Volume 44 Number 24
CULT CINEMA The 2010 Academy Awards ceremony did indeed mark historic
firsts. Oh, not just the fact that a woman finally won Best Director.
I mean somebody (Alec Baldwin? Steve Martin? I forget) saying
"vagina" live to a bazillion people worldwide, some of them no doubt way short of both voting age and bedtime. Of course you can say fuckwad, fuckhole, and fuckety fuckelstein on cable. But this was network, and the Oscars besides. How community standards do change.
Turn the clock back 50 years or so, and you couldn’t even say "pregnant" when Lucy Ricardo was "expecting" on I Love Lucy, no euphemism was quite delicate enough. Before audience-restrictive MPAA ratings arrived a few years later, big-screen movies had to be pretty circumspect too, no matter that fully clothed Jayne Mansfield was more obscenely suggestive than the plain old medical-grade v-word could ever be. (FYI, Best Use of the Term in a Porn Title: Big Trouble in Little Vagina.)
That was in the mainstream, where actual public nudity was as yet unthinkable. A few rungs down the cultural ladder, however, things were gradually loosening up. Art and smut conveniently blurred from the late 1940s onward, as certain European filmmakers (Ingmar Bergman among them) began pushing toward greater sexual frankness. This delighted U.S. grindhouse distributors, who wasted little time buying exploitable features, then cutting the offending hell out of them even as their ads promised shocking, adults-only content.
Such was the case with Night of Lust, a 1962 production by Casablanca-born French producer-director-scenarist Jose Bénazéraf. In 1965 American entrepreneur R. Lee Frost announced this feature, purportedly "BANNED all over the world!," could "at last be seen in the U.S. uncut, after three years in court!" He neglected to mention he’d trimmed nearly 20 minutes from it himself.
What remained in the barely-hour-long version playing the Red Vic this week was a lurid jumble that makes it difficult to figure out Bénazéraf’s original intentions, let alone why some then considered him an important Nouvelle Vague figure. (Critics abandoned him once he went into straight-up porn.) But with its continuity gaps, moralizing narrator, atrocious dubbed dialogue, and positively Freudian camera fixation on myriad bared breasts, this supposedly true crime story torn from "Interpol File 218" is campy fun, at least.
This isn’t the Paris of lovers, but Sicilians vs. Frogs fighting over millions in heroin, plus strippers, stranglers, kidnappings, and catfights. Not adding any romance either is an original free-jazz-combo score by no less than Chet Baker his trumpet playing sometimes mimed by a musically inclined mob boss who was then living his own European heroin crime saga. It would get him imprisoned in Italy, then deported from England and Germany. Whether those events too were sprinkled with random sightings of jiggling mammaries, we’ll never know. (Dennis Harvey)
NIGHT OF LUST
Wed/17-Thurs/18, 7:15 and 9:30 p.m. (also Wed/17, 2 p.m.), $6$10
1727 Haight, SF
THEATER Leave it to a small and scrappy low-to-no-budget theater company to revive, at just the right time, Dario Fo’s We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay! Fo, Italy’s esteemed latter-day commedia dell’arte rabble-rouser — the first clown (who really is a clown) to win a Nobel Prize — crafted this gem in inspired response to another period of social-economic bullshit, the tumultuous mid-1970s, when Italy was suffering the brunt of the “stagflation” resulting from an oil-triggered worldwide downturn. Fo’s 1974 farce draws on the real-life price rebellions and grocery-store riots carried out by Italy’s (financially) desperate housewives for a very funny and pointed tale of revolutionary high jinx in the domestic sphere. And Eastenders’ production, confidently helmed by artistic director Susan E. Evans, does it full justice. But the company doesn’t stop there: the second half of the evening is devoted to one of two series of new shorts plays (running in repertory) that take the Fo piece and run with it, in varying contemporary directions.
We Won’t Pay! takes up the bulk of the evening and remains the highlight, however, especially in Ron Jenkins’ lively translation, delivered shrewdly by a strong cast with palpable personality and fine comic instincts. Its homey scenario connects the personal and political effortlessly, as a bright working-class housewife named Antonia (a deft and utterly charming Beatrice Basso) tries to hide from her morally upstanding husband, Giovanni (a drolly pompous yet amiable Craig Dickerson), the groceries stolen in an exhilarating impromptu rebellion at the local market. Upright citizens and the coercive unjust hierarchies they protect are, of course, turned right on their head in the process. Even the policeman who shows up at the door (one of several supporting roles essayed with skill and aplomb by Matt Weimer) has had about enough of the whole system. By the end, an agitprop spirit takes over as Giovanni spouts what by now seems the most commonsensical thing — rebellion — as curtain and forth wall come down.
Often cleaving a little too closely to the original material, the playlets that follow in the second act can have the feel of an exercise rather than a fully wrought play of whatever length. But there are some small surprises to be found along the way. Actor Jeff Thompson strikes just the right pitch of whimsy and incipient political consciousness as he digests what has just gone before from the perspective of an incidental stage property, namely A Frozen Rabbit Head, in Gene Mocsy’s playful monologue of the same name. And playwright Isaiah Dufort’s A Statement shifts the opening scene between Antonia (Tristan Cunningham) and neighbor Margherita (Katarina Fabic) just enough to give it a distinctly Bay Area edge, nicely realized by the actors under Amy K. Kilgard’s direction. Less satisfying are the next two in the series, Jeff Thompson’s The Report, which strains after meaning and humor in a beat cop’s political awakening, and Scott Munson’s Safeway Encounter, which begins promisingly but soon gets off-kilter, charging headlong down broadly absurd aisles of no return. In the end, it’s a mixed bag, rabbit heads and all, but nourishing just the same.
Wed/17-Sat/20, 8 p.m.; Sun/21, 2 p.m., $20
215 Jackson, SF
DANCE On March 11, at the eighth Dance Discourse Project — an ongoing series of artist-driven discussions sponsored by CounterPULSE and Dancers’ Group — the topic was “Dance in Pop Culture.” Reality shows like So You Think You Can Dance? and Dancing With the Stars have raised questions about their effect on theater-based dance. Most participants agreed that these media-driven programs have created at least one beneficial change. For reasons cultural and historic, large sections of the population still think of dance as something unknown and unfamiliar. The popularity of these programs — controversial as they are in terms of artistic quality — have made dance more accessible and democratized the art.
The night after that discussion, democratization of a different type took place in the Mission. It was time for another entry in Dance Mission Theater’s long-running “Choreographer’s Showcase” series. Twice a year a cattle call goes out to dancers in the Bay Area. It’s not for a chance to audition or submit a proposal to be considered by experts. Rather, it’s a wide-open process: you have something you want to show, let ’em know — first come, first served.
The result is a freewheeling two hours of dance, with usually about 12 soloists and groups. They range from the barely competent to the highly professional. The house is packed with family and friends who come to cheer their favorites and are exposed to a wide spectrum of theatrical dance. This latest show was no different.
Three soloists stood out. Herve Kayos Makaya’s La Lutte Continue, performed by the choreographer, showed a superb dancer dragging two heavy burlap bags before bursting into an explosive African and Western vocabulary mix of leaping feet and racing arms. Currently a work in progress, the finished Lutte is something to look forward to at the CubaCaribe Festival in late April. First Creation had choreographer-dancer Alison Hammond scoot around the floor, shaking a tambourine. Kneeling on the floor, flowing hair obscuring her head, she deployed neck muscles the size of a prizefighter into a rollicking earthquake before sending her long legs into crotch-exposing propeller rotations. Surely this was one of the oddest performances seen on that stage. Liz Brent’s masked that person you meet was so short it was over before you noticed it. Though tentative, the idea of using hands as a primary expressive tool warrants further exploration.
I have a soft spot for the large Strong Pulse Crew, Kirstin E. Williams’ hip-hop student group from City College. For some of the dancers, it’s a chance to shine; for others, it’s a chance to try, and there is room here for all. Bringin’ It Back Remix featured a welcome dream section in which the dancers choreographed their own parts. Meanwhile, Kimberly B. Valmore teaches college students using a ballet-based eclectic vocabulary. The imagistic Answer the Call, with a central couple surrounded by an ensemble moved with a pulsating febrile intensity, nicely balanced stasis against full-force propulsion. Some of Valmore’s dancers have professional potential. Silvana Sousa’s samba choreography for Syncope of Brazil highlighted the difference between dancers and performers. Except for the three soloists, these samba dancers were too self-consciously awkward to bring to their performance that all-important ingredient called projection.
Two companies managed to create compelling emotional atmospheres. Lee Parmino and Janey Madamba’s Awakening made good use of a small corps in a piece that suggested disruption and healing of a relationship. There was something vaguely ominous in Hilary Palanza’s bent-over and head-butting duets A Perplexing and Brief Study of My Loss. She was shattered by more the score’s sounds of breaking glass.
SONIC REDUCER Who would have thunk that Sonic Reducer would rattle on for so long — unreduced, unredacted, Sonic even while covering Mr. Winkle or Mundane Journeys. It’s been more than seven years since Cheetah Chrome gave me the casual A-OK to borrow the name of his song, and now the end is nigh: this is the final SR in the Guardian, but what a deliciously lengthy, rich, overwhelming run it has had.
Scanning the first Jan. 7, 2003, column — chock-full of New Year’s Eve tidbits concerning one of Dengue Fever’s first shows in SF, Bud E. Luv’s turn as the Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne’s NYE attraction (playing big band versions of “Iron Man,” natch, amid strippers and absurdly outsized sex toys), and an evening out to the Coachwhips/Pink and Brown-reunion house party in a South Van Ness basement, trapped by a moat of mud, buffeted by revelers, and besieged by circuit-breaking blackouts. Lo, there was also scandalous news of rumored onstage fellatio at a Tigerbeat6 showcase and an update on Kimo’s efforts to halt the sonic seepage at its ear-bleed noise shows.
