Out of downtown: Wealthy financier Warren Hellman has crossed his big-business allies to help progressive causes
When the de Young Museum and other cultural institutions were threatening to leave Golden Gate Park, Hellman almost single-handedly had an underground parking garage built for them, in the process destroying 100-year-old pedestrian tunnels and drawing scorn from the left. The Guardian called it "Hellman's Hole."
"We at the Bike Coalition very much started out on the opposite side of Warren Hellman," San Francisco Bicycle Coalition executive director Leah Shahum told us. "We couldn't have been more like oil and water on the garage issue."
But over the past two years or so, Hellman's profile has started to change. He went on to become an essential ally of the SFBC and other environmentalists and alternative transportation advocates who want to kick cars off JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park on weekends, crossing the downtown crowd in the process. He has shared his wealth with progressive groups such as Livable City, which often fights downtown, and has stuck up for edgy fun seekers over more conservative NIMBY types. He has also publicly repudiated the attacks of SFSOS and its spokesperson, Wade Randlett, and withdrawn his support from the group.
Hellman is still a Republican, but a thoughtful and liberal-minded one who opposed the Iraq War and wrote an article for Salon.com in February titled "If the United States Were a Company, Would George Bush Be Our CEO?" (His answer: hell no.) And to top it all off, Hellman sports a few tattoos and even attended 2006's Burning Man Festival and plans to return this year.
Unguarded and reflective, Hellman's comments to the Guardian foreshadow the possible future of capitalism and influence in San Francisco and point to potential political pathways that are just now beginning to emerge.
Our first conversation took place at the Guardian office two weeks before the November 2006 election, when it was starting to look like Nancy Pelosi had a good shot at becoming speaker of the House of Representatives.
"I think this election in two weeks is going to be really interesting," Hellman told us.
This Republican was cheering for the Democrats to win. "They aren't my kind of Republicans," he said of the people in power. Hellman didn't support the war or approve of how the Bush administration sold it, and he wanted Pelosi and the Democrats to hold someone accountable.
"What I'd like her to do is admit that we can't get out [of Iraq immediately], but start to talk about what the fallout has been. Discuss the enormous cost in human life as well as money, and how it's possible the war united the Middle East against us," Hellman said.
The one thing he can't abide is disingenuousness. Hellman speaks plainly and honestly, and he asked us to keep particularly caustic comments off the record only a few times during almost six hours' worth of interviews. He was self-effacing about his political knowledge and seemed most interested in working through the problems of the day with people of goodwill.
Asked what he values most in the people he deals with, Hellman said, "It's authenticity. Do they believe things because they believe in them, or do they believe in things because they're cynical or they're just trying to gain something?"
Locally, Hellman has reached out to people with varying worldviews and come to count many friends among those who regularly battle against downtown.
"I love to know people," he said. "That's probably the single thing that motivates me. When someone says to me, 'How can you be friends with [then–head of SEIU Local 790] Josie Mooney?' I say, 'Look, I want to know Josie Mooney. And if she's awful, then we won't be friends.' I'm just fascinated by getting to know people. And virtually always, they're a little like Wagner operas: they're better than they sound."