Volume 48 Number 49

Schools not prisons

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OPINION Jay-Z doesn’t usually make political endorsements.

But at a recent concert in Los Angeles, he took the rare and unexpected step of endorsing a California ballot initiative. “California, build more schools, less prisons,” he rapped to the crowd, and then encouraged them to all vote yes on Proposition 47.

Jay-Z chose the right issue to speak out about. On an otherwise quiet state ballot, Californians have the opportunity to make history this fall with Prop. 47, also known as the “Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act.”

While California has long been known as an incarceration trailblazer for all the wrong reasons, Prop, 47 will give us an opportunity to reduce overcrowded prisons and bloated corrections budgets, roll back the failed drug war, and reinvest in public education.

Most importantly, Prop 47 will reduce the penalty for most nonviolent, non-serious crimes, such as drug possession, shoplifting, and bouncing a check, from a felony to a misdemeanor. These offenses are closely associated with drug addiction or poverty, and are not well addressed in prison.

This change will also be retroactive, allowing us to make amends for misguided policies. Approximately 10,000 inmates will be eligible for re-sentencing, helping to alleviate California’s notoriously overcrowded prisons. Hundreds of thousands of formerly incarcerated people with past felony convictions will have them reduced to misdemeanors, lifting existing barriers to employment and housing.

The estimated $150–<\d>$250 million in savings each year will be reinvested into K-12 education, victim compensation, and community-based rehabilitation and re-entry programs.

There are a number of reasons why Prop. 47 would be a huge step forward for California. First, we have to stop wasting money unnecessarily locking people up for long periods of time. California currently spends $10 billion on corrections, which has increased 1500 percent since 1981. Even as crime rates have fallen, corrections spending keeps going up.

The astronomical increase in prison spending has squeezed public education and services. We spend $62,000 to imprison someone for one year, while only about $9,000 per K-12 student. California built 22 prisons since 1980, but we built just one university. Imagine if both of those numbers were flipped. In light of all of our urgent priorities as a state, the cost of imprisonment for minor offenses simply isn’t worth it.

Second, prison time and felony convictions can have a devastating impact on individuals and communities. When a person is sent away to prison, they are separated from their family, community, and employment. Their time spent behind bars often leads to serious negative consequences for their physical health, mental health, and overall wellbeing. When they come out, they can face insurmountable barriers to employment, housing, and assistance.

Others feel the impact too: Hundreds of thousands of children in California have parents who are incarcerated. A recent study showed that for many kids, having a parent in prison is more detrimental to a child’s health and development than divorce or even the death of a parent.

Third, locking people up for drug crimes and petty theft is ineffective. Many California prisoners need drug or mental health treatment, not longer prison sentences. There are now three times as many people with mental illnesses in prisons and jails than there are in hospitals.

And instead of treating drug use as a health issue, we have criminalized it and enforced laws selectively, with communities of color bearing the brunt of this counterproductive war on ourselves.

California has long been one of the country’s pioneers in creative and expansive ways to lock people up. We were one of the first to pass a “Three Strikes” law, and have the unfortunate distinction of being the only prison system found by the US Supreme Court to be unconstitutionally overcrowded.

But just like our fellow citizens who made mistakes in the past, California too deserves a second chance. Prop. 47 gives us our own shot at redemption.

Prop. 47 can provide a mandate for a better California, one where we support each other and invest in our people, and put an end to misguided approaches that have been punitive and wasteful. Demanding “Schools Not Prisons,” a new California majority is emerging, one that will shape our state’s future this November and beyond.

Matt Haney is an elected member of San Francisco’s Board of Education and the co-founder of #Cut50, a new initiative to cut the prison population nationally by 50 percent in 10 years.

 

Volume 48 Number 49 Flip-through Edition

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No place like home

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arts@sfbg.com

THEATER Out at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin, just after sunset, the darkness and the silence are real presences in themselves, not just a context for something else. They’re right now pressing their respective noses against the windowpanes of the large, beautifully-worn army barrack–turned–artist studio in which Saya Woolfalk is pouring some dark red concoction from a squat glass jug.

She begs her guests not to try to translate the hokey Portuguese label on the bottle, brought back from Brazil by her husband, an anthropologist, as she hands each of us a crimson thimbleful in a plastic dentist cup. Looking like NyQuil but tasting more like some berry-based moonshine, it gives me an almost instantaneous headache but is otherwise kind of nice. Anyway, it does the trick. We’re now prepped to enter the mandala.

Standing there with me are Marc Mayer and Annie Tsang, both of the Asian Art Museum, as well as Brian Karl, the Headlands’ program director. The mandala corresponds, for now, to a tape mockup on the floor next to us. It’s a circular shape about four feet in diameter, with concentric and crisscrossing lines. At four equidistant corners outside the circle are small freestanding pieces of heavy paper representing alcoves, on the outside of which a slide projector illuminates a colorful figure in exotic garb. Behind each alcove, Woolfalk explains, a dancer will be tucked away.

Also standing around are two department store mannequins, each draped in a careful clash of fabrics and traditions: a skirt of pink-and-gold-striped glitter cloth from the Mission, a tourist version of a Chinese vest from Grant Street, a batik shoulder wrap brought back from Africa.

It’s all just the smallest hint of the Brooklyn-based artist’s elaborately extensive portfolio and practice, which blends visual design, sculpture, textiles, film, live performance, original musical soundscapes, ethnographical narratives, and invented ritual into playful, extraordinarily vivid and enveloping explorations of the limits and promise of hybrid identity.

Woolfalk’s dance-performance installation — the scale model of which was still being toyed with and adjusted when I visited her temporary studio — has been developed during a residency at Headlands under a commission from the Asian Art Museum, where it will run Thu/4 in the AAM’s capacious upper chamber in conjunction with the exhibition Enter the Mandala: Cosmic Centers and Mental Maps of Himalayan Buddhism (ongoing through Oct. 26). The piece, called ChimaTEK: Hybridity Visualization Mandala, culminates a seven-year project by Woolfalk that has received exhibitions and rapt attention around the country.

It began in No Place, which Woolfalk describes as “a utopian paradise in which hybrid identities flourish in tolerant communities with elaborate cultural rituals.” Its alternative narratives and reconfigured systems of representation took multiple forms across an integrated set of media, an environment unto itself, including a six-chapter ethnographic film documenting No Place made in collaboration with anthropologist Rachel Lears.

In the second iteration of the project, the narrative of No Place advances in time. Now its inhabitants have evolved into beings called the Empathics, who have developed a way of sharing their hybrid consciousness with others, while conducting research through their own nonprofit, the Institute of Empathy.

In this third and final stage, the Empathics have redirected their technology into a for-profit model, namely a corporation called ChimaTEK, a virtual world enterprise in which customers buy access to different Chimeric identities and consciousness through their own personalized virtual avatars. The chimera (which here refers simultaneously to the mythological she-monster made up of different body parts and to an organism with two or more genetically distinct tissues) ends up the repository and agent of corrupted utopian impulses.

