Volume 45 Number 34

Last train to Fuck Town

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arts@sfbg.com

The course of an acting career can vividly illustrate the randomness of fate. Rutger Hauer spent some years in Dutch experimental theater of the 1960s — after pulling off that best way to terminate one’s military service, faking mental illness — then became a local heartthrob as a medieval knight in a hit TV series at that decade’s end.

He spent the 1970s primarily starring in Dutch movies, notably the striking early films of Paul Verhoeven — well before Showgirls (1995), Starship Troopers (1997), or even 1987’s RoboCop (the director wanted Hauer for the lead, but was overruled by the studio). In the 1980s, Hauer played the memorable villains of Blade Runner (1982), The Hitcher (1986), and 1981’s Nighthawks (inducing tough investigative cop Sylvester Stallone to don drag at the end to catch him), between runs at being an action hero and theoretically loftier assignments around the globe.

Then he settled into a multilingual journeyman’s potluck of low-budget genre features, TV projects, small parts in mainstream films (2005’s Sin City and Batman Begins), Guinness commercials, and a Kylie Minogue video. Apparently 67-year-old Dutch actors in Los Angeles can’t be choosy.

Then again, sometimes better opportunities might choose them. At Sundance this January, Hauer played lead roles in two diametrically opposed movies. One was as the 16th-century Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder in Polish director Lech Majewski’s extraordinary The Mill and the Cross (recently at the San Francisco International Film Festival), which brings one of that painter’s most epic canvases to cinematic life and will hopefully open on U.S. art house screens later this year. The other was Hobo With a Shotgun. Guess which one is opening theatrically here already.

Hobo began as a $150 faux-trailer short that got considerable exposure online and off. The resulting long-form debut for director Jason Eisener and scenarist John Davies is doubtless the zenith in Halifax, Nova Scotia-shot retro ‘ploitation splatter comedies to date. Which tells you nothing, of course. But it is pretty good — not great — insofar as spoofy gross-out nods to yesteryear’s exploitation cinema go. Better than Machete (2010), a whole lot better than the likes of Zombie Strippers! (2008) or 95 percent of what Troma puts out.

Grizzled Hauer stars as the titular character who rides rails into an equally nameless berg nicknamed “Fuck Town” because it’s so plagued by drugs ‘n’ thugz. The hoodlums are led by crime kingpin “The Drake” (Brian Downey) and goon sons (Gregory Smith, Nick Bateman) whose violent perversities are Caligula-licious. With corrupt police force in pocket, they’re free to terrorize the populace via acts of degradation and violence pushed over the bad-taste top and then some.

When Hauer’s hobo rescues a prostitute (Molly Dunsworth) from this clan’s clutches, he trips his own mental wire from peaceably detached transient to pawnshop-armed streetsweeper of scum, à la 1980s vintage vigilante cheese like 1982’s Class of 1984 (Perry King vs. evil high school “punks”), 1985’s Death Wish 3 (Charles Bronson vs. evil gang “punks”), and 1984’s Savage Streets (Linda Blair versus … figure it out).

Hobo With a Shotgun faithfully apes exploitation conventions, from its lurid widescreen Technicolor hues to a score combining overproduced 1970s funky soundtrack kitsch with ’80s direct-to-video synth pulsing. (Complete with a closing-credits rock song that channels Pat Benatar.) Its ludicrously over-the-top violence is kinda funny, but also nastier than need be.

Throughout, Hauer maintains a straight face. Maybe a tad more so than necessary — this movie could have used the wilder streak crazy-coot comedic streak shown by Jeff Bridges in last year’s True Grit or Kurt Russell in 2007’s Grindhouse.

Game Rutger Hauer retains his blue-eyed charisma and clearly relishes playing the gentle (when not lethal) giant in this artificially baroque scenario. He’s also an actor long on the world stage still seeking a role in a worthy film (or play) that may define him for posterity. He’s obviously got the talent — but at this point, would he take it? Would it even be offered? Did he take Hobo With a Shotgun because it seemed funny, or because it was the best he could get? 

HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN opens Fri/27 in Bay Area theaters.

Volume 45 Number 34 Flip-through Edition

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(Wo)manhattan diaries

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ruggy@yelp.com

Let’s be frank. Actually, let’s be Fran. In this cocktail-centric metropolis, the chances of sipping on a superlative Harvey Wallbanger or a provocative NOLA-inspired Sazerac made from the hands of a fully-tattooed male with an affinity for Rollie Fingers is a fair sight more likely than savoring a boozy palliative shaken by a member of the fairer species.

I (clearly) have no qualms about guzzling toothsome moonshine from the XY chromosomes at Bloodhound or Bourbon and Branch, but when barkeeps from Venus go toe-to-toe with the boys, my soul all but melts into a Spinal Tap-esque puddle of goop. Ah, gender equality. This week, we’ve got mad props for the wise women of classy intoxicants.

 

NOPA

This former-bank-turned-restaurant has evolved into a realtor’s nocturnal emission. While anyone living in the ‘hood for longer than a half decade is quick to point out that you’re actually hobnobbing in the Western Addition, it didn’t take long — the joint’s been open for five years now — for Divisadero denizens to become familiar with their new acronym, and the piquant potables of bartender Kitty Gallisa.

On any given evening on the corner of Hayes and Diviz (perhaps a tad less often these days since Gallisa’s been busy with her Hapa Ramen project), you’ll find her mixing and muddling to a local crowd of fervent followers. From White Dog manhattans, to Aston Martins, to the surprisingly delightful nonalcoholic quince lemonade, rest assured that when she’s slingin’ drinks, you’re in for a treat.

560 Divisadero, SF. (415) 864-8643, www.nopasf.com

 

15 ROMOLO

For many, 15 Romolo is one of the best reasons to saunter into the neon trees of North Beach. Among the many attractions at this Barbary-Coast-staple-turned-hipster-hideaway is a menu of seasonal, locally sourced bar bites and carnival fare that will engage and inspire, as well as a truly remarkable cocktail program aided by the affable New York City transplant (and recent Bar Star winner!) Morgan Young.

The sassy, inked up 20-something came onto the scene last summer, and her immediate impact as a force to be reckoned with was felt shortly thereafter. While she’s clearly able to mix up a fine, traditional Mad Men-era cocktail, if you’re torn on what to order just give her a base alcohol of preference and she’ll handle the dirty work of creating a luscious libation while you munch on smoked pulled pork sliders, burgers made with 100 percent grass fed beef, and some of the best chicken ‘n’ biscuits you’ll find west of the Mason-Dixon line.

And if you’re in a vivacious mood, ask Morgan for her signature Pebbles champagne cocktail with orange Curacao, peach bitters, rosé, sugar cubes, and a grapefruit twist. It’s like a party in your mouth, and everyone on Broadway and Columbus is invited.

15 Romolo Place. www.15romolo.com (415) 398-1359

 

HOTSY TOTSY CLUB

This one’s a bit of a trek, but if you have a pal with a whip who owes you a huge favor, burn a lifeline by scoring a lift to the Totsy. What was once a gritty, since-1939 rathskeller reserved solely for self-medicating WWI veterans has morphed into the coolest hang in all of Albany (actually a lot bigger feat than you’d think).

With free shuffleboard, free Wi-Fi, and a free 45-rpm jukebox filled with donated records spanning 1952 to the late ’70s, there’s no better place to enjoy artisanal fire water and eye-opening transgressive cinema streaming from a high def Magnavox. Bartender Keli Rivers oversees HTC’s cocktail program, and if you find a better mescal creation than Totsy owner Jessica Maria’s Mexican Velvet, a blend of Cazadores reposado, Chichicapa mescal, pineapple gum, and fresh lime in a velvet falernum-rinsed glass, I’d love to hear about it.

Save yourself the trouble of looking and dabble in Keli and Maria’s handiwork with a street taco from nearby Tacos al Autlense in one hand and your lap dog in the other (it’s a canine-friendly joint). If that ride isn’t forthcoming, catch Keli mixing it up tonight (Wednesday, May 25) at CUESA’s farmers market cocktail event at the Ferry Building.

601 San Pablo, Albany. (510) 526-5986, www.hotsytotsyclub.com 

The raffish Ruggy Joesten is senior community manager at Yelp.com.

 

The sun rising

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arts@sfbg.com

 The sun is high and your freezie is melting at a rapid, uncontrollable pace. Somehow a trail of sticky red syrup traces a path from hand to elbow, where it casually drips onto your exposed thigh. You’re seven and you don’t flinch because in five minutes you’ll be treading lake water. It’s summer and it’s damn hot. Life is simple and sweeter than high fructose corn syrup.

Fast-forward to adult status and days stacked with adult plans. Growing up totally blows (well, at least in terms of responsibilities, because puberty was a bitch and having your own place, a paycheck, a lover, and as many pets as you want is nice). Nostalgia for blissful, super-fun days of yore means we grown-ups will jump at anything and everything with hints of kiddie innocence.

Think giant trampoline gyms, mac ‘n’ cheese bars, and dodgeball leagues, plus all kinds of spiked youth-inspired activities: drunken spelling bees, boozy slip ‘n’ slides, and bars with board games. This stuff is all about guzzling a cocktail and laughing until you nearly pee, just like you did in the third grade, minus the vodka. It’s about having fun, being weird, and enjoying the simple things.

We have now entered the perfect time of year for getting caught up in a totally relaxed, school’s-out mentality. Use those sick days. Grill hotdogs and stain your upper lip with fruit punch. Don’t be intimidated by your age or your nasty bills. May means summer, and although we’re in San Francisco and must be very patient for the corresponding weather, this is the ideal season for simple, juicy living.

This mindset may take a little coaxing and the best non-pharmaceutical solution lies in the perfect soundtrack. Ironically, a trio of friends from the dreary north has crafted the perfect beach-inspired treat: Seattle’s Seapony is sure to get you in the summer mood with its 12-song debut, Go With Me (Hardly Art).

Seapony’s modest surf pop induces the most delightful high, thanks to a combination of super lo-fi recording and innocent melodies. Fuzzy guitars and light drums wrap around Jen Weidl’s breathy vocals, all blowing like a warm summer breeze through tall palms. The entire album runs in under 35 minutes, but could easily sit on repeat for hours, keeping fresh and light with its unpretentious appeal.

Songs on Go With Me are vaguely distinct and play better as one long dose. Songwriter Danny Rowland has intentionally kept things as simple as possible, setting up each track with the same basic framework: minimal major chords, a quiet drum machine, and super chill bass.

