Volume 43 Number 02
Almost every culture has its own version of blood sausage. The delicacy is a traditional post-slaughter meal, made at the beginning of winter as a way of using the entire animal. It has many names: morcilla (Spain), blood pudding (English and Irish), blutwurst (Germany), boudin noir (France), and soondae (Korea), to name only a few. In most cases, the animal’s blood is cooked until it thickens and then fillers are added, which usually are meat (usually pork), fat, suet, bread, potato, barley, or rice. Good blood sausage has a rich flavor, similar to pâte. Bad blood sausage has a metallic flavor, reminiscent of, ahem, blood. If you can’t get past the name, call it gravy sausage (after all, that’s exactly what it is). Don’t let nomenclature prevent you from experiencing a city filled with bloody goodness; it’s not just for vampires.
Most of the ubiquitous restaurants in San Francisco serve morcilla. The Spanish version is usually made of onion, lard, salt, spices, and rice. (That’s right, there’s actually no meat in the sausage.)
Beginners can start at Ramblas (557 Valencia, SF. 415-565-0207, www.ramblastapas.com), where sauteed morcilla comes crumbled, like a hash, with Italian butter beans and tomatoes ($7.25). The rich morcilla flavor provides a unique undertone to the fresh beans and peas. Picaro (3120 16th St., SF. 415-431-4089, www.picarotapasrestaurant.com) and Esperpento (3295 22nd St., SF. 415-282-8867) are sister tapas restaurants with matching menus and Miro-esque graffiti. Great for groups and walk-ins, and conveniently located on two of the most bar-laden blocks in the Mission, their morcilla tapa is no-frills, hearty, and ready to share ($7). Plus, if you ask nicely, you can substitute morcilla for one of the other meat choices on the combination platter. If you want to get out of the Mission, head to lovely Belcher Street in the Financial District, an alley laden with long strands of lights and patio dining. B44 (44 Belden, SF. 415-986-6287, www.B44sf.com) is a great place for a fancy blood sausage adventure with a Spanish wine complement. Try a Rioja Temperanillo to go with the onion-based morcilla, served whole with white beans.
The French know how to make even the oddest foods taste delicious by successfully pairing ironic flavors. The Boudin Noir dish at Cafe Bastille (22 Belden, SF. 415-986-5673, www.cafebastille.com) takes blood sausage to the next level, making a variety that’s liver-based and is served on a pile of mashed potatoes and caramelized apples. It’s like a high-class shepherd’s pie.
Taraval Street, easily accessible by the L train, is a haven for unpretentious diners and Irish pubs that serve blood pudding. (Important note: blood pudding does not resemble pudding.) A favorite is New Taraval Cafe (1054 Taraval, SF. 415-731-3816) doesn’t look like much on the outside, but it serves up large portions of comfort food for a great price. The Irish breakfast comes with both black and white pudding (white is the bloodless, less tasty version of black pudding), two eggs, two pieces of Irish bacon, two Irish sausages, home fried potatoes, and toast ($8.50). The blood pudding has a consistency like that of most breakfast sausage, but less dense.
Gather a group of your beer guzzling friends and head to Suppenkuche (525 Laguna, SF. 415-252-9289, www.suppenkuche.com) for blutwurst, more of a wurst than a sausage. Varieties come with the cold meat appetizer plate (actually a cutting board) and resemble light, soft salame. Order the Vesperplatte ($13.50), which is served with German rye soda bread, mayonnaise, and a terrific sweet-and-spicy mustard.
SOONDAE (OR SUNDAE)
Korean soondae is a subtle, spicy, rice-based version of the delicacy, one that leaves a sausagey aftertaste. Try the pan-fried version with silver noodles at Cocobang (550 Taylor, SF. 415-292-5144), a surreal hole-in-the-wall that offers (also rice-based) Korean OB Lager, which makes its appearance in a giant, plastic, screw-top two-liter bottle. For a classier take on Korean BBQ, Muguboka Restaurant (401 Balboa, SF. 415-668-6007) has something for advanced lovers of blood sausage. Its sundae is big enough for four people and the menu provides a bare-bones definition of the dish. It’s best with spicy noodles on the side.
If you want a home-cooked blood sausage meal, head to Geary Street. Despite the shortage of Polish restaurants in the city, there are plenty of Polish delis. Check out Seakor Polish Delicatessen and Sausage Factory (5957 Geary, SF., 415-387-8660) or New World Market (5641 Geary, SF. 415-751-8810) and discover a whole new world of sausages, wursts, salamis, and, of course, kaszanka Poland’s take on blood sausage.
As cross-cultural Asian culinary collisions go, mapo tofu ramen is right up or down there with peanut butterfilled mochi, crab rangoon, and sweet and spicy teriyaki potato chips. Not for purity-obsessed traditionalist foodies, cholesterol watchers, or just plain unimaginative eaters, this delightful bastardization will float many a boat of the clean-plate brigade if only they can find it. Mapo tofu ramen isn’t sukiyaki, chicken teriyaki, shrimp tempura, or tekka maki it’s far from being a Japanese menu staple. But until wasabi noodles emerge to wipe spice lovers’ sinuses clean, the few places that do serve this pepper-bedecked dish will be guaranteed pilgrimages from heat-seizers who appreciate that pleasure ‘n’ pain combo of sneeze-inducing chilies and comfort-giving brothy benevolence.
Just a noseful of ramen swirling in soup sends me back to the jillions of noodle stands riddling train station platforms all over Japan. Their presence paralleled the ironclad reliability of the country’s public transportation system. While you waited for your JR car, you plonked your yen in a quaint automat machine and pushed a button indicating your bowl of choice, be it udon or ramen, curry or karage. The machine issued you a ticket, which you forked over to the white-kerchiefed lady behind the teensy, tablet-shaped counter. Out came your bowl, in a few Shinkansen-speedy minutes. As the wet, bone-deep chill of a Japanese winter whipped across the raised platform outside, past the shivering salarymen and shuddering office ladies, you inhaled the noodles, using the chopsticks as a slender shovel, and noisily slurped the bonito-laced soup the greater the gusto and the more audible the consumption, the greater the appreciation. Stops at the noodle stand became a warmth-endowing ritual disguised as a quick, tasty snack.
So how did Japanese ramen itself a much-loved, long-ago import from China come to be paired with numbingly spicy, sinus-clearing mapo tofu? The dish brilliantly pits nutritious tofu so revered that "eating bean curd" can mean "taking advantage of or flirting with a person" in Chinese, according to Chinese Regional Cooking with ground pork, or occasionally beef, and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorn. I’ve found some of the finest examples of mapo tofu outside of Sichuan ones that are a far cry from the brown-sauced, veggie-bedecked form it sometimes assumes stateside in Japan, where heat-delivering comestibles like kimchi have also found favor. The premade mix you’ll find in most Japanese groceries is a decent approximation of the dish named, as legend has it, after a pock-mocked Sichuanese woman whose tofu swimming in meat sauce was worth traveling great distances to sample.
But who decided to first couple Sichuan-style spice with Japanese ramen? Online searches show mapo tofu ramen popping up on menus occasionally in Hawaii, Texas, and southern California. But my first brush with nose-clearing, sweat-beading heat came at Genki (Healthy) Ramen (3944 Geary, SF. 415-630-2948, genki-ramen-sf.eat24hour.com) in the Richmond District, under streamlined, vaguely disco-like decor. Curtains of reflective spangles and modish thread-strung lamps hang above flat-screen TVs showing button-cute J-pop nymphets serenading CGI kittens. Right now it might be the only spot in Bay Area to get a bowl of the genuine article in both the mapo tofu and ramen departments.
The bowl arrives with a side of daikon pickles, sweet enough to cut the heat. A delicate isle of red, white, and brown mapo tofu lies perched amid flecks of green onion atop an al dente mound of slithery ramen noodles. Concentric circles of chili-hued sauce, oil, and soup expand out from the small mound of tofu specked with small yet not negligible nubs of pork, like a fatty, psychedelia-savory fever dream. The sauce is ever so slightly sweet and oyster sauceish, and soup delivers a distinct, radiating kick of space. Later the waitress tells me the cooks simmer pork and garlic all day to make the tonkatsu broth. Spice-snorting bliss a marriage of the bland, serviceable refinement of tofu and the oily goodness of pork. This is every vegan’s nightmare, though unlike bacon-wrapped tofu, one gone deliciously right.
I venture out in search of more, on the rumor that Suzu Noodle House (1825 Post, SF. 415-346-5083) in Japantown and Katana-ya (430 Geary, SF. 415-771-1280) near Union Square serve spicy tofu ramen that compares. But no such luck. Suzu aims to please with a fine broth and toothsome noodles, but the spice level lacks the red-faced power of Genki. And Katana-ya’s spicy tofu ramen is more of a kimchi tofu ramen, sporting bits of pickled cabbage. It can be considered the soupy counterpart to its kimchi fried rice.
And so it’s back to Genki we go: if some Sichuan chili fans are right, getting healthy should always involve such a delicious sweat.
In the horse race of American shibboleths, it’s neck and neck between "choice" and "democracy" down the unending stretch. But maybe not in the kitchen. Well-settled folk wisdom teaches that the best kitchens more closely resemble autocracies or fiefs than serene republics. "A kitchen is not a democracy" what sage said this, or should have? And out there in the dining room, it can be equally true that choice is sometimes more a burden than a benefit. Many of us have known the quiet horror of sitting down in a Chinese restaurant and being handed a menu whose numbered items run into the hundreds and whose heft is like that of an appropriations bill. Choice is not always for the faint of heart.
One of the reasons I retain a particular affection for Chez Panisse in Berkeley is its fixed menu. It changes every night, but on any given night, they serve what they serve. The presentation of the menu card is something of a formality, a polite advisory. You are being clued in but not actually consulted. And, in a strange way, you relax, as if you’re strapping yourself into an airline seat. You surrender your autonomy, say your little prayer, and trust in the fates to take you (and your luggage) where you want to go. And that’s what happens. There’s no point worrying, since it’s out of your hands. You’re free to direct your energies elsewhere.
As far as I know, Chez Panisse is the only restaurant in the Bay Area that uses this kind of absolutely set menu, the king of the prix-fixes. (And only downstairs. If it’s choice you seek, upstairs you must go, to the excellent café.) But in recent years, I have noticed a gentle bloom of lesser prix-fixes: some offered beside a regular à la carte menu, others that give a few options for each course. While quite a few of the restaurants are French, as we would expect, an increasing number aren’t so you won’t necessarily get stuck with crème brûlée for dessert.
The prix-fixe isn’t for everybody all the time, of course. There have been moments when I’ve forsaken a tempting one because I didn’t want dessert (which is almost always one of the courses offered). At other times, a dish on the regular menu strongly appealed. Prix-fixe dishes have long seemed quite mainstream to me; they’re the kind of things a kitchen can produce without too much struggle that appeals to a broad swath of customers. In return, you generally do get more for your money. The greatest prix-fixe deal I ever came across was at Hawthorne Lane, in the autumn of 2001: three courses for $28 at one of the best restaurants in the city, where even the modest dishes were memorable. Those were strange days, true, and the restaurant itself is no more, having morphed into Two. But silently, with only my lips moving, I compare all subsequent prix-fixes to that one.
The George W. Bush Wirtschaftswunder has brought, among other delights, steady upward pressure on prices, especially food prices. Yet there is at least one restaurant in the city where you can get three courses for less than $20 only a nickel less, but still. The restaurant is Le P’tit Laurent (699 Chenery, SF. 415-334-3235, www.leptitlaurent.com), an atmospheric bistro in the heart of the Glen Park village. On nights when rain smears the windows, the street scene looks almost Parisian. Inside it’s warm and cozy, with bustle. The prix-fixe is available until 7 p.m. and includes soup or salad, a main dish (perhaps sautéed prawns or roasted veal), and a dessert from the dessert menu, maybe the sublime profiteroles. My lone sorrow here is that if you want the restaurant’s excellent cassoulet, you’ll probably end up having to order it à la carte.
Only slightly more expensive, at $23.50, is the three-course prix-fixe at Zazie (941 Cole, SF. 415-564-5332, www.zazisf.com), another bistro that feels authentically French, though more Provençal than Parisian. The prix-fixe possibilities here are marked on the menu card with asterisks; soup, salad, mussels, salmon, and chocolate pots de crème are some of the staples. Quite like France. A bonus draw is the restaurant’s large rear garden, which is made habitable even on chilly winter nights by those heating trees you often see at ski lodges.
In a much more urban quartier we find Le Charm (315 Fifth St., SF. 415-546-6128, www.lecharm.com), which since the mid-1990s has been an oasis of civilized clattering in the scruffy heart of SoMa. The prix-fixe is a little pricier here $30 for three courses but the cooking might also be a bit more urbane. Recent starter choices included salmon carpaccio and escargot, while among the desserts lurked a financier and a sablé. The restaurant also has a small patio for the al frescominded, and let’s not forget that SoMa tends to be warmer and less windy than the city’s more westerly neighborhoods.
Not all prix-fixes must be French. One of the better deals of the non-Gallic indeed, of any sort going at the moment can be found at Roy’s (575 Mission, SF. 415-777-0277, www.roysrestaurant.com), an outpost of the Hawaiian-fusion chain. The restaurant’s three-course set menu changes seasonally and, at the moment, costs $35 making it something of a successor to the $28 Hawthorne Lane bonanza. There is typically a choice among two or three starters and a like number of desserts, with a slightly greater variety (perhaps three or four possibilities) among main courses. The San Francisco version of Roy’s doesn’t much resemble its older siblings on the islands; those places are rustically elegant, while ours is unmistakably urban, with a lot of glass, hard surfaces, high ceilings, and gloss. But the food is excellent, and at $35 for a full dinner in such a stylish setting, it’s a bit of a steal.
Firefly (4288 24th St., SF. 415-821-7652, www.fireflyrestaurant.com), which turns 15 this fall, has been well worth seeking out all these years, prix-fixe or no. (The prix-fixe $35 for any starter, main course, and dessert is a post-millennium wrinkle.) From the beginning, the restaurant has offered its wondrous shrimp-and-scallop potstickers while providing for the tastes of vegetarians and flesheaters alike, with no apparent fuss. It’s as good as a neighborhood restaurant could be, in a gastronomically-minded city where many of the best restaurants are in the neighborhoods. And with a prix-fixe option allowing a full range of motion across a supple and changeable bill of fare, it’s also an enduringly good deal.
Far to the west, near the shores of the sea, we find Pisces (3414 Judah, SF. 415-564-2233, www.piscessf.com), a seafood house with a minimalist look (including a bold black facade) New Yorkers would call "downtown." The twist here is not one but two prix-fixes, one for $23, the other for $33. What does the extra $10 buy you? A choice of desserts, for one thing; the $23 folk must settle for, say, vanilla-bean crème brûlée. A little ordinary, but there are worse fates, surely; how often do bad crèmes brûlées turn up? The price premium also results in somewhat tonier savory dishes Dungeness crab cake rather than clam chowder as a first course, for instance, or ahi rather than salmon as a main course. On the other hand, if you want cioppino, the famous seafood stew, you might end up spending less, since sometimes, even in America, less is more.
Lately one has heard a good deal of crashing and clatter coming not from restaurant kitchens but from Wall Street. The great leviathans of finance seem to be going down like torpedoed battleships, while the press struggles to decide if the nation is pick your cliché "drifting," "stumbling," or "sinking" into a recession. Whatever. Are we there yet? I would not be so bold as to suggest that prix-fixes are the answer to the many and large problems afoot in this land, but I do think prix-fixe menus are about value, and value is a value from which we stray at our peril. The last time the economic sky looked quite this ominous was seven years ago, after a terror attack and the popping of the dot-com bubble. We began to take a bit less for granted in that strange autumn, and people seemed to awaken for the first time in years to the understanding that champagne did not, in fact, flow from their taps. It made sense to spend more prudently, to look for deals. That was then and this is now, and suddenly now is looking a lot like then. While the high and mighty ponder their big fixes, the rest of us can once again enjoy our small ones.
As the nation kicks off another football season and gears up for baseball playoffs, San Franciscans may be wary of spending Saturday afternoons in ass-numbing bleachers or watching boozy out-of-towners roam the city in 49ers and Giants garb. But you don’t have to rub up against the sweaty enthusiasts who paint their potbellies and holler like animals in the stands in order to enjoy a good game. Why not show your spirit in sports bars instead? I’ve spent weeks eating spicy wings, drinking pints of beer, and enduring painful hangovers to track down the best lounges and pubs for catching a buzz and cheering on your teams.
GREENS SPORTS BAR
With 18 beers on tap and 25 high-def TVs, Greens was made for big groups enduring hazy weekends of Niner mania. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you hear rowdy applause echoing from the pub’s front patio throughout the otherwise quiet neighborhood. It’s BYOF (but with all those drink specials, who needs food?) and gets super packed in a good way by game time.
