As a mayoral candidate, Sup. John Avalos casts himself as a movement builder
When Supervisor John Avalos chaired the Budget & Finance Committee in 2009 and 2010, his office became a bustling place in the thick of the budget process. To gain insight on the real-life effects of the mayor's proposed spending cuts, Avalos and his City Hall staff played host to neighborhood service providers, youth workers, homeless advocates, labor leaders, and other San Franciscans who stood to be directly impacted by the axe that would fall when the final budget was approved. They camped out in City Hall together for hours, puzzling over which items they could live without, and which required a steadfast demand for funding restoration.
"One year, we even brought them into the mayor's office," for an eleventh-hour negotiating session held in the wee morning hours, recounted Avalos' legislative aide, Raquel Redondiez. That move came much to the dismay of Steve Kawa, mayoral chief of staff.
Avalos, the 47-year-old District 11 supervisor, exudes a down-to-earth vibe that's rare in politicians, and tends to display a balanced temperament even in the heat of high-stakes political clashes. He travels to and from mayoral debates by bicycle. He quotes classic song lyrics during full board meetings, keeps a record player and vinyl collection in his office, and recently showed up at the Mission dive bar El Rio to judge a dance competition for the wildly popular Hard French dance party.
Yet casual observers may not be as familiar with the style Avalos brings to conducting day-to-day business at City Hall, an approach exemplified that summer night in 2010 when he showed up to the mayor's office flanked by grassroots advocates bent on preserving key programs.
"My role is, I'm an insider, ... but it's really been about bringing in the outside to have a voice on the inside," Avalos said in a recent interview. "People have always been camped out in my office. These are people who represent constituencies — seniors, recipients of mental health care, unions, people concerned about violence. It's how we change things in City Hall. It's making government more effective at promoting opportunities, justice, and greater livelihood." Part of the thrust behind his candidacy, he added, is this: "We want to be able to have a campaign that's about a movement."
That makes Avalos different from the other candidates — but it also raises a crucial question. Some of the most important advances in progressive politics in San Francisco have come not just from electoral victories, but from losing campaigns that galvanized the left. Tom Ammiano in 1999 and Matt Gonzalez in 2003 played that role. Can Avalos mount both a winning campaign — and one that, win or lose, will have a lasting impact on the city?
No budget with such deep spending cuts could have left all stakeholders happy once the dust settled, but Avalos and other progressive supervisors did manage to siphon some funding away from the city's robust police and fire departments in order to restore key programs in a highly controversial move.
"There's a Johnny Cash song I really like, written by Tom Petty, called 'I Won't Back Down.' I sang it during that time, because I didn't back down," Avalos said at an Aug. 30 mayoral forum hosted by the Potrero Hill Democratic Club. "We made ... a symbolic cut, showing that there was a real inequity about how we were doing our budgets. Without impacting public safety services, we were able to get $6 million from the Fire Department. A lot of that went into Rec & Park, and health care programs, and to education programs, and we were able to ... find more fat in the Police Department budget than anybody had ever found before, about $3 million."
Last November, Avalos placed a successful measure on the ballot to increase the city's real-estate transfer tax, which so far has amassed around $45 million in new revenue for city coffers, softening the blow to critical programs in the latest round of budget negotiations. "Without these measures that community groups, residents, and labor organizations worked for, Mayor Ed Lee would not have been able to balance the budget," Avalos said.
More recently, he emerged as a champion of the city's Local Hire Ordinance, designed as a tool for job creation that requires employers at new construction projects to select San Francisco residents for half their work crews, to be phased in over the next several years. That landmark legislation was a year in the making, Redondiez said, describing how union representatives, workers, contractors, unemployed residents of Chinatown and the Bayview, and others cycled through Avalos' City Hall office to provide input.
His collaborative style stems in part from his background. Avalos formerly worked for Service Employees International Union Local 1877, where he organized janitors, and served as political director for Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth. He was also a legislative aide to former District 6 Sup. Chris Daly, who remains a lightning rod in the San Francisco political landscape.
