Despite the veneer of Newsom's popularity, the mayor's race shows some real discontent -- and some good policy ideas
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Elections usually create an important public discussion on the direction of the city. Unfortunately, that debate isn't really happening this year, largely because of the essentially uncontested races for sheriff and district attorney and the perception that Mayor Gavin Newsom is certain to be reelected, which has led him to ignore his opponents and the mainstream media to give scant coverage to the mayoral race and the issues being raised.
To the casual observer, it might seem as if everyone is content with the status quo.
But the situation looks quite different from the conference room here at the Guardian, where this season's endorsement interviews with candidates, elected officials, and other political leaders have revealed a deeply divided city and real frustration with its leadership and direction.
In fact, we were struck by the fact that nobody we talked to had much of anything positive to say about Newsom. Granted, most of the interviews were with his challengers but we've also talked to Sheriff Mike Hennessey and District Attorney Kamala Harris, both of whom have endorsed the mayor, and to supporters and opponents of various ballot measures. And from across the board, we got the sense that Newsom's popularity in the polls isn't reflected in the people who work with him on a regular basis.
Newsom will be in to talk to us Oct. 1, and we'll be running his interview on the Web and allowing him ample opportunity to present his views and his responses.
Readers can listen to the interviews online at www.sfbg.com  and check out our endorsements and explanations in next week's issue. In the meantime, we offer this look at some of the interesting themes, revelations, and ideas that are emerging from the hours and hours of discussions, because some are quite noteworthy.
Like the fact that mayoral candidates Quintin Mecke and Harold Hoogasian respectively the most progressive and the most conservative candidate in the race largely agree on what's wrong with the Newsom administration, as well as many solutions to the city's most vexing problems. Does that signal the possibility of new political alliances forming in San Francisco, or at least new opportunities for a wider and more inclusive debate?
Might Lonnie Holmes and Ahimsa Porter Sumchai two African American candidates with impressive credentials and deep ties to the community have something to offer a city struggling with high crime rates, lingering racism, environmental and social injustice, and a culture of economic hopelessness? And if we're a city open to new ideas, how about considering Josh Wolf's intriguing plan for improving civic engagement, Grasshopper Alec Kaplan's "green for peace" initiative, or Chicken John Rinaldi's call to recognize and encourage San Francisco as a city of art and innovation?
There's a lot going on in the political world that isn't making the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. The interviews we've been conducting point to a street-level democracy San Franciscostyle in all its messy and wonderful glory. And they paint a picture of possibilities that lie beyond the news releases.
As the owner of Hoogasian Flowers on Seventh Street and a vocal representative of the small-business community, mayoral candidate Hoogasian describes himself as a "sensitive Republican," "a law-and-order guy" who would embrace "zero-based budgeting" if elected. "The best kind of government is the least kind of government," Hoogasian told us.
Those are hardly your typical progressive sentiments.
Yet Hoogasian has also embraced the Guardian's call for limiting new construction of market-rate housing until the city develops a plan to encourage the building of more housing affordable to poor and working-class San Franciscans. He supports public power, greater transparency in government, a moratorium on the privatization of government services, and a more muscular environmentalism. And he thinks the mayor is out of touch.
"I'm a native of San Francisco, and I'm pissed off," said Hoogasian, whose father ran for mayor 40 years ago with a similar platform against Joe Alioto. "Newsom is an empty suit. When was the last time the mayor stood before a pool of reporters and held a press conference?"
Mecke, program director of the Safety Network, a citywide public safety program promoting community-driven responses to crime and violence, is equally acerbic when it comes to Newsom's news-release style of governance.
"It's great that he wants to focus on the rock star elements, but we have to demand public accountability," said Mecke, who as a member of the Shelter Monitoring Committee helps inspect the city's homeless shelters to ensure that people are treated with dignity and respect. "Even Willie Brown had some modicum of engagement."
Mecke advocates for progressive solutions to the crime problem. "We need to get the police to change," he said. "At the moment we have 10 fiefdoms, and the often-touted idea of community policing doesn't exist."