As a tool for spiritual guidance, the mandala represents the universe, while helping to train the mind on essential insights and untapped potentialities. Made in collaboration with four local dancer-choreographers working in disparate ethnic traditions — with essential input from DJ Dr. Sleep (Melissa Maristuen) and a “virtual” DJ (none other than Paul D. Miller, or DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid, who composed the original score) — ChimaTEK will be a kind of contemporary mandala, manifesting a chimeric state of being in which participants remix identities through virtual avatars in a virtual space. Fact and fiction blend so freely here that the distinctions between them might be called into question. So might the degree to which this virtual space is coextensive with the universe itself, or at least our tangled and conflicted corner of it. *

CHIMATEK: HYBRIDITY VISUALIZATION MANDALA

Thu/4, 6-9pm, free with museum admission ($5 after 5pm)

Asian Art Museum

200 Larkin, SF

www.asianart.org

 

The sound of America

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arts@sfbg.com

THEATER As recently as last month, Berry Gordy Jr., the 84-year-old music mogul, founder, and creator of Motown Records, was hailed as an American icon and an African American hero. Those were Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s words Aug. 18 when it was declared “Berry Gordy Day in the East Bay.”

Impeccably dressed, Gordy made a rare public appearance to speak and receive his accolades on the steps of Oakland’s City Hall. He briefly reminisced about his life’s achievements, particularly building Detroit’s Hitsville USA, not only in a physical sense, but also creating “The Sound of Young America,” as his label would come to be known to the world. Live cast performances from Motown the Musical, the theatrical show based on his autobiography from nearly 20 years ago — To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories Of Motown — were interspersed throughout the event.

The Kevin McCollum production (Avenue Q), directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, is running through Sept. 28 at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre. But how does one fit all that the Motown-Gordy life story encompasses in a matter of just a few hours?

One sure way to please the audience is through music, which the production certainly does. Here we get a condensed version of a story that deals with America’s recent racist history, with scenes set at the Motortown Revue (which allowed segregated audiences in the South), to the full-on love story where Gordy’s muse, Diana Ross (convincingly played by Allison Semmes), serves as the impetus for his own business savvy and crossover to success with white audiences.

In the early ’60s, the industry still referred to Gordy’s output as “Negro” or “colored” music, or worse. African Americans weren’t seen as entrepreneurs — and owning an independent, predominantly black label was a revolutionary statement to say the least. Gordy’s personal history of being a boxer who idolized Joe Louis in the 1940s, and later borrowing $800 from his family to launch a recording studio, is chaotically interwoven with glazed-over details of complex business deals and lawsuits.

It’s not surprising, considering this is a musical, that an overreliance on a hefty catalog of sentimental songs that resonate throughout generations is a recurring theme. A combination of well-executed choreography and the hits we’ve come to know by the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the rest of the roster probably make for a more entertaining evening than going into detail, say, about top songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland defecting to create their own label, Invictus. Or the way top artists like the Jackson 5 and Ross would jump ship to other labels like RCA and Epic for more creative control or financial reasons. And any tales of Gaye’s in-studio drug use (documented in writings as being annoying to Ross while they recorded together during her solo years) are excluded, because this story is told from Gordy’s perspective.

And there are other exclusions. While it’s great to see the early acts from Gordy’s early Motown-Tamla Records days — such as Jackie Wilson, the Contours, Barrett Strong, and Mary Wells — getting recognition, Gaye’s frequent duet partner, Tammi Terrell, gets the shaft with nary a mention. It could be seen as added insult, but is more likely a gross oversight, when cast members depicting Gordy and Ross sing the Ashford and Simpson-penned soul ballad, “You’re All I Need to Get By,” one of Terrell’s signature hits with Gaye.

After the intermission, the latter half of Act Two seems especially rushed, though the costumes, sets, and décor during the Black Panther-Vietnam protest-Detroit riot eras, and the company’s relocation to Los Angeles in the early ’70s, are particularly vibrant.

As soon as we emerge from the tumult of the ’60s and the somewhat understated effects of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, the Jackson 5 are introduced (Reed Shannon plays the young versions of Gordy and Wonder, as well as Michael Jackson), and Ross’ solo career advances when she leaves the Supremes. Gordy’s master plan to have her sing standards in order to assimilate has often been a point of criticism, not only in this case, but also for his other acts, who have been accused of not being “black enough.” Eventually, though, it pays off when she plays grandiose venues that allow for elaborate stage productions. Her subsequent entrance into movie stardom seemed to be something he was grooming her for all along.

Motown revolutionized the world’s perceptions of music. Gordy’s story is one of success through persistence. Most (if not all) of his label’s artists share the same narrative of overcoming obstacles and having to struggle. After all, these were performers who literally had to dodge bullets on stage when they toured the South.

Audience members would be out of touch or ignorant if they couldn’t see the modern-day parallels in racial divisions — unrest and outrage over Mike Brown’s shooting death by police in Ferguson, Mo., had been going on for about a week at the time of Motown‘s press night. Viewers may have to ask themselves how much has changed in the last 50 years. That alone could merit this production’s cultural relevance, if not some harsh realizations. But I have a feeling most people crave those feel-good hit-factory songs, which do make seeing Motown the Musical worthwhile. *

MOTOWN THE MUSICAL

Through Sept. 28

Tue-Sat, 8pm (also Wed and Sat, 2pm); Sun, 2pm, $45-$210

Orpheum Theatre

1192 Market, SF

www.shnsf.com

 

Don’t call it retro

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esilvers@sfbg.com

LEFT OF THE DIAL Musician Bart Davenport, Oakland native, LA resident, has one caveat for discussing his move two years ago. He might’ve broken a few hearts, but he wants to make it clear that he did not head for the southlands for the same reasons many fed-up, underfed Bay Area musicians are making the same trek these days.

“My story doesn’t have anything to do with the changes that have been happening in the Bay Area the past few years. And it really wasn’t a career move. It has to do with changes I needed to make happen within myself,” says the singer-songwriter-guitarist. “Besides, I don’t even stay away long enough to miss it — I’m up there at least once a month.”

Lucky for us, one of those trips will take place next weekend, when he helps kick off the Mission Creek Oakland Music & Arts Festival with a daylong block party Sept. 6. Davenport headlines an eclectic lineup of acts that also includes the psych-rock-folky sounds of The Blank Tapes, B. Hamilton, Foxtails Brigade, and more at this opener to the fifth incarnation of Oakland’s 10-day, 14-venue music fest, which began as an offshoot to San Francisco’s in 2009. (If there are any lingering questions about the East Bay’s music scene holding its own at this point, this is the kind of lineup that answers ’em.)

Davenport has had a pretty hectic touring schedule since his most recent LP, Physical World, dropped on Burger Records in March of this year. There were the adventures in Madrid, the opening slots for Echo & the Bunnymen at LA’s Orpheum Theatre. Last week, playing guitar in Marc & the Casuals, he co-hosted a special one-off soul music-comedy-storytelling night at The Chapel. The day after he plays the MCO Festival, he’ll be driving “like a madman” back to LA to catch a Burt Bacharach show (as an audience member). He’s gotten used to life on the road.

As a kid, though, he mostly moved back and forth between Berkeley and Oakland, where he grew up near Lake Merritt — across the street from the humble, Disneyland-inspiring wonder that is Children’s Fairyland, with its old-school talk boxes that have been narrating fairytales at the turn of a key since 1950. (He’s still enchanted by it, but — as this reporter has also discovered during some routine research — adults wanting to visit the park are required to bring a kid along.)

