Out of downtown - Page 8

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

But in the wake of that disaster, Hellman thinks, there is an opportunity for reasonable people of goodwill to set the future political course. As Nayman said of Hellman, "He does believe there is a middle way pretty much all the time."

Politically, that's why Hellman gravitates toward the moderates of both major parties, such as Schwarzenegger and Newsom. He looks for people who will marry his economic conservatism with a regard for things such as environmentalism and social justice.

"It's very tough to be a big-city mayor," Hellman said. "[Newsom is] probably the best mayor we're entitled to. He's got this fantastic balancing act."

Hellman said downtown hasn't been terribly happy with Newsom for supporting striking hotel workers, getting behind Ammiano's health insurance mandate, supporting tax measures, and generally letting the Board of Supervisors set the city's agenda for the past two years.

"Their measure is he has 80-percent-plus popularity, and he ought to spend some of it. Well, they might not agree with what he would spend it on. And he's been unwilling to spend very much of it. In some parts of the business community there is disappointment with him, but I don't think that's right. He didn't hide what he would be like."

What Newsom said he would be — a big reason for his popularity — is a mayor for the new San Francisco, a place where the city's traditional economic conservatism has been tempered by a greater democratization of power and an ascendant progressive movement that expects its issues to be addressed.

"I don't like people who are intolerant," Hellman said. "I don't like people that are telling you something to get some outcome that, if you understood it, you probably wouldn't want. I like people that are passionate."

Asked, then, about Sup. Chris Daly, the nemesis of downtown and most definitely a man of strong political passions, he said, "I admire Chris Daly. I disagree with Chris on a lot of things he believes, but there are also probably a lot of things I would agree with Chris on. And I respect him."

Hellman is the rare downtown power broker who wants to bridge the gap between Newsom — whom he calls a "moderate to conservative establishment person" — and progressives such as Daly, Mooney, and the Bicycle Coalition. The middle ground, he said, is often a very attractive place, as it was with Healthy Saturdays.

"I'm sure you spend time in the park on Sunday, and it's a hell of a lot nicer in there on Sundays than Saturdays," Hellman said. But even more important to him, this is about integrity and being true to what Golden Gate Park garage supporters promised back in 2000.

"They were proposing Saturday closing at that time, which I've always thought was a good idea," he said. "And we made a commitment to them, or I thought we made a commitment to them, that let's not have Saturday closure now, but as soon as the garage was done, we'd experiment with Saturday closure."

We brought up what Fine Arts Museums board president Dede Wilsey has said of that pledge, that it was under different circumstances and that she never actually promised to support Saturday closure after the garage was completed.

"There's a letter. She put it in writing," he said of Wilsey. "She signed a letter on behalf of the museums saying that when the de Young is done, we should experiment with Saturday closings."

The Bike Coalition's Shahum said that even when Hellman was an enemy, he was a reasonable guy. But it's in the past couple of years that she's really come to appreciate the unique role he plays in San Francisco.

"He showed decency and respect toward us," she said. "We never saw him as a villain, even though we disagreed completely. Later he really stepped up and has been a leader on Healthy Saturdays. And what I was most impressed with is that he was true to his word."