Hoogasian said he jumped into the mayor's race after "this bozo took away 400 garbage cans and called it an antilitter program." Mecke leaped into the race the day after progressive heavyweight Sup. Chris Daly announced he wasn't running, and he won the supervisor's endorsement. Both Hoogasian and Mecke express disgust at Newsom's ignoring the wishes of San Franciscans, who voted last fall in favor of the mayor attending Board of Supervisors meetings to have monthly policy discussions.
"Why is wi-fi on the ballot [Proposition J] if the mayor didn't respect that process last year?" Mecke asked.
Hoogasian characterized Newsom's ill-fated Google-EarthLink deal as "a pie-in-the-sky idea suited to getting young people thinking he's the guns" while only giving access to "people sitting on the corner of Chestnut with laptops, drinking lattes."
In light of San Francisco's housing crisis, Hoogasian said he favors a moratorium on market-rate housing until 25,000 affordable units are built, and Mecke supports placing a large affordable-housing bond on next year's ballot, noting, "We haven't had one in 10 years."
Hoogasian sees Newsom's recent demand that all department heads give him their resignations as further proof that the mayor is "chickenshit." Mecke found it "embarrassing" that Sup. Ross Mirkarimi had to legislate police foot patrols twice in 2006, overcoming Newsom vetoes.
"San Francisco should give me a chance to make this city what it deserves to be, " Hoogasian said.
Mecke said, "I'm here to take a risk, take a chance, regardless of what I think the odds are."
Holmes and Sumchai have made the murder rate and the city's treatment of African Americans the centerpieces of their campaigns. Both support increased foot patrols and more community policing, and they agree that the root of the problem is the need for more attention and resources.
"The plan is early intervention," Holmes said, likening violence prevention to health care. "We need to start looking at preventative measures."
In addition to mentoring, after-school programs, and education, Holmes specifically advocates comprehensive community resource centers a kind of one-stop shopping for citizens in need of social services "so individuals do not have to travel that far outside their neighborhoods. If we start putting city services out into the communities, then not only are we looking at a cost savings to city government, but we're also looking at a reduction in crime."
Sumchai, a physician, has studied the cycles of violence that occur as victims become perpetrators and thinks more medical approaches should be applied to social problems. "I would like to see the medical community address violence as a public health problem," she said.
Holmes said he thinks the people who work on violence prevention need to be homegrown. "We also need to talk about bringing individuals to the table who understand what's really going on in the streets," he said. "The answer is not bringing in some professional or some doctor from Boston or New York because they had some elements of success there.
"When you take a plant that's not native to the soil and try to plant it, it dies.... If there's no way for those program elements or various modalities within those programs to take root somewhere, it's going to fail, and that's what we've seen in the Newsom administration."
Holmes spoke highly of former mayor Art Agnos's deployment of community workers to walk the streets and mitigate violence by talking to kids and brokering gang truces.
The fate of the southeast sector of the city concerns both locals. Sumchai grew up in Sunnydale, and Holmes lived in the Western Addition and now lives in Bernal Heights. Neither is pleased with the city's redevelopment plan for the Hunters Point Shipyard. "I have never felt that residential development at the shipyard would be safe," said Sumchai, who favors leaving the most toxic sites as much-needed open space.
Despite some relatively progressive ideas Holmes suggested a luxury tax to finance housing and services for homeless individuals, and Sumchai would like to see San Francisco tax fatty foods to pay for public health programs both were somewhat averse to aligning too closely with progressives.
Sumchai doesn't like the current makeup of the Board of Supervisors, and Holmes favors cutting management in government and turning services over to community-based organizations.
But both made it clear that Newsom isn't doing much for the African American community.
The mayor's race does have several colorful characters, from the oft-arrested Kaplan to nudist activist George Davis to ever-acerbic columnist and gadfly H. Brown. Yet two of the more unconventional candidates are also offering some of the more original and thought-provoking platforms in the race.
