Gonzalez's ragtag army
Can the grassroots volunteers take down a highly organized foe?

By Matthew Hirsch

A STEADY STREAM of energized volunteers continually feed Matt Gonzalez's growing mayoral campaign, helped him overcome the seemingly insurmountable advantage the well-oiled Gavin Newsom campaign held on the night of the general election.

Gonzalez captured this grassroots momentum early in the runoff, energy he appears to sustain heading into the final days of the race and which has helped overshadow relatively meager fundraising and a professional campaign structure that has exhibited some organizational problems.

But even as the Gonzalez camp expands, filling out a new volunteer center three times the size of its earlier Mission Street headquarters (which itself dwarfed the original Haight Street coffeehouse H.Q.), the question that followed his upstart candidacy three months ago remains: can this ragtag, volunteer army defeat the best political juggernaut money can buy?

Facing what turned out to be a weak progressive field in the Nov. 4 general election, Gonzalez claimed nearly 20 percent of the turnout with an operation that was "semi-organized chaos, and sometimes ... not even semi-organized," campaign manager Enrique Pearce told the Bay Guardian.

Since then, the campaign has become a bit more organized, Pearce told us, but in every facet you can still see the freewheeling character from which it originated. That spontaneous spirit, urging volunteers to come as they are, represents the campaign's greatest strength. But is it strong enough to win?

Geronimo Garcia, an unemployed bike messenger who lives in the Mission District, fits comfortably in the amorphous Gonzalez campaign. Garcia told us he caught onto Gonzalez's political career once he became president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors as a political outsider.

Since the general election, Garcia has spent some time each day on the mini "Matt-mobile" he assembled with his extra-cycle (a long bicycle). He distributes campaign literature and voter registration forms from a box attached to the rear of the extra-cycle and keeps campaign posters visible from every angle of the bike.

But Garcia doesn't officially work with the campaign, so the staff never knows where he will be or when. "I'm not going with their organization, because I'm kind of lazy. I can't make their meetings," Garcia told us while waving a Matt Gonzalez for Mayor sign at traffic flowing onto 13th Street from the freeway.

Gonzalez, whom Newsom outspent by nearly $3 million in the general election, has to rely on this sort of creative energy to win Dec. 9. But coming from more than 20 percentage points behind Newsom with just five weeks to do it, the campaign also has to make sure little or none of that energy goes untapped.

This concern that the Gonzalez camp is too unorganized and woefully inefficient prompted Rick Young, a Berkeley attorney and San Francisco Green Party activist, to quit the campaign Nov. 4 in the midst of the election-night celebration (campaign staff told us Young didn't quit; he was asked to leave). But now, even as Young continues to dis the leadership in the Gonzalez campaign, he assumes a role similar to Garcia's, supporting the campaign but not in an official or coordinated capacity.

Several Gonzalez volunteers told us the campaign's loosely defined structure typifies how their candidate distinguishes himself from Newsom, in the way he leads an organization as well as on the issues.

Tracy Hughes and Donna Linden, who help run the cooperative kitchen at the Mission Street campaign office, told us they are operating what might be the only compost bin in a political campaign office anywhere. Hughes said she doesn't like politicians but she cares about animals and about keeping antennae out of San Francisco neighborhoods, so she has become a strong Gonzalez supporter.

"Gavin is way out of touch with the animal community," Hughes says as she recites her story about the conservative man she recruited away from the Newsom camp because of the man's affinity for his pets.

Entering the mayoral runoff without many big-name endorsements, the Gonzalez campaign organized supporters by nontraditional groups, a move that highlights the eclectic mix of people involved in the campaign as it continues to evolve.

For dyed-in-the-wool Democrats with a lingering distaste for Ralph Nader and the Green Party, like Ray Guiducci, the campaign has a support group called WAGs for Matt (it stands for "We Ain't Greens" for Matt). Other notables groups include Mutts for Matt, Hipsters for Matt, and Punks for Matt.

Gonzalez managed to lure Democrats and union members when it looked at one point like some would never support a Green. Micheas Herman, a field manager for the Gonzalez campaign, told us he was able to do so because he appeals to everyday San Franciscans, not just the powerful organizational leaders who control endorsements.

Going into the runoff, Herman set out to register hundreds of new voters who hadn't participated in the general election. He counted 2,500 newly authorized voters the day registration ended Nov. 24, including about 600 who signed up with the Green Party.

Now all the campaign has to do is round up these new voters and its ragtag volunteer army and bring them all to the polls, and maybe that will be enough to topple the Newsom juggernaut.

E-mail Matthew Hirsch

November 26, 2003