2239 Polk, SF. (415) 775-4287
Native Pennsylvanians first opened Giordano Bros. to sell Pittsburgh’s famous "all-in-one" sandwiches complete with fries and slaw packed between scrumptious bread slices. They’ve since transformed it into Steelers Central. During games, bartenders are known to pass out bottles of original Pittsburgh draft shipped from the source and after big wins, they might even pour you a glass of bubbly on the house. (Sorry alkies, no hard liquor.) An East Coast vibe resonates throughout the joint, from outdoor seating to endless memorabilia. The staff says the question isn’t if you’re from Pittsburgh, it’s about what part of Pittsburgh you’re from. Good thing I can fake an accent.
303 Columbus, SF. (415) 397-2767
Ask any pigskin junkie where to watch last year’s Super Bowl champs, and you’ll get one answer: Ace’s, where on Sundays the dive transforms into a funky buffet house chock-full of barbecued chicken, salad, and New York Giants fans. Add the extra-stiff $5 Bloody Mary to the carte du jour, and you’re headed straight for football-watching paradise.
998 Sutter, SF. (415) 673-0644, www.acesbarsf.com
The good news: the Royal Exchange is loaded with finger-lickin’ gorgonzola garlic fries ($6.95), rows of cozy booths beneath a massive TV, a savory dinner menu, and Monday Night Football specials (Firestone Double Barrel Ale and Pale 31 pints for $3.95). The bad news: it’s not open on weekends. Big deal. Cal alums and students still party here on Friday nights to pump up for Saturday Golden Bears games. More good news: the staff accommodates private parties of up to 300 people. And the owners are Bears alums, too.
301 Sacramento, SF. (415) 956-1710, www.royalexchange.com
With five plasmas devoted to University of Oregon games and bartenders who knock back shots with fellow Duck fans, it’s no wonder regulars call this place the Oregon headquarters of San Francisco. Its full bar is dirt cheap; splurge for the two-dollar cans of Michelob during Saturday matchups or special events, which sometimes involve the staff barbecuing brats and burgers outside for customers. I recommend wearing green and yellow, unless you want to brawl.
1176 Sutter, SF. (415) 567-7441
You can watch a San Francisco Giants game in just about any well-respected sports bar in the city, but you can and you should watch the Chicago Cubs in only one spot: Monaghan’s. For starters, it’s got a new drink special every day of the week $3 for 20-ounce pints of any Irish beer on Wednesdays and $2.50 Red Stripes on Fridays, to name two. Extra points for its daily happy hour: $2.50 well drinks from 4-7 p.m.
3259 Pierce, SF. (415) 567-4466, www.monaghanssf.com
KEZAR PUB & RESTAURANT
Two words: chicken wings. They’re damned spicy, but the zing doesn’t linger uncomfortably on your lips or in your throat for hours afterward. Or maybe it does, and I just eat so fast and drink so much I don’t notice. Either way, they’re a perfect addition to a pitcher of Coors and a soccer game. For dinner, choose from fish and chips, barbecued sandwiches, and salads. Plasma televisions transmit all kinds of sports, from baseball to rugby, and the pool tables and large seating areas draw crowds you’ll want to party with.
770 Stanyan, SF. (415) 386-9292
MAD DOG IN THE FOG
This super mellow hole-in-the-Haight draws everyone from free-spirited bohos to scholars downing extra-large pitchers of Anchor Steam, Guinness, and almost every other kind of beer. You can’t order food, but check out the killer German sausage joint across the street. Nosh on one at Mad Dog while watching European football and playing pop trivia on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This combo is right on the money.
530 Haight, SF. (415) 626-7279
Even among foodies, Korean cuisine does not get its due and that’s even more the case in San Francisco. As I searched for ways to get my kimchi on, I can’t tell you how many people told me to look elsewhere. Some even said I had to go all the way down to Los Angeles if I wanted the good stuff. Well, naysayers, behold: these six eateries will help you put a little Seoul in your disbelieving bellies.
The Richmond is like the mecca of Korean food in this city, and Brothers is one of its better known eateries. Unlike some of the other Korean restaurants in SF, Brothers offers a no-frills environment. It’s a bit like a diner seen through a Korean lens. Though the kalbi (barbecue short ribs) is quite popular, I would recommend the fried beef dumplings. If you dip them into the accompanying sauce (a combination of soy sauce, vinegar, and scallions), you won’t go wrong.
4128 Geary, SF. (415) 387-7991
Not far from Brothers geographically, Namu is on the other side of the universe in terms of vibe. Its minimalist decor and predilection for playing Marvin Gaye and Teddy Pendergrass provides a little bit of hipness and dare I say, sexiness to an otherwise sleepy and seemingly sexless block on Balboa. Namu is billed as an Asian fusion place, but don’t let that stop you. The bibimbap (a Korean stew made of veggies, rice, and egg served in a clay pot) is tasty and the ingredients are wonderfully fresh. (Local and organically grown veggies are used when possible.) And if that didn’t sell you, try one of the desserts the bean paste/chocolate cupcake gives new meaning to the word goodness.
439 Balboa, SF. (415) 386-8332
If you want a more traditional Korean eating experience, complete with a variety of delicious banchan (the side dishes that traditionally accompany every Korean meal), then Korea House is a good place to start. Located in the heart of Japantown for some reason, a number of nicer Korean restaurants are located there Korea House has an old-school formality to it. It’s the type of place where plush carpets encourage hushed voices, which is too bad because the bulgogi (barbecue beef) is so good that it’ll make you want to holler. Please don’t.
1640 Post, SF. (415) 563-1388
JOHN’S SNACK AND DELI
Until about three years ago, if you were slogging away in the Financial District, you were out of luck when it came to Korean food. But then John came to the rescue. For less than ten bucks, he and his mom who works right next to him at the counter provide you Starbucks-loving folk with some pretty fine Korean fare. The menu is limited, but each dish comes with rice, a salad topped with a snappy ginger dressing, and a side of kimchi. And for those of you who just want to snack, there’s kimbap (Korean-style vegetarian sushi roll) for around $3. You go, John!
40 Battery, SF. (415) 434-4634
OK, so you’re thinking, yeah, Korean sounds good, but I want a hangout, too. Well, brothers and sisters, I hear you and the answer is Cocobang. With Korean music videos projected on the back wall, Cocobang is a great place to get both your Korean food and liquor needs satisfied. There are two-liter bottles of Korean beer at the ready, and soju (think vodka) chasers to be had. And because the official closing time is 2 a.m., it’s a good place to end your night. As for the food, the fire chicken came highly recommended, but being more a lover of the cow, I opted for kalbi, which had a marinade nothing short of awesome it was like Memphis meets Seoul, it was as though … I’ll just say it: the guys at Cocobang are truly bringing the world closer together, one barbecue at a time.
550 Taylor, SF. (415) 292-5144
SEOUL ON WHEELS
Last, and certainly not least, there’s Seoul on Wheels. True to its name, this food truck combines two of my favorite things: the streets and the meats. Julia Yoon (the owner and mastermind) doesn’t stay in any one place too long, but you can find her route on her Web site. Once you do find her, though, you won’t be disappointed. For six bucks by far the cheapest Korean on my list you get a meat dish with rice and japchae (a vegetable and noodle dish). You can opt for the kimchi fried rice, one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. The food is made fresh to order when not driving, Julia and her assistant are cooking up the goods, which makes Seoul on Wheels truly a movable feast worth finding.
Locations vary throughout SF. www.seoulonwheels.com
It’s easy to assume that the Jews of San Francisco have been culinarily deprived. Unlike New York and Los Angeles, San Francisco doesn’t have an abundance of delis serving tongue-on-rye sandwiches or boiled bagels. But after tasting bowl after bowl of matzo ball soup at establishments across the Bay Area, I can assure Jews and Judeophiles alike that we aren’t that bad off. Whether you crave a delicious and moist knish or that dessert of racial integration, the black-and-white cookie, you’ll find what you’re looking for at one of these go-to Jew food locales.
As soon as you enter this Chicago-themed deli, you become a part of the Moishe’s Pippic family. Which means you’ll be privy to matzo ball soup almost like Bubbe used to make. Moishe’s variety, perhaps the best in the city, features seasoned dumplings floating in a perfectly salted broth with huge chunks of carrots. Also worth noting are sandwiches piled so high with whatever meat you want including rare roast beef or, on Fridays, warm brisket with horseradish that they might as well scream, "Eat! Eat! You’re too thin!" They offer kosher hot dogs and sausages, too, but sadly, few desserts.
425-A Hayes, SF. (415) 431-2440
HOUSE OF BAGELS
The quaint Geary Street eatery goes beyond lox on an onion bagel. Some of the flavors seem downright sacrilegious chocolate? Corn? Whole wheat? but all are delicious with regular or specialty cream-cheese spreads like honey or strawberry. Aside from bagels, the House offers a selection of deli sandwiches and various knishes wrapped in warm doughy crust. Best of all are the free mini challahs and dessert samples on the counter, ready for noshing while you wait. The black-and-whites are the perfect cakey confection; and Jewish favorites like kugel, latkes, and hammentaschen round out the menu. But skip the matzo ball soup the matzoh balls fall apart and are as soupy as the unappetizing broth.
5030 Geary, SF. (415) 7526000, www.houseofbagels.com
MILLER’S EAST COAST WEST DELICATESSEN
Bleu cheese and bacon on a burger? Oy! Miller’s may not be the most kosher of delicatessens, but the meat-stacked sandwiches do a good job of adhering to the Jew-food tradition. Also, unlike the café Jack Nicholson visited in the Seven Easy Pieces, Miller’s is flexible with its offerings: do you want cream cheese and lox on a slice of toasted challah? It may not be on the menu, but you can surely get this lovely combination. It’s my usual that, plus a cup of the matzo ball soup, which has a good consistency and lots of veggies (though the broth could use some salt and a bay leaf). Get a big bowl of soup with a half-chicken and make a meal out of it, or turn it into a feast by adding latkes accompanied by an applesauce that’s like pie filling.
1725 Polk, SF. (415) 563- 3542, www.millersdelisf.com
MAX’S OPERA CAFÉ
This place seems a bit confused about what kind of restaurant it is, with deli-style items, diner decor, and a laminated menu that gives off a Denny’s vibe. But once inside, all that matters is the matzo ball soup, chock-full of vegetables, noodles, and generous cuts of lean chicken. Supplement it with traditional delights like corned beef, pastrami, or brisket with one of five mustard options, or try modern sandwiches like turkey with roasted pear and Brie. Another hearty option is the chicken potpie. Just beware: the servings are large and in charge.
601 Van Ness, SF. (415) 771-7300, www.maxsworld.com
TEL AVIV KOSHER MARKET
This is the place to be if you’re in need of some tasty kosher treats. They stock all of the essentials and beyond whether it be matzo meal, Passover desserts, challah, meats of all kinds, gefilte fish, turkey meatballs, wine, Israeli candy, or Bazooka bubble gum. The Jew-food fun never ends. They also have a pre-made section hosting a scrumptious medley of carrots, eggplant, challah dogs, knishes, hummus, tahini, and falafel that you can enjoy on-site at one of their two tables. The challah is downright addictive and made locally. And delights imported from the Holy Land are just as good and fun, like the dessert-in-a-box mix for chocolate balls dipped in sprinkles. (Follow the directions on the back, if you can read Hebrew.)
2495 Irving, SF, (415) 661-7588
The Muslim world has just wrapped up another Ramadan, the sacred month of fasting and reflection during which it’s said the Qu’ran was delivered to the Prophet Muhammed. What better time to explore some of the delicious Islamic-influenced restaurants of the Bay that feature halal food literally, "permitted" by Islamic law? Let’s get deliciously permissive!
Adherence to halal traditions is most manifest in certain types and slaughter of meat. Exact proscriptions vary, but here’s the main gist: no pork, donkey meat, or carnivorous animals except for seafood and fish; blood must be completely drained before butchering; and all animals must be conscious when killed by a "person of the book" Muslim, Christian, or Jew while Allah’s name is intoned. Halal fans, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, swear by the tenderness and flavor of such meats although that may have to do as much with cooking preparation as killing style. There’s a wealth of restaurants here that serve some heavenly halal dishes, and since Islam covers a good chunk of the globe, there’s a bounty of different cuisines to try. Most, but not all, halal spots will hang their certification in the window, and if you’d like to do the cooking yourself, halal meats are available at butcher shops such as Salama Halal Meat (604 Geary, SF. 415-474-0359), the goat-a-licious Alhambra Meat Company (3111 24th St., SF. 415-525-4499), or stunning variety store Queen of Sheba (1100 Sutter, SF. 415-567-4322). One halal holdback: alcohol is not usually served at these restaurants, so call ahead if you want some chardonnay with your tibsi. (Marke B.)
BANG SAN THAI
A surprise to me: there are oodles of Islamic enclaves in Thailand, a mainly Buddhist nation. Bang San is a beyond-cute little kitchen-counterlike eatery in the Tenderloin which serves only halal meats in its spicy Thai favorites especially good are the ginger beef pad king sod rice plate and the sweet red kang dang pumpkin curry kicked up with some jalapeño vinegar condiment. Bonus: satay to die for. The best part here, however, is the service even though Bang San’s operators had been fasting all day for Ramadan, they were out-of-control friendly and welcoming.
505 Jones, SF. (415) 440-2610, www.bangsanthai.com
Hunky Beau and I took our Swiss friend to this beloved Moroccan spot’s new digs on Polk Street (the street for halal restos) because, really, the Swiss know from Moroccan food. The verdict? Authentically fab. Tajines are Africa’s version of Asian clay-pot dishes, stewlike in texture and cooked to piping-hot goodness. The tajine of white beans with merquez sausage was a hearty delight, with smoky undertones steaming up through the done-just-right legumes, which on different menus tend to smother any and all other flavors. Also an instant hit was the tajine guanemy peel-off-the-bone lamb with artichoke hearts and peas, which delivered a spicy kick to match its neon green color.
1338 Polk, SF. (415) 440-1718, www.tajinerestaurant.com
DE AFGHANAN KABOB HOUSE
Intent on grabbing a bite to eat before the dragzilla Trannyshack Kiss-Off party up the street, I had the great fortune to order at this wee Nob Hill joint just as the first out Olympic gold medalist, Matthew Mitcham, was making his historic winning dive on the big screen. Kismet? The food more than matched my exuberance: I can’t imagine diving into a bigger Afghan taste bud celebration than that which resulted from my first forkful of quabili pallow (buttery chunks of lamb baked with carrots, raisins, and basmati brown rice) and mantu (steamed dumplings bursting with savory seasoned beef, topped with a cloud-light split-pea yogurt sauce). One specialty you shouldn’t miss: the bolani kadoo pumpkin turnover. Fall’s perfect snack? Yes.
1303 Polk, SF. 415-345-9947, www.deafghanan.net
OLD MANDARIN ISLAMIC
It’s pretty much an open secret that the popular but not too popular Old Mandarin is one of the most unique chow spots in the city. Um, Islamic Chinese food? Let’s go! It’s easy to go ape wild for the tiny, lively Outer Sunset resto’s specialties: hot pot, with a soup base, various spices and sauces, and a plateful of "animal parts" to cook yourself, and warm pot hot pot’s already-fully-assembled sibling. But for me the à la carte lamb dishes are the true stars, including super-spicy Mongolian lamb and delectably tangy cumin lamb. The unbeatable lamb dumplings (a.k.a. pot stickers) benefit from a night in the refrigerator, so get some to go.
3132 Vicente, SF. (415) 564-3481
HAYES AND KEBAB
This Hayes Valley newbie offers some sturdy Mediterranean favorites in a relaxed atmosphere, and is a lovely no-brainer for a not-too-dressy pre- or post-symphony bite. I’m a sucker for the chicken gyro served as a salad, with melt-in-your-mouth shredded chicken topping a robust mix of greens and veggies, dressed in a simple lemon-oil combo. The kebab plates are killer, too, with skewered lamb or beef delivered with a colorful side combo of rice and bulgar pilafs. "Alexander’s favorite" is another yummer: Thin-sliced marinated lamb and beef with bread cubes in fresh tomato sauce and yogurt. I don’t know who Alexander is, but I like him.
406 Hayes, SF. (415) 861-2977, www.hayeskebab.com
Contrary to popular belief, German cuisine is not an oxymoronic phrase. Though traditional food from the Fatherland does tend to be heavier on meat and carbs than the modern American diet, it like Southern food, which has been getting more respect from foodies in recent years is as capable of being nuanced, innovative, and highbrow as any of its more popular siblings (see: Spanish tapas, French everything.) For me, the secret to the perfect German restaurant is a place that balances tradition and modernity, in both cuisine and atmosphere. And then there’s the spaetzle, the paisley-shaped egg pasta that’s as ubiquitous a side dish in Germany as french fries are in America and one that’s hard to get right. Like gnocchi or risotto, the dish requires a certain attention to achieve its true potential. If the place does spaetzle well, you can assume it probably gets most other things right too. Guten appetit!
Best. Spaetzle. Ever. Yes, this place won the prize for all-around best German food in the Bay, with its traditional menu expertly executed in an understatedly chic setting: white walls, beer hallstyle tables, and a ceiling hung artistically with dried plants. The centerpiece is the bar, setting a casual, festive tone with plenty of beer choices. Everything I tried here was amazing, including a venison dish with cherry sauce. Potato pancakes were strange more like hashbrowns than potato patties but delicious. And the meal started with brown bread and chive butter, both excellent.