The early ’00s in SF were a giddy, madly experimental, and hyperfertile period for local music — a delirious convergence of imaginations cocked and loaded by the dot-com gold rush, exploded with the blizzard of pink slips and the onset of plentiful time and energy, and the excitement of so many ripe minds coming together — oof — at once, if from widely divergent corners of the cultural landscape: how else to explain the peaceful coexistence of Joanna Newsom and Caroliner, Deerhoof and Comets on Fire, Soft Pink Truth and Hunx and His Punx, Vetiver and Turf Talk, the Morning Benders and the Lovemakers, the Oh Sees and every other band John Dwyer has been involved in, in this fair citay?
Perhaps one day I’ll boil down these 350-plus columns — snipes, jests, always-in-good-fun jabs, and all — and come up with a rough sketch of this equally rough and rewarding zero-hour decade’s blurry contours. In the meantime, glancing hazily back over past columns, I unearthed a few highlights — from lowlifes or bright lights:
•Mark Pauline of Survival Research Laboratories on not performing in Europe, 2003: “We were good enough to cause national alerts and bad international events, so we never got asked back. Again, good work.”
•eXtreme Elvis on SF, 2003: “Too much of culture that surrounds San Francisco has to do with that idea of no spectators. No spectators means everyone’s a DJ, everyone plays didgeridoo, everyone has a band, everyone is a spoken-word artist. There’s a kind of culture of narcissism — guilty as charged, right?”
•Inca Ore’s Eva Saelens on touring, 2006: “When you break through, it’s like being in another world. Sometimes I’ll try to push an explosion or try to lose my mind, and if you do that on a nightly basis, it’s unreliable and it’s also abusive. You’re pushing your emotions in an athletic way, almost.”
•Nick Cave on Grinderman, 2007: “An overriding theme of mine is, I guess, a man and a woman against the world. But for this record, the woman seems to be down in the street, engaged in life, and the man is kind of left on his own, with, um, y’know, a tube of complimentary shampoo and a sock.”
•The Cure’s Robert Smith on dumb pop, 2007: “I’m saying that most good pop singles are stupid — otherwise they’re not good pop singles. I’m from an age when disposable wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
•Joe Boyd on music book signings, 2007: “I can tell you what the queue looks like. There’s a lot of beards. There’s a lot of bald pates. There’s a lot of gray hair, and every once in a while there’s a 20-something woman in the queue, and then you kind of make sure your hair is combed straight. Then she comes up to the head of the queue and says, ‘Will you please sign it “To Peter”? It’s for my father for his 60th birthday.'”
•Lady Gaga on pop perfection, 2008: ” If it isn’t flawless, I gotta work myself up to where it is — otherwise I’m just another pop chick with blonde hair.”
•Will Oldham on music, 2008: “You can find in music just about any ideal emotional landscape you crave, whether it’s angst or rebellion or celebration or union or dissolution. It’s all there, and none of it’s going to call you back or text you at four o’clock in the morning or blame you for anything you did or didn’t do or slap you with a paternity suit.”
•Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny on “Ewok Song,” 2009: “I know it by heart, and it’s the precursor to all these kids with wizard hats. It all comes down to the Ewoks singing around the fire. Akron/Family ain’t got nothing on the Ewoks, man.”
•Laurent Brancowitz of Phoenix on his old Daft Punk bandmates, 2009: “They decided to go to a lot of rave parties, and I didn’t, because I didn’t like the nightclub life. I’m a bit of a snob about it — I find it very vulgar.”
•Jarvis Cocker on his song “Caucasian Blues,” 2009: “I was interested in how blues music has gone from the music of protest, of the oppressed, to the blandest, safest music for white people to listen to in bars.”
Oh, but that was then — and I loathe nostalgia, if that isn’t already clear from the past seven years of cranky natterings and screams at the sky against boring, snorey Sha Na Na-style regurgitations. And this is now. Look for more from me in these and other pages, but never look back in regret.
MUSIC High Places’ upcoming release High Places vs. Mankind (Thrill Jockey) opens with the slow-tempered "The Longest Shadow." The chorus offers a supine first-person perspective of the sun’s effect on the earth at dusk. The first verse focuses on letting love in, but by the second verse Mary Pearson’s lyrics narrate the end of a relationship, which includes that universal nostalgia (a.k.a. confusion) of not really knowing why a relationship terminates, and includes the ritual stages of longing, wondering, and finally, remembering.
High Places’ music is designed to be lost in; it infiltrates and instigates meditation, but it also manages to keep the listener constantly moving. That’s how good the beat is as it weaves in and out of Pearson’s vocals. When the second track "On Giving Up" begins, it’s hard to determine if Pearson’s extending the last poem, and is talking about the actual breakup night, or if she’s talking about quitting cigarettes, booze, or some addiction, as she sings: "It’s all because I feel everything that’s gone. It’s all gone. Well, tonight is going to be the night." But that ambivalence is part of the charm, allowing the listener to relate and reflect.
Pearson and Rob Barber are High Places. The pair explored the natural world on the 2008 compilation 03/07-09/07, and on their self-titled album from the same year (both on Thrill Jockey). But on High Places vs. Mankind, there is a clear shift toward "humanity," as Pearson defines it, "for lack of a better word."
Weather the hot, the cold as well as spatial relationships, and differences, have a large impact on how we as humans live and operate. The band moved from New York to Los Angeles roughly a year ago. "We really had no good reason to, other than the weather," Barber says when I ask him over the phone why they decided to move. L.A. literally exists because it averages 320 sunny days a year, which made it the ideal location to film, and thus Hollywood emerged. After settling down in L.A. and taking a pause from touring, the duo suddenly had a great deal more space and time. They began writing and recording. But curiously, the warmth, space, and time led to icier sounds and darker themes in its new recording.
Pearson explains that High Places’ music made in New York "is based on escapism and trying to create our ideal environment. But because it’s so beautiful in L.A. all the time, we don’t need to talk about that stuff quite as much." This allowed the band to explore new ideas.
On High Places vs. Mankind, the blissed-out melodies and undeniable dance rhythms along with the complex layering and tidbits of dub are still apparent. But there is more: guitars sounding like guitars, unlike before, when they could’ve been mistaken for steel drums or sitars. And Pearson’s vocals are less affected, allowing them to be vividly heard.
The back of High Places’ self-titled release reads: "recorded at home by High Places." In New York, the band/best friends lived together. "I think that made us write every note together," says Pearson. In L.A., where they no longer share an apartment, they’ve taken a different approach. The pair discovered that they desired different types of workspaces. "I would work at home, and she would work in an outside studio," Barber explains. "We’d meet up and smash it all together. We’d go back and forth with it, responding to each other like call-and-response."
The change in sound is cooler at times, but it is also more direct in its message. "It was much more based on human relationships, and life and death," says Pearson. The album is dark and light at the same time tragic contemplations are matched with stretched-out synths, as well as those bouncing beats and rhythmic hooks High Places has utilized in the past to keep things airy. The music makes you pause, get lost, question your own mortality, think about your last heartache, and when the daze is over, you feel one step closer to the infinite.
High Places’ forthcoming show will add one more twinge in its exploration of human relationships by including Pearson’s sister Laura on vocals for the first time, and she’ll continue on most of the U.S. tour. Pearson explains that she and her sister have been singing together informally all their lives "Karaoke," interrupts Barber and that HP has wanted to include her on tour for a long time now. *
with Mi Ami and Protect Me
Wed/24, 8 p.m., $10/$12
155 Fell St., SF
MUSIC “There are great artists and musicians who will never be discovered,” says Herman Eberitzsch Jr. III “That’s the way it is,” he reasons. “There’s only so much room at the top.”
That’s why you’ve most likely never heard of Eberitzsch (pronounced “eh-bur-itch”) despite his remarkable music talent. He has a name straight out of a gothic fairy tale — far from the iconic, slick-sounding syllables associated with San Francisco’s psychedelic soul renaissance during the late 1960s and ’70s. Yet his recordings hold up to the best of them. “We had a strong conviction that we were the next big thing,” Eberitzsch says. “But we weren’t.”
Each generation harbors a certain aesthetic mood that mutates and evolves under the prescient vision of a limited number of innovators. Their fresh styles, resonant at first, then become formulated and stagnant, disseminated in the norm. We then await the next genius, or at least a movement of collective creativity, to shake things up. But what attunes us to one artistic strand, pregnant with a world of open-ended meaning and feeling, rather than another with just as much potential richness? How do we come to discern between the vanguard and the wayward? And what if we miss something in the process?
Eberitzsch’s unlikely story might just read like a rediscovery of what we overlooked. He recorded hours of bluesy soul fueled by free-form jazz throughout the ’70s that never saw commercial release. He arranged, wrote, sang, and funkified the keys on dozens of songs with mainstays of Santana’s circuit (Coke Escovedo, Linda Tillery), Lee Oskar of War, and Sly Stone’s drummer, Greg Errico, among many others. Most of the musicians who recorded on Eberitzsch’s own arrangements were, by and large, no-namers, yet it’s their music which now stands out.
Eberitzsch’s songs leap and wander. They gracefully move the spirit while grounding the body in rich, earthy grooves. They are a naive and inspiringly audacious attempt at channeling the sort of raw expression that challenges, mesmerizes, fights, and loves. In the midst of so much experimental and groundbreaking sound, Eberitzsch’s music either missed the ears of the right A&R rep or was just not the right kind of different.
A CHANCE REDISCOVERY
Now Eberitzsch is sitting across from me in a café near his former Potrero district home, excited to tell his story. He greets me as Allen Ginsberg (my look-alike visage intact, masked in dark beard and glasses), and I feign appreciation for the well-meaning reference, knowing that although Ginsberg had quite a poetic sharpness, he wasn’t the best-looking fellow. But Eberitzsch’s generous charm and earnest happiness with the course his life has taken, despite the disappointments, quickly win me over. Waves of amiable energy overtake the slightly weathered rasp in his voice. A youthful, idealistic Eberitzsch naturally emerges in the course of minutes. In a way, he’s been waiting for this interview for 40 years.
