Team Avalos

As a mayoral candidate, Sup. John Avalos casts himself as a movement builder

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John Avalos, mayoral candidate: "There's a Johnny Cash song I really like called 'I Won't Back Down.' "

When Supervisor John Avalos chaired the Budget & Finance Committee in 2009 and 2010, his office became a bustling place in the thick of the budget process. To gain insight on the real-life effects of the mayor's proposed spending cuts, Avalos and his City Hall staff played host to neighborhood service providers, youth workers, homeless advocates, labor leaders, and other San Franciscans who stood to be directly impacted by the axe that would fall when the final budget was approved. They camped out in City Hall together for hours, puzzling over which items they could live without, and which required a steadfast demand for funding restoration.

"One year, we even brought them into the mayor's office," for an eleventh-hour negotiating session held in the wee morning hours, recounted Avalos' legislative aide, Raquel Redondiez. That move came much to the dismay of Steve Kawa, mayoral chief of staff.

Avalos, the 47-year-old District 11 supervisor, exudes a down-to-earth vibe that's rare in politicians, and tends to display a balanced temperament even in the heat of high-stakes political clashes. He travels to and from mayoral debates by bicycle. He quotes classic song lyrics during full board meetings, keeps a record player and vinyl collection in his office, and recently showed up at the Mission dive bar El Rio to judge a dance competition for the wildly popular Hard French dance party.

Yet casual observers may not be as familiar with the style Avalos brings to conducting day-to-day business at City Hall, an approach exemplified that summer night in 2010 when he showed up to the mayor's office flanked by grassroots advocates bent on preserving key programs.

"My role is, I'm an insider, ... but it's really been about bringing in the outside to have a voice on the inside," Avalos said in a recent interview. "People have always been camped out in my office. These are people who represent constituencies — seniors, recipients of mental health care, unions, people concerned about violence. It's how we change things in City Hall. It's making government more effective at promoting opportunities, justice, and greater livelihood." Part of the thrust behind his candidacy, he added, is this: "We want to be able to have a campaign that's about a movement."

That makes Avalos different from the other candidates — but it also raises a crucial question. Some of the most important advances in progressive politics in San Francisco have come not just from electoral victories, but from losing campaigns that galvanized the left. Tom Ammiano in 1999 and Matt Gonzalez in 2003 played that role. Can Avalos mount both a winning campaign — and one that, win or lose, will have a lasting impact on the city?

Workers and families

No budget with such deep spending cuts could have left all stakeholders happy once the dust settled, but Avalos and other progressive supervisors did manage to siphon some funding away from the city's robust police and fire departments in order to restore key programs in a highly controversial move.

"There's a Johnny Cash song I really like, written by Tom Petty, called 'I Won't Back Down.' I sang it during that time, because I didn't back down," Avalos said at an Aug. 30 mayoral forum hosted by the Potrero Hill Democratic Club. "We made ... a symbolic cut, showing that there was a real inequity about how we were doing our budgets. Without impacting public safety services, we were able to get $6 million from the Fire Department. A lot of that went into Rec & Park, and health care programs, and to education programs, and we were able to ... find more fat in the Police Department budget than anybody had ever found before, about $3 million."