525 Laguna, SF. (415) 252-9289, www.suppenkuche.com
This small, intimate East German eatery has a fine dining feel and the cuisine to match without giving up tradition. Roulade is made with high-quality meat and a pickle spear as its center. Red cabbage strikes the perfect balance between sweet and sour. And the sauerkraut I took home was so delicious accented with caraway that I finished it before it made it to the fridge. The only disappointment was its spaetzle, which was a bit overcooked. Wine and beer offerings are fantastic, and there are several decent veggie menu options. The best indicator of its worthiness? Both the servers and the people sitting behind me were actually from Germany.
381 S. Van Ness, SF. (415) 551-7181, www.walzwerk.com
If there’s an American stereotype of a German restaurant, this is it except maybe smaller. The tiny, wood-panelled eatery has the feel of a mountain lodge and the hearty menu to match. Schnitzelhaus isn’t trying to jump on the modern cuisine train they’re just doing German food with simple earnestness. This place gets extra points for its extensive menu of schnitzels (true to its name) most places offer only two options, weiner (chicken or veal with lemon) or jaeger (pork with mushroom sauce) and its offerings of German wines. I was unimpressed with the spaetzle, which was thin, greasy, and not grilled enough. But the lentils are to die for.
294 Ninth St., SF. (415) 864-4038, www.schnitzel-haus.net
Left over from some kind of German American past (they’ve been around since 1893), Schroeder’s is like a German restaurant set up in an Elks lodge. It’s not trying to do the cutesy, kitschy thing: its decor is stark and no-frills. The food, too, is no nonsense decent, but not entirely remarkable. The potato pancakes were too dense and greasy for my taste. The jagerschnitzel was overbreaded though the mushroom sauce was delicious. The best thing about Schroeder’s, though, was the spaetzle, which was fluffy, doughy, and not too oily. Perhaps better for drinking than dining, you might want to check this place out on Fridays in October, when there’s live polka music.
240 Front, SF. (415) 421-4778, www.schroederssf.com
This beautiful Alameda outpost is an ideal option for those in the East Bay. The space is large, light, and sophisticated, including a beer garden illuminated by white lights and candles. Ideal for large celebrations and romantic dinners, this place features lots of beers on tap, a phenomenal wine list (by the glass and bottle), and a full bar, including a menu with several German-style cocktails (think fig vodka). The spaetzle and sauerkraut were both too greasy and the bread basket was unimpressive, but the atmosphere was perfect.
2425 Lincoln, Alameda. (510) 522-1300, www.speisekammer.com
There’s something perfect about a cooking class for an adult it’s a way to learn a new skill without making a huge commitment (Sure, I want to learn Italian but who has time to spend a semester on it, only to know how to ask for directions?); it’s a way to get closer to existing friends or to meet new people (especially singles-themed events); and it has a practical application (One must eat. One mustn’t necessarily, say, do cross-stitch). So I’ve researched a selection of what the Bay Area has to offer, whether you’re looking to strengthen partnerships, find new ones, or just change your relationship with your kitchen (it is, apparently, more than a place to keep your beer). The most important thing I’ve learned is that many classes offer similar tips, skills, and seasonal menus. And all intend to demystify or intensify your relationship with food. So when choosing a class, consider what it is you really want to get from it. Do you want to know how to make a gourmet meal for a dinner party? Do you want to meet new people and have a good time? Do you want to put some food in your freezer? Or do you just want to figure out what your gas range-top is good for other than lighting cigarettes when your Bic’s out of fuel? Lucky for you, in a culinary-focused city like this one, there’s a class for all of you. Here are some of my favorites.
THE CULINARY SALON
The only thing more charming than Chef Joe Wittenbrook is his teaching space: a quaint street-level apartment with a picture window in Duboce Triangle. Wittenbrook’s focus is on the whole experience. This is not necessarily the class where you’ll perfect techniques, but you’ll learn more than you ever expected to from the origin of the foods on your menu to special tips and tricks. His classes are small a recent Saturday course had five students and are therefore intimate and casual, made friendly and warm by Wittenbrook’s outgoing personality. Don’t forget the wine you’re welcome to imbibe during class as well as the European family-style meal you’ll share together afterward. Or, get four or six friends together and you can have him to yourself.
16-B Sanchez, SF. (415) 626-4379, www.theculinarysalon.com
FIRST CLASS COOKING
The structure of these courses, hosted by Emily Dellas at her stunning SoMa loft, is similar to Wittenbrook’s: everyone gets a list of recipes, takes turns preparing dishes, and shares the resulting meal together. As a food-lover without much formal training, though, her approach is to pass on her love for cooking to those who might be intimidated by it, demystifying dishes like profiteroles (the pastry base of cream puffs and éclairs). She likes to create menus that people can not only prepare themselves, but can feel good about eating on a regular basis light, healthy, and seasonal. Her courses have room for about 10 people apiece, which means less hands-on time for each person, but the potential for a more festive atmosphere. Bring a friend and a bottle of wine.
PARTIES THAT COOK
Though Parties That Cook does host public classes (in particular, one for singles at Sur La Table), its specialty is creating cooking-themed events for corporate team building or private gatherings. And the experience it provides is part class, part catered meal. PTC will come to your house or help you rent a space, bring ingredients and cooking utensils, organize staff to help with hands-on instruction, and, when the meal is done, serve you and your guests restaurant-style. As an ideal option when you want to create a special event according to your tastes, PTC can accommodate up to 600 people. PTC even offers a recipe deck, complete with illustrated instructions on 30 different small dishes, that you can purchase as party favors.
601 Minnesota, SF. (415) 441-3595, www.partiesthatcook.com
Though the independent kitchenware store hosts a variety of cooking classes, the cornerstone of its educational program is Essential Knife Skills, held monthly in the gorgeous, spacious teaching kitchen at the Katherine Michiels School. The concept of the course is to teach basic safety and techniques for wielding a cook’s most important weapon, with each of up to 10 people getting to practice at their own station (and getting one-on-one attention). A bit more formal than the private cooking classes, the course is divided in half by a lovely cheese-and-cracker break. Although it’s geared toward and useful to anyone, this seems like an ideal class for the intermediate cook who wants to develop the ability to cook more efficiently and beautifully. (Parents take note: the company Apron Strings [415-550-7976, www.apronstringssf.com] also hosts classes for kids at this lovely location.)
1335 Guerrero, SF. (415) 647-2665, www.cooksboulevard.com
Like Dellas, chef Marcus Gordon wants to teach that cooking should be fun and "anybody can do it." The native New Yorker hosts small classes (limited to five people) in the remodeled kitchen of his Noe Valley home, offering hands-on experience, tips and tricks, a shared meal after the class (including a cocktail but no drinking during class), and even food to take home. Most importantly, he wants his students to realize they can make better-than-restaurant cuisine at home and to enjoy his recipes of foods "that really jump around on your tongue."
29th St. (between Church and Dolores), SF. www.foodwizsf.com
There’s an old wives’ tale that eating cheese before bed will produce nightmares; but I’ve found that after nibbling a good Gruyère or a buttery Brie, my dreams are only about consuming more of that dairy delight. Whether you prefer yours drizzled with honey, spread on warm bread, or paired with a juicy red wine, the cheese plates at these six locations guarantee will feed your fromage fetish too.
The Danko experience can be intimidating. Before going, one has to be physically and mentally prepared (palate sharp, Food Lover’s Guide consulted at length), as well as financially stable (it’s a go-to spot for birthdays and anniversaries, usually ones ending in "5" and "0.") Those who prefer to get their feet wet first instead of cannonballing into the deep end might find the cheese plate a perfect starting point. It’s worth a trip to the upscale eatery for the cheese plate alone, because, as with everything else here, it’s both epic and elegant. There are 16 to 20 types of cheese to choose from, with seasonal variations but typically including picks from local farms in addition to harder-to-find selections. Options are wheeled around the restaurant on elegant silver carts, and the servers describe the flavor and origin of each one before cutting your cheese (yes, we did) while you watch.
800 North Point, SF. (415) 749-2060, www.garydanko.com
This cozy restaurant on 16th Street mostly carries Italian cheeses, augmented by a few artisanal American varieties. The chalkboard menu changes seasonally, with offerings you won’t find everywhere else. Not sure what you want? Sit at the bar or a small table and consult a cheese expert soon adjectives will be flying like so many white handkerchiefs. When you get your order, the cheeses are arranged simply, accompanied with toasted brown bread, nuts, and fruit. Prices range from $12$25 for three different sizes, making this place home to some of the more reasonably priced cheese plates we’ve found.
2931 16th St., SF. (415) 701-8466, barbambino.com
It is nigh impossible to ignore the cheese plates at wine bars, and Cav’s is probably the best of the bunch, thanks to its extensive selection. The current menu lists 20 cheeses, divided into cow, goat, sheep, and blue cheeses most from Europe but some from small American artisans. The menu contains helpful tasting notes on the cheeses, and the staff are definitely cheese sophisticates, so ask them about their favorites. At $20$85 per plate, this is one of the more spendy places, but it’s worthwhile for the substantial portions and the wonderful wine list.
1666 Market, SF. (415) 437-1770, cavwinebar.com
The cheese list at Absinthe may be concise with about 10 European and three American varieties but the plates stand out here because the cheeses are carefully chosen and thoughtfully paired. A French ash-rind goat’s milk cheese, for example, gets a garnish of glossy pickled cherries; marinated olives accompany a Spanish triple crème; and housemade candied kumquats balance a dry, tangy American blue. A single cheese with its pairing and toast points is $8, or you can make three selections for $22, or five for $38. You can also surrender to the decadence of your surroundings and try all, with accoutrements, for $99.
398 Hayes, SF. (415) 551-1590, absinthe.com
The formaggi at Uva Enoteca is formidable and comprises about a third of the nightly offerings. All the cheeses at Uva are Italian, and though the menu skips descriptions, well-informed servers are adept at describing the differences between a sheep’s milk cheese from Tuscany and a cow’s milk from Venice. The cheeses are served on a long wooden block, with various accompaniments ladled tableside, including a pear, apple, and black pepper compote, white truffle-scented honey, and sour cherry preserves. While elegant, Uva is decidedly unpretentious and surprisingly affordable: $10 gets you generous portions of three cheeses, $16 gets you five, and for $22 you can taste seven, which is almost half the menu.
568 Haight, SF. (415) 829-2024, uvaenoteca.com
What’s better than hitting the farmer’s market, grabbing some cheese, fruit, and a baguette, and doing a cheese plate yourself? Nothing, we say. Nothing’s better. The Cowgirl Creamery cheese shop at the Ferry Building is well known for its dizzying selection of cheeses from around the world, as well as for its own locally made, highly addictive varieties like Mt. Tam (a glorious, creamy cow’s milk) and St. Pat (a sharp, delicious goat’s milk with an herbed rind.) The cheesemongers at Cowgirl are unstumpable, and will let you try samples to your heart’s content.
1 Ferry Building #17, SF. (415) 362-9354, cowgirlcreamery.com
Going without breakfast can turn your brain into a fritzing light bulb that repeatedly buzzes: "Eat something … zzz … Eat something." But who wants to take the time for a real meal when you can press snooze another 10 times? Which is why, when in a rush, many of us settle for microwavable crap made from pasteurized American cheese and unpronounceable chemical substrates, or maybe a pastry and giant cup of coffee that steadily converts the cerebral cortex into a vapid hummingbird.
But it doesn’t have to be like that.
For a hearty, quality alternative route to keeping your blood sugar up, try these handy local breakfast spots. They prepare eggs and bacon for a couple bucks and a few minutes of your time. All these brekkies travel well in a messenger bag without leaking, and they are available all day. (Take note, fast-food restaurants. As it turns out, breakfast time comes between waking and going to work not just before 11 a.m.).
The fastest of the bunch is Metro Crepes in the Financial District. Inside the picturesque atrium of the Citigroup building, its little walk-up windows serve stuffed mini-pancakes in about the same time it takes to put cream and sugar in a cup of coffee. The Oakland Crepe, packed with egg, bacon, and cheese, is filling, yet light enough to avoid that big-breakfast food coma. And at $2.95 it won’t cramp your finances, either.
1 Sansome, SF. (415) 217-7060, www.metrocrepes.com
BLUE DANUBE COFFEE HOUSE
The crispiest bacon in town might be on the open-faced breakfast bagel at the Blue Danube in the Richmond District. Crunchy slices sit on top of tomato, egg, and cheddar that’s melted to perfection. The eggs are steamed, which keeps them from being too greasy and means that even when wrapped in a bulky box, the sandwich isn’t too sloppy to throw in a bag.
306 Clement, SF. (415) 221-9041
HOUSE OF COFFEE
Although known for its many varieties of excellent java, the folks here should be famous for the delicious Irish breakfast roll a fluffy sandwich roll accented with Irish sausage, bacon, cheese, and your choice of HP Sauce (a popular English and Irish condiment that tastes like bland A-1, and whose initials stand for "House of Parliament") or ketchup. The $5 sandwich doesn’t come with egg, but it can be added for 75 cents and the sucker’s served all day.
1618 Noriega, SF. (415) 681-9363 www.coffeesf.com
You can also try a version of House of Coffee’s specialty, minus cheese, at this comfy eatery. These rolls don’t come with HP sauce either, but if you’re feeling worldly, you can add it yourself there’s a bottle on each table of the homey restaurant.
2240 Taraval, SF. (415) 731-8818
This Sunset District outpost of the chain store may be the second-fastest breakfast game in town. Yes, eggs are microwaved and bacon’s precooked, but the resulting sandwiches are quick and tasty, if a tad oily.
742 Irving, SF. (415) 566-2761
At Katz’s Lower Haight location, the egg-mit-bagel thing has been worked out to a science. Order tags with all the possible fixings wait for the hungry crowd, and cooks pump breakfast out like a well-greased pan. Their bagels are fluffy, chewy, fresh, and quick plus, omelets are served in a matter of minutes. Try the wheat bagel, with its faint hint of cinnamon. I like these dedicated desayuno demigods who serve breakfast all day but don’t forget Katz ends its day at 2 p.m.
663 Haight, SF. (415) 863-1382
BOULANGE DE COLE
No matter where you live or work in the city, the Boulangeries are there for you. Born of a perfectionism that only the French can muster, this mini-chain is especially good for its delicious quiches. The chorizo quiche at Boulange De Cole wins the Goldilocks award for being not-too-spicy and not-too-bland, with sausage that’s not-too-oily, making it one clean, neat, tasty little egg pie.
1000 Cole, SF. (415) 242-2442, www.baybread.com
EL NORTEÑO TACO TRUCK
It’s a safe bet that half the police, thieves, judges, and trial lawyers in this city already know about the taco truck across from the San Francisco courthouse. Try the hefty breakfast burrito with a choice of chorizo, bacon, ham, or potatoes any time of day: cashiers don’t bat an eye when one’s ordered at 2 p.m. They just start frying them eggs ‘n’ bakey and get it out in about six minutes. And hey, if you’ve got to go up the river don’t do it on an empty stomach.
Harriet and Bryant streets, SF
For those morning ferry commuters, stop by this little shop in the Ferry Building. Featuring some of the recipes from Lulu, its big sister on Folsom, the menu includes two fancy-pants baked egg sandwiches with fontina cheese and heirloom tomatoes. One comes with roasted peppers and scallions, the other with sausage. Since both are served on levain bread, you’re sure to remember the complex flavor of this sandwich no matter how quickly you eat it.
Ferry Building, SF.
EAST BAY RACES
Alameda County Superior Court judge, Seat 9
A public interest lawyer with a focus on civil rights, Dennis Hayashi has worked for years with the Asian Law Caucus. He was co-counsel in the historic case that challenged Fred Korematsu’s conviction for refusing to report to a Japanese internment camp during World War II. He’s run the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing and was a civil rights lawyer in the Clinton administration. He has spent much of his life serving the public interest and would make a fine addition to the bench.
Tom Bates was a stellar member of the State Assembly once upon a time, and is seen in many quarters as a progressive icon in the East Bay. But he’s been a bit of a disappointment at times as mayor. He’s been dragging his feet on a Berkeley sunshine ordinance, he’s way too friendly with developers, and he helped gut the landmarks-preservation law. He’s supported some terrible candidates (like Gordon Wozniak).
Still, Bates has made some strides on workforce housing and on creating green jobs. He’s fought the University of California over its development plans. And he’s far, far better than his opponent, Shirley Dean.
Dean is even more pro-development than Bates. She’s terrible on tenant issues and won’t be able to work at all with the progressives on the council. We have reservations with Bates, but he’s the better choice.
Berkeley City Council
Moore came to the Berkeley City Council with a great track record. We endorsed him for this post in 2004, as did the Green Party. He supports instant-runoff voting and a sunshine ordinance. But he’s been awfully close to the developers and brags that he’s proud to have a high rating from the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce. His opponent, John Crowder, isn’t a serious contender, so we’ll go with Moore, with reservations.
Max Anderson is one of two real progressives on the council (the other is Kriss Worthington). Anderson, an ex-Marine, was one of the leaders in the battle against Marine recruitment in Berkeley and has been strong on environmental issues, particularly the fight against spraying the light brown apple moth. He deserves another term.