Nostalgia might seem to be an easy catch-all theme for someone prone to memories of kids’ amusement parks, especially someone whose most recent record conjures the synthy New Wave anthems of ’80s with almost eerie authenticity one moment, then veers backward toward Buddy Holly the next — with each song seemingly narrated by a different character named Bart Davenport, and all of it so shiny that you can never quite tell when he’s being tongue-in-cheek. Davenport’s known for clear changes in genre and sound from record to record, but the shift from 2008’s Palaces (a Harry Nilsson-esque affair with Kelley Stoltz’s fingerprints all over it) to the distinctly palm tree- and pink pollution sunset-scented Physical World (which is full of soul and jazz chord progressions, and where Davenport seems to be channeling, by turn, Hall & Oates, The Cars, New Order, and Morrisey) is probably his biggest departure yet.

The singer takes issue with critics who would simply call him “retro,” however — though it’s not because he finds the term offensive.

“I actually think it’s insulting to purist retroists, people like Nick Waterhouse, maybe, who’ve gone to great lengths to recreate certain sounds really exactingly,” says Davenport, who credits longtime collaborator Sam Flax with sending him in a New Wavey direction after producing his power-poppy 2012 single Someone2Dance.

“And I don’t even think of myself as a very nostalgic person. I think of [my influences] more like shopping at the thrift store, and finding gems that you want to repurpose to say something new,” he adds. “It’s also that I guess many people try to avoid arrangements that sound like the way things were being done 20 or 30 years ago, and I tend to not really think about anything but what I like, what I think sounds good. It’s not about taking you to 1984 or taking you to right now, it’s about taking you into your own little world. The little world of that particular song, for just three minutes.”

Reticence to talk up LA in the Bay Area press aside, Davenport will allow that one of his major influences was his newly adopted city.

“It’s definitely an LA album,” he says, noting that about two-thirds of the record was written there, and it was recorded in Alhambra, near East LA. “I think the constant sunlight breeds a kind of optimism in people. Then there’s the scenery, the palm trees, the long crazy streets. The taco trucks. Where I live, the majority of people are Latino. It’s just a different mix.” Angeleno bassist Jessica Espeleto telling him she’d play in his band if he moved down south was one thing he had in mind, as well, before making the leap.

And yet: There’s no place like home? “The entire Bay Area has great venues,” says Davenport, as we discuss the new crop of venues that have sprung up in the East Bay over the last few years. “And yeah, especially with the musicians getting priced out of San Francisco, I think it’s great that there’s the whole East Bay for them to go to. Really, thank God for Oakland.”

Amen.

BART DAVENPORT

With The Blank Tapes, B. Hamilton, many others

Mission Creek Oakland Music & Arts Festival Block Party

Sat/6, noon-8pm, free (fest runs through Sept. 13)

25th Street at Telegraph, Oakl.

www.mcofest.org

Flynn and out

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM For years Errol Flynn was considered the definition of a born movie star — as opposed to being a born actor. The definitive Robin Hood, he was athletic, debonair, good-humored, and terribly good-looking in a two-decade career of mostly formulaic action and adventure films. Few were under the illusion that he deserved better material. Indeed, he became something of a joke, first for the limitations of his acting, then for movies where he seemed to be winning World War II single-handedly, and at last for being an alcoholic has-been who chased every skirt in town.

When he died of a heart attack in 1959 at age 50, the floodgates of scandal opened wide. It was revealed that his lover of recent years had been underage, and the press suggested she’d been pimped to him by a monster “stage mother.” The posthumous publication of Flynn’s autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways — shockingly frank by the standards of the time — only heightened an overly-well-lived life’s lurid afterglow.

That somewhat pathetic final chapter is dramatized in the latest by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, the directorial team who made the nearly perfect indie Quinceañera (2006). But The Last of Robin Hood turns out to be one of those movies that should be great, given the material and talent on tap, but instead falls flat for nearly intangible reasons. Bad movies are easy to dissect; it’s harder to suss why an almost-good one just misses the mark.

The restless son of a respectable family in Hobart, Tasmania, Flynn globe-trotted doing odd jobs until his looks and vivacity inevitably drew him into acting. He landed at Warner Brothers in 1935, and last-minute replacement casting as swashbuckling Captain Blood that year got him abruptly promoted to stardom. He was pretty terrible — but also a sexy beast who clicked onscreen with subsequently-recurrent co-star Olivia de Havilland. Less of a fan was Bette Davis, with whom he acted twice in period romances. But even that tough broad considered him “utterly enchanting” despite mutual antipathy. Flynn flourished in a series of Westerns, war movies, and exotic adventures, until audiences tired of his ever-more routine exploits — and the highly public roué reputation that ballasted them offscreen. In 1941 he was acquitted of statutory rape, but public opinion judged differently.

At the end of his drug- and drink-addled tether some 15 years later, Flynn met aspiring dancer-singer-actor Beverly Aadland. According to this film’s version of events, he’d already seduced her before realizing that she was actually just a very precocious 15-year-old — carefully groomed to look older (and given a fake birth certificate) by Florence Aadland, a onetime dancer who projected her own ambitions on her daughter. Instead of backing away, however, he carried on their affair, providing a cover for his “protégée’s” constant companionship by making sure Mom was along as public chaperone.

When Susan Sarandon’s Mrs. Aadland realizes that in private their relationship is hardly innocent, she’s furious. But she’s vain and flattered enough to fall for the star’s charm offensive — no matter that no one aside from these two think Beverly has any real talent. The only role of note she ever played was in 1959’s Cuban Rebel Girls, the almost unwatchably bad cheapie that constituted Flynn’s final screen appearance and was released just after his death. It’s a ludicrous film, but she doesn’t exactly rise above the material.

Nonetheless, Flynn (Kevin Kline) and the junior Aadland (Dakota Fanning) are, as portrayed here, tied together by something more than mutual exploitation. It may not be true love, but it’s as close as a relationship between a rapidly aging sex maniac and a teen eager to get out from under mom’s thumb can be.

Kline is a resourceful actor whose characterization is ingenious and layered. But it still falls into that category of celebrity impersonation, which always feels a bit like a clever stunt. He’s somewhat upstaged by Sarandon, who gobbles up the spotlight here as if this were The Florence Aadland Story. Given one of her more substantial roles of late, Sarandon revels in being a bit frumpy, grasping, and middlebrow; she’s a classic Hollywood type, the perpetual margin-dweller still capable of being dazzled by proximity to a star. To the extent that it works, The Last of Robin Hood does so largely because Sarandon nails the comedy and pathos of terminal celebrity aspiration.

The extent that it doesn’t can at least partly be blamed on Fanning, a limited child actor turned limited young-adult one. Though she just turned in an solid performance in Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, here she’s back in her usual mode of dully earnest empathy for a character that (like her Cherie Currie in 2010’s The Runaways) could/should have had considerably more depth. The precocious poise the real Aadland exhibits singing “All Shook Up” for Groucho Marx on TV’s You Bet Your Life (a clip preserved on YouTube) is more than sallow Fanning’s victimized take can manage. Despite all canny costuming here, she never suggests an allure that might have lastingly turned the head of a man who could have any starlet or fangirl he chose.

The Last of Robin Hood also feels constrained budget-wise — perhaps financing woes explain why it took the co-directors so long to follow up the well-received Quinceañera — and while you can get the heady mixture of glamour, melancholy, barbed humor, and romance that the writer-directors were going for, it always falls a little short. As with so many Hollywood biopics, a great real-life story feels diminished onscreen, the legend still more potent than the dramatized re-creation. *

 

THE LAST OF ROBIN HOOD opens Fri/5 in Bay Area theaters.