Before wading into the fray of San Francisco politics, Avalos earned a masters degree in social work from San Francisco State University. But when he first arrived in the city in 1989, with few connections and barely any money to his name, he took a gig at a coffee cart. He was a Latino kid originally from Wilmington, Calif. whose dad was a longshoreman and whose mom was an office worker, and he'd endured a climate of discrimination throughout his teenage years at Andover High in Andover, Mass.
Roughly a decade ago, Avalos and a group of youth advocates were arrested in Oakland following a protest against Proposition 21, which increased criminal penalties for crimes committed by youth. Booked into custody along with him was his wife, Karen Zapata, whom he married around the same time. She is now a public school teacher in San Francisco and the mother of their two children, ages 6 and 9, both enrolled in public schools.
"John has consistently been a voice for disenfranchised populations in this city," said Sharen Hewitt, who's known Avalos for more than a decade and serves as executive director of The Community Leadership Academy & Emergency Response Project (CLAER), an organization formed to respond to a rash of homicides and alleviate violence. "He understands that San Francisco is at a major turning point in terms of its ability to keep families and low-income communities housed. With the local hiring ordinance, most of us who have been working around violence prevention agree — at the core of this horrible set of symptoms are root causes, stemming from economic disparity."
Asked about his top priorities, Avalos will invariably express his desire to keep working families rooted in San Francisco. District 11, which spans the Excelsior, Ingleside, and other southeastern neighborhoods, encompasses multiracial neighborhoods made up of single-family homes — and many have been blunted with foreclosure since the onset of the economic crisis.
"Our motto for building housing in San Francisco is we build all this luxury housing — it's a form of voodoo economics," Avalos told a small group of supporters at a recent campaign stop in Bernal Heights. "I want to have a new model for how we build housing in San Francisco. How can we help [working-class homeowners] modify their loans to make if more flexible, so they can stay here?" He's floated the idea of creating an affordable housing bond to aid in the construction of new affordable housing units as well as loan modifications to prevent foreclosures.
"That's what is the biggest threat to San Francisco, is losing the working-class," said community activist Giuliana Milanese, who previously worked with Avalos at Coleman Advocates for Youth and has volunteered for his campaign. "And he's the best fighter. Basically, economic justice is his bottom line."
Tenants Union director Ted Gullicksen gave Avalos his seal of approval when contacted by the Guardian, saying he has "a 100 percent voting record for tenants," despite having fewer tenants in his district than some of his colleagues. "David Chiu, had he not voted for Parkmerced, could have been competitive with John," Gullicksen said. "But the Parkmerced thing was huge, so now it's very difficult to even have David in same ballpark. Dennis [Herrera] has always taken the right positions — but he's never had to vote on anything," he said. "After that, nobody comes close."
There's no question: The Avalos for Mayor campaign faces an uphill climb. Recent poll figures offering an early snapshot of the crowded field peg him at roughly 4 percent, trailing behind candidates with stronger citywide name recognition like City Attorney Dennis Herrera or the incumbent, Mayor Ed Lee, who hasn't accepted public financing and stands to benefit from deep-pocketed backers with ties to big business.
Yet as Assembly Member Tom Ammiano phrased it, "he's actually given progressives a place to roost. He doesn't pussy-foot around on the issues that are important," making him a natural choice for San Francisco voters who care more about stemming the tides of privatization and gentrification than, say, rolling out the red carpet for hi-tech companies.
One of Avalos' greatest challenges is that he lacks a pile of campaign cash, having received less than $90,000 in contributions as of June 30, according to an Ethics Commission filing. "He can't call in the big checks," said Julian Davis, board president of Booker T. Washington Community Service Center, "because he hasn't been doing the bidding of big business interests." A roster of financial contributions filed with the Ethics Commission shows that his donor base is comprised mainly of teachers, nonprofit employees, health-care workers, tenant advocates, and other similar groups, with almost no representatives of real-estate development interests or major corporations.
Despite being strapped for cash, he's collected endorsements ranging from the Democratic County Central Committee, to the Harvey Milk Democratic Club, to the city's largest labor union, SEIU 1021; he's also won the backing of quintessential San Francisco characters such as renowned author Rebecca Solnit; San Francisco's radical bohemian poet laureate, Diane di Prima; and countercultural icon Diamond Dave.