Dona Spring, who ably represented District 4 and was a strong progressive voice on the council, died in July, leaving a huge gap in Berkeley politics. The best choice to replace her is Jesse Arreguin, who currently works in the office of Councilmember Kriss Worthington.
Arreguin is the chair of the Rent Stabilization Board and has served on the Zoning Appeals Board and the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee, where he out-organized the moderates and pro-development sorts. He supports sustainable, community-based planning and would be an excellent addition to the council
This is a fairly moderate district, and incumbent Laurie Capitelli is the clear favorite. But Capitelli has been terrible on development issues and is too willing to go along with the mayor on land use. Sophie Hahn, a lawyer, is a bit cautious (she didn’t like the city’s involvement in the Marine recruitment center battle), but she’s a strong environmentalist who’s pushing a more aggressive bicycle policy. And she’s a big supporter of local small businesses and wants to promote a "shop local" program in Berkeley. She’s the better choice.
PHOEBE ANN SORGEN
Incumbent Betty Olds one of the most conservative members of the city council is retiring, and she’s endorsed her council aide, Susan Wengraf, for the seat. It’s not a district that tends to elect progressives, and Wengraf, former president of the moderate (and often pro-landlord) Berkeley Democratic Club, is the odds-on favorite.
We’re supporting Phoebe Ann Sorgen, who is probably more progressive than the district and lacks experience in city politics but who is solid on the issues. A member of the Peace and Justice Commission and the KPFA board, she’s pushing alternative-fuel shuttles between the neighborhoods and is, like Sophie Hahn, a proponent of shop-local policies.
Berkeley School Board
Incumbent John Selawsky has, by almost every account and by almost any standard, done a great job on the school board. He’s mixed progressive politics with fiscal discipline and helped pull the district out of a financial mess a few years back. He knows how to work with administrators, teachers, and neighbors. He richly deserves another term.
Beatriz Levya-Cutler is a parent of a Berkeley High School student and has run a nonprofit that provides preschool care and supplemental education to Berkeley kids. She has the support of everyone from Tom Bates to Kriss Worthington. We’ll endorse her too.
Berkeley Rent Board
The Berkeley left doesn’t always agree on everything, but there’s a pretty strong consensus in favor of this five-member slate for the Berkeley Rent Board. The five were nominated at an open convention, all have pledged to support tenant rights, and they will keep the board from losing it’s generally progressive slant.
Oakland City Council, at-large
Rebecca Kaplan, an AC Transit Board member, came in first in the June primary for this seat, well ahead of Kerry Hamill, but she fell short of 50 percent, so the two are in a runoff.
Hamill is the candidate of state Sen.(and East Bay kingmaker) Don Perata. Political committees with links to Perata have poured tens of thousands of dollars into a pro-Hamill campaign, and city council member Ignacio de la Fuente, a Perata ally, is raising money for Hamill too.
Kaplan is independent of the Perata political machine. She’s an energetic progressive with lots of good ideas and a proven track record in office. While on the AC Transit Board, Kaplan pushed for free bus passes for low-income youths. When she decided she wanted the district to offer all-night transit service from San Francisco, she found a way to work with both her own board and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to iron out the jurisdiction issues and get it done. Her platform calls for affordable housing, rational development, and effective community policing. She’s exactly the kind of candidate Oakland needs, and we’re happy to endorse her.
AC Transit Board of Directors
Chris Peeples was appointed to an open seat in 1997, elected in 1998, and reelected in 2000 and 2004. A longtime advocate for public transit, and AC Transit bus service in particular, Peeples is a widely respected board member who helped secure free transit for lower-income youths and the current low-cost youth passes. Involved in the AC Bus Riders Union, Alliance for AC Transit, Regional Alliance for Transit, Alliance for Sensible Transit, Coalition for a One-Stop Terminal, and many other transit groups, Peeples has served on the Oakland Ethics Commission and is active in the meetings of the Transportation Research Board and the American Public Transportation Association.
Peeples was also involved in the mess that was the Van Hool bus contract, in which AC Transit bought buses from a Belgian company that were poorly designed and had to be changed. Joyce Roy, who is well known in the East Bay for her lawsuit against the Oak to Ninth proposed development and her participation in the ensuing referendum effort, is challenging Peeples because of his support of the Van Hool buses. A retired architect and local public transit advocate, Roy lost the 2004 race for the AC Transit Board, Ward 2, post to current incumbent Greg Harper. But now she is running a stronger race because she has the support of the drivers and passengers, especially the seniors and the disabled, who find these buses uncomfortable and unsafe.
But given Peeples’s long history and generally good record, we’ll endorse him for another term.
An East Bay attorney and former Emeryville mayor, Greg Harper was elected in November 2000 and reelected in 2004 to represent Ward 2. Harper appears committed to ridership growth and has become increasingly critical of the district’s attempts to increase fares, not to mention the much maligned decision to purchase Van Hool buses. Harper is in favor of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and has a strong record of listening and being responsive to community concerns. He has said that if Berkeley votes to stop BRT-dedicated lanes, he’d only try to implement BRT in his district, if its makes sense.
East Bay Municipal Utility District
Director, Ward 5
With the East Bay falling short of targeted water savings, it’s increasingly vital that voters elect environmentally conscious EBMUD directors. Doug Linney fits the bill. First elected in 2002 and reelected in 2004, Linney is a solid progressive. Opposed to reservoir expansion, Linney wants to promote water conservation and is open to groundwater storage and water transfers, but only if no environmental damage is done.
Director, Ward 6
Incumbent William Patterson has supported dam and reservoir expansion, groundwater storage, wastewater recycling, and desalinization. He has opposed large water transfers from agricultural districts and rate changes that would promote conservation.
His opponent, Bob Feinbaum, is a solid environmentalist who supports water transfers, opposes desalinization and reservoir expansion, and offers promising and sustainable ideas in terms of managing the drought that include setting fair rates for big users and protecting low-income users. He deserves support.
East Bay Regional Parks District
Director, Ward 1
NORMAN LA FORCE
A longtime environmental advocate, Norman La Force has shown a commitment to expanding and preserving parks and open space and tenacity in balancing the public’s desire for recreational facilities and the need for habitat protection for wildlife. We’re happy to endorse him for this office.
EAST BAY MEASURES
Berkeley Measure FF
Measure FF would authorize $26 million in bonds to improve and bring up to code branch libraries in a city where the branches get heavy use and are a crucial part of the neighborhoods. Vote yes.
Berkeley Measure GG
Emergency medical response tax
A proposed tiny tax on improvements in residential and commercial property would fund emergency medical response and disaster preparedness. Vote yes.
Berkeley Measure HH
A legal technicality, Measure HH allows the city to raise the limit on spending so it can allocate taxes that have already been approved to pay for parks, libraries, and other key services.
Berkeley Measure II
This noncontroversial measure would give the city an additional year after the decennial census is completed to finish work on drawing new council districts. After the 2000 census, which undercounted urban populations, Berkeley (and other cities) had to fight to get the numbers adjusted, and that pushed the city up against a statutory limit for redistricting. Measure II would allow a bit more flexibility if, once again, the census numbers are hinky.
Berkeley Measure JJ
Medical marijuana zoning
Berkeley law allows for only three medical marijuana clinics, and this wouldn’t change that limit. But Measure JJ would make pot clinics a defined and permitted use under local zoning laws. Since it’s hard sometimes almost impossible to find a site for a pot club now, this measure would allow existing clinics to stay in business if they have to move. Vote yes.
Berkeley Measure KK
Repealing bus-only lanes
Yes, there are problems with the bus-only lanes in Berkeley (they don’t connect to the ferries, for example), but the idea is right. Measure KK would mandate voter approval of all new transit lanes; that’s crazy and would make it much harder for the city to create what most planners agree are essential new modes of public transit. Vote no.
Berkeley Measure LL
Developers in Berkeley (and, sad to say, Mayor Tom Bates) see the Landmarks Preservation Commission as an obstacle to development, and they want to limit its powers. This is a referendum on the mayor’s new rules; if you vote no, you preserve the ability of the landmarks board to protect property from development.
Oakland Measure N
This is a parcel tax to fund Oakland public schools. San Francisco just passed a similar measure, aimed at providing better pay for teachers. Parcel taxes aren’t the most progressive money source people who own modest homes pay the same per parcel as the owners of posh commercial buildings but given the lack of funding choices in California today, Measure N is a decent way to pay for better school programs. Vote yes.
Oakland Measure OO
Children and youth services
This is a set-aside to fund children and youth services. We’re always wary about set-asides, but kids are a special case: children can’t vote, and services for young people are often tossed aside in the budget process. San Francisco’s version of this law has worked well. Vote yes.
ALAMEDA COUNTY MEASURES
AC Transit parcel tax
In face of rising fuel costs and cuts in state funding, AC Transit wants to increase local funding to avoid fare increases and service cuts. Measure VV seeks to authorize an annual special parcel tax of $96 per year for 10 years, starting in 2009.
The money is intended for the operation and maintenance of the bus service. Two-thirds voter approval is needed. If passed, a community oversight committee would monitor how the money is being spent.
The measure has the support of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay Chapter and the League of Women Voters.
Extension of existing East Bay Park District bond
The East Bay Regional Park District operates 65 regional parks and more than a thousand miles of trails. It’s an amazing system and a wonderful resource for local residents. But the district needs ongoing sources of money to keep this system in good shape. Measure WW would reauthorize an existing East Bay Park District bond. This means that the owner of a $500,000 home would continue to pay $50 a year for the next 20 years.
One quarter of the monies raised would go to cities, special park and recreation districts, and county service areas. The remaining 75 percent would go toward park acquisitions and capital projects. The bonds constitute a moderate burden on property owners but seem like a small price to ensure access to open space for people of all economic backgrounds. Vote yes.
SAN FRANCISCO MEASURES
San Francisco General Hospital bonds
YES, YES, YES
This critically needed $887 million bond would be used to rebuild the San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, which is currently not up to seismic safety codes. If the hospital isn’t brought into seismic compliance by 2013, the state has threatened to shut it down.
Proposition A has the support of just about everyone in town: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, all four state legislators from San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom, former mayors Willie Brown and Frank Jordan, all 11 supervisors, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, Service Employees International Union, Local 1021 … the list goes on and on.
And for good reason: SF General is not only the hospital of last resort for many San Franciscans and the linchpin of the entire Healthy San Francisco system. It’s also the only trauma center in the area. Without SF General, trauma patients would have to travel to Palo Alto for the nearest available facility.
Just about the only opposition is coming from the Coalition for Better Housing. This deep-pocketed landlord group is threatening to sink the hospital bond unless it gets concessions on Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier’s legislation that would allow landlords to pass the costs of the $4 billion rebuild of the city’s Hetch Hetchy water, sewage, and power system through to their tenants.
These deplorable tactics should make voters, most of whom are tenants, even more determined to see Prop. A pass. Vote yes.
Affordable housing fund
YES, YES, YES
Housing isn’t just the most contentious issue in San Francisco; it’s the defining issue, the one that will determine whether the city of tomorrow bears any resemblance to the city of today.
San Francisco is on the brink of becoming a city of the rich and only the rich, a bedroom community for Silicon Valley and an urban nest for wealthy retirees. Some 90 percent of current city residents can’t afford the cost of a median-priced house, and working-class people are getting displaced by the day. Tenants are thrown out when their rent-controlled apartments are converted to condos. Young families find they can’t rent or buy a place with enough room for kids and are forced to move to the far suburbs. Seniors and people on fixed incomes find there are virtually no housing choices for them in the market, and many wind up on the streets. Small businesses suffer because their employees can’t afford to live here; the environment suffers because so many San Francisco workers must commute long distances to find affordable housing.
And meanwhile, the city continues to allow developers to build million-dollar condos for the rich.
Proposition B alone won’t solve the problem, but it would be a major first step. The measure would set aside a small percentage of the city’s property-tax revenue enough to generate about $33 million a year for affordable housing. It would set a baseline appropriation to defend the money the city currently spends on housing. It would expire in 15 years.
Given the state of the city’s housing crisis, $33 million is a fairly modest sum but with a guaranteed funding stream, the city can seek matching federal and state funds and leverage that over 15 years into billions of dollars to build housing for everyone from very low-income people to middle-class families.
Prop. B doesn’t raise taxes, and if the two revenue measures on the ballot, Propositions N and Q, pass, there will be more than enough money to fund it without any impact on city services.
The mayor and some other conservative critics say that set-asides such as this one cripple the ability of elected officials to make tough budget choices. But money for affordable housing isn’t a choice anymore in San Francisco; it’s a necessity. If the city can’t take dramatic steps to retain its lower-income and working-class residents, the city as we know it will cease to exist. A city of the rich is not only an appalling concept; it’s simply unsustainable.
The private market alone can’t solve San Francisco’s housing crisis. Vote yes on B.
Ban city employees from commissions
Proposition C would prohibit city employees from serving on boards and commissions. Sponsored by Sup. Jake McGoldrick, it seems to make logical sense why should a city department head, for example, sit on a policy panel that oversees city departments?
But the flaw in Prop. C is that it excludes all city employees, not just senior managers. We see no reason why, for example, a frontline city gardener or nurse should be barred from ever serving on a board or commission. We’re opposing this now, but we urge the supervisors to come back with a new version that applies only to employees who are exempt from civil service that is, managers and political appointees.
Financing Pier 70 waterfront district
Pier 70 was once the launching pad for America’s imperial ambitions in the Pacific, but it’s sadly fallen into disrepair, like most Port of San Francisco property. The site’s historic significance and potential for economic development (think Monterey’s Cannery Row) have led port officials and all 11 members of the Board of Supervisors to put forward this proposal to prime the pump with a public infrastructure investment that would be paid back with interest.
The measure would authorize the Board of Supervisors to enter into long-term leases consistent with the forthcoming land use and fiscal plans for the site, and to front the money for development of roads and waterfront parks, refurbishing Union Iron Works, and other infrastructure work, all of which would be paid back through tax revenue generated by development of the dormant site. It’s a good deal. Vote yes.
The recall is an important tool that dates back to the state’s progressive era, but San Francisco’s low signature threshold for removing an officeholder makes it subject to abuse. That’s why the Guardian called for this reform ("Reform the Recall," 6/13/07) last year when downtown interests were funding simultaneous recall efforts (promoted by single-issue interest groups) against three progressive supervisors: Jake McGoldrick, Aaron Peskin, and Chris Daly. The efforts weren’t successful, but they diverted time and energy away from the important work of running the city.
This measure would bring the City Charter into conformity with state law, raising the signature threshold from 10 percent of registered voters to 20 percent in most supervisorial districts, and leaving it at 10 percent for citywide office. The sliding-scale state standard is what most California counties use, offering citizens a way to remove unaccountable representatives without letting a fringe-group recall be used as an extortive threat against elected officials who make difficult decisions that don’t please everyone.
Mayoral election in even-numbered years
This one’s a close call, and there are good arguments on both sides. Sponsored by Sup. Jake McGoldrick, Proposition F would move mayoral elections to the same year as presidential elections. The pros: Increased turnout, which tends to favor progressive candidates, and some savings to the city from the elimination of an off-year election. The cons: The mayor’s race might be eclipsed by the presidential campaigns. In a city where the major daily paper and TV stations have a hard time covering local elections in the best of times, the public could miss out on any real scrutiny of mayoral candidates.
Here’s what convinced us: San Francisco hasn’t elected a true progressive mayor in decades. The system we have isn’t working; it’s worth trying something else.
Retirement system credit for unpaid parental leave
Proposition G brings equity to city employees who started families before July 1, 2003. Currently this group is unable to benefit from a 2002 charter amendment that provides city employees with paid parental leave. Prop. G gives these parents the opportunity to buy back unpaid parental leave and earn retirement credits for that period.
Critics charge that Prop. G changes the underlying premise of the city’s retirement plan and that this attempt to cure a perceived disparity creates a precedent whereby voters could be asked to remedy disparities anytime benefit changes are made. They claim that there are no guarantees Prop. G won’t end up costing the taxpayers money.
But Prop. G, which is supported by the San Francisco Democratic and Republican Parties, the Chamber of Commerce, SEIU Local 1021, the Police Officers Association, and San Francisco Firefighters 798, simply allows city workers to buy back at their own expense some of their missed retirement benefits, thereby creating a fiscally responsible solution to an oversight in the 2003 charter amendment.
Clean Energy Act
YES, YES, YES
Proposition H is long, long overdue. This charter amendment would require the city to study how to efficiently and affordably achieve 51 percent renewable energy by 2017, scaled up to 100 percent by 2040. Should the study find that a publicly owned utility infrastructure would be most effective, it would allow the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) to issue revenue bonds, with approval from the Board of Supervisors, to purchase the necessary lines, poles, and power-generation facilities. The measure includes a green jobs initiative and safeguards benefits and retirement packages for employees who leave Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to work for the SFPUC.
PG&E hates this because it could put the giant private company out of business in San Francisco, and the company has already spent millions of dollars spreading false information about the measure. PG&E says the proposal would cost $4 billion and raise electric bills by $400 a year for residents, but there’s no verifiable proof that these figures are accurate. An analysis done by the Guardian (see "Cleaner and Cheaper," 9/10/08) shows that rates could actually be reduced and the city would still generate excess revenue.