Activist-blogger Wolf made a name for himself by refusing to turn over to a federal grand jury his video footage from an anarchist rally at which a police officer was injured, defying a judge's order and serving 226 days in federal prison, the longest term ever for someone asserting well-established First Amendment rights.
The Guardian and others have criticized the San Francisco Police Department's conduct in the case and Newsom's lack of support. But Wolf isn't running on a police-reform platform so much as a call for "a new democracy plan" based loosely on the Community Congress models of the 1970s, updated using the modern technologies in which Wolf is fluent.
"The basic principle can be applied more effectively today with the advent of the Internet and Web 2.0 than was at all possible to do in the 1970s," Wolf said, calling for more direct democracy and an end to the facade of public comment in today's system, which he said is "like talking to a wall."
"It's not a dialogue, it's not a conversation, and it's certainly not a conversation with other people in the city," Wolf said. "No matter who's mayor or who's on the Board of Supervisors, the solutions that they are able to come up with are never going to be able to match the collective wisdom of the city of San Francisco. So building an online organism that allows people to engage in discussions about every single issue that comes across City Hall, as well as to vote in a sort of straw-poll manner around every single issue and to have conversations where the solutions can rise to the surface, seems to be a good step toward building a true democracy instead of a representative government."
Also calling for greater populism in government is Chicken John Rinaldi (see "Chicken and the Pot," 9/12/07), who shared his unique political strategy with us in a truly entertaining interview.
"I'm here to ask for the Guardian's second-place endorsement," Rinaldi said, aware that we intend to make three recommendations in this election, the first mayor's race to use the ranked-choice voting system.
Asked if his running to illustrate a mechanism is akin to a hamster running on a wheel, Rinaldi elaborated on the twin issues that he holds dear to his heart art and innovation by talking about innovative ways to streamline the current complexities that artists, performers, and others must face when trying to get a permit to put on an event in San Francisco.
"I'm running for the idea of San Francisco," Rinaldi said. He claimed to be painting a campaign logo in the style of a mural on the side of his warehouse in the Mission District: "It's going to say, 'Chicken, it's what's for mayor,' or 'Chicken, the other white mayor.'"
He repeatedly said that he doesn't know what he's talking about; when we asked him what he'd do if he won, he told us that he'll hire Mecke, Holmes, Sumchai, and Wolf to run the city.
Yet his comedy has a serious underlying message: "I want to create an arts spark." And that's something he's undeniably good at.
Sheriff Hennessey and District Attorney Harris aren't being seriously challenged for reelection, and both decided early (despite pleas from their supporters) not to take on Newsom for the top job. In fact, they're both endorsing him.
But in interviews with us, they were far from universally laudatory toward the incumbent mayor, saying he needs to do much more to get a handle on crime and the social- and economic-justice issues that drive it.
Hennessey said San Francisco's county jail system is beyond its capacity for inmates and half of them are behind bars on drug charges, even in a city supposedly opposed to the war on drugs.
"I had this conversation with the mayor probably a year ago," Hennessey said. "I took him down to the jail to show him there were people sleeping on the floor at that time. I needed additional staff to open up a new unit. He came down and looked at the jails and said, 'Yeah, this is not right.'"
Asked how he would cut the jail population in half, Hennessey in all seriousness suggested firing the city's narcotics officers. He readily acknowledged that the culture within the SFPD is a barrier to creating a real dialogue and partnership with the rest of the city. How would he fix it? Make the police chief an elected office.
"From about 1850 to 1895, the San Francisco police chief was elected," he said. "I think it'd be a very good idea for this city. It's a small enough city that I think the elected politicians really try to be responsive to the public will."
Hennessey said that with $10 million or $15 million more, he could have an immediate impact on violence in the city by expanding a program he began last year called the No Violence Alliance, which combines into one community-based case-management system all of the types of services that perpetrators of violence are believed to be lacking: stable housing, education, decent jobs, and treatment for drug addiction.