“Atlantic told me, ‘We don’t hear it at this time,'<0x2009>” Eberitzsch says, highlighting the elusive way a record company executive might elongate time, stretching the curt word like a worn rubber band. “But when you invest your life and your heart and soul into a project of your own creation, your own little children of songs, you don’t throw them away. You don’t send them down the River Styx,” he says, laughing. “So I put ’em in the basement.”
That’s where record collector Daniel Borine mistakenly found the two-inch apex tapes, 35 years later, while doing photo research for a reissue project on lost Bay Area modern soul. What those tapes hid — a dusty time capsule of relentless insight and vigor — amazed Borine. In a move away from the prideful hoarding that typically characterizes collectors, Borine wanted to share the tapes with a larger audience and finally do justice to Eberitzsch’s music. He pursued the new and quickly growing business of recorded music archaeology and preservation, an endeavor that mirrors what so many archivists have done already for literature, film, and visual art. Borine had the tapes mastered and organized the tracks into coherent volumes. He plans to put out four full-length records of Eberitzsch’s brilliant efforts, titled the HE3 Project, over the coming years on his own upstart Family Groove Records.
The first chapter of the compilation is set for release on March 30. It focuses on Eberitzsch’s trailblazing efforts from three distinct recording sessions between 1971 and 1974. These recordings capture Eberitzsch’s far-reaching artistry — a grounded and soulful angle on space-jazz psychedelia, informed as much by Weather Report as by Robert Johnson. This is the story of the man behind the HE3 Project.
ORIGINS OF A WOULD-BE TRAILBLAZER
Herman Eberitzsch Jr. III was born in San Francisco’s colorful Portola neighborhood in 1947. He grew up in a German household, where he learned to play the classical composers — Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms — at a young age. But somewhere along the way Eberitzsch caught the funk and couldn’t let go. “In my room I listened to James Brown,” he recalls. “When I grooved and played the boogie, I had a powerful left foot that shook the ground. My left foot took down the house, so I eventually had to move out.”
Eberitzsch conjured doo-wop on the corner with the young funky drummer Greg Errico, who lived down the street. He was enraptured by the blues in Oakland, danced to jazzy R&B grooves in San Francisco, and witnessed the emergence of a new psychedelic sound at the Fillmore and in the streets. Immersed in the Bay Area’s magnetic music community, he naturally gravitated to the keys again. “I figured out how to play funky style clavinet and piano,” Eberitzsch says. “They called me Funky Knuckles for short.”
At 21, the freshly-dubbed Funky Knuckles joined a band with Boots Hughston called Sword and the Stone, and was booked by Bill Graham to perform at the Fillmore. The outfit transitioned into a quartet, Shane, with Santana’s David Brown on bass. They hustled around the city making $10 an hour and all the beer they could drink. The city bubbled over with an unparalleled creative force. The time was electric.
That same year — 1968 — Eberitzsch attended UC Berkeley to study psychiatry. But he quit after one semester to pursue music as a career, preferring the organic therapeutic powers of rhythm and melody to the structured treatment of question and answer. “Music is a much more pure form of psychiatry. It has two potentials: it either incites you to create, or it soothes the savage beast,” he says. “I became a knowledgeable person of people through music.” And cyclically, Eberitzsch’s improvisational music erupted from kinetic relationships with people.
FILM Zhao Liang’s Petition is an audacious documentary, making up for whatever it lacks in formal innovation with an extraordinary level of commitment and narrative insight. Using a lightweight digital camera to enter repressed zones of Chinese society, both in the guts of bureaucracy and at its most wretched margins, Zhao spent a decade tracking the bitter lives of citizens who travel to Beijing to petition the central government for a fair hearing. Once there, they face malicious neglect and interminable waiting. The petitioners live on the street or crammed into small hotels, in constant fear of "retrievers" from their home provinces. The government estimates local corruption statistics by the numbers of complaints, so there’s incentive for these thugs to prevent dissenters from ever reaching the front of the line.
Forget the critic’s shorthand of "Dickensian" or "Kafkaesque." Franz Fanon is a closer match for Zhao’s radical engagement, but the point is that Petition‘s testimonies are not positioned for literary identification. "Our city has millions of people," a retriever threatens a petitioner, unaware that he’s on camera, "We don’t care if one disappears." The film does. Zhao’s rage is made clear without recourse to platitudes. More important, Petition‘s chorus of suffering never congeals into an undifferentiated mass; we never forget that this purgatory is finally someone’s life.
Zhao’s hidden camera generates damning evidence, but the documentarian’s most effective tool is time. Ten years is a long enough span to realize aging, a necessary reference point for Petition‘s trail of arrests and relocations with each, the prospect of justice ever more remote. When the petitioners’ tents are razed for an Olympic park, their slow grind is directly juxtaposed with the country’s rapid development, and the common murmurs of uprising come to seem comprehensible, perhaps even inevitable.
Over her decades as the engaged American intellectual par excellence, Susan Sontag occasionally received flack for projecting her own quest for moral seriousness on other peoples’ struggles. Promised Lands (1974), one of four films she made and the only documentary, is not so well known as "Trip to Hanoi" or her productions of Beckett in Sarajevo, but it does nonetheless issue from this less appealing side of her intellect. Unlike Petition‘s effortful humility, Promised Lands has the tokenizing insouciance of a tourist’s slideshow. The 16mm film was cobbled together in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War, with strident Zionist Yuval Ne’eman and leftist intellectual Yoram Kaniuck serving as the alpha and omega of the Israeli soul.
Their rhetorical styles are opposed, though the conclusions they draw are equally foregone for Ne’eman, Israel will follow Spain in ousting the Arabs (he says this without a trace of irony, the Inquisition notwithstanding), while for Kaniuck it is enough to say it can only end tragically, since both sides are "right." Both avoid any serious talk of political realities. For her part, Sontag presses a densely collaged soundtrack (shades of Godard and Emile de Antonio) over voyeuristic, estranged views of Jews at the Wailing Wall, encroaching consumer capitalism (Promised Lands‘ most significant insight), Hasids roaming the desert streets, and blackened corpses in the dunes.
The real problem with Promised Lands isn’t its lack of Palestinian voices it’s that Sontag never rises to the challenge of describing what it means to make this film as an American. Given what she would later write in On Photography, it’s curious that she could be so blasé here about wielding the camera as a mystifying poetic-ethnographic instrument. The film ends with the sound of an unseen woman’s cries, her suffering wholly detached from its cause and context. One can’t escape the sense that Sontag was enamored by a place where moral issues were right on the surface, but that she never solidified this abstract "interest." Our loss.
YBCA PRESENTS HUMAN RIGHTS AND FILM 2010
Petition, Thurs/18, 7:30 p.m., $8
Promised Lands, March 25, 7:30 p.m., $8
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission, SF
(415) 978-2787, www.ybca.org
FILM By the time the first of Stieg Larsson’s so-called “Millennium” books had been published anywhere, the series already had an unhappy ending. Its author planned 10 volumes total, but only finished three (plus some work on a fourth) before he died in 2004, none printed during his lifetime. The following year The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo became a Swedish, then eventually international sensation, its sequels following suit (though the English-translated third won’t come out here till May).
The books are addicting, to say the least, and despite their essential crime-mystery-thriller nature, don’t require putting your ear for writing of some literary value on sleep mode. As a result, there’s a sense of frustration and injustice that Larsson isn’t around to finish the job — no doubt exacerbated by the rumors that have milled around his premature demise. Like his male protagonist, he was a well-known muckracking journalist specializing in exposing right-wing scandals (especially racist and white-power organizations), so his massive heart attack at an apparently very healthy age 50 naturally set the conspiracy theories rolling.
Then there’s the matter of what happened to his fabulous, ever-escalating posthumous “Millennium” wealth: he never married a longtime partner, since his nonfiction work had drawn death threats and registration as a legal couple might have led violent extremists to their door. Unfortunately, that meant the onetime Trotskyist journal editor’s fortune now flows directly to the conservative family he was largely estranged from. No doubt there will be eventual books and films about this real-life intrigue.
Meanwhile, the first of three adaptive features shot back-to-back has reached U.S. screens. (Sorry to say, yes, a Hollywood remake is already in the works — but let’s hope that’s years away.) Even at two-and-a-half hours, this Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by necessity must do some major truncating to pack in the essentials of a very long (600 pages), very plotty novel. Some significant relationships, back stories, subsidiary characters, most humor, and a lot of interesting detail are sacrificed; that paring down means some very disturbing violence (warning: the book’s Swedish title was Men Who Hate Women) now looms much larger.
Still, all but the nitpickingest fans will be fairly satisfied, while virgins will have the benefit of not knowing what’s going to happen and getting scared accordingly. Soon facing jail after losing a libel suit brought against him by a shady corporate tycoon, leftie journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) gets a curious private offer to probe the disappearance 40 years earlier of a teenage girl. This entangles him with an eccentric wealthy family and their many closet skeletons (including Nazi sympathies) — as well as dragon-tattooed Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), androgynous loner, 24-year-old court ward, investigative researcher, and skillful hacker. She and Blomkvist eventually, uneasily team up to uproot what becomes a very nasty burial ground of old misdeeds.
Director Niels Arden Oplev (replaced on the two remaining films by Daniel Alfredson) and his scenarists do a workmanlike job — one more organizational than interpretive, a faithful transcription without much style or personality all its own. Mikael is straight man to Lisbeth’s wild card, yet Nyqvist is still duller than need be; Jacob Groth’s original score is downright cheesy at times. Nonetheless, Larsson’s narrative engine kicks in early and hauls you right along to the depot, with nary a dull moment, nor an overly formulaic one. And to think he wrote the series as a sort of hobby (supposedly basing Lisbeth on Pippi Longstocking!), doubtless never imagining in death he’d quite possibly take a turn as the world’s most popular author.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO opens Fri/19 in Bay Area. theaters.