PG&E has also spun issuing revenue bonds without a vote of the people as a bad thing it’s not. Other city departments already issue revenue bonds without a vote. The solvency of revenue bonds is based on a guaranteed revenue stream that is, the city would pay back the bonds with the money it makes selling electricity. There’s no cost and no risk to the taxpayers. In fact, unless the city can prove that enough money would be generated to cover the cost of the bond plus interest, the bond won’t fly with investors.
At a time when utility companies are clinging to old technologies or hoping for pie-in-the-sky solutions like "clean coal," this measure is desperately needed and would set a precedent for the country. Environmental leaders like Bill McKibben and Van Jones, who both endorsed the bill, are watching San Francisco closely on this. Prop. H has been endorsed by 8 of the 11 supervisors, Assemblymembers Mark Leno and Fiona Ma, state senator Carole Migden, the Democratic Party, the Green Party, SEIU Local 1021, the Sierra Club, Senior Action Network, the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, and the San Francisco Tenants Union, among many others.
The bulk of the opposition comes from PG&E, which is entirely funding the No on H campaign and paid for 22 of 30 ballot arguments against it. The company also has given money, in one way or another, to all the public officials who oppose this measure, including Mayor Gavin Newsom, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and Sups. Michela Alioto-Pier, Carmen Chu, and Sean Elsbernd.
Prop. H pits a utility that can’t meet the state’s modest renewable-energy goals and runs a nuclear power plant against every environmental group and leader in town. Vote yes.
Independent ratepayer advocate
At face value, this measure isn’t bad, but it’s superfluous. It’s a charter amendment that would establish an independent ratepayer advocate, appointed by the city administrator and tasked with advising the SFPUC on all things related to utility rates and revenue. Passing Prop. H would do that too.
Proposition I was put on the ballot by Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier as a way to save face after her ardent opposition to the city’s plan to build two peaker power plants, in which she made impassioned pleas for more renewable energy and more energy oversight. (She opposes Prop. H, which would create both.) During the debate over the peaker power plants, Alioto-Pier introduced a variety of bills, including this one. There isn’t any visible campaign or opposition to it, but there’s no need for it. Vote yes on H, and no on I.
Historic preservation commission
There’s something in this measure for everyone to like, both the developers who seek to alter historic buildings and the preservationists who often oppose them. It adopts the best practices of other major US cities and updates 40-year-old rules that govern the Landmark Preservation Advisory Board.
Proposition J, sponsored by Sup. Aaron Peskin, would replace that nine-member board with a seven-member commission that would have a bit more authority and whose members would be preservation experts appointed by the mayor, approved by the board, and serving fixed terms to avoid political pressures. It would set review standards that vary by project type, allowing streamlined staff-level approval for small projects and direct appeals to the Board of Supervisors for big, controversial proposals.
This was a collaborative proposal with buy-in from all stakeholders, and it’s formally opposed only by the Small Property Owners of San Francisco, an extremist property rights group. Vote yes.
Decriminalizing sex work
We’re not big fans of vice laws; generally speaking, we’ve always believed that drugs, gambling, and prostitution ought to be legalized, tightly regulated, and heavily taxed. Proposition K doesn’t go that far all it does is make enforcement of the prostitution laws a low priority for the San Francisco Police Department. It would effectively cut off funding for prostitution busts but would require the cops to pursue cases involving violent crime against sex workers.
The opponents of this measure talk about women who are coerced into sex work, particularly immigrants who are smuggled into the country and forced into the trade. That’s a serious problem in San Francisco. But the sex workers who put this measure on the ballot argue that taking the profession out of the shadows would actually help the police crack down on sex trafficking.
In fact, a significant part of the crime problem created by sex work involves crimes against the workers violent and abusive pimps, atrocious working conditions, thefts and beatings by johns who face no consequences because the sex workers face arrest if they go to the police.
The current system clearly isn’t working. Vote yes on K.
Funding the Community Justice Center
This measure is an unnecessary and wasteful political gimmick by Mayor Newsom and his downtown allies. Newsom has long pushed the Community Justice Center (CJC) as a panacea for quality-of-life crimes in the Tenderloin and surrounding areas, where the new court would ostensibly offer defendants immediate access to social service programs in lieu of incarceration. Some members of the Board of Supervisors resisted the idea, noting that it singles out poor people and that the services it purports to offer have been decimated by budget shortfalls. Nonetheless, after restoring deep cuts in services proposed by the mayor, the board decided to go ahead and fund the CJC.
But the mayor needed an issue to grandstand on this election, so he placed this measure on the ballot. All Proposition L would do is fund the center at $2.75 million for its first year of operations, rather than the approved $2.62 million. We’d prefer to see all that money go to social services rather than an unnecessary new courtroom, but it doesn’t the court is already funded. In the meantime, Prop. L would lock in CJC program details and prevent problems from being fixed by administrators or supervisors once the program is up and running. Even if you like the CJC, there’s no reason to make it inflexible simply so Newsom can keep ownership of it. Vote no.
Proposition M would amend the city’s rent-control law to prohibit landlords from harassing tenants. It would allow tenants to seek rent reductions if they’re being harassed.
Proponents including the SF Tenants Union, the Housing Rights Committee, St. Peter’s Housing Committee, the Community Tenants Association, the Affordable Housing Alliance, the Eviction Defense Collaborative, and the Tenderloin Housing Clinic argue that affordable, rent-controlled housing is being lost because landlords are allowed to drive long-term tenants from their rent-controlled homes. Citing the antics of one of San Francisco’s biggest landlords, CitiApartments, the tenant activists complain about repeated invasions of privacy, constant buyout offers, and baseless bogus eviction notices.
Because no language currently exists in the rent ordinance to define and protect tenants from harassment, landlords with well-documented histories of abuse have been able to act with impunity. Vote Yes on M.
Real property transfer tax
YES, YES, YES
Prop. N is one of a pair of measures designed to close loopholes in the city tax code and bring some badly needed new revenue into San Francisco’s coffers. The proposal, by Sup. Aaron Peskin, would increase to 1.5 percent the transfer tax on the sale of property worth more than $5 million. It would generate about $30 million a year.
Prop. N would mostly affect large commercial property sales; although San Francisco housing is expensive, very few homes sell for $5 million (and the people buying and selling the handful of ultra-luxury residences can well afford the extra tax). It’s a progressive tax the impact will fall overwhelmingly on very wealthy people and big business and this change is long overdue. Vote yes.
Emergency response fee
YES, YES, YES
With dozens of state and local measures on the ballot this year, Proposition O is not getting much notice but it’s a big deal. If it doesn’t pass, the city could lose more than $80 million a year. With the economy tanking and the city already running structural deficits and cutting essential services, that kind of hit to the budget would be catastrophic. That’s why the mayor, all 11 supervisors, and both the Republican and Democratic Parties support Prop. O.
The text of the measure is confusing and difficult to penetrate because it deals mainly with legal semantics. It’s on the ballot because of arcane legal issues that might make it hard for the city to enforce an existing fee in the future.
But here’s the bottom line: Prop. O would not raise taxes or increase the fees most people already pay. It would simply replace what was a modest "fee" of a couple of bucks a month to fund 911 services with an identical "tax" for the same amount, while also updating the technical definition of what constitutes a phone line from a now defunct 1970s-era statute. The only people who might wind up paying any new costs are commercial users of voice-over-internet services.
It’s very simple. If Prop. O passes, the vast majority of us won’t pay anything extra and the city won’t have to make $80 to $85 million more in cuts to things like health care, crime prevention, and street maintenance. That sounds like a pretty good deal to us. Vote yes.
Transportation Authority changes
NO, NO, NO
Mayor Gavin Newsom is hoping voters will be fooled by his argument that Proposition P, which would change the size and composition of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, would lead to more efficiency and accountability.
But as Prop. P’s opponents including all 11 supervisors, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, and the Sierra Club point out, the measure would put billions of taxpayer dollars in the hands of political appointees, thus removing independent oversight of local transportation projects.
The Board of Supervisors, which currently serves as the governing body of the small but powerful, voter-created Transportation Authority, has done a good job of acting as a watchdog for local sales-tax revenues earmarked for transportation projects and administering state and federal transportation funding for new projects. The way things stand, the mayor effectively controls Muni, and the board effectively controls the Transportation Authority, providing a tried and tested system of checks and balances that gives all 11 districts equal representation. There is no good reason to upset this apple cart. Vote No on P.
Modifying the payroll tax
YES, YES, YES
Proposition Q would close a major loophole that allows big law firms, architecture firms, medical partnerships, and other lucrative outfits to avoid paying the city’s main business tax. San Francisco collects money from businesses largely through a 1.5 percent tax on payroll. It’s not a perfect system, and we’d like to see a more progressive tax (why should big and small companies pay the same percentage tax?). But even the current system has a giant problem that costs the city millions of dollars a year.
The law applies to the money companies pay their employees. But in a fair number of professional operations, the highest-paid people are considered "partners" and their income is considered profit-sharing, not pay. So the city’s biggest law firms, where partners take home hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in compensation, pay no city tax on that money.
Prop. Q would close that loophole and treat partnership income as taxable payroll. It would also exempt small businesses (with payrolls of less than $250,000 a year) from any tax at all.
The proposal would bring at least $10 million a year into the city and stop certain types of businesses from ducking their share of the tax burden. Vote yes.
Naming sewage plant after Bush
This one has tremendous emotional and humor appeal. It would officially rename the Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant the George W. Bush Sewage Plant. That would put San Francisco in the position of creating the first official memorial to the worst president of our time and his name would be on a sewage plant.
The problem not to be killjoys is that sewage treatment is actually a pretty important environmental concern, and the Oceanside plant is a pretty good sewage treatment plant. It’s insulting to the plant, and the people who work there, to put the name of an environmental villain on the door.
Let’s name something awful after Bush. Vote no on Prop. R.
Budget set-aside policy
This measure is yet another meaningless gimmick that has more to do with Mayor Newsom’s political ambitions than good governance.
For the record, we generally don’t like budget set-aside measures, which can unnecessarily encumber financial planning and restrict elected officials from setting budget priorities. But in this no-new-taxes political era, set-asides are sometimes the only way to guarantee that important priorities get funding from the static revenue pool. Newsom agrees and has supported set-asides for schools, libraries, and other popular priorities.
Now he claims to want to rein that in, although all this measure would do is state whether a proposal identifies a funding source or violates a couple of other unenforceable standards. Vote no.
Free and low-cost substance abuse treatment
Proposition T would require the Department of Public Health (DPH) to make medical and residential substance abuse treatment available for low-income and homeless people who request it. DPH already offers treatment and does it well, but there’s a wait list 500 people long and when addicts finally admit they need help and show up for treatment, the last thing the city should do is send them away and make them wait.
Prop. T would expand the program to fill that unmet need. The controller estimates an annual cost to the General Fund of $7 million to $13 million, but proponents say the upfront cost would lead to significant savings later. For every dollar spent on treatment, the city saves as much as $13 because clinical treatment for addictive disorders is cheaper than visits to the emergency room, where many low-income and homeless people end up when their untreated problems reach critical levels.
This ordinance was put on the ballot by Sups. Daly, McGoldrick, Mirkarimi, and Peskin, and has no visible opposition, although some proponents frame it as a way to achieve what the Community Justice Center only promises. Vote yes.
Defunding the Iraq War
Proposition U is a declaration of policy designed to send a message to the city’s congressional representatives that San Francisco disproves of any further funding of the war in Iraq, excepting whatever money is required to bring the troops home safely.
The progressive block of supervisors put this on the ballot, and according to their proponent argument in the Voter Information Pamphlet, the Iraq War has cost California $68 billion and San Francisco $1.8 billion. The Republican Party is the lone voice against this measure. Vote yes.
Bringing back JROTC
NO, NO, NO
The San Francisco school board last year voted to end its Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, which was the right move. A military-recruitment program and make no mistake, that’s exactly what JROTC is has no place in the San Francisco public schools. The board could have done a better job finding a replacement program, but there are plenty of options out there.
In the meantime, a group of JROTC backers placed Proposition V on the ballot.
The measure would have no legal authority; it would just be a statement of policy. Supporters say they hope it will pressure the school board to restore the program. In reality, this is a downtown- and Republican-led effort to hurt progressive candidates in swing districts where JROTC might be popular. Vote no.
SAN FRANCISCO RACES
Board of Supervisors
The incumbent District 1 supervisor, Jake McGoldrick, likes to joke that he holds his seat only because Eric Mar’s house burned down eight years ago. Back then Mar, who has had a stellar career on the school board, decided to wait before seeking higher office.
But now McGoldrick overall a good supervisor who was wrong on a few key votes is termed out, and progressive San Francisco is pretty much unanimous in supporting Mar as his successor.
Mar, a soft-spoken San Francisco State University teacher, was a strong critic of former school superintendent Arlene Ackerman and a leader in the battle to get the somewhat dictatorial and autocratic administrator out of the district. He’s been a key part of the progressive majority that’s made substantial progress in improving the San Francisco public schools.
He’s a perfect candidate for District 1. He has strong ties to the district and its heavily Asian population. He’s a sensible progressive with solid stands on the key issues and a proven ability to get things done. He supports the affordable housing measure, Proposition B; the Clean Energy Act, Proposition H; and the major new revenue measures. He’s sensitive to tenant issues, understands the need for a profound new approach to affordable housing, and wants to solve the city’s structural budget problems with new revenue, not just cuts.
His chief opponent, Sue Lee, who works for the Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t support Prop. H and won’t even commit to supporting district elections. She ducked a lot of our questions and was either intentionally vague or really has no idea what she would do as a supervisor. She’s no choice for the district, and we found no other credible candidates worthy of our endorsement. Vote for Eric Mar.
1. DAVID CHIU
2. DENISE MCCARTHY
3. TONY GANTNER
The danger in this district is Joe Alioto. He’s smooth, he’s slick, he’s well funded and he would be a disaster for San Francisco. Make no mistake about it, Alioto is the candidate of downtown and thanks to his famous name and wads of big-business cash, he’s a serious contender.
Two progressive candidates have a chance at winning this seat and keeping Alioto off the board. David Chiu is a member of the Small Business Commission (SBC) and the Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) and is a former civil rights lawyer who now manages a company that sells campaign software. Denise McCarthy ran the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center for 25 years and spent 7 years on the Port Commission.
Tony Gantner, a retired lawyer, is also in the race, although he is running well behind the others in the polls.
We have concerns about all the candidates. Chiu has a solid progressive record as a commissioner and committee member: He was one of only two SBC members who supported the living-wage ordinance and Sup. Tom Ammiano’s city health care plan. He backed Sup. Aaron Peskin, his political mentor, for chair of the DCCC. He backs Prop. H, supports the two revenue measures and the affordable-housing fund, and wants to give local small businesses a leg up in winning city contracts. He has some creative ideas about housing, including a community stabilization fee on new development.
He’s also a partner in a company that received $143,000 last year from PG&E and that has worked with Republicans and some nasty business interests.
Chiu says he doesn’t get to call all the shots at Grassroots Enterprises, which he cofounded. He describes the firm as a software-licensing operation, which isn’t exactly true the company’s own Web site brags about its ability to offer broad-based political consulting and communication services.
But Chiu vowed to resign from the company if elected, and given his strong record on progressive issues, we’re willing to take a chance on him.
McCarthy has a long history in the neighborhood, and we like her community perspective. She supports Prop. H and the affordable-housing measure. She’s a little weak on key issues like the city budget she told us she "hadn’t been fully briefed," although the budget is a public document and the debate over closing a massive structural deficit ought to be a central part of any supervisorial campaign. And while she said there "have to be some new taxes," she was very vague on where new revenue would come from and what specifically she would be willing to cut. She supported Gavin Newsom for mayor in 2003 and told us she doesn’t think that was a bad decision. It was. But she has by far the strongest community ties of any candidate in District 3. She’s accessible (even listing her home phone number in her campaign material), and after her years on the Port Commission, she understands land-use issues.
Gantner has been a supporter of the Clean Energy Act from the start and showed up for the early organizing meetings. He has the support of the Sierra Club and San Francisco Tomorrow and talks a lot about neighborhood beatification. But we’re a little nervous about his law-and-order positions, particularly his desire to crack down on fairs and festivals and his strong insistence that club promoters are responsible for all the problems on the streets.
But in the end, Chiu, McCarthy, and Gantner are all acceptable candidates, and Joe Alioto is not. Fill your slate with these three.
What a mess.
We acknowledge that this is one of the more conservative districts in the city. But the incumbent, Carmen Chu, and her main opponent, Ron Dudum, are terrible disappointments.
It’s possible to be a principled conservative in San Francisco and still win progressive respect. We often disagreed over the years with Quentin Kopp, the former supervisor, state senator, and judge, but we never doubted his independence, sincerity, or political skills. Sean Elsbernd, who represents District 7, is wrong on most of the key issues, but he presents intelligent arguments, is willing to listen, and isn’t simply a blind loyalist of the mayor.