Harris told us so-called quality-of-life crimes, including hand-to-hand drug sales no matter how small, deserve to be taken seriously. But it's not a crime to be poor or homeless, she insisted and eagerly pointed to her own reentry program for offenders, Back on Track.
More than half of the felons paroled in San Francisco in 2003 returned to prison not long thereafter, reaffirming the continuing plague of recidivism in California. Harris said more than 90 percent of the people who participated in the pilot phase of Back on Track were holding down a job or attending school by the time they graduated from the program. "DAs around the country are listening to what we're saying about how to achieve smart public safety," she said of the reentry philosophy.
But at the end of the day, Harris is a criminal prosecutor before she's a nonprofit administrator. And her relationship with the SFPD at times has amounted to little more than a four-year stalemate. Harris and former district attorney Terrence Hallinan both endured accusations by cops that they were too easy on defendants and reluctant to prosecute.
To help us understand who's right when it comes to the murder rate, Harris shared some telling statistics. She said the rate of police solving homicides in San Francisco is about 30 percent, compared with 60 percent nationwide. And she said she's gotten convictions in 90 percent of the murder cases she's filed. Nonetheless, cops consistently blame prosecutors for crimes going unpunished.
"I go to so many community meetings and hear the story," she said. "I cannot tell you how often I hear the story.... It's a self-defeating thing to say, 'I'm not going to work because the DA won't prosecute.' ... If no report is taken, then you're right: I'm not going to prosecute."
In addition to the candidates, the Guardian also invites proponents and opponents of the most important ballot measures (which this year include the transportation reform Measure A and its procar rival, Measure H), as well as a range of elected officials and activists, including Sups. Aaron Peskin, Tom Ammiano, Jake McGoldrick, Mirkarimi, and Daly.
Although none of these people are running for office, the interviews have produced heated moments: Guardian editor and publisher Bruce B. Brugmann took Peskin and other supervisors to task for not supporting Proposition I, which would create a small-business support center. That, Brugmann said, would be an important gesture in a progressive city that has asked small businesses to provide health care, sick pay, and other benefits.
Taxi drivers have also raised concerns to us about a provision of Measure A which Peskin wrote with input from labor and others and which enjoys widespread support, particularly among progressives that could allow the Board of Supervisors to undermine the 29-year-old system that allows only active drivers to hold valuable city medallions. In response, Peskin told us that was not the intent and that he is already working with Newsom to address those concerns with a joint letter and possible legislation.
"If San Francisco is going to be a world-class city, it's got to have a great transportation infrastructure," Peskin told us about the motivation behind Measure A. "This would make sure that San Francisco has a transit-first policy forever."
Measure A would place control of almost all aspects of the transportation system under the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and give that panel more money and administrative powers in the process, while letting the Board of Supervisors retain its power to reject the MTA's budget, fare hikes, or route changes. He also inserted a provision in the measure that would negate approval of Measure H, the downtown-backed measure that would invalidate existing city parking policies.
Ironically, Peskin said his approach would help prevent the gridlock that would result if the city's power brokers got their wish of being able to build 10,000 housing units downtown without restrictions on automobile use and a revitalization of public transit options. As he said, "I think we are in many ways aiding developers downtown because [current development plans are] predicated on having a New Yorkstyle transit system."
Asked about Newsom's controversial decision to ask for the resignations of senior staff, Peskin was critical but said he had no intention of having the board intervene. McGoldrick was more animated, calling it a "gutless Gavin move," and said, "If you want to fire them, friggin' fire them." But he said it was consistent with Newsom's "conflict-averse and criticism-averse" style of governance.
McGoldrick also had lots to say about Newsom's penchant for trying to privatize essential city services "We need to say, 'Folks, look at what's happening to your public asset'" and his own sponsorship of Proposition K, which seeks to restrict advertising in public spaces.
"Do we have to submit to the advertisers to get things done?" McGoldrick asked us in discussing Prop. K, which he authored to counter "the crass advertising blight that has spread across this city."*