SUPER EGO “Don’t you think that scratching records might annoy the people who spent a long time in the studio making them?”
I’m snickering at a jaw-droppingly antiquated — yet actually quite relevant — video from 1983 titled “1st UK DJ to Mix Live on TV.” It features famous, fresh-faced turntablist Greg Wilson, gracefully fending off tin-eared questions from Tube program host Jools Holland while demonstrating to an antsy, angular-haired audience what this whole “mixing records” thing is about.
The scratching bit’s a hoot because Wilson — who recently emerged from an 18-year retirement and will be performing at Triple Crown on Friday — isn’t scratching at all. He’s merely cueing up the record, a simple act that draws gasps. “Well, that’s it, that’s the danger,” Wilson replies to Holland, poker-faced, his soft brown Afro unshaken. “But when a record’s been played in the club for a long time, people get a bit fed up hearing it, and it’s nice to hear it in a different way. And that’s why I kind of … play about with them a bit.”
Wilson goes on to blow post-punk minds by phasing on two — two — tables at once. Then he takes it to a whole other level by revving up his trademark, Steampunk-prophesying Revox B77 reel-to-reel effects machine, real-time sampling David Joseph’s Jheri curl-slick classic “You Can’t Hide (Your Love From Me),” filling out the back-end with sly loops and layering on psychedelic dub echoes. It’s a wondrous bit of analog theater that I imagine, in this “digital age” I keep hearing about, would cause the same kind of pop-culture rupture if played out on American Idol today.
Or maybe not so much. Two of the big nightlife media hooks of the past few years have been the disco revival and the vinyl resurgence — twinned digital-reactionary movements that recall the late-1990s hip-hop and soul crate-digging of hometown heroes like DJ Shadow and Ren the Vinyl Archeologist, a fruitful response to the CD reissue mania of that time. Every technology carves out an implicit niche for its own backlashes. Now, it swallows them too. Despite all the retro nostalgia, DJs need the Internet to get their mixes out and research rare tunes. Plastic and silicon moving in tandem — it’s a real mishmash.
Wilson, who spent his decks hiatus pursuing his production career, may still keep one hand on the vintage — that Revox B77 still travels with him — but he’s made no secret of his enthusiasm for new fad gadgets, and felt that with the simultaneous rise of disco re-fever and software hijinks, a comeback was due.
“I think it’s an exciting time,” he e-mailed me from Australia, in the midst of a bonkers world tour to support his latest compilation of rejiggers, Credit to the Edit, Vol. 2 (Tirk). “Some people pine for the old days. But great as they were, I don’t like to dwell on the past too much in a nostalgic way, but use it to inform the future. I like the way younger people, who didn’t directly experience the original disco era, are drawing influence from it, reshaping it from their own perspective here and now. For me, music — no matter how old it might be — is always alive and evolving, so I’m all for bringing it into a new context.”
Wilson made his name in the ’70s and ’80s by birthing the electro-funk movement in the U.K. (www.electrofunkroots.co.uk), which pipelined many hard-to-find American dance releases to British crowds, and he came of age in a world of DJ record pools — strategic vinyl-sharing cabals that hooked cash-strapped DJs up with record companies eager to get their releases heard. Record pool culture opened the doors for innumerable disco and funk edits: DJs wanted to sound unique, so they mixed (or had someone else mix) their own versions of hits, stamping them with an individual sonic imprint. Thus the hugely influential edit scene was born, paving the way for a spectrum of club remixes from genius and egregious.
No one handled edits quite like Wilson, whose pitch-perfect additions, stretches, and overlaps and live technique proved to be a bulletproof blueprint. The disco edit scene, a subsection of disco revivalism that also digs up more contemporary “lost” tracks, keeps looping back into view, the most recent fanatic attack including acts like Wolf + Lamb, Soul Clap, Les Edits Du Golem, and Tensnake, and labels like Rong, Wurst, and Ugly.
Our very own rulers of the local edit scene are King & Hound (www.myspace.com/garthgrayhound), a collaborative effort between two SF DJ legends, Garth and James Glass, on the Golden Goose label. The two met in the early ’90s at the notorious Record Rack music store and have lately released tasty versions of David Ian Xtravaganza’s kiki 1989 “Elements of Vogue” and Can’s space-groovy “A Spectacle.”
“I have quite a few of Greg’s records,” Garth told me over e-mail. “I recently rediscovered one of his early hip-hop records called ‘We Don’t Care’ by Ruthless Rap Assassins, which I bought in 1987!” Glass joined in, “I grew up in London listening to Greg’s mixes and I’d hear him out and about.” Both of them shake off suggestions of Wilsonian influence, however. “But we’re all doing the same thing — taking out the cheese and respecting the quality,” Glass said.
Wilson’s brilliant 2009 Essential Mix mix for the U.K.’s BBC1 radio found Massive Attack and Talking Heads sharing space with Geraldine Hunt and Chic, and reintroduced him to American ears (“I think that mix illustrates what I always strive for: connecting back but moving on,” he told me. “I was shocked at the overwhelmingly positive response.”) But to Bay players he was always in the loop, working with the invaluable Anthony Mansfield of the Green Gorilla crew and Qzen and even visiting Haight Street a few years back to feed his ’60s obsession.
I recently had the opportunity to explore a bit of the Bay Area’s record pool and disco edit past with DJ Jim Hopkins of the ubiquitous Twitch Recordings, and who currently spins eclectic sets at venues like 440 Castro and Trax. He’s no stranger to the edit scene, becoming one of the youngest edit contributors in the early ’80s to San Francisco disco and Hi-NRG record pool Hot Tracks and later, after Hot Tracks owner Steve Algozino passed away from AIDS, Rhythm Stick, helmed by Algozino’s protégée Jenny Spiers. (He also namechecks the Bay’s Disconet and New Wave-friendly Razor Maid.) Hopkins got his edit start as a teen in the ’70s, using the pause button on his dad’s tape deck to make his own edits, and soon grabbed professional attention. “Record companies wanted several versions of their records available for DJs, and record pools wanted to put out compilation issues for subscribers that featured unique takes on tracks, so I happily provided,” he told me. “It’s funny that those things are worth a fortune today.”
Hopkins just started an online organization called the San Francisco Disco Preservation Society (find it at www.twitchrecordings.com) to collect and celebrate Bay-centric edits and reel-to-reel mixes. “As for the edit scene now, there seem to be two kinds being produced. There are easy-sounding ones that just extend the good parts. Then there are more serious ones that take the original and make it into something new and more moody. I think that’s good for the future — because sometimes I have to laugh. Disco kids these days are pulling anything out of vinyl resale bins from 20 years ago and calling it ‘classic’ when most of it is crap. It was crap back then, too. Making it into anything different is doing it a favor, really.”
Read Marke B.’s full interview with Greg Wilson here.
GREG WILSON: CREDIT TO THE EDIT TOUR
Fri/19, 10 p.m.–4 a.m., $15/$20
1772 Market, SF
HONEY SUNDAYS PRESENTS JIM HOPKINS
Sun/21, 10 p.m., $3
1501 Folsom, SF
DINE A cardinal rule of urban living is that hotel restaurants are to be approached with caution, especially if the hotel is a tentacle of one of the national chain monsters. Some of San Francisco’s best restaurants are in hotels, but those hotels tend to be chic and boutique-y. In the bigger, blander establishments, you’re likely to find yourself eating cioppino from a hollowed-out round of sourdough bread while the whole restaurant spins slowly, like a sideways Ferris wheel in some sad circus.
Urban Tavern is in the Hilton near Union Square — an ominous portent — but once you’re inside, you’d never know you were on the ground floor of a gigantic corporate box. The space doesn’t look like any tavern I’ve ever been in, but it certainly is urban in the best sense: designed but not over-designed, with a few big touches — such as the multicolored horse, sculpted of metal — and plenty of small ones, such as the lampposts made to look like the trunks of slender trees. The restaurant is also bigger than it looks from the street; it runs deep into the building, and maybe this is one reason that noise, which from the signs (many hard surfaces and a general modernist edge) should be a horrific problem, is hardly an issue at all.
Urban Tavern styles itself a “gastropub,” but it could as well be a wine bar since the wine list is extensive and interesting — and, as an added fillip, all bottles are half-price on Sundays. (The mark-down includes half-bottles, which are as well-represented here as any place I’m aware of.) But whether your fancy is beer, wine, or a soigné cocktail, chef Colin Duggan’s cooking holds up its end of the deal, and then some. Duggan was present at the restaurant’s creation in August 2008, and his current menu reflects a tasty dynamism with, as seems to be de rigueur at the moment, a German touch or two, such as a wonderful fresh pretzel ($11), served with slices of grilled caggiano beer sausage (garlicky, like kielbasa), and a broad smear of country mustard.
If your heart lies on the other side of the Rhine, you’ll certainly respond to the cheese puffs (a.k.a. gougères, $5 for three), which are indeed puffy — like little domed stadiums with big pockets of warm, fragrant air inside — and also impressively glazed, I would guess from a proper egg wash. In a similar vein we find a pair of turnovers ($10), pastry triangles the size of sandwich halves filled with crab and king trumpet mushrooms for a sea-sweet, if slightly muted, effect.
The main courses do tend toward tavernishness. There is a burger, along with steak frites and a couple versions of ribs, baby-back and spare, the last being served with a red-wine-based jus we found meaty and slightly sweet. But there is plenty of sophistication too, as in a sturgeon filet ($22) plated atop a jumble of green lentils, sun-dried tomatoes, and braised winter greens. Sturgeon are best-known for their roe, which we call caviar, but their white flesh is dense, meaty, and possibly the most delicious of the freshwater fish. In this country, sturgeon are also farm-raised to an environmental standard that makes them a “good alternative,” according to the Seafood Watch program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Of course, no gastropub menu would be complete without a vegetarian option, which at Urban Tavern is called a stew ($15) and consists of an iron skillet filled with a variety of roasted vegetables, including broccoli and cauliflower florets, butter beans, carrots, butternut squash, split brussels sprouts, and zucchini, all liberally seasoned with Parmesan cheese and moistened, at your discretion, from the pitcher of vegetable reduction on the side. It takes a certain nerve to do so little to vegetables and a certain faith that from the babble of different voices, a melody will emerge. But it does.