Chu has none of those redeeming qualities. She ducks questions, waffles on issues, and shows that she’s willing to do whatever the powerful interests want. When PG&E needed a front person to carry the torch against the Clean Energy Act, Chu was all too willing: she gave the corrupt utility permission to use her name and face on campaign flyers, signed on to a statement written by PG&E’s political flak, and permanently disgraced herself. She says that most of the problems in the city budget should be addressed with cuts, particularly cuts in public health and public works, but she was unable to offer any specifics. She refused to support the measure increasing the transfer tax on property sales of more than $5 million, saying that she didn’t want to create "a disincentive to those sales taking place." We asked her if she had ever disagreed with Newsom, who appointed her, and she could point to only two examples: she opposed his efforts to limit cigarette sales in pharmacies, and she opposed Saturday road closures in Golden Gate Park. In other words, the only times she doesn’t march in lockstep with the mayor is when Newsom actually does something somewhat progressive. We can’t possibly endorse her.
Dudum, who ran a small business and tried for this office two years ago, continues to baffle us. He won’t take a position on anything. Actually, that’s not true he’s opposed to the Clean Energy Act. Other than that, it’s impossible to figure out where he stands on anything or what he would do to address any of the city’s problems. (An example: When we asked him what to do about the illegal second units that have proliferated in the district, he said he’d solve the problem in two years. How? He couldn’t say.) We like Dudum’s small-business sentiments and his independence, but until he’s willing to take some stands and offer some solutions, we can’t support him.
Which leaves Dave Ferguson.
Ferguson is a public school teacher with little political experience. He’s a landlord, and not terribly good on tenant issues (he said he supported rent control when he was a renter, but now that he owns a four-unit building, he’s changed his mind). But he supports Prop. H, supports Prop. B, supports the revenue measures, and has a neighborhood sensibility. Ferguson is a long shot, but he’s the only candidate who made anything approaching a case for our endorsement.
Mirkarimi won this seat four years ago after a heated race in a crowded field, and he’s quickly emerged as one of the city’s most promising progressive leaders. He understands that a district supervisor needs to take on tough citywide issues (he’s the lead author of the Clean Energy Act and won a surprisingly tough battle to ban plastic bags in big supermarkets) as well as dealing with neighborhood concerns. Mirkarimi helped soften a terrible plan for developing the old UC Extension site and fought hard to save John Swett School from closure.
But the area in which he’s most distinguished himself is preventing violent crime something progressives have traditionally had trouble with. Four years ago, District 5 was plagued with terrible violence: murders took place with impunity, the police seemed unable to respond, and the African American community was both furious and terrified. Mirkarimi took the problem on with energy and creativity, demanding (and winning, despite mayoral vetoes) police foot patrols and community policing. Thanks to his leadership, violent crime is down significantly in the district and the left in San Francisco has started to develop a progressive agenda for the crime problem.
He has no serious opposition, and richly deserves reelection.
We rarely see eye to eye with the District 7 incumbent. He’s on the wrong side of most of the key votes on the board. He’s opposing the affordable housing measure, Prop. B. He’s opposed to the Clean Energy Act, Prop. H. It’s annoying to see someone who presents himself as a neighborhood supervisor siding with PG&E and downtown over and over again.
But Elsbernd is smart and consistent. He’s a fiscal conservative with enough integrity that he isn’t always a call-up vote for the mayor. He’s accessible to his constituents and willing to engage with people who disagree with him. The progressives on the board don’t like the way he votes but they respect his intelligence and credibility.
Unlike many of the candidates this year, Elsbernd seems to understand the basic structural problem with the city budget, and he realizes that the deficit can’t be reduced just with spending cuts. He’s never going to be a progressive vote, but this conservative district could do worse.
1. DAVID CAMPOS
2. ERIC QUEZADA
3. MARK SANCHEZ
The race to succeed Tom Ammiano, who served this district with distinction and is now headed for the State Legislature, is a case study in the advantages of district elections and ranked-choice voting. Three strong progressive candidates are running, and the MissionBernal Heights area would be well served by any of them. So far, the candidates have behaved well, mostly talking about their own strengths and not trashing their opponents.
The choice was tough for us we like David Campos, Eric Quezada, and Mark Sanchez, and we’d be pleased to see any of them in City Hall. It’s the kind of problem we wish other districts faced: District 9 will almost certainly wind up with one of these three stellar candidates. All three are Latinos with a strong commitment to immigrant rights. All three have strong ties to the neighborhoods. Two are openly gay, and one is a parent. All three have endorsements from strong progressive political leaders and groups. All three have significant political and policy experience and have proven themselves accessible and accountable.
And since it’s almost inconceivable that any of the three will collect more than half of the first-place votes, the second-place and third-place tallies will be critical.
Campos, a member of the Police Commission and former school district general counsel, arrived in the United States as an undocumented immigrant at 14. He made it to Stanford University and Harvard Law School and has worked as a deputy city attorney (who helped the city sue PG&E) and as a school district lawyer. He’s been a progressive on the Police Commission, pushing for better citizen oversight and professional police practices. To his credit, he’s stood up to (and often infuriated) the Police Officers’ Association, which is often a foe of reform.
Campos doesn’t have extensive background in land-use issues, but he has good instincts. He told us he’s convinced that developers can be forced to provide as much as 50 percent affordable housing, and he thinks the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan lacks adequate low-cost units. He supports the revenue measures on the ballot and wants to see big business paying a fair share of the tax burden. He argues persuasively that crime has to become a progressive issue, and focuses on root causes rather than punitive programs. Campos has shown political courage in key votes he supported Theresa Sparks for Police Commission president, a move that caused Louise Renne, the other contender, to storm out of the room in a fit of cursing. He backed Aaron Peskin for Democratic Party chair despite immense pressure to go with his personal friend Scott Weiner. Ammiano argues that Campos has the right qualities to serve on the board particularly the ability to get six votes for legislation and we agree.
Eric Quezada has spent his entire adult life fighting gentrification and displacement in the Mission. He’s worked at nonprofit affordable-housing providers, currently runs a homeless program, and was a cofounder of the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition. Although he’s never held public office, he has far more experience with the pivotal issues of housing and land use than the other two progressive candidates.
Quezada has the support of Sup. Chris Daly (although he doesn’t have Daly’s temper; he’s a soft-spoken person more prone to civil discussion than fiery rhetoric). If elected, he would carry on Daly’s tradition of using his office not just for legislation but also as an organizing center for progressive movements. He’s not as experienced in budget issues and was a little vague about how to solve the city’s structural deficit, but he would also make an excellent supervisor.
Mark Sanchez, the only Green Party member of the three, is a grade-school teacher who has done a tremendous job as president of the San Francisco school board. He’s helped turn that panel from a fractious and often paralyzed political mess into a strong, functioning operation that just hired a top-notch new superintendent. He vows to continue as an education advocate on the Board of Supervisors.
He told us he thinks he can be effective by building coalitions; he already has a good working relationship with Newsom. He’s managed a $500 million budget and has good ideas on both the revenue and the spending side he thinks too much money goes to programs like golf courses, the symphony, and the opera, whose clients can afford to cover more of the cost themselves. He wants a downtown congestion fee and would turn Market Street into a pedestrian mall. Like Campos, he would need some education on land-use issues (and we’re distressed that he supports Newsom’s Community Justice Center), but he has all the right political instincts. He has the strong support of Sup. Ross Mirkarimi. We would be pleased to see him on the Board of Supervisors.
We’ve ranked our choices in the order we think best reflects the needs of the district and the city. But we also recognize that the progressive community is split here (SEIU Local 1021 endorsed all three, with no ranking), and we have nothing bad to say about any of these three contenders. The important thing is that one of them win; vote for Campos, Quezada, and Sanchez in that order, or in whatever order makes sense for you. Just vote for all three.
1. JOHN AVALOS
2. RANDY KNOX
3. JULIO RAMOS
This is one of those swing districts where either a progressive or a moderate could win. The incumbent, Gerardo Sandoval, who had good moments and not-so-good moments but was generally in the progressive camp, is termed out and running for judge.
The strongest and best candidate to succeed him is John Avalos. There are two other credible contenders, Randy Knox and Julio Ramos and one serious disaster, Ahsha Safai.
Avalos has a long history of public-interest work. He’s worked for Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, for the Justice for Janitors campaign, and as an aide to Sup. Chris Daly. Since Daly has served on the Budget Committee, and at one point chaired it, Avalos has far more familiarity with the city budget than any of the other candidates. He understands that the city needs major structural reforms in how revenue is collected, and he’s full of new revenue ideas. Among other things, he suggests that the city work with San Mateo County to create a regional park district that could get state funds (and could turn McLaren Park into a destination spot).
He has a good perspective on crime (he supports community policing along with more police accountability) and wants to put resources into outreach for kids who are at risk for gang activity. He was the staff person who wrote Daly’s 2006 violence prevention plan. He wants to see more affordable housing and fewer luxury condos in the eastern neighborhoods and supports a congestion fee for downtown. With his experience both at City Hall and in community-based organizations, Avalos is the clear choice for this seat.
Randy Knox, a criminal defense lawyer and former member of the Board of Appeals, describes himself as "the other progressive candidate." He supports Prop. H and the affordable-housing fund. He links the crime problem to the fact that the police don’t have strong ties to the community, and wants to look for financial incentives to encourage cops to live in the city. He wants to roll back parking meter rates and reduce the cost of parking tickets in the neighborhoods, which is a populist stand but that money goes to Muni, and he’s not sure how to replace it. He does support a downtown congestion fee.
Knox wasn’t exactly an anti-developer stalwart on the Board of Appeals, but we’ll endorse him in the second slot.
Julio Ramos has been one of the better members of a terrible community college board. He’s occasionally spoken up against corruption and has been mostly allied with the board’s progressive minority. He wants to build teacher and student housing on the reservoir adjacent to City College. He suggests that the city create mortgage assistance programs and help people who are facing foreclosure. He suggests raising the hotel tax to bring in more money. He supports public power and worked at the California Public Utilities Commission’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates, where he tangled with PG&E.
We’re backing three candidates in this district in part because it’s critical that Safai, the candidate of Mayor Newsom, downtown, and the landlords, doesn’t get elected. Safai (who refused to meet with our editorial board) is cynically using JROTC as a wedge against the progressives, even though the Board of Supervisors does not have, and will never have, a role in deciding the future of that program. He needs to be defeated, and the best way to do that is to vote for Avalos, Knox, and Ramos.
Board of Education
Two of the stalwart progressive leaders on the San Francisco School Board Mark Sanchez and Eric Mar are stepping down to run for supervisor. That’s a huge loss, since Mar and Sanchez were instrumental in getting rid of the autocratic Arlene Ackerman, replacing her with a strong new leader and ending years of acrimony on the board. The schools are improving dramatically this year, for the first time in ages, enrollment in kindergarten actually went up. It’s important that the progressive policies Mar and Sanchez promoted continue.
Sandra Fewer is almost everyone’s first choice for the board. A parent who sent three kids to the San Francisco public schools, she’s done an almost unbelievable amount of volunteer work, serving as a PTA president for 12 terms. She currently works as education policy director at Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth. She knows the district, she knows the community, she’s full of energy and ideas, and she has the support of seven members of the Board of Supervisors and five of the seven current school board members.
Fewer supports the new superintendent and agrees that the public schools are getting better, but she’s not afraid to point out the problems and failures: She notes that other districts with less money are doing better. She wants to make the enrollment process more accessible to working parents and told us that race ought to be used as a factor in enrollment if that will help desegregate the schools and address the achievement gap. She’s against JROTC in the schools.
We’re a little concerned that Fewer talks about using district real estate as a revenue source selling public property is always a bad idea. But she’s a great candidate and we’re happy to endorse her.
Norman Yee, the only incumbent we’re endorsing, has been something of a mediator and a calming influence on an often-contentious board. He helped push for the 2006 facilities bond and the parcel tax to improve teacher pay. He’s helped raise $1 million from foundations for prekindergarten programs. He suggests that the district take the radical (and probably necessary) step of suing the state to demand adequate funding for education. Although he was under considerable pressure to support JROTC, he stood with the progressives to end the military program. He deserves another term.
Barbara "Bobbi" Lopez got into the race late and has been playing catch-up. She’s missed some key endorsements and has problems with accessibility. But she impressed us with her energy and her work with low-income parents. A former legal support worker at La Raza Centro Legal, she’s now an organizer at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, working with immigrant parents. She’s fought to get subsidized Muni fares for SFUSD students. Her focus is on parent involvement and while everyone talks about bringing parents, particularly low-income and immigrant parents, more directly into the education process, Lopez has direct experience in the area.
Kimberly Wicoff has a Stanford MBA, and you can tell she talks in a sort of business-speak with lots of reference to "outcomes." She has no kids. But she’s currently working with a nonprofit that helps low-income families in Visitacion Valley and Hunters Point, and we liked her clearheaded approach to the achievement gap. Wicoff is a fan of what she calls community schools; she thinks a "great school in every neighborhood" can go a long way to solving the lingering issues around the enrollment process. That’s a bit of an ambitious goal, and we’re concerned about any move toward neighborhood schools that leads to resegregation. But Wicoff, who has the support of both Mark Sanchez and Mayor Newsom, brings a fresh problem-solving approach that we found appealing. And unlike Newsom, she’s against JROTC.
Jill Wynns, who has been on the board since 1992, has had a distinguished career, and we will never forget her leadership in the battle against privatizing public schools. But she was a supporter of former superintendent Ackerman even when Ackerman was trampling on open-government laws and intimidating students, parents, and staff critics, and she supports JROTC. It’s time for some new blood.
Rachel Norton, a parent and an advocate for special-education kids, has run an appealing campaign, but her support for the save-JROTC ballot measure disqualified her for our endorsement.
As a footnote: H. Brown, a blogger who can be a bit politically unhinged, has no business on the school board and we’re not really sure why he’s running. But he offered an interesting idea that has some merit: he suggests that the city offer free Muni passes and free parking to anyone who will volunteer to mentor an at-risk SFUSD student. Why not?
Community College Board
There are four seats up for the seven-member panel that oversees the San Francisco Community College District, and we could only find three who merit endorsement. That’s a sad statement: City College is a local treasure, and it’s been badly run for years. The last chancellor, Phil Day, left under a cloud of corruption; under his administration, money was diverted from public coffers into a political campaign. The current board took bond money that the voters had earmarked for a performing arts center and shifted it to a gym then found out that there wasn’t enough money in the operating budget to maintain the lavish facility. It’s a mess out there, and it needs to be cleaned up.
Fortunately, there are three strong candidates, and if they all win, the reformers will have a majority on the board.
Milton Marks is the only incumbent we’re supporting. He’s been one of the few board members willing to criticize the administration. He supports a sunshine policy for the district and believes the board needs to hold the chancellor accountable (that ought to be a basic principle of district governance, but at City College, it isn’t). He wants to push closer relations with the school board. He actually pays attention to the college budget and tries to make sure the money is spent the right way. He is pushing to reform the budget process to allow more openness and accountability.
Chris Jackson, a policy analyst at the San Francisco Labor Council, is full of energy and ideas. He wants to create an outreach center for City College at the public high schools. He also understands that the college district has done a terrible job working with neighborhoods and is calling for a comprehensive planning process. He understands the problems with the gym and the way the board shuffles money around, and he is committed to a more transparent budget process.
Jackson is also pushing to better use City College for workforce development, particularly in the biotech field, where a lot of the city’s new jobs will be created.
Jackson was president of the Associated Students at San Francisco State University, has been a member of the Youth Commission, and worked with Young Workers United on the city’s minimum-wage law. His experience, energy, and ideas make him an ideal candidate.
Bruce Wolfe attended City College after a workplace injury and served on the Associate Students Council. He knows both the good (City College has one of the best disability service programs in the state) and the bad (the school keeps issuing bonds to build facilities but doesn’t have the staff to keep them running). As a former member of the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, Wolfe is a strong advocate for open government, something desperately needed at the college district. He told us he thinks the college should agree to abide by the San Francisco Planning Code and is calling for a permanent inspector general to monitor administration practices and spending. He wants City College to start building housing for students. He has direct experience with the district and great ideas for improving it, and we’re happy to endorse him.
Incumbents Rodel Rodis and Natalie Berg are running for reelection; both have been a key part of the problem at City College, and we can’t endorse either of them. Steve Ngo, a civil rights lawyer, has the support of the Democratic Party, but we weren’t impressed by his candidacy. And he told us he opposes the Clean Energy Act.
Vote for Marks, Jackson, and Wolfe.
BART Board of Directors
With rising gasoline prices, congested roadways, and global warming, it’s now more important than ever to have an engaged and knowledgeable BART board that is willing to reform a system that effectively has San Francisco users subsidizing everyone else. That means developing a fare structure in which short trips within San Francisco or the East Bay urban centers are cheaper and longer trips are a bit more expensive. BART should also do away with free parking, which favors suburban drivers (who tend to be wealthier) over urban cyclists and pedestrians. San Francisco’s aging stations should then get the accessibility and amenity improvements they needand at some point the board can even fund the late-night service that is long overdue. There are two candidates most capable of meeting these challenges:
This district straddles San Francisco and the East Bay, and it’s crucial that San Franciscowhich controls just three of the nine seatsretain its representative here. We would like to see Lynette Sweet more forcefully represent the interests of riders from San Francisco and support needed reforms such as civilian oversight of BART police. But she has a strong history of public service in San Francisco (having served on San Francisco’s taxi and redevelopment commissions before joining the BART board in 2003), and we’ll endorse her.