Weidl’s lyrics are in the same, slow-moving boat. There are no swells or outbursts; the minimal phrases do not beg for a psychologist’s interpretation. Her lackluster tone speaks of love and sadness in generics and the poppy track “Dreaming” repeats the same six lines over and over.

The band also doesn’t like to talk during performances, preferring to play song after song with limited interruptions, foraging yet another attempt at simplicity. According to a quote on Seapony’s website, this makes the group’s live show “cooler,” which could very well be true. Band witty banter is never very impressive.

In a world where everyone is trying to speed past the competition with innovative ideas, Seapony is riding the lazy river — the only water park attraction that never has a line. Is Seapony jaded? Or just looking to get a better tan? Adults are expected to tote around all sorts of bells and whistles, their eyes fixated on being first place, but Seapony doesn’t want to race. Instead, the group is producing music that wins by default. It sounds nice; it compliments sunshine; and it’s made for days free of responsibility.

This summer, put on that swimsuit, run around the yard, and laugh obnoxiously loud like you did as an awkward adolescent. Or keep it San Francisco-style by trading out the yard for Dolores Park and adding a brown paper sack. Just don’t forget the Seapony. 

SAN FRANCISCO POP FEST: SEAPONY

With the Beets, Catwalk, Eternal Summer

Sun/29, 8 p.m., $12

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk, SF

www.sfpopfest.com

 

Kindred spirits

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arts@sfbg.com 

Heady, hoppy, smoky with the musky tang of interstellar, international exotica shot through a post-hardcore prism. Oakland psych-space-rock-drone outfit Lumerians’ sound is intoxicatingly addictive enough to inspire that imaginary brewski review, even in the thick of the raging patio at Jack London Square’s Beer Revolution. And if the band was a glass of sheer liquid refreshment, what would it be? A complex Cab, a supernatural Super Tuscan, or a solid stout?

I’m guessing a highly groovy gruit, as drummer Christopher Musgrave takes another gulp of his herbaceous, hops-free custom-crafted Two Weeks Notice. “It’s really weird, but after a few sips it gets really good,” he tells newly arrived bass player Marc Melzer. Musgrave should know: he makes beer by the keg in the former Murder Dubbs church he now calls home — and Lumerians’ recording studio. “I’m changing my mind. I might order it again.”

We swap slugs of our selections from the pub’s massive menu — Melzer’s Big Eye IPA and my Sweetgrass pale ale. It’s all in keeping with Lumerians’ shared approach to life and music-making: card that ego at door, share your inspirations — be they musical, painterly, or brew-crafted — and strive to work as one fluidly intuitive, wholly non-derivative whole.

Taking in Lumerians’ recently released, long-awaited debut, Transmalinnia (Knitting Factory), I’ve been sucked into the burly, bass-smudged biker boogie of “Burning Mirrors,” the witchy organ-shimmy and sex-magik drone of “Black Tusk,” and feathery woodwind textures and unholy shrieks of “Calalini Rises.” The LP shares its name with its artwork, a glorious finger-painting from the “Voyage Into Space” series by outsider artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein — a vision borrowed by a band just a vowel or two away from the lost world of Lemuria, undertaken to turn kindred spirits onto the late self-taught surrealist’s mind-blowing art.

“One of the foundations of our band is we do try and make egoless music,” explains Melzer with equanimity while a birthday party brays in the background. “It’s not about one person writing the music, and it’s not about guitar solos or bass solos or drum solos. It’s about us, where all these different personalities meet and what develops after that.”

Of course, adds Musgrave, “it’s not all sunshine and puppy dogs.” Lumerians’ origins began humbly, with Melzer and Musgrave vowing to play together after a “strange hiatus” from music: they were disillusioned by the band politics in their old indie and hardcore groups. Guitarists-organists-synth-players Tyler Green and Jason Miller had begun to make music in 2006 when Musgrave joined in and enlisted Melzer, a guitarist now playing bass for the first time. “We hold it down,” Musgrave exclaims proudly. “We’re the earthbound ones. We’re like the tractor and the plow.” Soft Moon voyager Luis Vasquez eventually rounded out the fivesome on conga and synth.

The group took its time, hoping to create a “sustainable” environment — a world of its own, if you will — and built a studio in SF’s South Park where it recorded Transmalinnia, the follow-up to its self-titled, self-released, now-out-of-print, much-praised 2008 EP, forging the songs via jams that they’re reluctant to call jams. “The difference is everything we play in the band is pretty simple, but it combines to create a greater whole,” says Melzer. “We also play repetitive stuff — we’re either trying to trance out our audience or ourselves or both. I don’t think that’s one of the aims of a jam band.” They’ve succeeded to the point where Melzer confesses he’s more than once almost fallen off the stage.

The tough part was capturing the songs in their perfectly imperfect “nascent state,” as Musgrave puts it. “We’ve always tried to capture those ephemeral moments — it’s proven to be very difficult,” he explains. “Hard drives crash. Or we’ll think we’re recording and look over and it’s stopped. But the power of inspiration is so powerful you can’t pull away — it’s like you’re in a tractor beam!”

Fortunately, Lumerians doesn’t seem destined to perish in obscurity à la Von Bruenchenhein — the combo had just returned from the Austin Psych Fest, where by their accounts, they were the underdog belles, hampered by two power outages during their set. Will bands of the future find their minds blown by dog-eared Lumerians LPs? “I don’t know if that’s the way I think about it,” Musgrave says, “but any artifacts we put out are hopefully worthy of discovery.”

“So when the blogosphere forgets about us,” adds Melzer, tongue lodged in cheek, “and three months later, we get rediscovered!”  

 

LUMERIANS

With Young Prisms and Bronze

July 2, 9 p.m., $13

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750 www.gamh.com

 

Four for Popfest

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arts@sfbg.com

 The third annual San Francisco Popfest kicks off Wednesday, May 25 at Rickshaw Stop. The good news is that this year’s festival has been expanded to five days, transforming Memorial Weekend into a music extravaganza. There are shows at Rickshaw, Cafe Du Nord, and Hemlock Tavern, as well as a secret Sunday show at Dolores Park. The bad news is that you can only be in one place at a time. Here are four must-see Bay Area groups.

The opening night headliner Blackbird Blackbird is spearheaded by vocalist, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Mikey Sanders. He released his debut album Summer Heart in late 2010 through Bandcamp on a “pay what you wish” system and followed it up in 2001 with Halo, which is a collection of new songs, B-sides, and unreleased tracks. With the aid of the blogosphere, Blackbird Blackbird quickly amassed a following.

Blackbird Blackbird’s music is electronic-based, although when performing live, Sanders plays with Cade Weidenhaft on drums. Sanders creates a rich, textured synthscape, as on “Sunspray,” where bubble sounds and an overall feeling of swirling makes the song seem as if it’s being sung from underwater. Other tracks, like “Ups and Down” with its heavy bass, sound dance party-ready.

Also on the Wednesday, May 25 bill is Sanders’ project Wolf Feet, which he started with Austin Wood. The pair recorded tracks while living in a “Hobbit-like apartment in Santa Cruz,” explains Sanders, who grew up in San Francisco but went to school in Santa Cruz. It’s a decidedly less electronic project than Blackbird Blackbird, and garage-rock influenced, with upbeat tempos, handclapping, twinkling guitars, and howling vocals.

Sanders is promoting Wolf Feet similarly to Blackbird Blackbird, self-releasing an EP in January via UFOLK Records and running a cute and informative Tumblr. The band’s homemade video for “Dead Hand,” a montage of vintage films such as Thunderbirds Are Go and Gamera vs. Zigra, was already featured on Pitchfork.

The Friday, May 27 Popfest show includes San Francisco’s beloved the Mantles. After a slew of singles, a self-titled LP, and the Pink Information EP, the group recently released the “Raspberry Thighs/Roman Hat” seven-inch single via SDZ Records. The song reveals a darker side to the band.

The Mantles have always been high on melodies, which they coat in reverb, but the sunny sounds are sometimes meant to distract from the truth. “Raspberry Thighs” starts with buoyant guitars, and Michael Olivares’ vocals are more spoken than sung as he says, “Hey there unassuming eyes/ What on earth can alarm you/ You’re too ready to derail/ You’re too ready to say goodbye.” It’s hard to discern all the lyrics, but there’s a sadness to Olivares’ farewell and description of the ephemeral summer.

The Saturday, May 28 show at Rickshaw Stop is a showcase for Slumberland Records. To put it simply, the entire lineup is awesome. San Francisco’s the Art Museums, formed by Josh Alper (Whysp) and Glenn Donaldson (Skygreen Leopards) in the summer of 2009, sing tales of artists, lovers, and imposters that read like mantras for the aught generation. The band released its debut record Rough Trade on Woodsist last year and will put out an EP called Dancing this summer.

From tales of bike-based dates and descriptions of art happenings to details of Sta-Prest trousers and even the band’s name, the Art Museums’ music is meant to be absurdly funny, and true. Alper and Donaldson craft hooks and sing in faux-British accents — their heroes include the Kinks, Swell Maps, and the Television Personalities. The band records on a Tascam 388 eight-track for its snap, crackle, and pop, and performs with Carly Putnam (Green Flash) and Virginia Weatherby (the Mantles) to fill out its live sound. 

 

SAN FRANCISCO POPFEST


Blackbird Blackbird, Wolf Feet

Wed/25, 8 p.m.; $12

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell, SF

(415) 861-2011


The Mantles

Fri/27, 8 p.m.; $15–$17

Rickshaw Stop

Slumberland Recods Showcase

Sat/28, 5 p.m., $17

Rickshaw Stop


www.sfpopfest.com

 

Stein time

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arts@sfbg.com

 A visit to the Bay Area from David Greenspan is a rare treat. A visit by Gertrude Stein even more so. It’s kind of a twofer this weekend as Greenspan delivers his version of Stein’s lecture on the theater, Plays, amid a wide-ranging Stein retrospective (Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories) at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (which occurs simultaneously with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibition, The Steins Collect). Although Greenspan is not often seen on stage in these parts, the inimitable New York City playwright-actor — whose brilliant comedies are often as rich in humor as in formal and intellectual surprises — has had his share of productions in the Bay Area. SF Playhouse recently mounted the musical Coraline (for which he wrote the book) and She Stoops to Comedy. A little further back. Thick Description and the Jewish Theatre had a hit with their coproduction of Greenspan’s Dead Mother, or Shirley Not All in Vain. Greenspan spoke to the Guardian by phone from New York ahead of his appearance at CJM.

SFBG The Stein lecture you’re presenting ran in rep with the New York revival of your 1999 play, The Myopia, in which Stein is also referenced. Was that the first time you’d done the lecture as a piece of theater?

