Divide and conquer
Why are the mayor and school superintendent supporting the right-wing operatives at SFSOS?
By Steven T. Jones
MAYOR GAVIN NEWSOM has preached ideological moderation since his ascension to Room 200, but he and other centrist political leaders continue to associate with scorched-earth political operatives bent on spending big money in stealthy and deceptive ways to demonize those on the left.
A telling display of how downtown forces speak and flex their political muscle took place May 17 when the political advocacy group SFSOS held its third-anniversary luncheon at the headquarters of the Gap, followed by a fiery press conference slamming people who question whether school superintendent Arlene Ackerman's generous pay package was legally approved (see "Cutting the Golden Parachute," May 4).
The ringmaster of this circus was SFSOS head Wade Randlett, who partnered up with Gap founder Don Fisher, financier Warren Hellman, and U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein to start SFSOS.
The stated goal of the group is to "support clean streets, clean parks and clean government," but in practice, the group has pushed an aggressive right-wing agenda to downsize city government, privatize public services, oppose taxes and regulation, purge the political ranks of progressives, stop school desegregation efforts, and skirt the city's open government and campaign finance laws.
During last year's supervisorial races, SFSOS directly and through front groups savaged Sup. Jake McGoldrick (Randlett told the S.F. Sentinel he wanted to "rip his throat open") and others with nasty, deceptive direct-mail campaigns. So underhanded was the approach that both Hellman and Feinstein resigned from the organization in protest and the Board of Supervisors targeted the group with a new set of regulations designed to better control independent expenditures.
Yet Newsom and some of the city's top centrist political leaders still showed up to support the group and hear Randlett's overheated rhetoric, which this year was so divisive that the mayor felt compelled to publicly repudiate it.
Randlett talks fast both figuratively and literally. He deftly jumbles together fundraising pleas, praise for the efficacy of his organization and the commitment of its supporters, and political rhetoric that alternates claims of being practical, problem-solving, and non-ideological with sharps jabs at the "crazy ideas" of the "extreme left," in which he includes the majority of the Board of Supervisors.
For Randlett, the ideal foil seems to be the Bay Guardian and its progressive base of readers. After some brief opening remarks, Randlett began his presentation with a big-screen projection of the May 11 Bay Guardian editorial "Real Tax Reform" and its statement "Muni fares are, in fact, a tax on getting to work."
"No, they're not," Randlett said with wide-eyed incredulity, as if it were the stupidest thing he'd ever heard. "In fact, it's a subsidy and not a tax, and we need to make that commonsense reality known at City Hall."
Now, Randlett might have been arguing that San Francisco shouldn't be subsidizing public transit, as most American cities do. But what he said next made it clear that this wasn't really about bus service at all. It was about political strategy and how the room full of rich people might get their way at City Hall.
"Frame the Debate," another Randlett graphic urged, suggesting several paradigms that he intends to push as part of the SFSOS communications strategy, including "Bay Guardian Activists vs. Angry Middle Class," "Ideological vs. Practical," and "Ideological Values vs. Neighborhood Needs."
Randlett pledged to "get aggressive" with his independent expenditure and issues advocacy campaigns to pound home the message that the city's ruling class was somehow being victimized by progressives. He pledged to do the "hard work at being able to make sure every San Franciscan can enjoy this city." He set the tone for the speakers who followed.
Sup. Fiona Ma sought the sympathy of the pro-business crowd, saying she was stuck in the minority with Sups. Sean Elsbernd, Bevan Dufty, and Michela Alioto-Pier on many policy issues. "We really have a hard time trying to fight the crazies," she said of her colleagues on the board.
Controller Ed Harrington spoke next, thanking SFSOS for supporting last year's Proposition C, which expanded his power to audit various city functions, and addressing the crowd's concerns for clean streets and parks but otherwise avoiding political rhetoric.
Ackerman, on the other hand, warmly embraced a crowd that has been taking shots at the progressive members of the school board. "It's great to be in a room with friends. Sometimes I don't know where my friends are, but they're all here," she began.
Ackerman then told a story about how earlier she had gotten pulled over for speeding and driving without a seat belt, only to have the cop recognize her and say, "You have one of the hardest jobs in the city. This ticket is on me."
The crowd seemed to be eating up her self-martyring approach, so she continued, noting that before moving to San Francisco five years ago, she considered herself a liberal. But now, "I'm definitely to the right of everyone in this city," she said, drawing cheers from many Republicans in the room.
To reinforce the point, she voiced her support for allowing children to attend their neighborhood schools and be subjected to a rigorous testing regime both strongly pushed by SFSOS, which last year proposed a ballot measure to end school desegregation efforts but backed off in the face of criticism.
Ackerman and her spokesperson Lorna Ho later denied that she used the term "neighborhood schools," insisting that she said only, "Every neighborhood deserves a quality school," but Ho didn't get us the tape by press time as she said she would. "Neighborhood schools" is a loaded term that is essentially the opposite of desegregation, which Ackerman told us she still supports, although she didn't voice that support to SFSOS. In fact, she didn't make any statements that differed from its agenda.
"To be in a room where people care about you is really great," Ackerman enthused at the event, singling out her "partner and friend" Don Fisher for special appreciation. He spoke next, complaining about the political gains that the left was making in San Francisco three years ago.