High fly

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM Nothing has elevated the sports documentary more than ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, which engages filmmakers (including the A-list likes of Steve James, Barbara Kopple, and Alex Gibney) to bring moments of sports history into tight focus. Subjects include single incidents that had great cultural impact (Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement); lesser-known stories worthy of attention (the decades-old murder of a high-school basketball star); rivalries that have only gotten more fascinating in the intervening years (Nancy vs. Tonya); and character portraits (George Steinbrenner, Bo Jackson, Marion Jones).

No matter the filmmaking approach, the “30 by 30” films all engage, thanks to their human-interest elements. The wide world of sports stardom and infamy is populated with oversized, theatrical, glorious, or tragic characters, be they Olympians, comeback kids, or grabby fans who interfere with World Series games. No No: A Dockumentary isn’t part of the ESPN film stable, but it fits right in with the “30 for 30” aesthetic, with a subject whose charisma is undeniable even in 40-year-old game footage.

First things first: Was Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis high on LSD when he threw his no-hitter June 12, 1970? We may never know for sure. And we may openly debate it, while secretly hoping it’s true. But as No No aims to make clear, that exploit — flabbergastingly insane though it was — hardly sums up Ellis’ entire life and career.

Jeff Radice’s film, bolstered by a funky score from Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, strives to be a well-rounded portrait beyond Ellis’ rep as “the acid guy.” Ellis proves an unguarded, honest subject in audio and video interviews recorded prior to his 2008 death. Also eager to reminisce are scores of friends, family members, and former teammates, who trade Ellis anecdotes with affection (“He always started shit,” chuckles a childhood friend). Later, recalling a game in which Ellis deliberately tried to hit members of the Cincinnati Reds when they stepped up to bat, a member of the Pirates organization shrugs, “That was Dock bein’ Dock.”

His contentious behavior on the field — which, especially later in his career, spilled over into dustups with managers and owners — rarely extended to his teammates, with whom he shared deep bonds, particularly the 1971 Pirates team that won the World Series. That same year, the organization started Major League Baseball’s first all-minority lineup, with Ellis as pitcher. His antics were usually motivated in the service of a greater cause — “He took stands,” a teammate remembers — even if the execution was a tad flamboyant. Famously, he once wore curlers on the field to draw attention to racism in the league. He was also a master of media manipulation, and cultivated an aura of danger that made him a favorite of sportswriters, evidenced by the dozens of Ellis-centric headlines shown throughout the film.

In the 1970s, his rise to pop-culture prominence, a new concept in sports at the time, coincided with the mainstreaming of African American culture, which Ellis easily embraced. (His fashion-plate tendencies were legendary.) Footage of Black Panther rallies also contextualizes the mood of Ellis’ generation, which he exemplified by refusing to put up with the institutional bullshit that earlier African American players had suffered through. Jackie Robinson took note, and wrote a letter to Ellis praising the younger man’s “courage and honesty.” In one of No No‘s most moving moments, Ellis pauses while reading the words aloud, too choked up to continue.

Of course, the film also delves into Ellis’ rampant drug and alcohol abuse. It’s frankly incredible that he was able to function as a professional ballplayer for so long, since he operated under the directive “Anything that got me high, I would do it.” But No No points out that practically everyone in baseball was, at the very least, using stimulants, or “greenies,” in those days. (The Pirates’ trainer during the Ellis’ era remembers wearily telling the guys, “If you use ’em, don’t do it in front of me.”) Who needs steroids when you can pop dozens of uppers, or snort a few lines, before every game?

The Pirates’ clubhouse parties were notorious, though that World Series win suggests athletic performance didn’t suffer. But as every “30 for 30” (or Behind the Music, for that matter) devotee knows, every tale of addiction eventually turns dark. Ellis physically attacked at least two of his wives, who recall him mostly fondly even as they share their firsthand accounts of his cruel temper (his other two wives don’t appear in the film). Eventually, his game began to falter, and after one last stint at the Pirates after years playing for the Yankees and other teams, he retired.

No No‘s last act focuses on Ellis’ wholehearted acceptance of sobriety; with characteristic enthusiasm, he channeled his rock-star magnetism into working as a drug counselor for both MLB players as well as juvenile offenders. It’s a happy ending of sorts, though his vices — he died of cirrhosis — certainly hastened the end of his life.

But back to the LSD tale, so rich it continues to spread 44 years after the fact (and 30 years since he admitted to it). It inspired a lengthy recent Deadspin article, which hinted at an in-the-works feature film titled Ellis, D. (get it?); there’s also an imaginative YouTube short that animates Ellis’ narration of the story (“I was high as a Georgia pine”). He was an ace athlete, an addict, and a crusader for civil rights — and now he’s remembered as a folk hero. What a trip. *

 

NO NO: A DOCKUMENTARY opens Fri/5 at the Roxie.

Get to work

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EDITORIAL The San Francisco Board of Supervisors returned to work this week after a month-long summer recess. While it may be too much to expect the supervisors to seriously tackle the many pressing issues facing this city during the fall election season, that’s exactly what needs to happen.

The city has been cruising along on auto-pilot, propelled by inertia more than any coherent political leadership, its elected leaders content to throw political platitudes and miniscule policy remedies at huge problems that are fundamentally changing the city.

While the eastside of the city is being rapidly transformed by rampant development, with no real plan for the displacement and gentrification that it’s causing, the westside still has suburban levels of density and no plan for shouldering its share of this city’s growth pressures. It’s good to see Sup. Katy Tang take a small step toward addressing the problem with her recently introduced Sunset District Blueprint, which seeks to build up to 1,000 new homes there over the next 10 years, that conceptual framework will require political will and more concrete goals to become reality.

To serve the density that westside residents are going to have to accept, the city and its Transportation Authority also must fast-track the Geary Bus Rapid Transit program that has languished for far too long. And the city’s “Complete Streets” and “Vision Zero” transportation reforms need to become more than just slogans, instead backed by the funding and commitment they need to become reality.

Similarly, there’s no reason why the Mayor’s Office, Planning Department, and pro-growth supervisors should be waiting for voters to act on Proposition K, the watered-down housing advisory measure, before they create a plan for implementing Mayor Ed Lee’s long-stated goal of building 30,000 new housing units, more than 30 percent of them affordable. That should have already happened before the promise was made.

This week, while the Board of Supervisors was slated to approve master lease agreements with the US Navy to develop Treasure Island, the city still isn’t seriously addressing concerns about radioactive contamination on the island or the project’s half-baked transportation plan.

Another important issue facing this compassionate city is how to provide legal representation for the waves of child refugees from Central America facing deportation in immigrations courts here in San Francisco. Board President David Chiu proposed a $100,000 allocation for such legal representation, which is a joke, and the board should instead approve the something closer to the $1.2 million commitment that Sup. David Campos has proposed.

We could go on and on (for example, when will Airbnb make good on its past-due promise to pay city hotel taxes?), but the point is: Get to work!

 

Nuclear shakeup

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It was more than six years ago that Jeanne Hardebeck, a seismologist at the US Geological Survey’s Menlo Park Earthquake Science Center, started to zero in on a pattern. “I was looking at small earthquakes,” she explained. “I noticed them lining up.”