David Greenspan I’ve done it periodically, one night here, one night there. And then I did it for a benefit for a theater company. Melanie Joseph, who runs the Foundry Theatre in New York, I invited her and she loved it. So when we began playing The Myopia, we decided we would include [a performance of] the Stein lecture in tandem. I had never had anything approaching a run before.

SFBG What drew you to that lecture as something to perform?

DG I’ve become interested over the last number of years in the theatrical possibilities of nontheatrical texts. I did this piece called The Argument, which is based on Aristotle’s Poetics and the writings of a man named Gerald F. Else, who wrote about The Poetics. The Argument recites the first half of The Poetics. I’d been toying with that for a while, and I’d also done — in a reading for a friend, a fellow playwright — the Stein lecture, and it went over so well, people so enjoyed it. So, besides the interest in the non-theatrical text as a performative work, it is an intriguing lecture.

And I should say, it’s not that it’s not performative. Even The Poetics. They’re both performative pieces in the sense that they’re both lectures, so they would have been given. Whatever difference between a lecture and a performance, it’s a presentation. So there’s theatrical potential in them. But I guess I was fascinated by her observations about the theater, how it addressed her own concerns, recollections, and reminiscences about growing up watching plays, and references to her experiences when she finally moved to Paris. I found it rather rich historically as well.

SFBG There’s that wonderful line you quote in The Myopia about theater as something that’s actually happening&ldots;

DG Right. Well, she says that something is always happening. And that anybody knows a quantity of stories, so what’s the use of telling another story? There are already so many stories. I think what she’s trying to get at is that there is something beyond simply telling the story. There’s some essence of what is happening. And she’s trying to depict [that] without actually telling a story. It’s almost a series of impressions that she’s molding, almost like a sculpture, to give an audience a sense, without a story, of an experience. Of course, in The Myopia I pickled it because The Myopia is filled with stories. In a sense, I use it as a way of separating myself from her because my concerns are different. But I still find her delightful.

SFBG What do you think of Stein’s plays?

DG I’ve seen a few of them on stage. They’re difficult to describe, and they’re difficult for me to talk about. The closest experience I’ve ever had to performing in something like Stein would be a Richard Foreman play. I acted for Richard Foreman once. His work eschews traditional action. It’s somewhat different, but it’s the closest I’ve come to something like Stein. Like she says, she’s not interested in story and action. She’s interested in emotion and time.

I think also what she’s interested in is coordinating to her own satisfaction a visual and aural experience, one that is not dependent on following a story. Because she had problems with that, she found that it bothered her to have to pay attention, particularly if it was a story that had any kind of nuance. She wanted to keep backing up and seeing it again and couldn’t do it. But to get back to your question, the plays themselves I can’t speak to, but the lecture itself with its analysis and observations of the theater experience — and it’s a very personal lecture, very personal descriptions for her — and the rich theatrical reminiscences, I find very satisfying and continually intriguing. Also it begins to elucidate what she was trying to do in her plays.

SFBG What kinds of things do audiences relate to?

DG When she describes her experience of theater as a young person, it’s all about San Francisco and Oakland. So it should give people a little bit of a peep hole into what it was like to see theater [back then]. It was very important to her, the arrival of foreign companies. And Sarah Bernhardt came through, and that was an important thing for her to see. It was very significant for her to see a play in a language she really didn’t understand. She didn’t have to follow it. She could just listen to it and look at it without dealing with a story. That’s what’s most important to her — how to coordinate seeing and hearing in the theater. 

DAVID GREENSPAN’S PLAYS

Thurs/26, 7 p.m.; Sun/29, 1 and 4 p.m., $20

Contemporary Jewish Museum

736 Mission, SF

(415) 655-7800

www.thecjm.org

Pulp gaming

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For all the serious discussion sparked by the Grand Theft Auto series, Rockstar Games’ blockbuster is not the most serious bunch of games. Notoriously pop-culture obsessed, the company’s otherwise earnest game stories are peppered with movie references, goofy caricatures, and dick jokes. The separation between atmosphere and content became most difficult to overlook when the series joined the current console generation with Grand Theft Auto IV. The tale of an East-European immigrant’s moral struggle to survive in America, Grand Theft Auto IV toned down its signature over-the-top gameplay in a bid for game art, but Rockstar couldn’t resist undermining its characters’ newfound complexities with immature humor.

With LA Noire, Rockstar delivers a truly grown-up game. Constructed under Rockstar’s wing, LA Noire is the first game from development house Team Bondi, an Australian company started by Brendan McNamara of gritty English mob game The Getaway. In Team Bondi, Rockstar has found the perfect studio to indulge its aesthetic while reigning in its more puerile impulses. Taking cues from Raymond Chandler, James Cain, and LA Confidential, LA Noire stars conflicted war hero Cole Phelps, who joins the LAPD as a patrolman and quickly rises through the ranks by solving murders and other crimes in an authentic-looking 1940s Los Angeles. Tempting as it must have been to lampoon the genre, there is nary a Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) reference to be found.

Gameplay follows a simple pattern over the course of its 20ish hours: investigate a crime scene, follow leads and track down suspects, interrogate and arrest. Rockstar has long led gaming’s evolution into “cinematic experiences,” and LA Noire is a stunning example of blockbuster presentation. It has created a studied facsimile of L.A.’s exalted era, developed a new motion-capture technology that allows realistic representation of faces (see sidebar), and devoted hours of game time to cinema-quality cut-scenes.

Taking further steps to ensure that its cinematic style remains front and center, Team Bondi built in options to remove investigation aids, allowed players to completely skip action and driving sequences, and — for real noir aficionados — added the option to play the whole game in black and white. Selecting these choices points players toward the story and, in turn, reveals which elements were likely neglected during the development process. In this case, the shootouts and the driving.

It might sound like a deal-breaker, but it’s not. Flaws in the conventional gameplay of combat and vehicles are most pronounced in the early-going, where cases are shorter and less memorable; without the context of an engaging mystery, the clunky mechanics are emphasized. Driving is stiff and offers little excitement beyond passing the time between investigations. Shoot-outs and fistfights often are over in less than a minute — not nearly enough time to get the blood pumping. But once you’ve passed the first couple of desks and hit homicide — where the cases are based loosely on real-life murders of the period and play off one another in interesting ways — it becomes clear that gunplay and fisticuffs aren’t LA Noire‘s intended focus but were simply concessions to tradition and buyer expectation.

Setting expectations aside, imagining LA Noire as the triumphant return to point-and-click adventure games becomes easy. Investigations task you with wandering around and clicking on things until you click the right thing that lets you move on. Hey, that sounds like Monkey Island! Conversations with suspects are like tiptoeing through a minefield. Action sequences are filled with second chances; playing human lie detector is a merciless activity, and failing severely weakens your case. These sequences are the real stars of the game.

LA Noire is unlikely to disappoint, unless you were expecting something that the game never was. There’s a sandbox, but it isn’t really a sandbox game; nor is it a variable detective simulation. LA Noire has a stand-alone story and is a guided experience. Many of the cases are worthy of novel-length expansion, which is about the highest compliment a game like this can get. More than anything, Rockstar and Team Bondi have created an impressive and consummate example of gaming’s recent cinematic obsession. Today’s games continue to be about making decisions and working toward goals, and about strategy and winning. But more and more, games have begun to reflect our lives, cultures, and histories. If that doesn’t make them art, I don’t know what can.

 

LA Noire

(Team Bondi/Rockstar Games), Xbox 360, PS3

 

Earthly creations, unearthly longings

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arts@sfbg.com

The San Francisco International Arts Festival’s model of presenting guest and local dancers side by side was initially designed to alleviate Bay Area artists’ concern that SFIAF might siphon off funding for their own work. Yet the format works artistically. The 2011 festival’s first week’s lineup of local and imported dance proved it. One-night stands at the Marines Memorial Theatre came from Israel’s Barak Marshall Company and Santa Fe’s Dancing Earth. From San Francisco, Hope Mohr Dance and FACT/SF shared evenings at Fort Mason.

Marshall is a Yemeni-Israeli American now primarily living in Israel. Apparently the 2010 Monger was influenced by servant-master dichotomies like those portrayed, most prominently, in the evergreen British TV show Upstairs, Downstairs. The work turned out to be a Kafkaesque film noir comedy that wore its desperation just barely covered by maids’ aprons and grooms’ suspenders. That the despot, a mysterious Mrs. Margaret, is a woman — Marshall calls her the Whore of Babylon — only heightened its impact. After the recent Middle East (and elsewhere) turmoil, it’s impossible not to see Monger as deeply political. Marshall first presents his 10 dancers wrapped in black, anxiously scanning the sky. He ends on the same pessimistic note.

Marshall’s variety show format separates Monger‘s acts with blackouts and punctuates them with the tinkling service bell. Both provided a welcome continuum, though most of the sections work individually. The servants scurried like road-runners; the emotionally temperature between them steadily increased like a boiler about to explode. Attempts at self-assertion, whether through love or violence, failed repeatedly. I saw a touch of Ohad Naharin — Marshall cut some of his teeth in Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company — in the hilarious hate- and gossip-mongering “upstairs” ladies. Spitting venom, they bobbed up like corks in the sea. Monger gained valuable support from the choreographer’s own exceptionally imaginative patchwork score.

I have, however, major concerns with the choreography. Although the extensive use of unisons, punctuated by gestural language, made intellectual sense, they pulled the piece down toward monotony.

What’s your idea of “Native American dance?” Stomping feet, flying fringe, and pounding drums? Not a trace of a powwow could be found in the excellently danced Of Bodies Of Elements by Dancing Earth’s 10 dancers (plus two babies).

Choreographed by Rulan Tangen and performed by members from diverse North American tribal cultures, Bodies included contributions from traditional practices, including a “Deer Dance” (by guest artist Jesus “Jacoh” Cortes) and a “Prayer Dance” (by Deollo Johnson), suspiciously looking like an Eagle Dance with strong elements from women’s fancy dances. But this is a thoroughly contemporary work with performers — men and women alike — whose athleticism and multifarious talents and training acknowledge the air as much as the ground under their feet.

Bodies is presented as a creation myth whose believers become alienated from the natural order but find their way back into it. The choreography sometimes doesn’t spell out the narrative that clearly, so the program notes help for those unfamiliar with indigenous American beliefs.

A small ritual sets the tone. A member of the local Ohlone tribe blessed the space the company had asked permission to perform in.