While some of Avalos' core supporters describe his campaign as "historic," other longtime political observers have voiced a sort of disenchantment with his candidacy, saying it doesn't measure up to the sweeping mobilizations that galvanized around Gonzalez or Ammiano. Ammiano has strongly endorsed Avalos, but Gonzalez — who now works for Public Defender (and mayoral candidate) Jeff Adachi — has remained tepid about his candidacy, stating publicly in an interview on Fog City Journal, "I like [Green Party candidate Terrie Baum] and John fine. I just don't believe in them."
Ironically, Sup. Sean Elsbernd, often Avalos' political opposite on board votes, had kinder words for him. "John is intelligent, John is honest, and John has integrity," Elsbernd told the Guardian. "I don't think he knows the city well enough to serve as chief executive ... but I've seen the good work he's done in his district."
Meanwhile, Avalos is still grappling with the fallout from the spending cut he initiated against the police and fire departments in 2009. Whereas those unions sent sound trucks rolling through his neighborhood clamoring for his recall from office during that budget fight, the San Francisco Police Officers Association (SFPOA), the San Francisco Fire Fighters union, and the plumbers' union, Local 38, have teamed up now that Avalos is running for mayor to form an independent expenditure committee targeting him and Public Defender Jeff Adachi, a latecomer to the race.
"We'll make sure we do everything we can to make sure he never sees Room 200," SFPOA President Gary Delagnes told the Guardian. "I would spend as much money as I could possibly summon to make sure neither ever takes office." Delagnes added that he believes the political makeup of San Francisco is shifting in a more moderate direction, to Avalos' disadvantage. "People spend a lot of money to live here," he said, "and they don't want to be walking over 15 homeless people, or having people ask them for money."
If it's true that the flanks of the left in San Francisco have already been supplanted with wealthy residents whose primary concern is that they are annoyed by the sight of destitute people, then more has already been lost for the progressive movement than it stands to lose under the scenario of an Avalos defeat.
Despite these looming challenges, the Avalos campaign has amassed a volunteer base that's more than 1,000 strong, in many cases drawing from grassroots networks already engaged in efforts to defend tenant rights, advance workplace protections for non-union employees, create youth programs that aim to prevent violence in low-income communities, and advance opportunities for immigrants. According to some volunteers, linking these myriad grassroots efforts is part of the point. Aside from the obvious goal of electing Avalos for mayor, his supporters say they hope his campaign will be a force to re-energize and redefine progressive politics in San Francisco.
"All the candidates that are running are trying to appeal to the progressive base," Avalos said. But what does it really mean? To him, being progressive "is a commitment to a cause that's greater," he offered. "It's about how to alter the relationship of power in San Francisco. My vision of progressivism is more inclusive, and more accountable to real concerns."
N'Tanya Lee, former executive director of Coleman Advocates, was among the people Avalos consulted when he was considering a run for mayor. "The real progressives in San Francisco are the folks on the ground every day, like the moms working for public schools ... everyday families, individual people, often people of color, who are doing the work without fanfare. They are the unsung heroes ... and the rising progressive leaders of our city," she said. "John represents the best of what's to come. It's not just about race or class. It's about people standing for solutions."
When deciding whether to run, Avalos also turned to his wife, Zapata, who has held leadership positions in the San Francisco teacher's union in the past. She suggested rounding up community leaders and talking it through. "The campaign needed to be a movement campaign," Zapata told the Guardian. "John Avalos was not running because he thought John Avalos was the most important person in the world to do this job. Our question was, if John were to do this, how would it help people most affected by economic injustice?"
Hewitt, the executive director of CLAER, also weighed in. "My concern is that he has been painted as a leftist, rooted in some outdated ideology," she said. "I think [that characterization] is one-dimensional, and I think he's broader than that. My perception of John is that he's a pragmatist — rooted in listening, and attempting to respond."
Others echoed this characterization. "He doesn't need to be the great progressive hope," said Rafael Mandelman, an attorney who ran as a progressive in District 8 last year. "If people are looking for the next Matt Gonzalez, I'm not sure that's what John is about. He's about the communities he's representing."
As to whether or not he has a shot at victory, Mandelman said, "It's a very wide field, and I think John is going to have a very strong base. I think he will get enough first-choice votes to be one of the top contenders. And with ranked choice voting, anything can happen."