Desserts seem a little pricey at $9 a pop. We very much liked the peanut butter cup, a big disk of peanut butter mousse lacquered with dark chocolate in perhaps the ultimate marriage of New World delectables. The cup was presented with a wafer of peanut brittle and pat of peanut butter ice cream, which we found creamy and peanut buttery but slack somehow, as if a contrasting ingredient had gone missing. The banana trifle, served in a milk jar, was like a slice of banana-cream pie transformed into a parfait with good banana flavor but a bit too much sweetness. Even sweeter than German wine, and that’s pretty sweet.
Breakfast: 8:30–11 a.m.;
Lunch: 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; Dinner: 5:30–10 p.m.
333 O’Farrell, SF
CHEAP EATS Dear Earl Butter,
Thank you for putting real flowers and tiny plastic battery-operated candles in your closet for me. I slept like an angel that snores like a truck driver. Speaking of which, thank you for the chili and cornbread too. It made my homecoming that much sweeter and spicier, in addition to giving me gas. Which I am happy to have, and allowed to have, praise God, now that I’m back in a Free Country.
Plus the Maze of course, being beautiful, was waiting for me at the airport with a huge colorfully hand-painted sign that read, “Welcome home, Dani. We love you.” Signed: “The Bay Area.”
He admits having had help with the wording from at least one person, and with the painting from a couple more, so maybe there is some truth to this. If so, the feeling is very very mutual.
I will never leave the Bay Area ever again, not even to go camping. Just think, while my ex and my ex’s ex-ex are holed up together in their dark, cold, provincial town in southern Germany, clinging to each other’s small corner of obscurity, writing and editing their mediocre novel that is set in San Francisco, I get to live here. And love and be loved, and play and work and eat here.
I can’t speak for working, exactly, but it’s the greatest playing and eating place in the world that I know of. Here.
There, do you know what they eat, Earl? Well, the ex’s ex-ex doesn’t cook, and my ex’s specialty is ramen noodles. That’s what they call cooking. When they go out, it’s for sushi. Really really bad landlocked German sushi. Imagine!
Meanwhile, I have been shucking fresh-picked oysters and scallops on the west coast of France, inventing home-raised cherry chicken-heart stew, eating up Paris and Rome, hobnobbing with extraterrestrials, crunching into crack conch in the Caribbean, and passing the guitar with a couple Haitian boys outside their single-family chicken-coop shack.
And now … now I get to go get a burrito. Whenever. The fuck. I want. Because that’s what San Francisco is. It’s “what kind of beans,” the best of all-things-edible, and raw onions and garlic no matter who you might breathe on afterward. No problem. We live here.
Anyway, I do. You do. And I do again. I can’t think of a more appropriate way to celebrate my 20-year anniversary of moving to San Francisco than moving back to San Francisco.
St. Patrick’s Day 1990 was the day. I still remember my amazement, the air and the sky. Thank you for getting me back in, Earl — albeit on the ground floor, literally, with an option on your upstairs apartment’s closet. But I breathe better in closets than I did in small-town Germany, and I see more sky in one heartbeat here, through my dirty, barred sidewalk window, than I saw all this winter there. The Winter of My Discombobulation.
And now, if you will excuse me, m’dear, I have to go recombobulate.
Peace and pickles,
Dear Lady of SF,
That is great. We went to Urbun Burger because the Mission has a lot of places to eat. You wanted to walk around because you have returned. I know the area and fear I will never be able to leave, except, perhaps for my parents’ funerals. We went to the Community Thrift where 15 or so years ago, you found that really neat 49ers glass, and that made me jealous because I never, ever found a glass I really liked. Years later, when I read in your column that it had broken, I was happy. Karma, sigh, is on me.
But Urbun Burger. Lotta money, lotta meat. These burgers are 1/2 pounders. It was not $10 for my California Sensation burger, it was $9.50, and naturally I did not pay. There are a couple of burgers over $10, but they come with good fries. Super selection of condiments and a real nice, lively atmosphere. I enjoyed the colors in there. So did you.
And so it ends, my fit of usefulness to the good people of San Francisco. Yours begins anew. Welcome back. I hear it is a very good town.
Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.–10 p.m.;
Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–3 a.m.; Sun. 11 a.m.–10 p.m.
581 Valencia, SF
Beer & Wine
L.E. Leone’s new book is Big Bend (Sparkle Street Books), a collection of short fiction.
California voters are about to be bombarded by more than $50 million in political advertising designed to convince them to approve a pair of measures desperately sought by two powerful corporations with a long history of lies and political corruption.
Will this brazen and transparently self-serving effort work? And what does it say about the state of modern politics — particularly California’s money-driven initiative system — that these deceptive campaigns just might convince voters to cast ballots against their own interests?
The corporations have every incentive to try to buy the election — and if they win, it could encourage others to follow. By spending tens of millions of dollars on a campaign today, they will potentially save and earn many times that over the long run. It’s a business decision, plain and simple.
If Pacific Gas & Electric Co. can pass Proposition 16, which requires a two-thirds vote for any municipalities to do renewable energy projects and deliver that power directly to consumers, that will kill the chances of government-backed rivals popping up to compete. It will save the company the tens of millions of dollars it regularly spends to defeat public power campaigns across the state.
If Mercury Insurance is successful with Proposition 17, which overturns part of the landmark insurance reform measure Prop. 103 and would allow companies to increase the car insurance premiums for new drivers and those whose coverage has lapsed, a company notorious for mistreating customers and defying regulators will be able to greatly increase its market share and profits.
Both measures are strongly opposed by legitimate consumer rights groups, public interest advocates, and almost all of San Francisco’s elected officials. But both corporations have proven to be unusually effective over the years at using lavish spending — with money extracted from consumers — to convince private groups and public officials from both major parties to do their bidding.
And plenty of public officials who ought to be opposing the measures are either on the wrong side or silent.
Will Mercury-backed Californians for Fair Auto Insurance Rates (which calls itself Cal-FAIR) be able to convince voters that Prop. 17 is really about saving drivers money? And will PG&E-financed Californians to Protect our Right to Vote succeed in making the case that supermajority thresholds are a needed safeguard against the electricity schemes of elected officials?
That all depends on how informed voters are when they cast their ballots.
Mercury Insurance founder and chairman George Joseph became a billionaire by offering car insurance policies to California drivers who were at a higher risk for accidents than most other companies would accept, charging them expensive rates and then challenging their claims.
When Forbes magazine named Joseph the 283rd richest American in 2005, with an estimated worth of $1.2 billion, it wrote laudably about the practice in describing him: “Numbers guru earned Harvard math and physics degree in three years. Began as actuarial trainee at Occidental Life for $225 a month, quit after realizing salesmen made more. Created own property and casualty insurance company. The Mercury General 1962: targeted customers having trouble getting auto insurance; aggressively investigated suspicious claims. Took public 1985.”
Mercury currently has about $2.3 billion in market capital and a stock price that has roughly doubled in the year since the company began funding a $3.5 million signature-gathering effort to place Prop. 17 on the June ballot. That may be a coincidence, but it’s certainly true that Mercury’s fortunes are tied up with California motorists.
The company’s most recent annual report, filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission last month, shows California car insurance policies are the lion’s share of the company’s business. Almost 80 percent of its premiums are in California (followed by Florida, Texas, and New Jersey), and 83.2 percent of its $2.6 billion in total premiums cover private passenger cars (as opposed to commercial auto, homeowners, and other insurance products). In California, 81 percent of Mercury customers earned “good driver” discounts, while 19 percent are in higher-risk categories, paying much higher monthly premiums.
California’s car insurance regulation system was created almost entirely by the 1988 pro-consumer ballot measure Prop. 103. That initiative established a system of regulatory oversight and financial transparency, cutting premiums by about 20 percent and limiting what companies could consider when assigning rates.
The main rating factors, in descending order of importance, are customers’ driving safety records, number of miles they drive each year, and the number of years they have been driving — which all have a direct relationship to the odds of having an accident.
Before Prop. 103 went into effect in 1990, insurance companies could pretty much charge whatever they wanted, based on whatever criteria they saw fit. And that freedom became a gold mine in 1984 when the California Legislature required all drivers to have car insurance.
“After that, everyone in the marketplace is required to buy insurance and there’s no protection against how much insurance companies could charge you for it, or even if they refused to sell it to you because of where you lived or the color of your skin. There were just no protections,” said Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Consumer Watchdog.
So Rosenfield wrote Prop. 103 and he’s been battling Mercury Insurance ever since. They’ve tangled in the halls of the Legislature, where politicians from both major parties have received millions of dollars in campaign contributions to push bills to undermine Prop. 103. They’ve fought in court in countless hearings over more than two decades, most recently on March 12 in a dispute over Prop. 17 ballot language and arguments. And they’ve fought in the court of public opinion, right up to today, as Rosenfield leads the fight to defeat Prop. 17.
“One of the most pernicious practices after the Legislature said you have to buy insurance was that when you went to the insurance companies and said, ‘OK, I’m required by law to buy insurance, now sell it to me.’ They’d say, well you didn’t have it before, so we’re not going to sell it to you now. Or, you didn’t have it before so therefore we’re going to surcharge you and double the price of insurance. Talk about a Catch 22,” Rosenfield said.
Rosenfield and other consumer advocates appealed to legislators, but, he said, “Of course, the Legislature was too beholden to the insurance lobbyists to do any of the proposals that we were offering, so we went to the ballot box in 1988.” And despite an $80 million campaign financed by the insurance industry, Rosenfield’s group won — sort of.