"So Wade came along and we formed the Committee on Jobs, er, uh, SFSOS," Fisher said, inadvertently referring to the other downtown political group he supports, which is more honest about its business community connections than SFSOS.
In preparing to introduce Newsom, Fisher cited the three areas he considers praiseworthy: the mayor's economic development efforts, how he "reversed a failing policy around homelessness and panhandling," and the civil service reforms Newsom is pushing.
Upon taking the stage, Newsom definitely played to the crowd. "Congratulations for getting so many like-minded stewards of the city together," Newsom said before launching into his support for the business community and the development of 21,000 new housing units that could be created under plans now being adopted.
"Developers, many of you I see in this room, are anxious to see it approved," Newsom quipped.
The city is poised to receive $43 million in unexpected revenue, most of which Newsom pledged to cleaning up parks and streets. Yet unlike Ackerman, the mayor did take SFSOS to task over its opposition to new taxes, its criticism of city employees, and its divisive political rhetoric.
"While I appreciate the construction that Wade laid out before, it's not us versus them anymore. We're all in this together," Newsom said. "It is stale rhetoric and completely irrelevant in this new age."
After the luncheon at a press availability, Newsom reiterated the point: "I'm not interested in the extreme rhetoric of the past." The mayor stopped short of directly criticizing Randlett or SFSOS. And although he was critical of attorney and rival mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez for challenging Ackerman's pay package, he also said of the post-luncheon press conference that Randlett orchestrated to criticize Ackerman's foes, "You get these press conferences today that I don't think are very helpful."
As Ackerman waited inside the building, Randlett and company stepped outside for a full-throated defense of the new contract she was granted late last year by a lame-duck board, which is now being challenged on procedural grounds mostly because of its generous golden parachute.
"They are trying to get rid of Arlene Ackerman," said Randlett who, like most, spoke in terms of an attack on Ackerman and children rather than about the narrower issue of her contract.
He was followed by the usual cast of political players ranging from center-right Democrats to conservative Republicans (what Randlett called a "bipartisan approach"): Plan C's Mike Sullivan, Rev. Amos Brown, David Lee from the Chinese American Voter Education Committee, campaign attorney Jim Sutton (who introduced himself only as a parent), and local Republican Party leaders Mike DeNunzio and Howard Epstein.
"On this issue, don't listen to the demagogues," Douglas Chan, a member of the Police Commission, said. "This is about the children."
None of the speakers would acknowledge the divisive political nature of their approach, and when I brought up Newsom's comment on this press conference, Brown called me a liar and said the mayor would never say such a thing.
"It is most unfortunate that we have certain ideologues that are playing political games," Brown intoned. "We are sick and tired of the nonsense."
So are their political opponents. School board president Eric Mar said he was saddened to see school and city officials participating in the event.
"I thought if we ignored them they'd go away, particularly after being discredited in the last election," Mar said of SFSOS. "By going to their luncheon, [Ackerman] is legitimizing them and making them seem like a credible group, as Newsom is as well."
Also avoiding the luncheon was Jill Wynns, an Ackerman supporter on the school board. She agreed with Newsom's assessment that the press conference was more damaging than helpful. While Wynns said she sees nothing wrong with Ackerman or Newsom speaking to the group, she doesn't support SFSOS or what it's trying to accomplish politically.
"Wade Randlett's idea is that we should have nothing but neighborhood schools," she said. "They overreach on lots of things, including neighborhood schools, and so a lot of people aren't with them anymore."
Ackerman was defensive when we asked about her relationship with SFSOS, saying, "My agenda is to work with everybody." But when pressed on her feelings about SFSOS, its agenda, and why she didn't join the mayor in challenging their approach, she told us, "I don't view this group as you do. I see them as partners in making this a great school district."
Wynns sees the relationship between Ackerman and SFSOS as benign, but Mar is concerned that the group has gotten Ackerman to stop making public statements in support of desegregation in exchange for their support on other issues.
While Mar was restrained in his criticism, Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin blasted the group and the officials who showed up. He called SFSOS "a tattered group of Fisher-funded, disgruntled, mean-spirited, reactionary, ineffective people with an e-mail list...I don't see how any rational human being can even acknowledge their existence."
He continued, "I think it's really sad for elected officials and civic officials to associate with anyone who wants to resegregate the schools and create regressive taxation."
Peskin has differed publicly with Ackerman over her alliance with SFSOS and her refusal to return his phone calls to discuss the matter, a tiff that spilled over into a colorful exchange at a restaurant that made the May 15 Matier and Ross column in the Chronicle.
"Arlene Ackerman is an idiot," Peskin told us. "She is politically naive and enamored with hanging out with rich people, and so she does what they tell her to do, whether it makes sense or not."
Whitney Leigh, an attorney threatening to bring suit over the Ackerman contract, said he didn't want to push back on SFSOS too hard because he thinks they're making a political mistake in so aggressively and publicly challenging those who question what he called "the unconscionable and fiscally irresponsible move" to give Ackerman $375,000 if she leaves the district.
But he did say he was troubled to see fellow African Americans like Ackerman and Brown working with a group that is trying to end school desegregation, calling SFSOS members "well-known hacks who don't represent anyone except for their right-wing extremist constituents."
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