Matt Gonzalez consulted few of his colleagues in San Francisco's progressive political community before announcing Feb. 28 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, that he'll be Ralph Nader's running mate on another quixotic run for president.
That's fairly typical for Gonzalez, who has tended to keep mostly his own counsel for all of his big political decisions: switching from Democrat to Green in 2000; successfully running for president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2002; jumping into the mayor's race at the last minute the next year; abruptly deciding not to run for reelection to his supervisorial seat in 2004; and — last year — deciding against another run for mayor while being coy about his intentions until the very end.
But if he had polled those closest to him politically, Gonzalez would have learned what a difficult and divisive task he's undertaken (something he probably knew already given what a polarizing figure Nader has become). Not one significant political official or media outlet in San Francisco has voiced support for his candidacy, and some have criticized its potential to pull support away from the Democratic Party nominee and give Republican John McCain a shot at the White House.
In fact, most of his ideological allies are enthusiastically backing the candidacy of Barack Obama, who Gonzalez targeted with an acerbic editorial titled "The Obama Craze: Count Me Out" on the local BeyondChron Web site on the eve of his announcement (while not telling BeyondChron staffers of his impending announcement, to their mild irritation).
It's telling that all of the top Green Party leaders in San Francisco — including Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, school board president and supervisorial candidate Mark Sanchez, and Jane Kim, who got the most votes in the last school board election after Gonzalez encouraged her to run — have endorsed Barack Obama.
Mirkarimi, who ran Nader's Northern California presidential effort in 2000 and ran Gonzalez's 2003 mayoral campaign, has had nothing but polite words for Gonzalez in public, but he reaffirmed in a conversation with the Guardian that his support for Obama didn't waver with news of the Nader-Gonzalez ticket.
Mirkarimi has a significant African American constituency in the Western Addition and has worked hard to build ties to those voters. He's also got a good head for political reality — and it's hard to blame him if he thinks that the Nader-Gonzalez effort is going nowhere and will simply cause further tensions between Greens and progressive Democrats.
Sup. Chris Daly is strongly supporting Obama and said the decision of his former colleague to run didn't even present him with a dilemma: "It's unfortunately not a hard one — or fortunately, depending on how you look at it."
Daly doesn't think the Nader-Gonzalez will have much impact on the presidential race or the issues it's pushing. "The movement for Obama is so significant that it eclipses everything else," Daly told us. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change how politics happens in this country."
While few San Francisco progressives argue that Obama's policy positions are perfect, Daly doesn't agree with Gonzalez's critique of Obama's bad votes and statements. "I don't understand the argument that you should only back a candidate that you agree with all the time," Daly said. "If that was the case, I would only ever vote for myself."
On the national level, Gonzalez told us that he was running to challenge the two-party hold on power and to help focus Nader's campaign on issues like ballot access for independent candidates. "If I'm his running mate, then we'll be talking about electoral reform," he said.
On a local level, the Gonzalez move will have a complicated impact. It will, in some ways, damage his ability to play a significant role in San Francisco politics in the future. That's in part because Gonzalez has taken himself out of the position of a leader in the local progressive movement.
San Francisco progressives don't like lone actors: the thousands of activists in many different camps don't always agree, but they like their representatives to be, well, representative. That means when housing activists — one of Daly's key constituencies — need someone to carry a major piece of legislation for them, they expect Daly to be there.
Sup. Tom Ammiano hasn't come up with his landmark bills on health care, public power, and other issues all by himself; he's been part of a coalition that has worked at the grassroots level to support the work he's doing in City Hall.
Daly sought to find a mayoral candidate last year through a progressive convention. That seemed a bit unorthodox to the big-time political consultants who like to see their candidates self-selected and anointed by powerful donors, but it was very much a San Francisco thing. This is a city of neighborhoods, coalitions, and interest groups that try to hold their elected officials accountable.
Obama's politics are far from perfect, and Nader and Gonzalez have very legitimate criticisms of the Democratic candidates and important proposals for electoral reform. But right now the grassroots action in San Francisco and elsewhere in the country — the movement-building excitement — is with Barack Obama. The activists who made the Gonzalez mayoral effort possible are now working on the Obama campaign.
In fact, Daly has repeatedly voiced hope that an Obama victory could help empower the progressive movement in San Francisco and give it more leverage against moderates like Mayor Gavin Newsom who support Hillary Clinton (see "Who Wants Change?" 1/30/08).
Daly said the Gonzalez decision complicates that narrative a little. "I don't think it's undercut," Daly said, "but I think it's confused a bit."