“No longer would your ZIP code be the dominant determinant for how much you pay,” Rosenfield said. But the struggle to implement the law continued. “That battle, just to get that put it in place, we didn’t win that until 20 years after [Prop.] 103 began. We won basically in 2006, 18 years later, after court challenges and going to the [insurance] commissioner.”
Mercury was one of the major industry players challenging Prop. 103 in court. The company also deftly worked the political system, most scandalously through former Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, a Democrat now running for mayor of Oakland. Mercury not only gave extensive political contributions to Perata, who then carried legislation for Mercury, including a bill to basically do what Prop. 17 would do, but a San Francisco Chronicle investigation in 2004 found that Mercury’s cash allegedly went into Perata’s personal account in a money-laundering scheme that reportedly triggered an FBI investigation and raid on Perata’s house (no charges were ultimately filed).
Rosenfield described how the company operates in the political arena: “Mercury realizes it’s going to lose the civil suit, goes to Sacramento, spreads a fortune in campaign contributions, and lo and behold, gets a bill passed overriding this provision of Prop. 103, legalizing its surcharges. [Gov. Gray] Davis vetoes it in 2002 on the grounds it violates Prop. 103. Another year goes by, Mercury spreads even more money around, and this time Davis is in a recall election and needs Mercury’s money. So he takes the money — it’s $100,000 or more — and Davis signs the bill. We have to go to court and challenge the bill as an unconstitutional amendment to Proposition 103, which we finally succeed in doing and it’s upheld by the Court of Appeals in 2005. All that time, Mercury is overcharging people. Ultimately, Mercury is told that the law you sponsored is invalid and you can’t do it anymore, so it stops in 2005 — 10 years of wanton, brazen violation of the law. And that brings us to the Mercury initiative.”
Joseph refused to talk to us (he grants almost no press interviews) and Mercury spokesperson Coby King referred questions to Kathy Fairbanks, who heads the Mercury-sponsored Cal-FAIR.
But when we noted that this group is supposedly independent of Mercury, and that my questions were about the company’s history of hostility to Prop. 103, King finally made this comment: “Prop. 103 is the law of the land, but to the extent there are improvements that can be made that are pro-business and pro-consumer, Mercury has not been shy about acting in the public interest.”
Another corporation that has not been shy about flexing its muscle in the political arena is SF-based PG&E, California’s largest and most influential utility company. It is single-handedly bankrolling the Yes on 16 Campaign. Dubbed the “Taxpayers Right to Vote Act,” Prop. 16 was crafted by a Sacramento public relations outfit and law firm that have long histories with PG&E. Its goal: end the expansion of public power in California.
The utility has amassed a war chest of funding to sink into passing Prop. 16, which would make it difficult for municipal governments to break into the electricity business by requiring a two-thirds vote at the ballot before any such efforts could get underway.
Last month, PG&E executives notified shareholders that the estimated $35 million expenditure for the Prop. 16 campaign would affect individual share values by 6 cents to 9 cents. Following on the heels of this news brief was the revelation that PG&E CEO Peter Darbee received a total compensation of $9.4 million in 2009, reflecting a 9 percent pay spike from the previous year, according to the Associated Press.
Since PG&E Corp., the parent corporation, derives 100 percent of its revenue from PG&E Co., the utility company regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, critics have argued that PG&E is using ratepayers’ money to finance a campaign ultimately designed to limit ratepayers’ ability to choose their electricity provider.
As the utility seeks to alter the state constitution with Prop. 16, it is also boldly pursuing a rate hike of roughly 20 percent by 2011. Winning the Prop. 16 campaign could trigger an economic boon for PG&E since it would dramatically decrease the potential for municipal competitors to spring up and win over customers with lower rates, cleaner power, and more reliable service. Locking in such a monopoly would leave consumers with little choice but to endure rate hikes.
If Prop. 16 fails, however, the utility company’s financial outlook will be dicey. If twin efforts at green, community choice aggregation (CCA) programs moving steadily forward in San Francisco and Marin County prove successful, PG&E could see a depletion of its customer base from those territories and any other municipalities that follow suit.
What this means is that the stakes are high — and PG&E is prepared to pull out every trick in the book to win the Yes on 16 campaign. And yes, there actually is a playbook for how to use deceptive tactics to win these campaigns, a copy of which was obtained by the Guardian.
PG&E’S PROPAGANDA MANUAL
The San Francisco public relations firm Solem & Associates, which has worked with PG&E for nearly 30 years, has produced a step-by-step guide tailored specifically to its anti-public-power campaign needs. This hefty insiders’ playbook is titled “Defending Your Shareholder-Owned Electric Company Against New Municipalization Threats: A Tactical Guide.”
Jonathan Kaufman and Anne Solem, both executive vice presidents, are listed as coauthors. Kaufman is a white-haired guy with owl-like spectacles who can be seen regularly in the public seating section in meetings at City Hall, furiously scribbling notes, whenever the city’s green CCA program is up for discussion. He did not return the Guardian’s calls for comment.
The key strategy explained in Solem & Associates’ playbook is to create the impression that there are influential community leaders and a grassroots coalition agitating independently for the company’s agenda — when in fact the entire campaign is funded, organized, and run by one corporation.
Although the playbook never comes out to state just how the utility should go about persuading these “community allies” to see things their way, it makes it clear such allies are crucial to convince legislators, voters, and the general public that electricity programs run by municipal entities are “fraught with financial risks and other hazards.”
The playbook even recommends seeing to it that “independent” studies are published with findings that support this claim. “To provide third-party credibility to your company’s point of view … develop various reports and studies that analyze the risks and costs involved in a new public power takeover,” the playbook suggests. “It is preferable that the studies come from an independent group rather than your company.”
At certain junctures, Kaufman and Solem blatantly encourage the electric company to engage in misleading practices to hide the influence of campaign consultants working to advance a corporate agenda. “Develop opinion editorials and draft letters to the editor,” the playbook instructs. “Then ask your community supporters to personalize them and submit them to local newspapers.”
It’s interesting, given this advice, that a Twitter feed posted recently by Californians to Protect Our Right to Vote, a PG&E-bankrolled front group set up to promote the Yes on 16 campaign, highlights two different op-eds in the Fresno Bee and Sacramento Bee published within two days of one another. Both editorials were written in support of Prop.16 — one from a former sheriff of Sacramento, and the other from a former city council member of Fresno. Both editorials mention budget cuts to police and fire departments in the second paragraph. Both express surprise at the publications’ editorials against Prop. 16 in the fourth paragraph. Both cite the same statistic in the second-to-last paragraph. And both conclude with the words: “Taxpayers Right to Vote Act.” Is it a strange coincidence?
The playbook contains specific instructions for media-relations techniques, too. “Identify several community and business leaders who are willing to serve as spokespersons for your company,” the playbook recommends. “Try to keep the community leadership out in front of the reporters. Your community supporters can be much more effective with the media than perhaps your company’s own spokesperson.”
In other words: Try not to let anyone know that this is nothing more than a special-interest campaign.
Solem & Associates also suggests planting people at key local government meetings (in case of public comment, “provide them with talking points,” Solem & Associates recommends).
ON THE GROUND
How these tactics get played out in real life can be seen this year in the fight between the PG&E and Mercury front groups, and the eclectic coalition of grassroots organizations and public officials who are opposing them.
Jeff Shields, general director of South San Joaquin Irrigation District, a body governed by five elected board members, described how PG&E operates in testimony to a legislative hearing in Sacramento last month.
“PG&E attends every board meeting of SSJID, often taking video and tape recordings of our meetings, and they fund political consulting firms to campaign against our efforts and pepper us with Public Records Act requests,” he said. “Never once has a voter in our service area had the opportunity to cast a vote to allow PG&E to provide service and never have our citizens been afforded an option to vote for a PG&E Board member or attend — let alone record — a PG&E meeting.”
Yet all of the rhetoric by PG&E’s Californians to Protect the Right to Vote perversely casts the measure as about voting rights, even though this undemocratic measure protects an unelected power provider and is promoted with money that ratepayers didn’t approve for the purpose. “I am a California veteran,” Shields said. “I defended this country in uniform and I am appalled that PG&E has stated in no uncertain terms that its shareholders are paying to amend our constitution. If that is true, then it is important to examine who those shareholders are.”
He pointed out that Barclays Global Investors U.K. Holdings, Ltd., a U.K. bank, owns roughly 4 percent of PG&E shares, while JP Morgan Chase & Co. owns around 2.5 percent. “If these foreign banks and Wall Street institutional investors are truly at will to manipulate the California Constitution and this legislature has no ability to prevent that, God help us all, for the greed that motivates PG&E’s Proposition 16 is only the first thread to be pulled from the fabric that binds our society.”
John Geesman, a former member and director of the California Energy Commission, raised the possibility that if the utility is able to amass so much funding for a ballot initiative, its rates are too high. “The indisputable truth is that PG&E’s rates are set by the CPUC to provide capital to invest in needed infrastructure. If rates are so generous that PG&E can create a $35 million slush fund for political adventurism, something is seriously wrong.”
Indeed, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who shepherded the creation of this city’s CCA, Clean Power SF, told a recent Harvey Milk Democratic Club forum that the campaign raises larger concerns about corporate power.
“Know what? If we’re gonna lose, we go down as warriors. And if we win, then we win not for San Francisco or Marin, but we win to address the very fact that Washington is not moving in the direction we would like addressing climate change,” Mirkarimi said. “The complete corporate hubris and arrogance in that they think they can continue to operate in the way that they have is unimaginable.”
The people representing these corporations and their front groups, such as Cal-FAIR director Kathy Fairbanks, stressed to us the “broad coalitions” that support their measures. Those coalitions include “consumer groups” such as Consumers First and Consumer Coalition of California — each which seem to be comprised of only single individuals that back business-friendly measures each election.