At 90 minutes, the two-act Bodies could be tightened, though I wouldn’t give up a second of the opening, which imagines the natural world — including a splendid tree — emerging from an inchoate mass. Moving from hunter-gatherers to agricultural life was economically and clearly presented, though the water choreography for the women felt vapid. But Raul Trujillo’s “Cage Dance,” which used an elaborate double contraption (one part of it a hoop skirt) to indicate various forms of imprisonment, missed its target. The dancers physically struggled to get in and out of it — surely not the intent.

The second act included a haunting Ghost Dance. It was danced with traditional bobbing steps against a wailing wall (video by Alejandro Quintana) that documented the destruction humankind manages to inflict on itself. Perhaps Tangen’s idea that a deracinated people experiencing degradation can still hear Earth’s heartbeat in contemporary urban rhythms is overly romantic. But it’s a lovely idea to consider and made for some impressive hip-hop dancing.

Putting Hope Mohr and Charles Slender on the same double bill paired two artists who are relatively new in town — Mohr since 2007, Slender since 2008. They have nothing in common except that they clothe their formal concerns with clear expressive intent. For Mohr, this has sometimes meant working in tandem with community and professional dancers. Slender has elaborate theatrical trappings that he seems to be constantly reworking at his disposal.

Mohr’s world premiere, the deep-ringing Plainsong, was a fragile mediation for a sturdy performer, the renowned Aleta Hayes. The subject is the mythic Penelope, waiting for Odysseus to return. Katrina Rodabaugh wove-unraveled Plainsong‘s exquisite backdrop. Every meaning, every gesture of this 20-minute solo was suspended in ambiguity. In Hayes’ touch, the pile of wool became bloody entrails. She enclosed her space with a fragile thread — to imprison or to protect herself? With vigorously shoveling hands, she could have been unearthing or burying something. Her deep, almost masculine voice surged from inside her guts. The full-of-potential Plainsong is one of Hope’s finest works yet; she may want to consider refining it in the future.

Slender’s mildly witty Consumption Series is a chameleon that adapts to wherever his intrepid FACT/SF troupers take it. It’s a piece — this is the third time I’ve seen it — that looks at obsessions (food, sex, power) and envelops them with pseudo-baroque accoutrements and a slyly ballet-based vocabulary and its aberrations. The costumes and the ideas are beginning to look ragged; it’s time to retire both. 

SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL

Through June 5

Various venues

www.sfiaf.org

 

Hail Marys!

2

le.chicken.farmer@gmail.com

We ate chicken and waffles on the loading dock at farmerbrown’s Little Skillet, and garlic fries at AT&T Park. We ate chicken at Limon Rotisserie and chicken wings at San Tung. Tried to get a kimchi burrito, but John’s was sold out. We split a sandwich from Tartine.

She was interested in food, and naps. We did not go to the wharf, the bridge, the beach, the park, the Palace of Fine Arts, or Alcatraz. In fact, the only non-culinary landmark I even tried to sneak past her was The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at the Castro. That day, between meals, snacks, and shenanigans, I would occasionally put my lips close to her ear and go, “Boodi-boodi boooo. Bwa bwa bwa.” Only sometimes I would whistle it.

Didn’t happen. We went to Clement Street — me, Hedgehog, Earl Butter, the Choo-Choo Train, and King. There, at the Clement Street Bar & Grill, we met Baseball Mary. Who knows Choo-Choo, so he got a hug, and we all got baseball cards. Her position is “Lower Box 128, Row 3.” She has the biggest, cheerfulest smile, and has been to every MLB park.

Baseball Mary is from Portland, Maine, and therefore throws “wicked good parties,” according to the stats on the back of her card. In the interest of one day being invited to one, let me tell you that she is my new favorite waitressperson. Not that she waited on us. We didn’t eat. We just sat at the bar and drank and swapped Yogi Berraisms with the dude down the corner.

Truth be told, I was already happy. My three-week run of dark thoughts and existentially important-ass problems snapped the moment my new favorite airline, United, touched Hedgehog down safely at SFO. Of course, now I hate them again for taking her away.

But at least my ass feels better. As for the hamstring … well, there’s Burma Tea Leaf 1, for dinner. And to give you an idea how contented and all-around mentally stable I was feeling by then, they have duck noodle soup and I didn’t even notice! Who needed it, with mango salad, pork with pumpkin coconut curry, spicy catfish … everything under $10. And a waitressperson who gave Baseball Mary a run for her money, smilewise.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were writing this up?” Earl Butter said when I picked up the bill. “I would have been funnier.”

I wouldn’t have noticed. That whole long weekend was all about Hedgehog and me being us, me trying to impress her with chicken wings and so forth. For entirely selfish reasons, I want her to love San Francisco like I loved New Orleans while I was there — thanks largely to her plying me with fried things.

Our last night here we made the sweetest love two people have ever made, with due respect to everyone else in the world. Then, like in movies, I woke up early and snuck out of bed. I was going to be Rocky, and run and jump and run and just generally stretch my hamstring. There was a game at nine. It was the playoffs. I was going to play. Yeah: Rocky.

I got as far as cracking the eggs, then, being me, decided to cook them. With potatoes. And draw a bath. We had breakfast in the tub.

The game was on our way to the airport. On the first play I of course reinjured myself. But I had doctor’s permission now to play through the pain. So I went back in and was able to go about 65, 70 percent. With two minutes left we were losing by a safety and a touchdown.

I had nothing. On the sideline, I found out later, Coach said to Hedgehog, “Too bad you didn’t get to see her A-game.” I didn’t hear this, but must have felt it, because on the next play I wrestled a touchdown pass away from a defender, and a teammate.

But we were still down a safety, with a minute and a half left. For some reason instead of killing the clock, they passed, and for some reason I intercepted — and hobbled it back for a touchdown. Now we were winning with less than a minute left. So they had to pass — but I intercepted that one too. And one week after fearing my life was over because I couldn’t play sports, I was being carried off the field on shoulders, in front of my lover.

So. There’s that. 

BURMA TEA LEAF 1

Tues.–Thurs. 5-9:30 p.m.;

Fri.–Sun. 11:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m., 5–10 p.m.

731 Clement, SF

(415) 2221-3888

Beer

MC/V

 

Sushi Hunter

0

paulr@sfbg.com

If there are farms in Berkeley, there’s no reason there shouldn’t be sushi in North Beach, and there is, at Sushi Hunter. And it’s not only pretty wonderful, but right near the heart of things, on the corner of the block that used to host the Washington Square Bar and Grill, or the Washbag, for any Herbalists who might still linger out there nursing their vodka gimlets and memories of the good old days.

Some years ago, while wandering around Rome, I noticed signage announcing “ristorante Giapponese” — near Trajan’s Market, no less — and wondered what that might portend. Flaps of raw carp pulled from the Tiber? Hamachi in marinara sauce? A Trajan’s Roll? Thank you, but no. When in Rome, eat as the Romans eat — and when in North Beach, do the same.

But the comparison isn’t apt. We’re much closer to Japan than the Romans are. Also, we have a cold, fresh sea practically right out the front door, and we live in a city that mixes food cultures with abandon and whose populace expects a wide variety of choices and combinations. Sushi Hunter regularly packs them in, and if you run a restaurant, that’s all the proof you need that your neighborhood likes what you’re doing.

The interior design isn’t at all what you might expect. It certainly isn’t traditional Japanese; the influences seem to be more from the 1930s and the 1960s — a kind of mod Art Deco. If you’ve ever seen period footage of the Queen Elizabeth 2 — the Cunard liner made from aluminum, launched in the late 1960s and, at least in her early years, fitted out as if for a shoot for an Austin Powers movie — you’ll have a sense of Sushi Hunter. The deep blue walls make the space seem slightly like a drained swimming pool, except for the cream-colored, padded banquettes along the bottom edges (as if certain enthusiasts, undeterred by the lack of water — and maybe tanked up a bit on vodka gimlets — might dive in anyway). A small complaint: I caught chemical whiff in the dining room one cool evening — Lysol? I love a clean swimming pool, but there are some smells, no matter how reassuring in certain contexts, that don’t belong in others, such as dining rooms.

At the heart of the menu we find a variety of wonderful rolls, as inventively named as the fanciest cocktails and richly adulterated with such deli-style delights as avocado and cream cheese. Indeed, if you swapped in a couple of slices of rye bread for the sushi rice, you would wind up with some impressive sandwiches. Double KO roll ($11), for instance, found hamachi and cucumber in a passionate embrace under a double-deck roof of salmon and strings of fried onion. At last, a deployment of fried onion (and a witty one) that didn’t result in indigestion.

Another faux-sandwich would be the 360-degree roll ($12), with hamachi reprising its role as paramour, this time to avocado, and under another double-deck roof, this one of salmon and tuna slices. That’s a lot of protein punch.

I was pleased to find albacore, or tombo tuna, turning up in the sashimi passion platter ($9), with ponzu sauce and wasabi aioli — albacore being somewhat underrated, in my view, because of its putative dearth of fattiness. It’s often taken locally, which improves the quality of any fish, and I’ve never found it to lack a sublime creaminess.

More tuna turned up in the hunter salad ($8.50), basically a seaweed salad fortified with tuna cubes and enhanced with a sweet chili dressing; and still more in the half and half ($9), a spicy tuna roll fried to a delicate crunch, topped with tuna sashimi and finished with some well-balanced ponzu.

One of the most distinctive rolls was the white tuxedo ($12), a lavish assembly — worthy of a White Party somewhere — of albacore, cream cheese, and avocado, topped by flaps of butterfish and dabs of imitation crab (i.e. surimi, an industrial purée of Alaskan pollock). Mostly I noticed the cream cheese, as a flavor and sticky texture; it engulfed and smothered everything else the way a blizzard might.

Caterpillar roll ($11) joined barbecued eel and imitation crab meat under avocado slices scattered with flying-fish eggs, but the nice touch, the distinctive touch, was laying out the roll with a gentle squiggle. In my experience, they’ve always been laid out flat, as if for an autopsy. The Alaska king roll ($11), of salmon and avocado under a tasty hail of flying-fish and salmon roe, was unsquiggled. I pictured a scepter instead, something a pope might hold. 

SUSHI HUNTER

Mon.–Thurs., 5–10 p.m.; Fri., 5–11 p.m.

Sat. 1:30–11 p.m.; Sun. 1:30–9 p.m.

1701 Powell, SF

(415) 291-9268

www.sushi-hunter.com

Beer and wine

AE/DC/DS/MC/V

Noisy when busy

Wheelchair accessible

 

The secret life of Michael Peevey

11

rebeccab@sfbg.com

Inside a legislative hearing room at the state capitol, things were beginning to get uncomfortable. Roughly five weeks had passed since a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. pipeline explosion killed eight and leveled an entire San Bruno neighborhood, and this California Senate committee hearing was an early attempt to get answers.