Tom Radulovich is someone we’d love to clone and have run for every seat on the BART board, and perhaps every other transportation agency in the Bay Area. He’s smart and progressive, and he works hard to understand the complex problems facing our regional transportation system and then to develop and advocate for creative solutions. As executive director of the nonprofit Livable City, Radulovich is a leader of San Francisco’s alternative transportation brain trust, widely respected for walking the walk (and biking the bikehe doesn’t own a car) and setting an example for how to live and grow in the sustainable way this city and country needs.
STATE BALLOT MEASURES
High-speed rail bond
YES, YES, YES
California hasn’t taken on a major improvement to its public infrastructure in several generations, the last significant one being the construction of the California State Water Project back in the 1950s. But with the state’s growing population and the travel penchant of its citizens, there will be dire consequences to ignoring the need for more and better transportation options.
The state has been studying and planning for the creation of a high-speed rail system for more than 10 years, and this is the moment for voters to make it a reality.
Proposition 1A is a $9.95 billion bond measure. Combined with contributions from the federal government and private sector, the measure would fund the first leg of a system that would eventually stretch from Sacramento to San Diego. The train would carry people from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles in 2.5 hours for just $55.
The benefits are overwhelming. High-speed rail works well in Asia and Europe, on a fraction of the energy used by cars and planes and with almost no emissions. The system is projected to pay for itself within 20 years and then be a source of revenue for the state. And it would make trips directly from one city core to another, facilitating tourism and business trips without clogging our roads.
Unfortunately, the costs of not approving this measure are also huge: more congestion for road and air travelers, more freeway lanes, larger airports, dirtier air, and increased greenhouse-gas emissions. Building a high-speed rail system is something California can’t afford not to do. Vote yes.
Farm animal protections
It’s hard to argue against a proposal that would allow farm-raised animals to stand up, lie down, and move around in their enclosures. This is a step in the direction of more humane treatment of animals; plenty of organic farms already comply, and the milk, meat, and eggs they produce are healthier for both humans and animals.
According to big agricultural companies and the operators of factory farms, a vote for Proposition 2 is a vote for an avian influenza outbreak, the spread of food-borne illnesses like salmonella, huge job losses, and even increased global warming. But we find it hard to believe that simply permitting creatures like veal calves, breeding pigs, and egg-laying hens to stretch their limbs and turn around will cause these Chicken Little predictions to come true. Vote yes on Prop. 2.
Children’s hospital bonds
This one sounds great unless you stop to think about it. Proposition 3 would provide more money for hospitals that care for sick children, which seems fine. But a lion’s share of almost $1 billion in public bond money would go to private children’s hospitals for capital improvements. While 20 percent of the cash would be tabbed for public institutions like the five University of Californiarun hospitals, the other 80 percent would go to places like Lucile Salter Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. We don’t discount the valuable work these hospitals do. But many of them have sizable endowments and ample resources to fund improvements on their own especially since voters approved $750 million in children’s hospital bond money just four years ago. Why is the state, which is broke, giving public money to private hospitals? Vote no on Prop. 3.
Parental notification and wait period for abortion
NO, NO, NO
This measure was horrible when it was on the ballot twice before, in 2005 and in 2006, and it’s still horrible now. If passed, it would require doctors to notify parents of minors seeking abortions, make teenagers wait 48 hours after the notification is made before undergoing the abortion, penalize doctors who don’t abide by the rule, and make kids go through a court process to get a waiver to the law. The doctors would have to hand-deliver the notice or send it by certified mail.
Proponents have spun this as a way to "stop child predators," a baseless claim, as teenage victims of predators seeking abortions are still victims of predators whether their parents know or not. Opponents say it’s a dangerous law that will drive more kids seeking abortions underground and do nothing to truly improve family relations. This proposal represents another erosion of abortion rights.
The last two attempts to require parental notification were narrowly defeated but this time, with so much else on the ballot, it’s attracting less attention, and polls show it might pass.
Big funders backing the measure are San Diego Reader publisher James Holman and Sonoma-based winery owner Don Sebastiani, who have collectively spent more than $2 million supporting it. A broad coalition of medical, education, and civil rights organizations oppose it. Vote no.
Treatment instead of jail
In 2000, California voters approved Proposition 36, which sent people convicted of certain drug-related offenses to treatment programs instead of to prison. Proposition 5 would revamp that earlier measure by giving more people a shot at addiction services instead of a jail cell and would provide treatment to youth offenders as well as adults. It would also make possession of less than 28.5 grams (1 ounce) of marijuana an infraction instead of a misdemeanor, something we wholeheartedly support.
Opponents of the plan say it would cost too much and would allow criminals a get-out-of-jail-free card. But punitive approaches to addiction clearly don’t work. And while the new programs Prop. 5 calls for will need an initial infusion of cash, taking nonviolent inmates out of jail and keeping them out of the system by helping them overcome their addictions should save the state considerable money in the long run.
NO, NO, NO
There are 171,000 people in California’s 33 prisons. All told, the state shells out $10 billion every year incarcerating people. This prison boom has enriched for-profit corrections companies and made the prison guards’ union one of the most powerful interest groups in the state but it hasn’t made the streets any safer.
Nonetheless, backers of Proposition 6 say the state needs to spend $1 billion more per year on new prisons, increased prison time (even for youth offenders), and untested programs that few believe will have any positive impact without identifying a way to pay for any of it.
Bottom line, Prop. 6 would divert funding from necessary areas like health care and education and waste it on a failed, throw-away-the-key approach to crime. Even the staunchly conservative Orange County Register‘s editorial board called the measure "criminally bad." Vote no on Prop. 6.
We’re all for more renewable energy, but this measure and the politics around it smell worse than a coal-burning power plant.
Proposition 7 would require all investor-owned and municipal utilities to procure 50 percent clean energy by 2025. It would allow fast-tracked permitting for the new power plants and suggests they be placed in "solar and clean energy zones" in the desert while still meeting environmental reviews and protections. There’s a hazy provision that the solar industry groups argue would discredit any power sources under 30 megawatts from counting toward renewable portfolio standards (RPS), which the Yes on Prop. 7 people refute.
The measure is confusing. The California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission would play somewhat unclear roles in the state’s energy future. Overall, the CEC would site power plants and the CPUC would set rates. Penalties levied to utilities that don’t meet the new RPS would be controlled by the CEC and used to build transmission lines connecting the desert-sourced solar power with cities.
The coalition supporting Prop. 7 is an interesting mix of retired public officials, including former San Francisco supervisor Jim Gonzalez, former state senator John Burton, former mayor Art Agnos, and utility expert S. David Freeman. Interestingly, Gonzalez was a staunch ally of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. when he was a local politician, and Burton has done legal work for PG&E. The bankroll for the campaign comes from Arizona billionaire Peter Sperling, son of medical marijuana proponent John Sperling.
A number of solar and wind companies, which would presumably profit by its passing, are lined up against it, but the No on 7 money comes entirely from PG&E, SoCal Edison, and Sempra, which have dumped $28 million into the campaign. That, of course, makes us nervous.
But other opponents include all the major green groups Environmental Defense, the League of Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and the Union of Concerned Scientists none of which were consulted before it was put on the ballot.
We’re obviously uncomfortable coming down on the side of PG&E, but renewable energy is a major policy issue, and this measure was written with little input from the experts in the field. Gonzalez told us it’s mostly aimed at pushing giant solar arrays in the desert; that’s fine, but we’re also interested in small local projects that might be more efficient and environmentally sound.
Ban on same-sex marriage
NO, NO, NO
Same-sex couples have been able to marry legally in California since June. Their weddings often between couples who have spent decades together, raised children, fought hard for civil rights, and been pillars of their communities have been historic, joy-filled moments. San Francisco City Hall has witnessed thousands of these weddings and to date, there has not been a single confirmed report that gay weddings have caused damage to straight marriages.
But now comes Proposition 8, a statewide measure that seeks to take this fundamental right away from same-sex couples.
Using the exact same argument that was used in 2000, Prop. 8 contends that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."
Back then, the measure passed. This time, the landscape has shifted radically and is full of same-sex brides and grooms who have already legally tied the knot. This time around, the stale "man and woman only" argument is being used to attempt to deny individuals their existing rights based on their sexual orientation. Polls suggest that a majority of Californians are unwilling to support this measure, but it would only take a simple majority to deny gays and lesbians their marriage rights. Vote no on Prop. 8 and protect hard-won marriage equality.
Restrictions on parole
NO, NO, NO
It’s tempting simply to repeat our reasons for voting no on Proposition 6 in our discussion of Proposition 9. While the details of the two measures are different Prop. 6 would send more people to jail; Prop. 9 would keep them there longer the two would have a similar unfortunate result: more people crowding our already overflowing and outrageously expensive prison system. Prop. 9 would accomplish this by making it much more difficult for prisoners to gain parole. But California already releases very few inmates serving long sentences for crimes like murder and manslaughter. Moreover, many of the other provisions of Prop. 9 have already been enacted, which would mean costly redundancies if the measure is approved.
One man is largely responsible for both the misguided "tough on crime" propositions on this year’s ballot: billionaire Broadcom Corp. cofounder Henry Nicholas, who has poured millions into the two campaigns. But a funny thing happened to Nicholas on the way to becoming California’s poster boy for law and order. In June, he was indicted on numerous counts of securities fraud and drug violations (including spiking the drinks of technology executives with ecstasy and operating a "sex cave" staffed with prostitutes under his house). He insists he’s innocent.
Vote no on Prop. 9.
Alternative-fuel vehicles bond
This is another "green" measure that looks good and smells bad. It would allow the state to issue general obligation bonds worth $5 billion to fund incentives to help consumers purchase alternative-fuel vehicles and research alternative-fuel and renewable-energy technology.
Proponents argue this is a necessary jump start for the industry. Opponents say the industry doesn’t need it Priuses are on back order as it is, and the measure was craftily written to exclude subsidies for purchasing any other plug-in or hybrid vehicle that gets less than 45 miles per gallon. Though the measure would have provisions for vehicles powered by hydrogen and electricity, critics point out that the subsidies would be first come, first served and would be gone by the time these technologies even reach the consumer market.
In reality, Proposition 10 is a giveaway designed to favor the natural gas industry and was put on the ballot by one of its biggest players, T. Boone Pickens, who owns Clean Energy Fuels Corp., a natural gas fueling and distribution company based in Seal Beach. He wrote the measure, paid more than $3 million to get it on the ballot, and spent a total of $8 million supporting it.
Beyond the blatant attempt to manipulate public money for private good, there are a number of other problems with the bill. It would mostly subsidize purchases of large trucks but wouldn’t require that those trucks stay in California, so companies could use the $50,000 rebates to improve their fleet, then drive the benefit out of state.
While natural-gas-burning vehicles emit far less exhaust and air pollution than gas and diesel cars, natural gas is still a fossil fuel with carbon emissions that are only 20 percent less than that of a typical car. It’s another dinosaur technology that only marginally improves the situation. The Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters are against Prop. 10, as are consumer groups and taxpayer associations, who hate the $10-billion-over-30-years payback on this special-interest bond. Vote no.
Almost everyone agrees that California’s process for drawing the boundaries of legislative districts is flawed. History has proven that allowing elected officials to redraw their own political map every 10 years is a recipe for shameless gerrymandering that benefits incumbents. It has also resulted in uncompetitive districts, voter disaffection, and a hopelessly polarized legislature. But Proposition 11 is not the answer.
The idea of placing redistricting in the hands of an independent citizen commission sounds good on the surface. But as Assemblymember Mark Leno points out, the makeup of this incredibly powerful commission would be dependent only on party affiliation five Democrats, five Republicans, and four independents. That’s not an accurate reflection of California’s population; Democrats far outnumber Republicans in this state. To give Republicans an equal number of commissioners would ignore that fact. And there is no provision to ensure that the body would reflect the state’s racial diversity, or that it would be composed of people from different religious (or nonreligious) backgrounds. The same goes for things like gender and income levels. Also, people must apply to join the body limiting the pool of potential commissioners even further. And state legislators would have the power to remove some applicants.
In other words, the same people the law seeks to take out of the process would still wield a great deal of influence over it. Vote no on Prop. 11.
Veterans bond act
Proposition 12 would authorize the state to issue $900 million in bonds to help veterans buy farms and homes. It’s true that, as opponents say, the act doesn’t discriminate between rich veterans and poor veterans, and it probably should, but the vets most likely to use this from the Gulf War and the Iraq war have faced so many daunting problems and have received so little support from the government that sent them to war that it’s hard to oppose something like this. Vote yes.
This is the most important presidential election of our lives.
The nation is in a state of political and financial meltdown. The war in Iraq drags on, sucking money out of the US Treasury and costing more and more lives. The gap between the rich and the poor has risen to unsustainable levels, global warming threatens to permanently alter the ecology of the globe … and all the Republican candidate offers is more of the same. It’s scary.
The Democrat we proudly endorsed in the California primary isn’t the exact same candidate who’s trying to get elected president today. Barack Obama, like just about all Democrats at this stage of a campaign, has moved a bit to the right. He supported the $700 million Wall Street bailout that’s essentially a huge giveaway to the same people who caused the problem. He talks about promoting "safe nuclear energy" and "clean coal" oxymora if there ever were any.
Back in February, we noted that "our biggest problem with Obama is that he talks as if all the nation needs to do is come together in some sort of grand coalition of Democrats and Republicans, of ‘blue states and red states.’ But some of us have no interest in making common cause with the religious right or Dick Cheney or Halliburton or Don Fisher. There are forces and interests in the United States that need to be opposed, defeated, consigned to the dustbin of history, and for all of Obama’s talk of unity, we worry that he lacks the interest in or ability to take on a tough, bloody fight against an entrenched political foe."
But Obama remains one of the most inspirational candidates for high office we’ve ever seen. He’s energized a generation of young voters, he’s electrified communities of color, and he’s given millions of Americans a chance to hope that Washington can once again be a friend, not an enemy, to progressive values at home and abroad.
His tax proposals are pretty good. He’s always been against the war. His health care plan isn’t perfect, but it’s at least a step toward universal coverage.
And frankly, the nation can’t afford another four years of Bush-style policies.
The election is a turning point for the United States. It’s about a movement that can change the direction of the country; it’s about mobilizing people in large numbers to reject the failed right-wing policies of Bush and the Republican Party. We’re pleased to endorse Barack Obama as the standard-bearer of that movement.
Congress, District 6
Lynn Woolsey comes from the more moderate suburbs, and she’s far better than Nancy Pelosi, who represents liberal San Francisco. Just look at the bailout: Pelosi wants to prop up the Wall Street banks, and Woolsey wanted to fund any bailout with a modest tax on risky financial instruments. Woolsey richly deserves reelection.
Congress, District 7
George Miller, who has represented this East Bay district since 1974, is an effective legislator and strong environmentalist. Sometimes he’s too willing to compromise he worked with the George W. Bush administration on No Child Left Behind, a disaster of an education bill but he’s a solid opponent of the war, and we’ll endorse him for another term.
Congress District 8
The antiwar leader and Gold Star mom who put George Bush on the defensive is at best a long shot to unseat the Speaker of the House. Cindy Sheehan has only recently moved to the district, has no local political experience, and is taking on one of the most powerful politicians in the United States.
But we can’t endorse Nancy Pelosi, who has consistently supported funding the war (and has refused to meet with antiwar protesters camped out in front of her house). Pelosi pushed the Wall Street bailout and privatized the Presidio.
Sheehan wants a fast withdrawal from Iraq, opposes any bailout for the big financial institutions, and is a voice against business as usual in Congress. This is a protest vote, but a valid one.
Congress, District 13
After 32 years, Pete Stark has become in some ways the most radical member of the Bay Area congressional delegation. He’s furious with the war and shows no patience for the Bush administration’s nonsense. He is the only member of Congress who admits he’s an atheist. We just hope he doesn’t decide to retire any time soon.
Superior Court, Seat 12
It’s unusual to see contested races for judge in San Francisco. Most of the time, incumbents retire midterm to allow the governor to appoint a replacement, and almost nobody ever challenges a sitting judge. So the San Francisco bench has been shaped more by Republican governors than by the overwhelmingly Democratic electorate.
So we were pleased to see Gerardo Sandoval, a termed-out supervisor and former public defender, file to run against Judge Thomas Mellon. A conservative Republican appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994, Mellon has a lackluster record, at best. California Courts and Judges, a legal journal, calls him unreasonable and cantankerous. In 2000, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office sought to have him removed from all criminal cases because of his anti-defendant bias. He needed a challenge, and he’s got one: in the June primary, Sandoval came in well ahead, but because there were three candidates, this contest has gone to a November runoff.
Sandoval has been a generally progressive member of the Board of Supervisors, although we were critical of some of his votes. But he would bring the perspective of a public defender to a bench dominated by former prosecutors and big-firm civil lawyers. Vote for Sandoval.
