Friends of SFSOS

WE'VE KNOWN FOR some time now that SFSOS – the downtown-backed group organized by Wade Randlett – doesn't live up to its claim of a moderate, centrist agenda. These folks are backed by big downtown players like the Gap's Don Fisher, and they openly advocate an end to school desegregation, lower taxes on big business, and relaxation of the city's ethics laws. They consistently support real estate speculators over tenants. They're proud of their ability to hide their political money.

They also operate with Karl Rove-style scorched-earth politics, mounting secretive and vicious campaigns against politicians, like Sups. Jake McGoldrick and Gerardo Sandoval, who refuse to do their bidding. The attack ads last year were so unseemly that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, one of the group's early backers, publicly withdrew her support.

Of course, the city is full of crackpots and fringe groups, and we'd rather just write SFSOS off as another irrelevant organization. But there's a problem: Not only does Randlett manage to raise a bunch of money from Fisher and his pals, but some of the city's leading self-described centrists, including Mayor Gavin Newsom, have given SFSOS immense credibility by showing up as speakers and participants at the group's events.

As Steven T. Jones reports on page 18, at the annual SFSOS lunch banquet May 18, Randlett announced that city politics is a battle between "Bay Guardian Activists" and an "Angry Middle Class." He put a Bay Guardian editorial on tax policy on the screen, and denounced our claim that Muni fare hikes are actually a tax on working people. "No, they're not," he proclaimed angrily. "In fact, it's a subsidy and not a tax." For the record, it's both: Muni service is a subsidy for big downtown companies, which don't pay their fair share of the cost of bringing people to their offices and stores. And every time you hike the fare, you take more money out of the pockets of working people (instead of taxing big business).

But that's not what Randlett wants to say. He wants to present an image of the wealthy and powerful in this town as pitiable paupers, oppressed by a wild-eyed majority on the Board of Supervisors who are ruining the city for the rich.

To his credit, Mayor Newsom tried to step away from some of Randett's more virulent rhetoric. In his speech he politely announced that he didn't see city politics as warfare, and that not everything Randlett said was helpful. But unlike Feinstein, who saw the damage to her reputation that a group like this could cause, Newsom still showed up as a central attraction for the fundraising lunch, and his presence helped legitimize the group's agenda. If, as Newsom says, he doesn't like the way SFSOS is talking, he shouldn't be on hand to help Randlett raise cash. And his friendly relationship with the group serves as a clear sign that the mayor – who wants to be seen as a uniter, not a divider, and who wants to work with progressives on some issues is in fact still essentially on the side of the privatizers, the tax-cutters, and the merchants of political sleaze.

The presence of Sup. Arlene Ackerman was perhaps even more alarming. Ackerman is the head of a school district that's facing all sorts of serious problems, and she's working with a school board that's deeply divided along political lines. The last thing she needs to be doing is casting her lot with a group like SFSOS.

In fact, it was more than a little disturbing to hear her effusive praise about an organization that is actively against school desegregation and wants to allow all parents to send their kids to neighborhood schools. That, as even Ackerman knows, would create a serious race and class imbalance in the local education system, leaving poor kids of color stuck in underfunded, underperforming schools while rich kids enjoyed all the extras their parents money can buy.

If that's really Ackerman's agenda, she shouldn't be running San Francisco's schools. And if it isn't, she should announce publicly that she wants nothing to do with the educational agenda of SFSOS and will no longer help the group raise money for its nasty smear politics.

P.S. At the SFSOS lunch, Newsom also announced that he wanted to spend most of the $43 million the city is getting in unexpected tax revenue this year to clean up parks and streets. That made the SFSOS-ers happy, but it was a terrible statement of political priorities. In a city where the public health system is literally falling apart – where there's no funding for basic services – cleaning up parks and streets shouldn't be anyone's top agenda item. Newsom needs to publicly lay out a more realistic way of spending that money. He could start by fully funding the Ethics Commission so it can properly rein in groups like SFSOS.