 

She and other earthquake scientists also detected an anomaly in the alignment of the earth’s magnetic field off the California coastline, near San Luis Obispo. It all added up to the discovery of an offshore fault line.

What made Hardebeck’s discovery truly startling was that the sea floor fracture, now known as the Shoreline Fault, lies just about 300 meters from Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, California’s last operational nuclear power plant. In the general vicinity of the facility, which is owned and operated by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., there are also three other fault lines.

These discoveries have raised safety concerns and fed arguments by activists who want the Diablo Canyon reactors shut down, at least until the danger can be properly assessed.

When the final construction permits for Diablo Canyon were issued more than 45 years ago, engineers assumed a lower seismic risk. PG&E’s federal operating license to run Diablo Canyon is based on those assumptions. But the new information suggests that the ground is capable of shaking a great deal more in the event of a major earthquake than previously understood — leaving open the possibility that a temblor could spark sudden and disastrous equipment failure at Diablo Canyon.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency charged with overseeing the safety of nuclear facilities, has determined that the plant’s continued operation is safe. But Michael Peck, a senior NRC staff member, recommended that the reactors be shut down until a safety analysis could prove that the plant would successfully withstand a major earthquake. In the time since Peck began to sound the alarm about the potential seismic hazard, he’s been transferred from Diablo Canyon to a NRC training facility in Chattanooga, Tenn.

As The Associated Press reported on Aug. 25, Peck, who served as a resident on-site safety inspector at Diablo Canyon for half a decade as part of his 33-year career with the NRC, called for the plant to be temporarily shut down in a Differing Professional Opinion (DPO) filed in June 2013. Such a filing signifies a formal challenge to an agency position, and the NRC standard is to rule on these findings within 120 days.

More than a year later, however, Peck’s findings still haven’t been addressed. Since the DPO is technically classified — someone leaked it, and Peck says he wasn’t the source —the NRC hasn’t even publicly acknowledged its existence. The NRC did not return calls seeking comment.

Meanwhile, the Bay Guardian has learned that the NRC’s actions go beyond just foot-dragging on addressing Peck’s findings. Following a series of exchanges in the years since the discovery of the Shoreline Fault, PG&E filed a request to the NRC for its license to be amended so that it could continue operating Diablo Canyon in spite of the outmoded design specifications. As part of its request, the company performed its own studies concluding that the continued operation of the plant was safe in light of the new seismic information.

Yet the NRC technical staff rejected PG&E’s proposed methodology for analyzing the earthquake safety risk. Rather than amend the license, the NRC asked PG&E to withdraw its request. Despite this formal response, in a letter dated Oct. 12, 2012, an NRC project manager quietly gave PG&E the green light to update its own safety analysis report to incorporate the new seismic information, effectively allowing for the amendment without jumping through the hoops of the formal license amendment process.

“It appears that the licensing manager basically worked around the process,” Peck told us. Asked why he thought something like that might happen, he said, “I think there’s a prevailing viewpoint that … the plant is robust, and that even though it doesn’t meet its license requirements, it’s safe.” Nevertheless, “when our technical reviewers did a detailed review of the actual methodology, they said, we can’t approve it. It’s beyond what we can approve. I think that surprised a lot of people.”

Peck explained that the safety evaluations assess whether power plant equipment can be expected to remain “operable” in the event of an earthquake, in accordance with the agency’s technical standards. “In my opinion, their evaluation didn’t meet the standard,” he said.

That’s what prompted him to file two objections to the NRC’s decision to continue operating the facility despite the looming safety concerns. Peck stressed that he could not discuss the DPO, since it’s not a public document, but did speak about the concerns he raised in his first objection, which is publically available.

Peck emphasized that while he wasn’t saying outright that Diablo Canyon is unsafe, having the safety concerns out there as an unresolved question is unacceptable.

“How much will the plant shake? There’s not a clear consensus,” he told us.

When he performed his own analysis, concluding that PG&E’s evaluation wasn’t adequate, he based his assumptions on PG&E’s seismic calculations. Even by those numbers, which aren’t universally accepted, the peak ground acceleration in the event of an earthquake is “almost double” what PG&E’s operability standard is based on. PG&E did not return calls seeking comment.

Hardebeck, the seismologist, said that while the engineering questions are a point of contention, there’s little dispute about the earthquake science. “An earthquake on any one of these faults is very rare,” Hardebeck noted. The Shoreline Fault, for example, has an expected probability of rupturing in a major earthquake — of magnitude 6.5 or 6.7 — once every 10,000 years.

However, the existence of numerous fault lines in proximity means that if one ruptured, more earthquakes could be triggered along the other fault lines.

“It was only in the 1970s that some geologist found the Hosgri Fault — which turns out to be the biggest fault in the region,” Hardebeck said. “The Shoreline is sort of a little strand of the Hosgri Fault,” she added.

Seismologists predict that the Hosgri Fault could trigger a large earthquake, up to magnitude 7.5, once every 1,000 years. Also near Diablo Canyon are the Los Osos and San LuisBay faults, which Hardebeck said aren’t as well-understood by seismologists but could potentially rupture and cause earthquakes of a 6.5 magnitude.

Dave Lochbaum, who worked at the NRC prior to his current position at the Union of Concerned Scientists, provided some perspective by pointing out that nobody had expected the natural disaster that triggered the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan in March 2011.

“For context, the odds of a tsunami wave exceeding the protecting sea wall was one in 3,480 years,” he noted. “You’re in the same ballpark.”

Lochbaum said the Union of Concerned Scientists agreed with Peck’s analysis on Diablo Canyon. “He believes in nuclear power,” Lochbaum pointed out. “He’s not trying to say this plant can never split another atom. This plant is outside those rules and it needs to be fixed. … Technically, the plant has no legal basis for operating.”

The day after the AP article was published, the environmental nonprofit organization Friends of the Earth filed a 92-page petition with the NRC, calling for the Diablo Canyon to be shut down.

“Since Diablo is not operating within its licensing basis, as Peck asserted, the plant must suspend operations while the NRC considers a license amendment,” its petition states.

Yet by subverting the formal license amendment, as NRC public records show, the regulatory agency effectively skipped over a public process with an adjudicatory hearing that would have allowed concerned citizens to weigh in.

In the days following the AP report, US Sen. Barbara Boxer said she would submit a hearing request at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to ask the NRC about the matter. But aside from the checks and balances provided by the Senate and congressional oversight committees, the NRC is “the only game in town” when it comes to determining whether Diablo Canyon should continue operating or be shut down, said Lochbaum, who worked as a nuclear engineer for 17 years.

In a blog posted on the Union of Concerned Scientists website, Lochbaum said he had researched the history of how the NRC had treated similar situations.

“In all prior cases, I found that the NRC did not allow nuclear facilities to operate with similar unresolved earthquake protection issues,” he wrote. “For example, in March 1979 —two weeks prior to the Three Mile Island accident — the NRC ordered a handful of nuclear power reactors to shut down and remain shut down until earthquake analysis and protection concerns were corrected. Thus, Dr. Peck’s findings are irrefutable and his conclusion consistent with nearly four decades of precedents. What is not clear is why DiabloCanyon continues to operate with inadequately evaluated protection against known earthquake hazards.”