San Bruno residents who lost loved ones in the deadly explosion huddled in the front row, their eyes fixed on company representatives and agency bureaucrats as they spoke. At the back of the room, a band of immaculately dressed PG&E executives and utility lawyers sat clustered together.

Richard Clark, director of the consumer protection and safety division of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), fielded questions from visibly frustrated state legislators. Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) wanted know why the CPUC hadn’t done anything when PG&E ignored an impaired section of the ruptured pipeline even after it was granted $5 million to fix it.

“Did the PUC do any accounting when you gave them $5 million?” Florez demanded. “Do we just give them money and cross our fingers and hope they fix it? Is that what we do? Until some terrible tragedy occurs?”

Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) said the CPUC needed to step it up and start practicing serious hands-on oversight. He recalled a tragedy that occurred in 2008 when a gas leak in Rancho Cordova triggered a pipeline explosion, killing one person and injuring several others. Although an investigation determined that PG&E was at fault, the CPUC hadn’t yet gotten around to fining the company.

“We’ve got a pattern here,” Leno said. “And we’re not doing anything differently.”

Less than three weeks after CPUC staff members were grilled in Sacramento, Michael Peevey — president of the CPUC and the top energy official in the state — boarded an airplane for Madrid. He was embarking on a 12-day travel-study excursion, with stops in Sevilla and Barcelona, sponsored by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy (CFEE).

Peevey’s wife, California Sen. Carol Liu (D-Glendale), was along for the trip. So were two other state senators, several members of the state Assembly, CPUC commissioner Nancy Ryan, and a host of representatives from the energy industry. The group included executives from Chevron, Mirant (now GenOn, the owner of the Potrero power plant), Covanta Energy Corporation, Shell Energy North America, and engineering giant AECOM. High-ranking executives of the state’s investor-owned utilities also participated, including Fong Wan, the senior vice president of energy procurement for PG&E.

Although strict rules normally govern commissioners’ interactions with parties that have a financial stake in the outcomes of commission rulings, there wasn’t anything especially unusual about Peevey traveling internationally with a group that included representatives from the same companies his regulatory commission oversees. CFEE trips happen every year. The nonprofit has footed the bill to fly groups of regulators, legislators, and utility executives to prime vacation destinations like Italy, Brazil, and South Africa in recent years, excursions organizers say are critical for educating top-level stakeholders about worldwide best practices for sustainable systems. However, groups such as The Utility Reform Network (TURN) have decried CFEE trips as “lobbying junkets.”

As PG&E and the CPUC both work to win back the public’s confidence after their latest deadly failure, it’s worth analyzing whether their relationship — shaped by vacations together at exotic locales — has grown too cozy.

 

THE BUDDY SYSTEM

CFEE isn’t the only nonprofit that regularly flies Peevey overseas for green travel tours with high-ranking utility executives, and the 12 days he spent in Spain wasn’t the only time he spent away from official duties and in the company of the corporations his commission regulates.

These controversial getaways are just a small part of Peevey’s involvement with private-sector interests. He also chairs the board of a nonprofit investment fund created as part of a $30 million settlement agreement with PG&E. Called the California Clean Energy Fund, it funnels money into private venture-capital funds that invest in green start-ups, plus a few companies in the fossil-fuel sector.

While legislators have voiced frustration that lax CPUC oversight of PG&E on pipeline-safety issues opened the door to disaster in San Bruno, inside observers are critical of the outright favors Peevey has granted utilities, such as guaranteeing an unprecedented, higher-than-ever profit margin for PG&E as part of the company’s 2004 bankruptcy settlement.

The CPUC is set up to perform as a watchdog agency, yet social and professional ties running deep within California’s insular energy community mean regulators sometimes run in the same circles as the executives who answer to them, making for cozier relationships than the general public might anticipate. It’s an old-fashioned insider game that one longtime observer wryly characterizes as “the buddy system.” But the buddy system can bring consequences.

As the public face of the CPUC, Peevey repeatedly has been thrust into the spotlight. He has absorbed advocates’ concerns about pipeline safety, rising electricity rates, SmartMeters, missed targets for energy efficiency, and municipalities’ David-vs.-Goliath battles with PG&E to implement community choice aggregation (CCA), to name a few. He’s a magnet for public scrutiny while occupying the center seat at commission meetings, but Peevey’s behind-the-scenes engagements with private-sector organizations bent on shaping statewide energy policy demonstrate how power is wielded in California’s energy world, a system in which regulators seem to be partnering with utilities rather than policing them.

Based at Pier 35 in San Francisco, CFEE’s board of directors is composed of a small group of officers, plus a long list of members who hail from some of the most prominent businesses nationwide. Shell, Chevron, J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs, AT&T, and PG&E all hold positions on CFEE’s membership board, and each entity chips in to fund the foundation’s activities and travel excursions.

The group also includes representatives from labor organizations like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and mainstream environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council. Among the emeritus members of CFEE’s governing board are some high-ranking figures, such as CIA director-turned-Pentagon boss Leon Panetta. CFEE received $45,000 in donations from PG&E in 2009 (the most recent year available) and was granted similar amounts in prior years.

CFEE spokesperson P.J. Johnston, the son of former state senator and CFEE officer Patrick Johnston and the press secretary under former Mayor Willie Brown, described the trips as valuable opportunities for top-level stakeholders to gain insight on best practices and engage in noncombative dialogue on key issues.

“The idea for us was that it made sense to have someplace where it was nonconfrontational to engage in policy, work-type discussions,” Johnston explained. He added that the trips are “all about policy, on the 30,000-foot level,” and emphasized that discussions aren’t about specific decisions pending before the CPUC.

Loretta Lynch, a former president of the CPUC who brought a reformist spirit to the agency and was never shy about rebuking utilities, is skeptical of CFEE’s stated program goals. When she was first appointed to the commission, Lynch said, CFEE contacted her to ask where she wanted to travel. If the trips are arranged to fly regulators to destinations they’ve been itching to visit, she reasoned, must-see green innovations probably aren’t dictating the itineraries. “To me,” Lynch said, “they don’t have anything to study in mind.”

 

“PARTYING WITH THE JUDGE”

The CFEE trip to Spain included a briefing on developing wind energy from AES, a company working on wind and solar development in California that also operates polluting, gas-fired power plants in Huntington Beach, Long Beach, and Redondo Beach. There was a round table on solar energy featuring a presentation from the Independent Energy Producers Association, a trade group that regularly files petitions and comments on CPUC proceedings. The trip included a tour of a desalination plant, a talk from the president of the Madrid Chamber of Commerce, and discussions about California’s energy market. Scheduled activities ended by midafternoon on some days, and the itinerary left a Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Sunday in Sevilla wide open.

Asked to comment on concerns about inappropriate lobbying, Johnston said: “We’re not guarding against anyone’s potential behavior any more than we would be on the streets of Sacramento. We’re not setting ourselves up as the guardians. We’re not facilitating that, per se, either.” He added, “I realize there are critics of any kind of travel and any kind of commingling. But it is wise for us not to close our eyes to the rest of the world, and there’s not a great appetite for spending taxpayer money on these trips.”

Yet Lynch countered that there is an important distinction between the roles of Sacramento legislators and that of utility commissioners. “Regulators are not legislators,” Lynch said. “They’re more like judges. Their decisions have the power of a judge’s decision.” By inviting commissioners along on these lavish getaways, she said, “it’s as if you’re partying with the judge.”

Mindy Spatt, a spokesperson for TURN, echoed Lynch’s concerns. “These ostensibly educational trips are essentially lobbying junkets, where utilities … wine and dine legislators,” Spatt said. TURN raised the issue several years ago, she said, when Peevey joined a CFEE trip attended by a representative of Southern California Edison “just coincidentally at the exact same time that he was penning an alternate decision in Edison’s rate case.” She added: “In TURN’s perspective, the commissioners need to be more in touch with what actual utility customers are experiencing, rather than in touch with the top restaurants in Brazil.”

While Peevey is only one of a host of officials who attend CFEE trips, he has more than just a casual tie to the nonprofit. From 1973 to 1983, he served as president of the California Coalition for Environment and Economic Balance (CCEEB), an organization CFEE grew out of and whose membership shares some overlap with CFEE.

Based in San Francisco, CCEEB was founded by Edmund G. “Pat” Brown (Gov. Jerry Brown’s father) in 1973. CCEEB backed a late-1970s proposal to construct a series of nuclear power plants along the California coastline. More recently, the group honored BP with a 2009 award for environmental education — shortly before the company and lax federal regulators were responsible for the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

 

A YEAR IN THE LIFE

Spain wasn’t the only country Peevey jetted off to with complimentary airfare in 2010. According to a Form 700 filing with the Fair Political Practices Commission, he also traveled to Germany from Aug. 1–5 for a sustainable energy study tour organized by the Energy Coalition. Joining that trip were representatives from investor-owned utilities PG&E, Southern California Edison, and Sempra, plus various city officials and energy experts from the Swedish Energy Agency.

The group stayed at the Radisson Blu Berlin Hotel, which is famous for its AquaDom. “Standing at 25 meters high, it is the world’s largest cylindrical aquarium containing 1 million liters of saltwater,” according to the hotel website. All Radisson Blu Berlin guests have free access to “the hotel’s well-being area,” called Splash, which features a pool, sauna, steam bath, and fitness room.

Based in Irvine, the Energy Coalition’s Board of Directors is chaired by Warren Mitchell, a retired chair of the Southern California Gas Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co.. Another director is a utility lawyer who also sits on the board of directors of the Northeast Gas Association, a consortium of natural gas companies in the northeastern U.S.

Founded in the late 1970s by John Phillips to get large businesses to reduce energy consumption in partnership with utilities, the Energy Coalition has arranged excursions for years to bring energy regulators, city officials, and utility executives to Sweden (where Phillips’ wife was born) to exchange ideas on energy issues. The nonprofit organizes an annual summit called the Aspen Accord, “an energy policy forum where cities, utilities, regulators, and end-users collaborate to identify problems and propose solutions to our most pressing energy issues,” according to a 2009 tax filing. While it used to be held in Aspen, Colo., the most recent Aspen Accord was held at San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis. Peevey gave introductory remarks, and the conference featured talks from PG&E, among others.

Craig Perkins, executive director, told the Guardian that the Aspen Accord and study trips are designed to create a venue for major stakeholders to arrive at outside-the-box solutions. “What we try to do is get everybody out of their comfort zone, if you will — that’s the best way to support more creative thinking,” he said. Official regulatory proceedings are “so rigidly legalistic and bureaucratic that it almost prevents any creative thought from happening,” he added. “We’re not in San Francisco, we’re not in Sacramento, we’re not in corporate offices — let’s just talk about these really big issues, and really big challenges.”