Fairbanks defends claims that Prop. 16 would lower rates for most Californians, citing state figures that 80 percent of drivers in the state have continuous coverage and therefore could quality for the discount even if they change carriers to a provider like Mercury that generally offers lower rates than many of its competitors.
And while she grudgingly acknowledges that premium discounts for some are always offset by increases for others, she said the measures would create more “competitive markets” that would cause insurance companies to lower costs and decrease rates across-the board. “They’re going to do whatever they need to do to get more customers,” she said.
Asked whether Mercury’s bad reputation, and the difficulty many voters will have in believing that they’re spending millions of dollars to lower the premiums they collect, hurt the campaigns chances of winning, she said, “Voters are not going to do anything more than read the measures and vote in their interests.”
Rosenfield agreed that this campaign could turn on who can convince voters where their interests lie. “Here’s the issue in a nutshell: will California voters be duped by a $20 million insurance initiative campaign in which the insurance company has to hide behind a phony front group?”
After Prop. 17 qualified for the ballot last year, the struggle to defeat it moved into the office of Attorney General Jerry Brown — who is running for the Democratic Party nomination for governor — and again Rosenfield was frustrated by the unwillingness of powerful Democrats to challenge Mercury Insurance.
The Attorney General’s Office writes the ballot title and summary for all initiatives. Given the complexity of insurance law and attractiveness of claims by proponents that the measure would save consumers money (“as much as $250 per year” for “your family,” proponents claim in their ballot arguments), the language of the summary could decide the outcome of the election.
Initially, last August, the AG’s office summarized the measure as “allows insurance companies to increase or decrease the cost of auto insurance based on a driver’s coverage history,” something that seemed to accurately capture what it would do.
“Mercury went crazy because I guess their polling showed that if voters read that it allowed insurance companies to raise your premium, they wouldn’t vote for it. So Mercury made a completely cosmetic change to the ballot measure, refiled it, and this time, magically, the title and summary comes back from Jerry Brown’s office: ‘allows insurance companies to discount your premiums.’ Nothing about raising them, nothing about surcharges. It was outrageous,” Rosenfield told us when we met with him on Feb. 9.
Consumer Watchdog formally challenged the language and issued press releases shaming Brown, which resulted in a minor scandal in which a Brown aide got fired for illegally recording a telephone conversation he had with Chronicle reporter Carla Marinucci about the issue. By Feb. 5, Brown’s office had retreated slightly, including the line “may allow insurance companies to increase costs of insurance to drivers who do not quality for a discount,” but it came below the emphasis on the discount and had weak language that didn’t reflect reality.
Eventually, after Rosenfield submitted studies proving this reality to the AG’s office, it issued language that Consumer Watchdog finds fair and accurate: “Permits companies to reduce or increase cost of insurance depending on whether driver has a history of continuous insurance coverage.”
Then something strange happened. Due to what AG’s spokesperson Christine Gaspara labeled a “clerical error,” the office inadvertently sent the old, weaker “may allow” language over to the Secretary of State’s Office. And because they didn’t realize this before the deadline passed, the AG had to sue the state and its ballot printer to get the correct language in the voter guide.
On March 12, Judge Allen Sumner ruled against Mercury, so the language will read: “Will allow insurance companies to increase costs of insurance to drivers who do not have a history of continuous coverage,” which the official ballot argument against Prop. 17 says will be “$1,000/year (based on Mercury’s numbers).”
Meanwhile, Rosenfield has also been jousting with Assembly Member Dave Jones (D-Sacramento), who is running for Insurance Commissioner this year, trying to shore up his opposition to Prop. 17 over the last few months. When we spoke last month, Rosenfield said Jones privately said he opposed the measure but had yet to do so publicly.
But Jones, who has a strong voting record supporting consumer rights, told us the criticism wasn’t accurate, and that he has consistently opposed the measure. “As I campaign throughout the state, I point to Prop. 17 as a measure that we should defeat … Certainly what Mercury is proposing in Prop. 17 would be bad policy and I oppose it. It undermines Prop. 103.”
Like Rosenfield and other critics of the measure, Jones said the measure is bad for all Californians because it makes insurance more expensive for those who haven’t had coverage. “The danger here is that the dramatic price increases could cause these drivers to drive without insurance — and that is dangerous for all of us,” reads a statement on his Web site.
But the cached Web site function on Google shows that statement was the only one of nine issue statements that wasn’t on the site as of Jan. 30. Asked when the statement was posted, Jones told us he directed staff to include it “some time ago, but we’ve had some issues with our site. It may have gone up recently for all I know.”
Jones’ Democratic primary challenger, Assembly member Hector de la Torre (D-Los Angeles County), has made an issue of his stand on the measure, telling us, “I came out very clearly and strongly on the measure and I wasn’t calculating or cautious … I came out against it months ago and I’m working within the Democratic Party to have them oppose it.”
The state party has yet to take a stand on the measure, and neither Democratic Party executive director Bob Mulholland nor chair John Burton returned our calls on the issue, just as Rosenfield told us he “can’t get Burton to return my calls.” But he remains hopeful the party will oppose the measure at its April convention and put money into defeating it.
“I’d like to think the Democrats will stand up against this insurance company, but Mercury Insurance is very politically connected and the Democratic Party, as we know all too well lately, doesn’t seem to have that kind of backbone,” Rosenfield said.
San Francisco Democratic Party chair Aaron Peskin said he’s confident the state party will join the fight to defeat it: “This is a complete abuse of the initiative process and the voters of California should not be fooled.”
Rosenfield isn’t the only one who has battled with Mercury for many years. “I’ve been after them for 20 years, so this is not a new issue for me,” said U.S. Rep. John Garamendi (D-East Bay), who served as California’s first Insurance Commissioner from 1991 to 1995 and then again from 2003 to 2007. “He [Joseph] has refused to accept the fact that the world has changed around him.”
Beyond just trying to change the rules, Mercury has blatantly ignored them, as a decade’s worth of documents from the Department of Insurance that were released last month show, triggering upcoming legislative inquiries. In 275 pages unearthed by the Chronicle and then obtained by the Guardian, Mercury documents show the company illegally discriminating against certain professions, including soldiers, artists, bartenders, and traveling salespeople.
The Department of Insurance, now headed by a Republican, singles out Mercury as an especially bad actor with a history of hostility to regulation. As Rosenfield told us Feb. 9, “Here’s what California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner said about Mercury in a case that’s actually going to be heard tomorrow in Oakland. This is a quote: ‘Mercury’s lengthy history of serious misconduct and its attitude, contempt towards and/or abuse of its customers, the commissioner, its competition, and the Superior Court are all relevant to determining the penalty needed to best ensure the protection of the public for future violations and wrongdoing.’ In my 22 years of working on insurance stuff, I’ve never heard the Department of Insurance refer to a company like that.”
And here in San Francisco, the Guardian has a long history of exposing political corruption by PG&E, from essentially bribing local officials to give it control of the city electricity system — in direct violation of the Raker Act, the federal legislation that authorized the city to construct O’Shaughnessy Dam — to illegally funneling money into anti-public-power campaigns (one such violation in 2002 resulted in the largest fine ever issued by the San Francisco Ethics Commission).
The record on both companies is clearly malevolent, their political dealings utterly corrupt. Good government advocates say Props. 16 and 17 represent a clear litmus test on the power of corporations to push their interests ahead of the general public’s in California.
“To me, it’s a classic case study of what’s going on with the initiative process in California and politics in general,” said Derek Cressman, western regional director of Common Cause. “These are two initiatives literally sponsored by corporations to push very narrow interests.”
“They are laws designed to give a financial advantage to a specific industry or company,” Garamendi said, adding that he is afraid the effort may be successful. “Money talks. It always has, particularly in propositions, and the odds are money will talk again.”
Sen. Mark Leno (D-SF), who also opposes both measures, was a bit more hopeful: “Californians have been savvy in the past, and I do believe they’ll be able to see through the tens of millions of dollars in misleading ads.”
Top San Francisco officials are still refusing to implement legislation approved by the Board of Supervisors that requires due process to play out before immigrant youth accused of felonies are turned over to the federal government, despite recent developments that call into question arguments that have been made against that policy.
Mayor Gavin Newsom, whose veto of the legislation was overridden by the board in November 2009, has been the main obstacle to putting the new policy in place. He has argued that it violates federal law, that the city faces civil liability for harboring undocumented immigrants accused of crimes, and that only serious criminals have been affected by his unilateral 2008 decision to turn minors over to federal authorities before they have been convicted.
But then Muni bus driver Charles Washington’s wife, Tracey Washington, and 13-year-old stepson, undocumented immigrants from Australia, were placed under the control of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and ordered deported after the boy got into a fight at his middle school.
The case generated sympathetic media coverage because the felony charges and deportation order seemed excessive, so the federal government issued a 60-day reprieve to allow the family to finish applying for green cards and so the boy could have his day in juvenile court.
“All this got triggered by the non-implementation of a law that the board duly enacted last year,” Washington said March 11, a week after getting his reprieve, expressing exasperation with city officials. “The police are overcharging kids and waiting for someone else to whittle the charges down, and the probation officers are referring the kids to ICE, waiting for someone else to deal with the situation.”
Newsom’s policy required the city’s juvenile probation department to refer Washington’s stepson to federal immigration authorities after local police charged the boy with felony robbery, assault, and extortion in a dispute over 46 cents. Authorities then required his mother, rather than his stepfather, to come pick him up and placed an electronic monitoring device on her pending a deportation hearing.
Newsom’s policy has had a big impact in the city’s immigrant communities. Since July 2008 when the mayor ordered changes to Sanctuary City policies that had been in place for two decades, 125 youths have been referred to ICE, according to a March 9 report from the city’s Juvenile Probation Department.
In addition to the Mayor’s Office, the JPD has refused to enforce policies enacted through legislation by Sup. David Campos that are technically supposed to be the new city policy on referring undocumented youth, and the City Attorney’s Office has not required city employees to follow the new law, arguing it can only give advice and not compel departments to take action.