State Senate, District 3
The drama in this race took place back in June, when Leno beat incumbent Carole Migden and former Marin Assemblymember Joe Nation in the Democratic primary. Like most Bay Area Democrats, he’s a shoo-in for the general election. But it’s worth noting that Leno has an extensive record in the Assembly and has demonstrated an ability to get things done. Long before the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage the law of the state, Leno got both houses of the Legislature to approve marriage equality bills (which the governor then vetoed). He got the Ellis Act, that terrible law that allows landlords to evict all their tenants and sell their buildings as condos, amended to protect seniors and disabled people. And while we were worried in the spring that Leno might be too close to Mayor Newsom when it came to local endorsements, he’s shown both independence and progressive leanings. He has been a strong, visible and effective backer of Prop. H, the Clean Energy Act and has endorsed Mark Sanchez for supervisor in District 9, breaking with Newsom (and the moderates) who backed Eva Royale. We expect Leno will go on to a stellar record in the state Senate and we’re happy to endorse him.
State Senate, District 9
A part of Berkeley politics since she first ran successfully for city council in 1971, Lori Hancock has spent the past six years in the State Assembly. She defeated Wilma Chan in a heated primary for this State Senate seat and faces little opposition in November. She’s one of the most experienced progressives in California and has a solid grip on the state’s budget issues. We wish she wasn’t so willing to back more moderate candidates for local office, but we’re happy to see her move up to the senate.
State Assembly, District 12
Fiona Ma has been a pleasant surprise. We didn’t support her for this post two years ago, but she’s become a leading advocate of high-speed rail, a foe of plans to privatize the Cow Palace, and a visible, out-front backer of the Clean Energy Act. We hope she continues to evolve into a progressive leader in Sacramento.
State Assembly, District 13
The only problem with Tom Ammiano moving up to Sacramento is that we’ll miss his presence at City Hall. Ammiano’s record is stellar although he was once nearly a lone voice for progressives on the Board of Supervisors, he’s become one of its most effective members, with a long list of groundbreaking legislation. Ammiano authored the city’s domestic partners law. He created Healthy San Francisco, the universal health care program. He sponsored the 2001 and 2002 public power measures. He created the Children’s Fund and the Rainy Day Fund, which is now saving programs in the public schools.
He’s also responsible as much as any one person ever can be for dramatically changing the climate of San Francisco politics. Ammiano’s 1999 mayoral challenge to incumbent Willie Brown brought the progressives together in ways we hadn’t seen in years, and the district-elections measure Ammiano authored brought a completely new Board of Supervisors into office a year later.
We’re happy to see Ammiano move on to Sacramento.
State Assembly, District 14
Nancy Skinner won the June primary for this seat, and while we supported her opponent, Kriss Worthington, we acknowledged that she would make an excellent assembly member. Skinner has plenty of experience: she was on the Berkeley City Council from 1984 to 1992 and has founded and run a nonprofit that helps cities establish sustainable environmental policies. She understands state budget issues, is a strong advocate for education, and will hit the ground running.
Meara O’Reilly has brought a book to our meeting at a café near her Mission District apartment. The author is Mary Hallock-Greenewalt, a visionary musician-inventor who worked toward synthesizing light and sound in the 1920s. It’s a special kind of musician who feels compelled to devise her own instrument, and O’Reilly takes obvious pleasure in having discovered a predecessor.
Her own tonal invention, which provides the cornerstone for her music as Avocet, is an elegant metal hanger on which a half-dozen silver forks dangle in front of contact microphones, suspended by threads of horsehair. "Michael Hurley calls it the belladonna," she notes with a laugh. O’Reilly’s instrument still doesn’t have a fixed name, although there is something of an origin story: "I had these amazing pieces of silver my godmother had given me. I would drop them, and they would ring out for 10 seconds or so. It was so beautiful."
The Sebastopol native devised her resonating instrument while living on a dairy farm in Vermont. "I played a show with it when it was really in prototype form, and I was actually using my own hair," she recounts. "My hair wasn’t thick enough, so it kept breaking. It actually sounds really good, though, better than the horse hair." Avocet’s hear-a-pin-drop live sets make for a bracing contrast with O’Reilly’s previous gig with Feathers, a New England psych-folk collective that released a single album before parting company. The instrument-swapping group afforded her the social comfort of a band, but it was only one part of a private musical development encompassing everything from noise rock to gamelan.
O’Reilly periodically switches to guitar in her sets, though her unconventional fascination with sound still shines through on the more familiar instrument. She sings songs from Greece and Mongolia and professes a deep interest in the distinct tonal possibilities of different tongues. The drifting sustain of her performances is generally blue, with notes and melodies in free-flight, perilously close to oblivion. In spite of the obvious volume differential, Avocet might fairly be compared with any number of sculptural drone bands. She is, after all, a student of metal. "I’ve been trying to learn about different eras of silver because there are different putf8gs and compositions of the metal," O’Reilly says. "So other than just looking at the shape and figuring out the physics of what note [a fork] would be, there’s also the composition of it." Then she finishes the thought, "I’d like to know more." 2
With Brightblack Morning Light and Iasos
Tues/14 and Oct. 15, 9:30 p.m., $15
Café Du Nord
2170 Market, SF
Also with Brightblack Morning Light
Oct. 16, 9:30 p.m., $10
3101 Shattuck, Berk.
"This is the most we could come up with our small minds over a long period of time," says Joshua Kit Clayton, who often stops the phone conversation to ask what this author is wearing and whether he’s having a good day. Pigeon Funk’s second album, The Largest Bird in the History of the Planet … Ever! (Musique Risquée), took four years to make. For much of that time, Clayton was largely absent from the city’s techno scene after having once been one of its dominant figures. He finally reappeared this year with two 12-inches: "Grey Amber" and "I Left My Heart My Heart in San Francisco," the latter a double-A single with Sutekh.
"I don’t go to a lot of dance parties anymore, although I saw Seth [Horvitz, né Sutekh] at a rave the other night," Clayton muses. "I couldn’t even tell what kind of drugs people were on. But other than that, I haven’t been out to a dance music night in a very long time…. I have no idea what other people are doing today. I am sheltered."
"I almost feel like a strange outsider at this point," adds Sutekh, who says the aforementioned so-called rave gig was a rare occurrence. Musically, though, he’s stayed active, most recently dropping the "Influenza B" single earlier this spring.
When Pigeon Funk issued its self-titled EP in 2001, the group fit right in with the glitch/IDM/experimental wave cresting throughout the techno world. Years later it’s still about glitch, except house and hip-hop producers like Glitch Mob and Daedelus hijacked it. Meanwhile, the techno scene has moved on to minimal and surprisingly trance.
With few current trends to categorize it with, The Largest Bird sounds happily out of step. Abandoning the computer programming that has been a hallmark of their careers, Sutekh and Clayton turned to analog keyboard equipment, random vocally-generated noises, and disparate acoustic equipment. The eclectic beats range from wacky exotica lounge ("Alma Hueco" with vocalist Anna Machado) to funky bangers ("Bacchanal").
Touting The Largest Bird’s therapeutic qualities, Clayton says, "I think it would be really dope if people used this inside their yoga classes, their exercise classes, meditation classes, workforce training classes, any type of self-growth, whether it be erotic, financial, religious, or fitness. I think this album is something that would lift them up."
I began noticing the signs soon after moving to the Bay Area: Arthur Magazine, revivals of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s movies, and print dresses and feathers all pointed to a vogue for the psychedelic aesthetic extending beyond the tie-dyed Haight. Psychedelic rock is the 800-pound gorilla of San Francisco music, though subsequent punk scenes clustering around Mabuhay Gardens and 924 Gilman defined themselves in direct opposition to its flower-power. I was surprised, even a little put off, by what seemed like a fundamentally conservative revival.
That was before I saw Comets on Fire. The group reclaimed the mad, exploratory spirit of ’60s psychedelia precisely by not being overly dogmatic in their interpretation of the original sound. Just as vintage outfits like Quicksilver Messenger Service and Blue Cheer to name two local bands often championed by the current crop deconstructed bluegrass and R&B, so too do the artists following in Comets on Fire’s wake reconstitute old school psychedelia into freshly disorienting supernovas. In the case of Comets, the game-changer lay with showing how you could collapse the distance between the Grateful Dead and the Stooges. The set I saw at the Hemlock Tavern was as much a piece of music criticism as it was an explosive performance. They made psych-rock seem a realm of possibility instead of the tattered rump of a dancing bear.
Five of 10 ensembles playing the first Frisco Freakout are based in the Bay Area, with all but Mythical Beast hailing from within the Golden State’s borders. Each band dials in subtly different equations of texture and influences, though Sleepy Sun’s MySpace message probably speaks for all involved parties: "Let’s get weird." Inspired by the legendary bills at the Fillmore and Matrix in the ’60s, Relix contributing editor Richard Simon and Wooden Shjips shredder Ripley Johnson collaborated on organizing the all-day showcase.
Music journalists use the word psychedelic to describe everything from Beach House’s gauzy organ trip to My Bloody Valentine’s overripe swan-dives not to mention the adjacent freak-folk scene so it’s probably worth specifying that most of the Frisco Freakout groups are close to the original psych-rock article, as defined by the hard, face-melting electricity of the early Dead and their cohorts. Whether listening to the endless spirals of Earthless, the prog-laced kick of Crystal Antlers, or the smooth drip of Sleepy Sun, one is repeatedly tempted to describe the sounds in terms of metallurgy.
"These bands are going to play hard and fuck with your head," Simon bluntly jokes by phone in SF. "I’ve been interested in trying to shunt some of these bands into Relix, to reconnect branches in this family tree that originates here."
Correctives to the jam-band theory of psychedelic rock are always welcome, though one perhaps worries about flying the freak flag too high. "You’re reluctant to identify a scene because once something is a scene it gets co-opted and commercialized," Simon confesses, but I’m in full agreement that it’s better to take a proactive, artists-first approach rather than waiting to be uncomfortably grouped as Pitchfork’s flavor-of-the-week.
Given the friendly demeanor of the event it’s being billed as a "psychedelic dance party" and, more important, it benefits visual art nonprofit Creativity Explored the Frisco Freakout goes a long way toward clearing up the discomfiting idea that a lot of neo-psychedelia is strictly for collectors. This isn’t to question the passion of any of the musicians involved, but simply to wonder aloud when the willfully obscurant approach to band names and releases translates to outright fetishism. In a year in which a black man is running for president, a limited-edition, colored vinyl doesn’t pass as a freakout.
Then again, these performers are compelling because of their attention to aesthetic detail and creative sense of rock historiography. It’s unavoidable that musicians weaned on punk would approach psych-rock differently from those only a decade or two on the Dead’s coattails, but one is struck again and again by their experimental impulse. Certain key reference points are a given: besides the aforementioned ’60s groups, there are usually traces of Neil Young, Spaceman 3, and the Velvet Underground. But so too do most of the groups venture further afield to add dabs of Terry Riley, Can, Morton Feldman, or Skip Spence to their spectroscopic sounds. Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound’s improbable mix of raga, Canned Heat, sci-fi sounds, and Black Flag is batty enough to warrant a Greil Marcus study.
Psychedelic rock exists, like almost any music genre in the Internet age, beyond regional boundaries, but it still makes a special fit with California’s earth-tugging landscape. At the same time that the Western mythos of the frontier crumbled in Vietnam’s shadow, the original Frisco freakouts pushed past the real wilderness for a psychic one. These newer bands thrust us even more precipitously into this "lost" mental space, seeking to refurnish psych-rock with its dangerous luster. 2
Sat/11, 2 p.m., $15
1600 17th St., SF
Just about everyone in San Francisco who isn’t clueless or soporific will be going to the polls Nov. 4 to vote for Barack Obama. Turnout will be heavy; even though Obama is likely to win California by 10 points and John McCain isn’t campaigning here, the hope and promise of the Democratic nominee coming at a time when the nation is in terrible shape and the economy is on the brink of collapse will bring people to the polls in droves.
We’ll be among those voters, proudly casting our ballots for Obama. The thought of another four years of George Bush-style policies is terrifying; nobody wants to sit this one out.
But while so much attention is on Washington, there’s a lot at stake in San Francisco, too and it’s critical that all the Obama voters don’t just stop at the top of the ballot.
The city’s future is also on the line downtown, frustrated by the policies a progressive Board of Supervisors has introduced in the past eight years, is fighting back hard, trying to regain control. The direction of the next board and city hall will be determined in Districts 1, 3, and 11, where the incumbents are termed out and progressives are fighting downtown-funded candidates.
There’s so much else on the ballot public power (yes on H!), tax policy (yes on N and Q!), crucial affordable housing (yes on B!), races for school board and community college board … And that doesn’t even count the East Bay.
We have spent months going over ballot measures, interviewing candidates, and coming up with our best suggestions for offices and propositions. Check out our Election Center 2008 for interviews with many of the candidates.
On Nov. 4, vote early, vote often, and vote as if your country and your city depends on it. Our recommendations follow.
REVIEW Whether you admired his fierce intelligence or considered him a negative influence on the young, you have to admit that David Foster Wallace was one of the few contemporary writers who managed to pin down and unpack questions of writerly narcissism and grasp their implications. The McSweeney’s brand owes its greatest debt to Wallace. Young librarian Scott Douglas’s bildungsromanesque Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian (Da Capo Press, 352 pages, $25) would not exist without his influence: it’s an outgrowth of Douglas’s column for the McSweeney’s Web site, and it embodies what younger writers find so seductive in Wallace’s digressive, footnote-heavy writing style.
Quiet, Please chronicles Douglas’s experiences working in an Anaheim public library, a site in the shadow of Disneyland. Once you set aside the obligatory librarian jokes, this setting promises the kind of collisions absent from corporate offices: it’s a place where wastrel romance novels live feet away from Gravity’s Rainbow, where the very old and very young bide their time, in the mystery stacks and on the Internet, respectively. Douglas’s book isn’t particularly descriptive, though, and despite being a kind of memoir, its autobiography is fuzzy. Its confusion about genre is where the conversion from the Web to the page becomes a problem. Douglas fractures the surface of his story, but his attempts to make the tangents cohere often prevent the book from finding a consistent pace. The thin narrative thread that follows Douglas from library page to accredited librarian gets snowed under by unnecessary footnotes and what he deems "short pointless interludes" factoids intended to break up the monotony of, er, paying attention. The mildly condescending, conversational tone of these commercial breaks highlights Douglas’s ambivalence toward writing the book: a perceived need to convince the reader that he or she is getting more than just a Web-groomed, self-reflexive story battles with the author’s own doubts about a lack of content. Those doubts largely turn out to be valid.
For a long time, I thought a career as a librarian was a foregone conclusion: during high school I was a regular at San Jose’s Almaden Branch Library, a suburban place not unlike the library in the book, and without that formative experience I wouldn’t have found out about Emil Nolde or Paul Klee or Kurt Vonnegut or T.S. Eliot when I needed them. The lack of any real emotional connection to libraries or convincing description of them as portals to different, better worlds are two things that keep Quiet, Please from gaining real relevance beyond its narrow scope. Douglas’s attempts to get at something bigger than the boredom of work (and his attempts to capture that boredom) suffer from a lack of convincing detail. The author’s frequent digressions he spends a grip of pages early on pontificating about the impact of 9/11 often come off as obligatory rather than the byproduct of an extremely curious mind.
But where Quiet, Please suffers most is in its self-policed tone. Douglas, one imagines, has deep pockets full of stories about eccentric library regulars, but they’re painted with all the imaginative gusto of a term paper on deadline and hastily capped with showy compassion. The book also clearly positions itself, in part, as a satirical bureaucratic romp, but his toughest critique involves describing the head of his library science program as a "bitch." Online, Douglas’s column had a certain charm; on paper, it’s simply a matter of dull obligation for the author, to say nothing of the reader. *
Rachel Getting Married is hoovering up press due to star Anne Hathaway’s personal life, but her performance proves far more memorable than her con-artist ex. Sarcastic, self-destructive chain-smoker Kym (Hathaway) is the black sheep of her chic Connecticut family; she leaves rehab nine months sober to attend her sister’s nuptials. (Hubby-to-be is Sidney, portrayed by TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, who’s one of many musicians sprinkled throughout Jonathan Demme’s enormous ensemble.) Rosemary DeWitt makes an impression as the no-nonsense bride who’s just about had it with her drama-queen sibling; Rachel and Kym’s mother is played by Debra Winger, whose surface composure masks a scary bitterness that evokes Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People (1980). Indeed, Rachel‘s characters are nursing wounds inflicted by a family tragedy particularly Kym, who is frequently infuriating but always authentic.
Laying on the misery is one thing, but what about ebullience? Poppy (Sally Hawkins), cheery London-dwelling hero of Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, grins even when her bike is stolen. The meandering slice-of-life story factors in driving lessons, dating, dancing, family and friend relations, and job challenges. And just like Kym’s moodiness, Poppy’s optimism gradually shifts from grating to genuine. But Hawkins’ sunny-side-up turn comes without benefit of a heavy plot an acting triumph that jerks fewer tears but feels no less praiseworthy. (Cheryl Eddy)
HAPPY-GO-LUCKY and RACHEL GETTING MARRIED open Fri/10 in Bay Area theaters.