The Germany tour included meetings with the Berlin Energy Agency, talks about climate policy, and a tour of an eco-community in Freiburg. Perkins said utility companies must to pay their own way on the trips, but costs are covered for governmental officials.

An Energy Coalition tax filing reveals that board members receive a monthly retainer of $1,000, quarterly meeting fees of $1,000, plus $500 for each board committee meeting. Teleconferences also result in $500 meeting fees.

Several years ago, the Energy Coalition partnered with PG&E to create the Business Energy Coalition, which paid businesses including Bank of America and the Westin St. Francis $50 per KW of energy savings for banding together to reduce energy during peak load hours. According to a tax filing, total annual Energy Coalition revenue dropped from $10.7 million in 2008 to $3.75 million in 2009 “due to large revenue receipts for participant incentives” for the Business Energy Coalition program, as “revenues were used for direct pass-through payments to program participants and contractors.” In 2006, according to a CPUC filing, PG&E paid the Energy Coalition $227,373 for unspecified consulting services.

In addition to the $8,880 trip to Spain (comped), and the $6,583 trip to Germany last year (comped), Peevey’s 2010 disclosure form shows that he also went to Australia May 14-19 to participate in a conference hosted by the Sydney-based Total Environment Center called “Smart Metering to Empower the Smart Grid” ($12,577, comped). And while it doesn’t show up on his FPPC filing, an agenda for CFEE’s Energy Roundtable Summit from Dec. 9-10 at the Carneros Inn in Napa lists Peevey as a participant. A glance through past filings suggests that 2010 was no anomaly; it’s a typical year in the life of a jet-setting utilities regulator.

 

GREEN CAPITALISM

Peevey once served as president of the Southern California Edison, an investor-owned utility, and was president of NewEnergy, Inc., an electricity company that later was sold to Williams Energy. Yet his professional image is that of a forward-thinker on climate change. According to a bio on the CPUC website, he’s received awards for achievements on green and sustainable energy from various organizations throughout California.

In 2005, speaking in Berkeley at an annual conference for the California Climate Action Registry, Peevey touted a list of his accomplishments on sustainable energy. My final example of PUC actions on climate change is related to PG&Es bankruptcy, he said. When they emerged from bankruptcy last year, one of many conditions of our support for their reorganization plan was that they create a $30 million Clean Energy Fund, devoted to investing in California businesses developing and producing clean technologies.

What Peevey didnt mention is that he chairs the board of directors of that fund. As a nonprofit venture capital fund, the obscure, San Francisco-based CalCEF sounds like an oxymoron. Based on the terms of the PG&E bankruptcy settlement, its governed by a nine-member board consisting of three CPUC appointees, three PG&E appointees, and the rest selected jointly by the CPUC and PG&E appointees. Other board members include past PG&E executives, a former member of the California Energy Commission, and a former chair of the board of governors of the California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO), the body that ensures statewide grid reliability and blocked the closure of the Mirant Potrero Power Plant for years.

The nonprofit’s stated mission is to catalyze clean energy investment to aid in the state’s transition away from fossil fuels. CalCEF president Dan Adler described it as a sort of seasoned guide for fledgling green companies that might otherwise fail to navigate the murky, complicated clean-energy sector. CalCEF is in a position to usher start-ups toward success with a combination of funding, networking, and insider wisdom on state energy policy.

Among the challenges that the clean-energy sector faces, Adler said, are the utilities themselves. “They are effectively monopoly, or oligopoly, controllers of the energy industry,” he said. “And they don’t like outside innovation coming and disrupting their work process or their relationship with their customers.”

CalCEF aims to guide the finance community “to be partners with what public policy is doing around clean tech and clean energy,” Adler went on. “There’s a tremendous amount of money to be made, but there’s also a lot of opportunity for money to be wasted. If you don’t have a private-sector investment community that understands these rules and can put their money alongside these rules in a collaborative framework, we’re very unlikely to achieve the really aggressive energy targets that California has set.”

Yet as one skeptical energy insider noted, “there are 15 to 20 other funds, with 10 times as much money, an hour south in the same field,” referring to the burgeoning clean-tech hub in Silicon Valley. It’s questionable whether the CPUC is actually fulfilling some dire need with CalCEF, this person said.

Lynch, not surprisingly, takes a dim view of CalCEF. The former CPUC president questions what business the CPUC has creating a private foundation to guide venture capital investment. “It is a fundamental distortion of the PUC’s authority,” she charged, “all in service of Peevey’s ambitions.”

Peevey’s economic disclosure showed that he holds more than $1 million in a private family trust, without disclosing whether private investments contributed to that fund.

Adler stressed that there is arms-length relationship between CalCEF board members and the companies that benefit from the fund’s investments. “Because we are a nonprofit, and because we have on our board members of the regulatory community, we recognized quickly that we can’t be making direct investments into companies,” said Adler, a former CPUC staff member who was highly regarded even by the critics of CalCEF. “So … we’ve picked the venture-capital funds that we wanted to partner with.”

CalCEF funnels its capital into three different for-profit investment firms, which in turn select the companies that will be included in CalCEF’s investment portfolio. Several directors of the partnering investment firms also sit on the boards of directors of the companies they invest in. The startups run the gamut, from carbon-offset outfits, to energy-efficient lighting manufacturers to solar and wind companies, to biofuels startups to various kinds of technology firms related to the smart grid.

But CalCEF has also poured money into companies that bolster the fossil-fuel industry. One of its first investments was CoalTek, a company developing technology for so-called “clean coal.” Asked to explain why, Adler told the Guardian, “We don’t have veto power on every deal that goes down.”

Adler said he personally believes that “there’s no such thing as clean coal,” but tempered this by adding, “there are some very smart people in our community who will tell you that there’s no future … without coal.”

Another CalCEF investment, DynaPump, is developing technology to make it more energy efficient to pump oil and gas. Asked about this decision, Adler responded: “I will say that when we were approached with this investment by the venture partner that ultimately undertook it, we had our misgivings. If you can save energy in the production of oil and gas, then you’re definitely making a contribution to overall energy efficiency.”

 

TAX-EXEMPT TESLA

There appear to be some closer-than-arms-length links between CalCEF board members and the investment fund’s beneficiaries. A bio for CalCEF director Nancy Pfund, for example, notes that in her capacity as manager of an outside investment fund, she had “worked closely” with Tesla Motors, a CalCEF investment. Tesla provided CalCEF’s first investment return earlier this year after Tesla went public. A principal of one of the investment firms that works with CalCEF, Stephen Jurvetson of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, holds Tesla shares in a personal trust, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Tesla manufactures sleek, electric, zero-emission sports cars with prices in the six-figures, and it’s gearing up to roll out a model that will cost somewhere closer to $50,000. The company’s success was helped by a sales-and-use-tax exclusion granted by the state of California last year. Peevey had a hand in that, too. Few Californians may have heard of the California Alternative Energy and Advanced Transportation Financing Authority (CAEATFA), a state body within the Office of the Treasurer, which has the power to authorize sales-tax exclusions for companies that are developing alternative energy technologies. Peevey has a seat on it.

In October 2009, according to a CAEATFA document, Tesla was granted a sales tax exclusion from that financing authority. The sports car manufacturer had received a tax break of $3.3 million as of December 2010, and stands to gain a tax break as large as $29.1 million, depending on its property purchases. As a CAEATFA member, Peevey approved the deal by proxy.

A central question is whether the CalCEF dollars that benefited Tesla and other CalCEF portfolio investments were originally derived from PG&E shareholder profits or ratepayer funds. Adler was careful to note that the initial $30 million came from company shareholders, not PG&E customers. But Lynch pointed out that every dime in PG&E coffers originates with the millions of customers who pay utility bills.

Lynch noted another provision of the bankruptcy settlement agreement, which guarantees PG&E a minimum annual profit of 11.2 percent, catapulting it forever into a higher rate of return than the 8 percent to 11 percent profit traditionally granted by the CPUC in prior decades. “They’re manipulating how big this bucket is to siphon off funds into programs like CalCEF,” Lynch said. “It’s all to give Peevey and his friends access — and to greenwash what was a very stinky deal for the ratepayer.”

 

ELUSIVE CLEAN ENERGY FUTURE

In California, a national leader in addressing climate change, the stakes are high in the energy sector. The CPUC is tasked not only with shoring up transmission-pipeline safety to prevent another San Bruno disaster, but helping to chart a course away from reliance on fossil fuel-powered energy sources.

CFEE, the Energy Coalition, and CalCEF share a common thread — their missions relate to advancing the cause of a clean energy future in California. And while utility funding and partnership is evident in all three operations, the overarching goal is understood to be green.

But as Adler observed, the utilities themselves present one of the greatest obstacles to progress on a clean-energy transition. While California has increased renewable energy sources, it’s done a poor job at supplanting fossil fuel generation with green alternatives, in part because the CPUC has allowed for increasing fossil fuel power generation even as renewable energy expands. According to a listing on the California Energy Commission website, nine natural gas power plants have won approval statewide and are moving toward construction, while six new ones are under review.

The CalCEF approach to addressing climate change, rather than aggressively targeting polluting industries, is to encourage the fledgling green industry in hopes of facilitating success in partnership with the financial sector. In many cases, the backers of the clean-tech companies are the same players behind the big energy giants.

Environmental advocates are critical. “If anyone thinks the CPUC is set up to serve public interests, forget that,” says Al Weinrub, executive director of the Local Clean Energy Alliance, a group that organized against PG&E’s ill-fated Proposition 16 last year. “They never have and they never will.”

Weinrub said he viewed proponents of green energy as falling into two camps: Moneyed interests motivated by a growing new market sector, and activists motivated by environmental and social justice causes. Major green investment firms “want to de-carbonize capitalism,” he observed. “But everything else stays the same.”

Peevey is considered a major driver behind the state’s climate change legislation, and he’s highly regarded for his dedication to green energy. Yet as long as the interlocking dynamic between energy regulators and California’s largest utilities goes unchallenged, change will only come in a way that’s as comfortable, profitable, and manageable for the state’s top polluters as they wish. And in a state with an aging energy infrastructure that’s vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, that pace isn’t nearly quick enough. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Power to the powerful

0

news@sfbg.com

On Thursday, May 26, the California Public Utilities Commission is set to vote on changes to the electricity rates of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. customers. Currently two proposals are on the table, and consumer advocates characterize the better one as merely the lesser of two evils.

