms the fable of the Emperor's New Clothes. Progressives, blinkered by a half-baked Marxism, looked at the homeless and saw poor people. City voters looked at the homeless and saw drunks, drug addicts, and crazy people sleeping in their doorways, on their sidewalks, and in Golden Gate Park.

Smith continues:

The rest of the story is familiar to San Franciscans: 2002's Proposition N, backed by then-Supervisor Newsom, promised to partially replace welfare payments made to homeless adults with the promise of shelter instead. It passed resoundingly, and Newsom rode Care Not Cash into the mayor's office. Last week, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced that he and his supporters had 75,614 signatures for a proposed ballot measure that would make city government workers contribute more of their salaries toward pensions. This measure doesn't display the cynicism of Newsom's poor-bashing Care Not Cash measure; pension costs need to be contained to prevent the city from being pushed to the financial brink. But Adachi, like Newsom, is shrewdly tapping into the electorate's mood in a way that paves the way for a possible run at higher office.

Newsom not only "backed" Proposition N---Care Not Cash---in 2002; he and his advisers created it and got it on the ballot. Since Smith sees Care Not Cash as essentially cynical "poor-bashing," his description of the proposition is inaccurate. Prop N put a stop to the city's practice of handing out monthly cash payments to the homeless and instead offered them beds in shelters. Not surprisingly, many of the homeless were only interested in the "cash" and didn't want the "care." More than 1,000 former recipients of the cash simply disappeared from the rolls when Care Not Cash went into effect in 2004. It's fair to think that many of these folks were simply scammers and vanished when the scam was no longer viable. Others were no doubt homeless people who didn't want to give up living on the streets. Still others were simply off their meds.

Far from being "poor-bashing"---interesting that Smith shares this opinion with his ultra-left competitors at the SF Bay Guardian---Care Not Cash was an essential first step in coming to grips with homelessness: first the city had to stop handing out cash payments, since that had the predictable effect of subsidizing homelessness and enabling the homeless to continue to live on city streets and in city parks.

But Smith is right to compare Adachi's initiative with Newsom and Care Not Cash. Adachi is breaking from the progressive pack politically---and losing the support of the city's powerful labor unions---with his ballot initiative. True, Supervisor Elsbernd's initiative on pay for Muni workers came first, but Adachi's initiative acknowledges that Muni is only part of the problem, that the retirement system for city workers as a whole is not sustainable. And Elsbernd isn't a progressive.

Smith wraps up his analysis:

If I'm right, Adachi really has peered around a corner and seen a public that has finally become fed up with politicians throwing money at public employee unions. San Francisco may end up on a better fiscal footing. And, unlike the result of the consultant-driven campaign that used Care Not Cash to goose Newsom's political career, the city could get a visionary mayor.

Yes, Care Not Cash advanced Newsom's career and got him elected mayor. Nevertheless, he should get credit for breaking from the pack to tackle a serious problem that was clearly distressing for city voters. And he did it when city progressives---on the Board of Supervisors and at the Bay Guardian---were diddling with the bureaucratic continuum of care approach and/or supporting Food Not Bombs and the pie-throwers.

The Grand Jury's report on the retirement system
The Grand Jury's report on homelessness in SF
The Controller's report on Care Not Cash.

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