 

 

Tom’s legacy

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steve@sfbg.com

At a moment when San Francisco politics has slid toward the slippery center — when one-time progressives align with business elites, the political rhetoric seems hollow, and the vaunted value of “civility” in City Hall increasingly looks more like a deceptive power grab by the Mayor’s Office — it feels so refreshing to talk with Tom Ammiano.

For one thing, he’s hilarious, always quick with quips that are not only funny, but often funny in insightful ways that distill complex issues down to their essence, delivered with his distinctive nasally honk and lightning timing. Ammiano developed as a stand-up comedian and political leader simultaneously, and the two professional sides feed off each other, alternatively manifesting in disarming mirth or penetrating bite.

But his humor isn’t the main reason why Ammiano — a 72-year-old state legislator, two-time mayoral candidate, and former supervisor and school board member — has become such a beloved figure on the left of state and local politics, or why so many progressives are sad to see him leaving the California Assembly and elected office this year for the first time since 1990.

No, perhaps the biggest reason why public esteem for Ammiano has been strong and rising — particularly among progressives, but also among those of all ideological stripes who decry the closed-door dealmaking that dominates City Hall and the State Capitol these days — is his political integrity and courage. Everyone knows where Tom Ammiano will stand on almost any issue: with the powerless over the powerful.

“Don’t make it about yourself, make it about what you believe in,” Ammiano told us, describing his approach to politics and his advice to up-and-coming politicians.

Ammiano’s positions derive from his progressive political values, which were informed by his working class upbringing, first-hand observations of the limits of American militarism, publicly coming out as a gay teacher at time when that was a risky decision, standing with immigrants and women at important political moments, and steadily enduring well-funded attacks as he created some of San Francisco’s most defining and enduring political reforms, from domestic partner benefits and key political reforms to universal health care.

“He has been able to remain true to his values and principles of the progressive movement while making significant legislative accomplishments happen on a number of fronts,” Sup. David Campos, who replaced Ammiano on the Board of Supervisors and is now his chosen successor in the California Assembly, told the Guardian. “I don’t know that we’ve fully understood the scope of his influence. He has influenced the city more than most San Francisco mayors have.”

So, as we enter the traditional start of fall election season — with its strangely uncontested supervisorial races and only a few significant ballot measures, thanks to insider political manipulations — the Guardian spent some time with Ammiano in San Francisco and in Sacramento, talking about his life and legacy and what can be done to revive the city’s progressive spirit.

 

 

LIFE OF THE CAPITOL

Aug. 20 was a pretty typical day in the State Capitol, perhaps a bit more relaxed than usual given that most of the agenda was concurrence votes by the full Senate and Assembly on bills they had already approved once before being amended by the other house.

Still, lobbyists packed the hall outside the Assembly Chambers, hoping to exert some last minute influence before the legislative session ended (most don’t bother with Ammiano, whose name is on a short list, posted in the hall by the Assembly Sergeant-at-Arms, of legislators who don’t accept business cards from lobbyists).

One of the bills up for approval that day was Ammiano’s Assembly Bill 2344, the Modern Family Act, which in many ways signals how far California has come since the mid-’70s, when Ammiano was an openly gay schoolteacher and progressive political activist working with then-Sup. Harvey Milk to defeat the homophobic Briggs Initiative.

The Modern Family Act updates and clarifies the laws governing same-sex married couples and domestic partners who adopt children or use surrogates, standardizing the rights and responsibilities of all parties involved. “With a few simple changes, we can help families thrive without needless legal battles or expensive court actions,” Ammiano said in a press statement publicizing the bill.

Ammiano arrived in his office around 10am, an hour before the session began, carrying a large plaque commending him for his legislative service, given to outgoing legislators during a breakfast program. “Something else I don’t need,” Ammiano said, setting the plaque down on a table in his wood-paneled office. “I wonder if there’s a black market for this shit.”

Before going over the day’s legislative agenda, Ammiano chatted with his Press Secretary Carlos Alcala about an editorial in that morning’s San Francisco Chronicle, “Abuse of disabled-parking program demands legislators act,” which criticized Ammiano for seeking minor changes in a city plan to start charging for disabled placards before he would sponsor legislation to implement it. The editorial even snidely linked Ammiano to disgraced Sen. Leland Yee, who is suspended and has nothing to do with the issue.

“I’ve had these tussles with the Chronicle from day one. They just want people to be angry with me,” Ammiano told us. “You stand up for anything progressive and they treat you like a piñata.”

He thought the criticism was ridiculous — telling Alcala, “If we do a response letter, using the words puerile and immature would be good” — and that it has as much to do with denigrating Ammiano, and thus Campos and other progressives, as the issue at hand.

“Anything that gets people mad at me hurts him,” Ammiano told us.

But it’s awfully hard to be mad at Tom Ammiano. Even those on the opposite side of the political fence from him and who clash with him on the issues or who have been subjected to his caustic barbs grudgingly admit a respect and admiration for Ammiano, even Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who told the Guardian as much when we ran into him on the streets of Sacramento later that day.

Ammiano says he rarely gets rattled by his critics, or even the handful of death threats that he’s received over the years, including the one that led the San Francisco Police Department to place a protective detail on him during the 1999 mayor’s race.

“You are buoyed by what you do, and that compensates for other feelings you have,” Ammiano said of safety concerns.

Finally ready to prepare for the day’s business, he shouts for his aides in the other room (“the New York intercom,” he quips). The first question is whether he’s going to support a bill sponsored by PG&E’s union to increase incentives for geothermal projects in the state, a jobs bill that most environmental groups opposed.

“That is a terrible bill, it’s total shit, and I’m not going to support it,” Ammiano tells his aide. “It’s a scam.”

As Ammiano continued to prepare for the day’s session, we headed down to the Assembly floor to get ready to cover the action, escorted by Alcala. We asked what he planned to do after Ammiano leaves Sacramento, and Alcala told us that he’ll look at working for another legislator, “but there would probably be a lot more compromises.”

 

 

SPARKING CHANGE

Compromises are part of politics, but Ammiano has shown that the best legislative deals come without compromising one’s political principles. Indeed, some of his most significant accomplishments have involved sticking to his guns and quietly waiting out his critics.

For all the brassy charm of this big personality — who else could publicly confront then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at a Democratic Party fundraiser in 2009 and tell him to “kiss my gay ass!” — Ammiano has usually done the work in a way that wasn’t showy or self-centered.

By championing the reinstatement of district supervisorial elections and waging an improbable but electrifying write-in campaign for mayor in 1999 (finishing second before losing to incumbent Willie Brown in the runoff election), Ammiano set the stage for progressives to finally win control of the Board of Supervisors in 2000 and keep it for the next eight years, forming an effective counterbalance to Gavin Newsom’s pro-business mayoralty.

“I just did it through intuition,” Ammiano said of his 1999 mayoral run, when he jumped into the race just two weeks before election day. “There was a lot of electricity.”

After he made the runoff, Brown and his allies worked aggressively to keep power, leaning on potential Ammiano supporters, calling on then-President Bill Clinton to campaign for Brown, and even having Jesse Jackson call Ammiano late one night asking him to drop out.

“That’s when we realized Willie really felt threatened by us,” Ammiano said, a fear that was well-founded given that Ammiano’s loss in the runoff election led directly into a slate of progressives elected to the Board of Supervisors the next year. “It was a pyrrhic victory for him because then the board changed.”