At its last meeting on May 5, the commission approved a requested 8.1 percent increase in the total amount of money PG&E will collect from its customers in 2011. The $454 million revenue increase is supposed to account for costs accrued by the company’s spending on infrastructure.

The big question that remains is how the increased burden will be divided among customers, or more precisely, what class of customers will see a bump in their monthly bill. The price of electricity in California is regulated by a tiered structure, meaning the less you use, the less each kilowatt of power costs you. In this way, higher usage customers pay above-cost prices for power, subsidizing users who conserve and those enrolled in the energy discount program.

Under both proposals, the rates would be moving away from that structure. Their description summarizes the new structure this way: “Lower-usage customers will incur higher rates offset by reductions in higher usage customer rates.” Critics said the proposal hurts conservation and the poor.

“The policies are going to hurt low-income household in a time when low-income households can’t take any more hurting,” said Stephanie Chen, senior legal counsel for the Greenlining Institute.

One of the proposals is especially detrimental to the 20 percent of PG&E customers who use the program known as California Alternate Rates for Energy (CARE) to afford their bills. If approved by the commission, PG&E would introduce a new fixed monthly fee. CARE customers would have to dish out an extra $2.40 every month and everyone else would pay $3.

The effect can be acute for households on fixed incomes, which is why Matt Freedman, staff attorney from The Utility Reform Network (TURN) said, “Our top issue is killing the customer charge.”

He is confident in his case against the customer charge and says he is supported by California laws that limit how much the rates of low-income consumers can go up. The law is meant to keep prices stable for the poor, which TURN said it will defend.

“We are prepared to sue the commission if they adopt the customer charge,” Freedman said. “We are prepared to fight.”

Although protecting vulnerable consumers is at the top of the agenda of many consumer advocates, there are other reasons to oppose PG&E’s new rate scheme. “If your bill gets lower all of sudden for using the same amount of power, you are not going to conserve,” Chen said, referring to the how high-usage customer may respond to their new bills.

PG&E failed to reply to Guardian phone calls, but public comments by the energy giant elucidate the push for a change to customer rates. The company cited the “historical context” of more than 10 years of frozen rates for low-income customers.

Melissa Kasnitz, a spokesperson for Disability Rights Advocates, said the data from PG&E indicates that many households already on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder are teetering on the brink of disconnection. She called the historical context of frozen rates a “meaningless abstraction” given the hardship those households will face.

Even more alarming is that PG&E sees the proposed change to the rate structure as a “continuing movement toward a cost-based framework for [rates].” California law, however, says that the guiding principle for determining rates should be accessibility and conservation, not simply cost. But that could change under Senate Bill 142, a bill introduced by state Sen. Michael Rubio’s (D-Bakersfield) that would more directly link utility rates to the costs of generating power. 

 

The death drug dealers

0

tredmond@sfbg.com

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration is conducting a multistate criminal investigation into the actions that prison systems have taken to obtain a death drug no longer produced in the United States, documents obtained by the Guardian indicate.

The documents don’t reveal the specific targets of the investigation, but federal agents have seized drug shipments in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Tennessee and are apparently also looking into drug procurement policies in California, Arkansas, Alaska, and Arizona.

The states have been scrambling to obtain sodium thiopental, a drug used in executions, after the lone American manufacturer, Hospira Corp., stopped producing it last year.

Georgia and Arizona both received shipments of the drug from Dream Pharma, a British wholesaler that, according to the Associated Press, “shares a building with a driving school in a gritty London neighborhood.”

In October 2010, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sent agents on a secret mission to get some of Arizona’s supply. The agents drove under cover of night to the Arizona state prison in Florence, where at midnight the warden handed them 12 grams of thiopental, enough for an execution.

The state later ordered 521 grams — far more than the state could possibly use in the next few years — from Archimedes Pharma, also a British supplier.

Several other states, including Georgia, obtained the drugs from a different British supplier, Link Pharmaceuticals. According to the Associated Press, Nebraska’s supply was imported from India.

Most of the states imported the drugs without the proper DEA paperwork, a federal crime, the documents show.

Sodium thiopental is part of the three-drug mix used for lethal injections in most states that allow capital punishment. It renders the subject unconscious before the other drugs stop the heart and lungs from operating.

If the drug isn’t effective — that is, if it’s an improper formulation or an off-market product that doesn’t meet U.S. standards — the condemned inmate could suffer horrible pain, something the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear is not legally tolerable.

The drug isn’t often used in hospitals; it has been replaced by other drugs. And California had to put all of its executions on hold last fall when the state’s last batch expired.

The documents are the latest released as the result of a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Northern California and the Guardian seeking access to all records related to the import of the death drug. Last week the DEA released 71 pages of documents, but withheld 160 pages, justifying the withholding by saying that some of the records are part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

A May 16 letter from Katherine Myrick, the DEA’s chief Freedom of Information Officer, states that there are “two active investigations” and that release of the records could “reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.” The documents reveal how desperately state prison authorities were trying to find a way to procure the drug — and how concerned the DEA was about importing a controlled substance by agencies that had no medical or research functions.

Among other things, they show that the Obama administration was taking an active role in the process: “The White House is involved and is trying to sort things out,” a Nov. 11, 2010 memo from the Office of Diversion Control states.

Another Nov. 11 memo notes that “states have been importing the lethal drug regimen from England … the U.K. has written the State Department (and the FDA?) asking the U.S. to end the importation of the drug, which is being used in lethal injections.”

A Nov. 9 memo notes that “FDA is concerned about importation of non-FDA approved sodium thiopental used for executions … Safety, efficacy and indication are FDA issues. So is the matter of off-label use (which was also brought up).”

The memo from the Liaison and Policy Office explains that the “DEA requires a valid DEA registration as an importer and a properly executed declaration in order to import controlled substances.”

A Nov. 12 memo confirms that “only two import declarations have been filed for sodium pentothal” — meaning that all the other states obtained their supplies illegally. The identity of the two states is blacked out.

Arizona has an execution date set for May 25, and Nebraska has an execution scheduled for June 14. But the documents are so heavily redacted, and so many pages are missing, that it’s impossible to tell exactly which states are doing what — and whether any of the upcoming executions would be using illegally obtained drugs.

“The DEA is making it impossible to know whether the states are complying with the law and whether DEA is fulfilling its obligation to enforce our nation’s drug laws,” said Natasha Minsker, death penalty policy director for the ACLU of California. “Importing sodium thiopental without informing the DEA is a crime. We now know the DEA was poised to go into the Arizona Department of Corrections and seize their drugs, as they did in Georgia, but for some unknown reason they did not. Why did the DEA seize drugs in some states but not others?”

Calls and e-mails to the California Department of Corrections seeking information on whether the department is the target of a federal investigation were not returned. 

 

Guardian takes seven awards

0

news@sfbg.com

The Bay Guardian won seven awards, including the top prize for overall excellence, at the Peninsula Press Club awards dinner May 21.

The overall excellence award cites the Guardian as the best non-daily paper in the region. The San Francisco Business Times was second and Central City Extra placed third.

Steven T. Jones won a first place award in the Specialty Story category for his report “Marijuana goes mainstream.” Jones and Rebecca Bowe shared top honors in the News Story category for “Buying power,” a report on corporate corruption. Tim Redmond won first place in the Political Column category and third place for editorial writing.

Bowe and Alex Emslie took third place honors in Breaking News for their report on the BART Police killing verdict. Redmond and Rula Al-Nasrawi shared second place in that category for “Mysteries of the death-drug scramble.”

 

Fatal stance

7

sarah@sfbg.com

Ever since Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed Police Chief George Gascón district attorney in January — when Gascón said he was “not categorically opposed to the death penalty and would consider it in appropriate cases” — capital punishment has become a big issue in a town where the last death penalty case was in 1989.

Gascón is running against former San Francisco Police Commissioner David Onek, who is the founding director of the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice and has consistently promised since entering the race last summer that he will not seek the death penalty.

Both men also face a serious challenge from Alameda County Deputy D.A. Sharmin Bock, who opposes capital punishment but won’t categorically state that she would never seek it, as former DAs Kamala Harris and Terence Hallinan both did while running for office.

Bock said that Harris eventually formed a committee to review each capital case but never filed for the death penalty, including in the 2004 murder of San Francisco police officer Isaac Espinoza, the same approach Bock would take. But she doesn’t think it’s legally wise to make a categorical statement opposing the death penalty, saying it could be challenged in court, as some attorneys tried to do with Harris.

“But capital punishment is unjust, and can say that categorically,” she said.

In the week since Bock’s May 17 campaign launch, Gascón challenged her credibility on the issue by noting that Bock used the threat of the death penalty to secure a guilty plea from a sexual predator who tortured and killed women in Alameda County last year.

But Bock used that case to draw a distinction in their positions on the issue, telling us, “George Gascón says he’d use it for the most heinous cases, and I’ve seen the most heinous cases and I haven’t use it,” Bock said, emphasizing that she’s the only prosecutor in the race.

In a May 1 Chronicle op-ed, Gascón tried to neutralize Onek and those opposed to the death penalty by noting that he also has “serious misgivings” about capital punishment, including the potential for wrongful convictions, the disproportionate application on racial minorities, the roller-coaster the victims’ families endure as they wait decades for closure, and the financial impact on an already overburdened justice system.

But Gascón also tried to hide behind the “death penalty is state law” defense, even though prosecutors have extensive discretion in such matters. “Rather than refuse to enforce our laws, I believe the more appropriate approach is to accept the law and work to change it,” Gascón wrote. “I don’t believe district attorneys should be allowed to supplant the views of the state with those of their own.”

Bock criticized Gascón’s deferential stance, which was in sharp contrast to Sheriff Mike Hennessey, who recently announced that he will stop cooperating with federal immigration officials and start releasing undocumented immigrants jailed for minor offenses before they can be picked up for deportation, to comply with San Francisco’s sanctuary ordinance.

Gascón appeared to be trying to cast his position as a courageous stand. “Some have given me the political advice to simply say I will not seek the death penalty in San Francisco,” he wrote. “While I am not prepared to say that at this time, I can say that I do intend to be a district attorney committed to San Francisco values.”

And he promised that if he believes a case merits the death penalty, he would seek the advice and counsel of a panel of local prosecutors. “Ultimately, the decision will always rest on my shoulders, and it is a decision that I will not take lightly,” Gascón wrote.

But Onek accused Gascón of giving a politician’s answer. “Gascón is trying to have it both ways,” Onek told the Guardian. “The voters have the right to hear a clear answer to a fundamental question. And my answer is clear — I will not seek the death penalty in San Francisco and I will continue to work to change the law statewide. To me, it’s a yes or no question, and I won’t seek it. Period.”