“With the benefit of legal advice provided by the City Attorney’s Office and outside legal counsel, and in light of current restrictions imposed by federal law, particularly the position taken by federal law enforcement authorities, the department has concluded that it cannot modify its policies and practices,” probation chief William Siffermann said at a March 4 hearing of the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee on why his department didn’t implement the legislation.
Grilled by Campos, Siffermann could not identify a federal law that requires city officials to report kids to federal immigration authorities upon arrest. Instead, Sifferman pointed to what many in the criminal justice community see as U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello’s overly broad interpretation of federal immigration laws, including his allegation that transporting arrested juveniles to court hearings amounts to “harboring aliens.”
But the Washingtons’ case struck a raw nerve at City Hall, and the Obama administration’s conciliatory response, along with other recent legal developments, indicate that it isn’t the feds that are preventing implementation of Campos’ legislation.
In February, Superior Court Judge Charlotte Woolard ruled in a civil case that the Bologna family — of which three members were murdered in 2008, allegedly by Edwin Ramos, an undocumented immigrant who had been in city custody as a juvenile — can’t hold the city liable for failing to prevent the murders.
That crime had been sensationalized by the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, and nativist groups, putting pressure on Newsom to change the Sanctuary City policy. Newsom’s spokespeople repeatedly have referred to it as an example of the civil liability the city faced.
On March 1 (the same day Washington first went public), City Attorney Dennis Herrera replied to allegations that his office has not done enough to implement Campos’ amendment by citing its victory in the Bolognas’ civil case, which sought punitive damages and to invalidate the city’s sanctuary ordinance.
Herrera also asked Gary Grindler, acting deputy attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice, to direct the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of California to “not use its limited resources to criminally prosecute local officials and employees who abide by California and local laws regarding the reporting of undocumented juvenile immigrants to the federal immigration authorities.”
Herrera based his March 12 request on an Oct. 19, 2009 memo that Grindler’s predecessor, David Ogden, issued curtailing federal action against medical marijuana dispensaries, which Herrera argued could serve as the model for clarifying the federal position on the city’s sanctuary law.
“If city officials and employees follow the mandates of state law, including those regarding the confidentiality of records of juvenile detainees, and the requirements of the amendment permitting the reporting to ICE of juveniles only after they have been adjudicated as wards of the court for criminal conduct, then the U.S. Attorney should not make it a priority to use its scarce federal resources to prosecute those city officials on the theory that by not reporting them at an earlier point, the city officials or employees are guilty of harboring,” Herrera wrote.
Campos said he welcomes any effort to get clarification from the feds, but believes such clarification is not necessary — and may not be forthcoming anyway. “So San Francisco should move forward. The law, in my view, allows us to do so, and it’s the right thing to do.”
OPINION The Municipal Transportation Agency’s Web site states a goal of providing a "convenient, reliable, accessible, and safe transit system that meets the needs of all transit users" in San Francisco. I have a feeling that if you ask most Muni riders, few would use those words ("convenient," "reliable," "safe," "meeting the needs of all transit users") to describe Muni today.
Riders have been put in the untenable position of paying higher fares for less service. Yet Muni still faces a $17 million deficit (projected to grow to $55 million next year), which it proposes to close by again increasing fares and cutting services. When asked about Muni recently, Mayor Gavin Newsom pointed to a $179 million reduction in state funding as the culprit. And while no one can dispute the devastating impact of such a cut, there are a few questions that suggest that the state alone is not to blame for Muni’s troubles.
For one, we just learned that the MTA has not had a management and performance audit since 1996. Although it’s undergone a number of fiscal audits, a management audit is different; such an audit would actually evaluates Muni’s operations to determine if the system is run effectively and efficiently. How is it that an $800 million operation can go for 14 years without that type of evaluation?
Moreover, what does it say about how Muni is managed when the agency has consistently failed to control overtime costs? We just learned that Muni accounts for about half of the city’s overtime expenses. This fiscal year alone, Muni has spent $23.8 million in overtime, or 45.6 percent of the city’s total. What kind of management and operational practices allow an agency to function like this?
And why is Muni spending 9 percent of its budget ($67 million) on work orders (with other departments) for services that may or may not have much to do with its mission including $12.2 million for the Police Department, $8.5 million for the Department of Telecommunications, and $6.9 million for the General Services Agency that runs 311? Since a quarter of the value of these work orders would suffice to wipe away its deficit, what, if anything, has Muni done about this?
And speaking of Muni’s deficit, why is it that increasing fares and reducing services seem to be the only tools in its tool box? As a number of transportation experts have suggested, there are several options that should have been on the table raising parking fees, adding parking meters, charging for blue placards, and putting a revenue measure on the ballot, just to name a few. While some of these options may not be the answer, has Muni at least considered them? Did it consider them before proposing more fare increases and service cuts, including doubling fares for seniors, the disabled, and youth?
All this points to a more fundamental question what about the MTA Board? Has the board provided the type of engaged and independent oversight needed to guarantee effective management? And is independent oversight even possible when all board members are appointed by one person, the mayor?
Because of these and other questions, I am proud that the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion I introduced asking the budget analyst to conduct an independent management audit of the MTA. Given the timing of the budget process, the first phase of the audit will be completed by May 1, with the remainder in the summer. The audit will evaluate key areas of Muni’s operations to shed light on whether it is truly following best practices. We owe it to the ridership to face these questions head on. We no longer have the luxury to wait for the state to do the right thing.
SF Supervisor David Campos represents District 9.
For decades, the San Francisco City Charter has had a fairly simple process for filling vacancies in local elected offices: the mayor makes an appointment. A supervisor leaves office, or the district attorney leaves office, or the city attorney leaves office, or the controller leaves office, or the assessor leaves office, or the public defender leaves office … there’s no election. It’s up to the mayor to fill the job. It gives the person in Room 200 a tremendous amount of power.
Gavin Newsom’s a beneficiary of this system — he didn’t run for election the first time he took elected office. A mayor named Willie Brown appointed him to the Board of Supervisors.
If the mayor leaves office, on the other hand, the Board of Supervisors, by a majority vote, gets to fill that position. And while Newsom has never complained about any of this in the past, now that he thinks he’s going to get elected lieutenant governor, he’s got a campaign underway to make sure the current district-elected board doesn’t get to name his successor. He wants to change the City Charter to mandate a special election if a mayor leaves office before the end of his or her term.
It’s about as hypocritical and self-serving as you can imagine, although he carefully talks about “democracy” and “the voters choosing.”
I find it kind of silly (and expensive) to plan a special election for mayor in March or April of next year when there’s already a regular election for mayor in November. And special elections have notoriously low turnout (favoring candidates with money and name recognition). But let’s play this out.
I’ve always thought it was odd that the mayor got to appoint supervisors. The governor can’t appoint state legislators; the president doesn’t appoint members of Congress. So if we’re going to change things, let’s be sure to change that, too. And then let’s take away the mayor’s ability to fill any vacancy in any elected office.
But you see, Newsom’s office told me he’s against that. He doesn’t want to limit the mayor’s power — just the power of the supervisors. Go figure.
EDITORIAL As the Planning Commission prepares to vote March 18 on a pointless and overly large condominium complex next to the Transamerica Pyramid, let us take a moment to look at who would benefit from the project’s approval.
The project sponsors, Aegon USA and Lowe Enterprises, would get the right to shadow public parkland, turn a city street into a private parking garage, and construct a project far beyond the allowable height for the location. They’d construct 248 luxury condos, which the city doesn’t need and will do nothing for the housing crisis. The developers would also make a lot of money on the deal; that’s why they want spot zoning to double the allowable height. When it comes to these sorts of projects, taller is more profitable.
And the two companies asking for these civic favors aren’t exactly San Francisco outfits that share the city’s values.
Aegon is a giant insurance and finance company based in the Netherlands that bought out the local Transamerica Company in 1999. The money Aegon makes on the deal won’t stay in San Francisco; even Aegon’s American subsidiary doesn’t have a home office here.
The company’s PAC is a major contributor to Republican causes and candidates (although some Democrats get money, too, particularly the likes of Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, one of Aegon’s top-dollar friends, who is among the main reasons the Senate won’t pass a public option for health insurance). And over the past 10 years, Aegon PAC has contributed $39,500 to Lifepac, a Columbus, Ohio-based anti-abortion group.
Then there’s Lowe Enterprises, based in Los Angeles. The company’s chairman, Robert Lowe, and his employees were among Arnold Schwarzenegger’s top donors, with a whopping $159,500 in contributions to the Republican governor. Lowe is also a big supporter of Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor, and is on her finance committee.
So here we are in Democratic San Francisco, with a mayor who will be running on a Democratic ticket for statewide office (and a mayor, by the way, who loves to talk about supporting small local business and keeping money in the local economy) preparing to give a huge financial gift to a pair out out-of-town companies that share their wealth with right-wing Republicans.
Of course, it’s no surprise that a real estate developer would support Republican candidates and it’s no surprise an insurance company would be working against health care reform. And if the city granted or denied building permits based on the politics of the applicant, there’d be serious legal consequences (and there should be). These things ought to be decided on the merits; developers who contribute to Democrats (like the Shorenstein Company) deserve the same scrutiny as the ones who give to Republicans.
But this isn’t a typical development deal. Aegon and Lowe aren’t asking for a permit for a project that meets the current zoning laws. They aren’t offering to build something that will create permanent jobs for local residents. They want a huge favor from San Francisco: they want the city to ignore its own planning rules, ignore its park-shadow ordinance, and hand over a piece of city street, just to make their project more profitable — and to give them more money that can go to opposing health-care reform and opposing abortion rights and electing right-wing Republicans. And they’re offering the city nothing in return.
On the merits, the project richly deserves to be rejected. The only reason to approve it is to grant a civic boon to a bunch of out-of-town corporations that ought to be embarrassed to be asking a favor from San Francisco. And the Planning Commission should be embarrassed to consider granting it.