But Ammiano didn’t seize the spotlight in those heady years that followed, which often shone on the younger political upstarts in the progressive movement — particularly Chris Daly, Matt Gonzalez, and Aaron Peskin — who were more willing to aggressively wage rhetorical war against Newsom and his downtown constituents.

By the time the 2003 mayor’s race came, Ammiano’s mayoral campaign became eclipsed by Gonzalez jumping into the race at the last minute, a Green Party candidate whose outsider credentials contrasted sharply with Newsom’s insider inevitability, coming within 5 percentage points of winning.

“I just bounced back and we did a lot of good shit after that,” Ammiano said, noting how district elections were conducive to his approach to politics. “It helped the way I wanted to govern, with the focus on the neighborhoods instead of the boys downtown.”

Perhaps Ammiano’s greatest legislative victory as a supervisor was his Health Care Security Ordinance, which required employers in San Francisco to provide health coverage for their employees and created the Healthy San Francisco program to help deliver affordable care to all San Franciscans.

The business community went ballistic when Ammiano proposed the measure in 2006, waging an aggressive lobbying and legal campaign to thwart the ordinance. But Ammiano just quietly took the heat, refused to compromise, and steadily lined up support from labor, public health officials, and other groups that were key to its passage.

“Maybe the early days of being a pinata inured me,” Ammiano said of his ability to withstand the onslaught from the business community for so long, recalling that in his 1999 school board race, “I really became a pinata. I got it in the morning from the Chronicle and in the afternoon from the Examiner.”

Ammiano kept Newsom apprised of his intentions and resolve, resisting entreaties to water down the legislation. “I kept talking to him and I told him I was going to do it,” Ammiano said. “Eventually, we got a 11 to zip vote and Newsom couldn’t do anything about it. That was a great journey.”

In the end, Newsom not only supported the measure, but he tried to claim Ammiano’s victory as his own, citing the vague promise he had made in his 2007 State of the City speech to try to provide universal health care in the city and his willingness to fund the program in his 2007-08 budget.

But Ammiano was happy with the policy victory and didn’t quibble publicly with Newsom about credit. “I picked my battles,” Ammiano said, contrasting his approach to Newsom with that of his more fiery progressive colleagues. “I tried to go after him on policy, not personality.”

Ammiano isn’t happy with the political turn that San Francisco has taken since he headed to Sacramento, with the pro-business, fiscally conservative faction of the city controlling the Mayor’s Office and exerting a big influence on the Board of Supervisors. But San Francisco’s elder statesman takes the long view. “Today, the board has a moderate trajectory that can be annoying, but I think it’s temporary,” Ammiano said. “These things are cyclical.”

He acknowledges that things can seem to a little bleak to progressives right now: “They’re feeling somewhat marginalized, but I don’t think it’s going to stay that way.”

 

FLOOR SHOW

Back on the Assembly floor, Ammiano was working the room, hamming it up with legislative colleagues and being the first of many legislators to rub elbows and get photos taken with visiting celebrities Carl Weathers, Daniel Stern, and Ron Perlman, who were there to support film-credit legislation

“Ron Perlman, wow, Sons of Anarchy,” Ammiano told us afterward, relating his conversation with Perlman. “I said, ‘They killed you, but you live on Netflix.’ I told him I was big fan. Even the progressives come here for the tax breaks.”

When Little Hoover Commission Chair Pedro Nava, who used to represent Santa Barbara in the Assembly, stopped to pose with Ammiano for the Guardian’s photographer, the famously liberal Ammiano quipped, “You’ll get him in trouble in Santa Barbara. Drill, baby, drill!”

Ammiano chairs the Assembly Public Safety Committee, where he has successfully pushed prison reform legislation and helped derail the worst tough-on-crime bills pushed by conservatives. “We have a lot of fun, and we get a chance to talk about all these bills that come before us,” Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, told the Guardian when asked about Ammiano. “You can see how these bad bills get less bad.”

Ammiano gave a short speech when his Modern Family Act came up for a vote, noting that it “simplifies the law around these procedures,” before the Assembly voted 57-2 to send it to the governor’s desk, where he has until Sept. 30 to act on it. “I think he’ll sign it,” Ammiano told the Guardian, “even though it’s about reproduction and naughty bits.”

“He’s a hoot,” Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) said of Ammiano, whose desk is right behind his own. Jones-Sawyer said that he’d love to see Ammiano run for mayor of San Francisco, “but he’s waiting for a groundswell of support. Hopefully the progressives come together.”

Jones-Sawyer said Ammiano plays an important role as the conscience of a Legislature that too often caters to established interests.

“There’s liberal, progressive, socialist, communist, and then there’s Tom,” Jones said. “As far left as you can go, there’s Tom, and that’s what we’re going to miss.”

Yet despite that strong progressive reputation, Ammiano has also been an amazingly effective legislator (something that might surprise those supporting the campaign of David Chiu, which has repeatedly claimed that ideological progressives like Ammiano and Campos can’t “get things done” in Sacramento).

Last year, Ammiano got 13 bills through the Legislature — including three hugely controversial ones: the TRUST Act, which curbs local cooperation with federal immigration holds; the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights; and a bill protecting transgender student rights in schools, which was savaged by conservative religious groups — all of which were signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown.

“A lot of it is personal relationships, some is timing, and some is just sticking to it,” Ammiano said of effectiveness.

Some of his legislative accomplishments have required multiyear efforts, such as the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which was vetoed in 2012 before being signed into law last year with only a few significant changes (see “Do we care?” 3/26/13).

“Tom Ammiano was so incredible to work with,” Katie Joaquin, campaign coordinator for the California Domestic Workers Coalition, for whom the bill had long been a top priority, told the Guardian.

The large grassroots coalition backing the bill insisted on being a part of the decision-making as it evolved, which is not always easy to do in the fast-paced Capitol. But Joaquin said Ammiano’s history of working with grassroots activists made him the perfect fit for the consensus-based coalition.

“That’s difficult to do in the legislative process, and working with Tom and his office made that possible,” Joaquin told us. “He wanted to make sure we had active participation in the field from a variety of people who were affected by this.”

When the bill was vetoed by Gov. Brown, who cited paternalistic concerns that better pay and working conditions could translate into fewer jobs for immigrant women who serve as domestic workers, Joaquin said Ammiano was as disappointed as the activists, but he didn’t give up.

“It was really hard. I genuinely felt Tom’s frustration. He was going through the same emotions we were, and it was great that he wanted to go through that with us again,” Joaquin told us. “Sometimes, your allies can get fatigued with the long struggles, but Tom maintained his resolve and kept us going.”

And after it was over, Ammiano even organized the victory party for the coalition and celebrated the key role that activists and their organizing played in making California only the second state in the nation (after New York) to extend basic wage, hour, and working condition protections to nannies, maids, and other domestic workers excluded under federal law.

“He has a great sense of style,” Joaquin said of Ammiano, “and that emanates in how he carries himself.”

 

 

COMING OUT

Ammiano came to San Francisco in 1964, obtaining a master’s degree in special education from San Francisco State University and then going on to teach at Hawthorne Elementary (now known as Cesar Chavez Elementary). He quickly gained an appreciation for the complex array of issues facing the city, which would inform the evolution of his progressive worldview.

