Out of downtown - Page 4

Out of downtown: Wealthy financier Warren Hellman has crossed his big-business allies to help progressive causes

Warren Hellman (front) poses with bicycle and other alternative transportation activists in Golden Gate Park.
Alexander Warnow

Hellman was the chair of the Committee on Jobs when he got to know Mooney, who chaired the San Francisco Labor Council and was a natural political adversary for the pro-business group, particularly when Hellman was leading the fight to do away with the city's gross receipts tax, which has proved to be costly for the city and a boon for downtown.

But after that victory, Hellman turned around and cochaired a campaign with Mooney to retool and reinstate the gross receipts tax in a way that he believed was more fair and helped restore the lost revenue to the city.

"We lost, but he put $100,000 of his own money into that campaign," Mooney told us, noting that the proposed tax would have cost Hellman and Friedman around $70,000 a year. "I think he just thought the city needed the money. It was a substantive point of view, not a political point of view."

Mooney considers Hellman both a friend and "an extraordinary human being.... He has made a huge contribution to San Franciscans that doesn't relate to ideological issues. A tremendous thing about Warren is he's not ideological, even in his political point of view.... On politics, I'd say he is becoming more progressive as he understands the issues that confront ordinary people."

Mooney is one of the people who have helped bring him that awareness. When they first met, Mooney said, Hellman told her, "You're the first union boss I ever met." That might have been an epithet coming from some CEOs, but Hellman had a genuine interest in understanding her perspective and working with her.

"In a sense, I think that was a very good era in terms of cooperation between the Committee on Jobs and other elements of the city," Hellman said. "Josie and I had already met, and we'd established this kind of logic where 80 percent of what we both want for the city we agree on, and 20 percent [of the time, we agree to disagree]."

Committee on Jobs executive director Nathan Nayman — who called Hellman "one of my favorite people in the world" — told us that Hellman feels more free than many executives to be his own person.

"He's not with a publicly held company, and he doesn't have to answer to shareholders," Nayman said. "He takes a position and lives by his word. You don't see many people like him in his income bracket."

Hellman has become a trusted hub for San Franciscans of all political persuasions, Nayman said, "because he's very genuine. He's fully transparent in a city that likes to praise itself for transparency. What you see is what you get."

Hellman expects the same from others, which is why he walked away from SFSOS (and convinced Feinstein to bolt as well) in disgust over Randlett's scorched-earth style. Among other efforts, SFSOS was responsible for below-the-belt attacks on Sups. Chris Daly, Jake McGoldrick, and Gerardo Sandoval (whom a mailer inaccurately accused of anti-Semitism).

"If all things were equal, I'd just as soon that SFSOS went away," Hellman said. "SFSOS started doing the opposite of what I thought they would be doing, so it was fairly easy for me to part company with them. What I thought we were doing is trying to figure out ways to make the city better, not just being an antagonistic, nay-saying attack organization. I'm not a huge fan of Gerardo Sandoval, but I thought the attacks on him were beyond anything I could imagine ever being in favor of myself. And it was a series of things like that, and I said I don't want anything more to do with this."

Downtown, they're not always quite sure what to make of Hellman.

"Every once in a while, he does things that irritate people who are ideologically conservative," Mosher said. "He took an immense amount of heat for supporting the Reiner initiative [which would have taxed the rich to fund universal preschool]."