Onek says his stance is informed by his belief that the death penalty solves nothing. “It doesn’t make us safer; it’s not fair and equitable; and it wastes enormous resources,” he said. “We are much better off spending our precious resources on things that actually make us safer, like more cops on the streets, more programs in our communities, and better services for victims.”

Gov. Jerry Brown made a similar comparison last month when he canceled a $356 million project for a new death row at San Quentin. “At a time when children, the disabled, and seniors face painful cuts to essential programs, the state of California cannot justify a massive expenditure of public dollars for the worst criminals in our state,” Brown said.

A recent David Binder research poll found 63 percent support statewide for commuting all of the 700 sentences of California’s death row inmates to life in prison without parole and requiring them to pay restitution to the victims’ families, while 70 percent of Bay Area voters support the plan, which would save the state $1 billion over five years.

At a May 18 panel discussion on the death penalty, Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s criminal justice summit offered panel moderator Matt Gonzalez, a chief attorney in Adachi’s office, a timely opportunity to grill Gascón about his death penalty stance.

“Folks felt it might be a step backward,” Gonzalez said, noting that former D.A. Terence Hallinan pledged not to seek the death penalty when he ran for reelection in 2000, and Harris followed suit when she first ran for district attorney in 2003. “So — are you pro death?” Gonzalez asked.

“No, but I am a public official,” Gascón replied, even as he repeated his misgivings about the death penalty, including the fact that 62 percent of those on death row are minority populations, especially from African American and Latino communities.

The panel also provided a chance to see Gascón debate exonerated death row inmate JT Thompson, watch American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California attorney Natasha Minsker explain why the death penalty system is dysfunctional, and witness former San Quentin prison warden Jeanne Woodford describe how the impacts of the four executions that she reluctantly oversaw motivated her to sign on as director of Death Penalty Focus, a nonprofit dedicated to abolishing capital punishment.

“Who is responsible for the prosecutors that go bad?” asked Thompson, an African American man who spent 14 years on death row in Louisiana, and another four facing life without parole, because a prosecutor suppressed exculpatory evidence.

“When I was sentenced to death in 1985, for a crime I didn’t commit, I thought this would be rectified right away. But it took 18 years, and I watched 12 inmates being executed while I was there,” Thompson said, noting that he was holed up 23 hours a day.

Gascón said he would terminate prosecutors who withheld exculpatory evidence, but said he didn’t know if he could charge them with murder.

Thompson, founder of the New Orleans-based nonprofit Resurrection after Exoneration, argued that the debate needs to be recast from its current public safety frame.

“People need to be asked, ‘Under what conditions do you support giving the state the right to kill you?’ ” Thompson said.

Woodford recalled how she got sick after the last execution she presided over. “I focused on what my responsibility was. But in hindsight, I realize it had had much more of an impact,” she said. “These executions happen in California at least 20 years after the crime. And they don’t bring victims back.”

Minsker noted that 16 states do not have the death penalty, and that every day brings people closer to ending the practice in California. “People once thought opposing the death penalty would end political careers, but Kamala Harris showed that it is no longer a liability,” she said.

Reached by phone after the debate, Onek said ending capital punishment makes sense morally and financially. “We would have $1 billion to invest in things that actually make us safer,” Onek said. “The D.A. is given discretion around requesting the death penalty, and I will use my discretion to reflect San Francisco values. That’s why people in the trenches working on these issues, including Jeanne Woodford, support me in this race.” 

 

On the chopping block in Oakland

162

news@sfbg.com

What exactly is on the chopping block in Oakland these days? If one proposal goes through, it could be a live animal’s neck.

Oakland recently called for public input to clarify the urban agriculture language in its planning code. There are questions about the legality of activities such as growing and selling veggies from your urban farm, which could serve our community with nutritious, local, sustainable food. The current code is unclear on the legality of many of these things, so clarifying it to allow people to grow healthy, sustainable food is a positive step forward for the city’s fight against food insecurity.

One small catch.

Among other things in a 73-page report titled “Transforming the Oakland Food System” is a proposal to deregulate raising and slaughtering animals. No distinction is made between urban plant farming and urban animal farming — but the difference between the two is as blatant as the sound each respective product makes when you chop its head off.

Deregulating urban animal farming would create problems that multiply as the population of animals being farmed increases. Consider the most popular animal kept among the new wave of backyard egg farmers: the laying hen.

A backyard chicken spends its first days in a factory farm hatchery, where it is packed up with other chickens and shipped to the buyer in a box with no food or water. About half the chicks are male, and thus worthless to a backyard chicken hobbyist. Many end up at Oakland Animal Services, where they are euthanized.

New chicken hobbyists are often surprised that veterinary bills for a single chicken can average $300 a year if ailments are treated properly rather than ignored. These “free” eggs now are very expensive. Chicken food and poop attracts rodents, which causes complaints to the Health Department. After two years, the hen is “spent” and no longer gives eggs. And what to do with Chicken Little when she stops laying?

Picture a warm Saturday afternoon in mid-May. You are sitting on a lawn chair unwinding from a long week at work. Then you are jolted out of your chair — your lemonade spilling down the front of your shirt.

It’s the sound of a hen on the other side of the fence suffering a botched hatchet job. “Squaaaawwwkkk!” Welcome to Oakland — the slaughterhouse with glass walls.

According to according to a 2006 Oakland Food System Assessment by the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, approximately 9,000 acres are needed to feed 30 percent of Oakland’s population using vegetable-based farming. But once you include urban meat with your veggie garden, the land needed to feed that same 30 percent of Oakland residents explodes to 19,000 acres. So if all our potential land can only provide 30 percent of our food, do we really need to create more meat, eggs and dairy?

Chickens, goats and rabbits make great companions. But for growing sustainable, local and organic food, let’s tell Oakland loud and clear: think about chard instead. 

Ian Elwood is an animal rescuer and volunteers with Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary, the Central Valley Chapter of House Rabbit Society and is a former volunteer at Oakland Animal Services. He also works a day job as web producer at International Rivers.

 

Lee needs to make a decision

2

news@sfbg.com

The moment Ed Lee accepted the job as interim mayor — with the strong support of former Mayor Willie Brown and Chinatown powerbroker Rose Pak — we knew that the word “interim” would soon be in play.

Lee promised he wouldn’t run in November, and for some supervisors (particularly Sean Elsbernd, who nominated Lee) that was a deal breaker: Elsbernd told us he wouldn’t vote for anyone who wanted to seek a full term. But immediately some of Lee’s supporters began pushing him — quietly and not-so-quietly — to go back on his word and announce his candidacy.

Last week, a fake “draft Ed Lee” campaign emerged and got front-page treatment in the San Francisco Chronicle, despite the fact that it was orchestrated entirely by two political consultants. And word around City Hall is that Lee faces immense pressure to get in the race — and hasn’t entirely ruled it out.

That’s a problem. Lee is heading into a crucial budget season and will be negotiating with, and making deals with, a wide range of constituency groups. Everyone in town needs to know, now, what sort of mayor is running the show — a caretaker trying to get San Francisco through a rough time until a duly elected replacement can take office, or an ambitious politician looking at how to leverage this appointment into a four-year gig.

Lee has every right to run for mayor, and the filing deadline isn’t until August. By law, and political tradition, he can wait until the last minute to tell the city how he plans to spend the fall. And the fact that he promised not to run shouldn’t be an absolute bar: we never endorsed the idea of a caretaker mayor in the first place. What if Lee does a great job? What if the voters overwhelmingly want him to stick around? Why should that be off the table?

Still, this waiting game and this ongoing round of rumors and back-room discussions isn’t good for the city. If Lee wants to run, he needs to announce it now. If he’s not going to run, he needs to tell everyone — starting with Brown, Pak, and his other top backers — that he’s simply not going to do it, that he’s not changing his mind, and that they have to stop pushing him and making noise about it.

There are other candidates in the race, some directly involved in making city policy. When Sup. David Chiu talks about his budget priorities, we know exactly whom we’re dealing with — a board president who wants to be mayor. When City Attorney Dennis Herrera takes on the tricky job of running for mayor while serving as an impartial city legal officer, we know what the conflicts are. It’s not fair to them, or to anyone else, to be dealing with a mayor who may have secretly promised his supporters (who are also players and lobbyists at City Hall) that he’s getting into the race.

Lee may be personally undecided — but he can’t manage the city this way. He has to give San Franciscans a straight, and final, answer: is he running or not? Otherwise all these behind-the-scenes whispers, involving some very shady political operators, will fatally undermine his credibility. 

 

Editor’s notes

3

tredmond@sfbg.com

When Cornel West blasted President Obama May 16 in an interview with the website Truthdig, it set off a pretty wild debate on the left. For the most part, it’s been more heat than light (imagine that happening on the left!), but it raises a crucial question about the role progressives play in the Democratic Party — particularly in the 2012 election season.

The best analysis so far comes from Robert Cruikshank, who writes for the blog Calitics. In a May 23 piece, he noted that the right keeps winning battles because the conservatives know how to play coalition politics:

“Conservative communication discipline is enabled only by the fact that everyone in the coalition knows they will get something for their participation…. Everyone knows they will get their turn. Why would someone who is primarily motivated by a desire to outlaw abortion support an oil company that wants to drill offshore? Because the anti-choicers know that in a few weeks, the rest of the coalition will unite to defund Planned Parenthood. And a few weeks after that, everyone will come together to appease Wall Street and the billionaires by fighting Elizabeth Warren. And then they’ll all appease the U.S. Chamber by fighting to break a union.”

Not so with the Democratic Party under Obama. The Wall Street Democrats (the neoliberals, the DLC types, and the power-at-any-price folks) get their way all the time. And those us of who consider ourselves part of the economic left (also known as progressives) not only get thrown under the bus — we see our existing gains rolled back, in exchange for nothing.

Sure, we all agree on a lot of social issues. The neolibs and the progressives support abortion rights and gays in the military and, for the most part, same-sex marriage. We agree that evolution is science and creation is religion.

But on basic economic issues — who pays the taxes, who gets the money, military spending vs. education spending, radical inequality, concentration of wealth, corporate power — we might as well be on different political planets. And while we’re the most active, hard-working members of the Democratic coalition, we get completely ignored on national policy.

Obama ought to be worried — not just by West’s criticism (any president ought to expect some allies to be pissed off) but by the fact that he has created an unsustainable coalition. And some of the San Francisco politicians who call themselves progressives ought to be paying attention too: When your political partners get nothing, they eventually walk.