“In teaching itself, there were a lot of social justice issues,” Ammiano said. For example, most native Spanish-speakers at the time were simply dumped into special education classes because there wasn’t yet bilingual education in San Francisco schools. “So I turned to the community for help.”

The relationships that he developed in the immigrant community would later help as he worked on declaring San Francisco a sanctuary city as waves of Central American immigrants fled to California to escape US-sponsored proxy wars.

Growing up a Catholic working class kid in New Jersey, Ammiano was no hippie. But he was struck by the brewing war in Vietnam strongly enough that he volunteered to teach there through a Quaker program, International Volunteer Service, working in Saigon from 1966-68 and coming back with a strong aversion to US militarism.

“I came back from Vietnam a whole new person,” he told us. “I had a lot of political awakenings.”

He then worked with veterans injured during the war and began to gravitate toward leftist political groups in San Francisco, but he found that many still weren’t comfortable with his open homosexuality, an identity that he never sought to cover up or apologize for.

“I knew I was gay in utero,” Ammiano said. “I said you have to be comfortable with me being a gay, and it wasn’t easy for some. The left wasn’t that accepting.”

But that began to change in the early ’70s as labor and progressives started to find common cause with the LGBT community, mostly through organizations such as Bay Area Gay Liberation and the Gay Teachers Coalition, a group that Ammiano formed with Hank Wilson and Ron Lanza after Ammiano publicly came out as a gay teacher in 1975.

“He was the first public school teacher to acknowledge that he was a gay man, which was not as easy as it sounds in those days,” former Mayor Art Agnos told us, crediting Ammiano with helping make support for gay rights the default political position that it became in San Francisco.

San Francisco Unified School District still wasn’t supportive of gay teachers, Ammiano said, “So I ran for school board right after the assassinations [of Mayor George Moscone and Sup. Harvey Milk in 1978] and got my ass kicked.”

Shortly thereafter, Ammiano decided to get into stand-up comedy, encouraged by friends and allies who loved his sense of humor. Meanwhile, Ammiano was pushing for SFUSD to name a school after Milk, as it immediately did for Moscone, a quest that dragged on for seven years and which was a central plank in his unsuccessful 1988 run for the school board.

But Ammiano was developing as a public figure, buoyed by his stand-up performances (which he said Chronicle reporters would sometimes attend to gather off-color quotes to use against him in elections) and increased support from the maturing progressive and queer communities.

So when he ran again for school board in 1990, he finished in first place as part of the so-called “lavender sweep,” with LGBT candidates elected to judgeships and lesbians Carole Migden and Roberta Achtenberg elected to the Board of Supervisors.

On the school board, Ammiano helped bring SFUSD into the modern age, including spearheading programs dealing with AIDS education, support for gay students, distribution of condoms in the schools, and limiting recruiting in schools by the homophobic Boy Scouts of America.

“I found out we were paying them to recruit in the schools, but I can’t recruit?” Ammiano said, referencing the oft-raised concern at the time that gay teachers would recruit impressionable young people into homosexuality.

As his first term on the school board ended, a growing community of supporters urged Ammiano to run for the Board of Supervisors, then still a citywide election, and he was elected despite dealing with a devastating personal loss at the time.

“My partner died five days before the election,” Ammiano said as we talked at the bar in Soluna, tearing up at the memory and raising a toast with his gin-and-tonic to his late partner, Tim Curbo, who succumbed to a long struggle with AIDS.

Ammiano poured himself into his work as a supervisor, allied on the left at various points in the mid-late ’90s with Sups. Sue Bierman, Terrence Hallinan, Leland Yee, Mabel Teng, Angelo Alioto, and Carole Migden against the wily and all-powerful then-Mayor Brown, who Ammiano said “manipulated everything.”

But Ammiano gradually began to chip away at that power, often by turning directly to the people and using ballot measures to accomplish reforms such as laws regulating political consultants and campaign contributions and the reinstatement of district supervisorial elections, which decentralized power in the city.

“People frequently say about politicians, when they want to say something favorable, that they never forgot where they came from,” Agnos told us. “With Tom, he never forgot where he came from, and more importantly, he never forgot who he was…He was an authentic and a proud gay man, as proud as Harvey Milk ever was.”

And from that strong foundation of knowing himself, where he came from, and what he believed, Ammiano maintained the courage to stand on his convictions.

“It’s not just political integrity, it’s a reflection of the man himself,” Agnos said, praising Ammiano’s ability to always remain true to himself and let his politics flow from that. “A lot of politicians don’t have the courage, personal or political, to do that.”

 

 

WHAT’S NEXT

Ammiano’s legacy has been clearly established, even if it’s not always appreciated in a city enamored of the shiny and new, from recent arrivals who seem incurious about the city’s political history to the wave of neoliberal politicians who now hold sway in City Hall.

“Tom has carried on the legacy of Harvey Milk of being the movement progressive standard bearer. He has, more than anyone else, moved forward progressive politics in San Francisco in a way that goes beyond him as an individual,” Campos said, citing the return of district elections and his mentoring of young activists as examples. “He brought a number of people into politics that have been impactful in their own right.”

Campos is one of those individuals, endorsed by Ammiano to fill his District 9 seat on the Board of Supervisors from among a competitive field of established progressive candidates. Ammiano says he made the right choice.

“I have been supportive of him as a legislator and I think he’s doing the right things,” Ammiano said of Campos, adding an appreciation for the facts that he’s gay, an immigrant, and a solid progressive. “He’s a three-fer.”

Ammiano said that Campos has been a standout on the Board of Supervisors in recent years, diligently working to protect workers, tenants, and immigrants with successful efforts to increase tenant relocation fees after an eviction and an attempt to close the loophole that allows restaurants to pocket money they’re required to spend on employee health care, which was sabotaged by Chiu and Mayor Lee.

“I like his work ethic. He comes across as mild-mannered, but he’s a tiger,” Ammiano said of Campos. “If you like me, vote for David.”

But what about Ammiano’s own political future?

Ammiano said he’s been too busy lately to really think about what’s next for him (except romantically: Ammiano recently announced his wedding engagement to Carolis Deal, a longtime friend and lover). Ammiano is talking with universities and speakers bureaus about future gigs and he’s thinking about writing a book or doing a one-man show.

“Once I get that settled, I’ll look at the mayor’s race and [Sen. Mark] Leno’s seat,” Ammiano said, holding out hope that his political career will continue.

Ammiano said the city is desperately in need of some strong political leadership right now, something that he isn’t seeing from Mayor Lee, who has mostly been carrying out the agenda of the business leaders, developers, and power brokers who engineered his mayoral appointment in 2011.

“Basically, he’s an administrator and I don’t think he’ll ever be anything but that,” Ammiano said. “We are so fucking ready for a progressive mayor.”

If Ammiano were to become mayor — which seems like a longshot at this point — he says that he would use that position to decentralize power in San Francisco, letting the people and their representatives on the Board of Supervisors have a greater say in the direction of the city and making governance decisions more transparent.

“I don’t believe in a strong mayor [form of government],” Ammiano said. “If I was mayor, all the commission appointments would be shared.”

But before he would decide to run for mayor, Ammiano says that he would need to see a strong groundswell of public support for the values and ideals that he’s represented over nearly a half-century of public life in San Francisco.

“I don’t want to run to be a challenger,” Ammiano said. “I’d want to run to be mayor.”