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Editors Notes

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I was in upstate New York last weekend, flying low over farmlands and old industrial cities in one of those bumpy little "commuter" planes, then driving through small towns in areas that, I’ll say politely, have seen better economic days. And yet, everywhere I went, a landmark stood out: From the air and from the ground, the public schools seemed universally spacious and well maintained. They had nice baseball and football fields, all-weather tracks, and new playground equipment. I didn’t go inside, but I can tell you nonetheless that the schools in most of New York are way better than the schools in most of California.

And there’s a good reason for that.

My brother owns a house in Putnam Valley, a small town about two hours north of New York City. He bought it 15 years ago, for about $105,000, and while it has increased in value, it’s still assessed at way less than half of what I paid for my house in San Francisco. And yet he pays more property taxes than I do.

He’s a contractor, a small-business person, subject to the volatile whims of the home-building industry, and he’s trying to support two kids and save money for their college fund. He pays $5,000 a year in school taxes alone, and it’s a real burden.

But for that money, he gets to send his kids to public schools that are better than most $25,000-a-year private schools. He considers it a bargain.

In New York they spend about twice as much per student as we do in California. That money has to come from somewhere, and a lot of it comes from property taxes. This isn’t rocket science even people educated in California should be able to figure it out: You want good schools, you have to pay for them.

Then I came back and met with Steve Westly, the state controller and the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for governor. Westly loves to talk about education but he’s not even willing to commit to seeking changes in Proposition 13 that would allow for higher property taxes on commercial buildings to pay for the schools.

It’s this air of unreality we have in California. For 28 years, since the "tax revolt" movement was born in this state, politicians have pandered to the selfish among the voters (and that’s most of them, it seems) by saying they can have it all for free. We’ve been promised a beautiful state with lots of parkland, top-rate public schools and colleges, massive spending on cops and prisons, stable union jobs for public employees, abundant water for thriving agriculture, extensive resources to meet urban problems … and low taxes for all.

Let’s party.

Westly’s Democratic opponent, Phil Angelides, is at least honest: He promises the same sorts of things Westly does, but he admits that somebody will have to pay for them. He’s focusing on the wealthy, which is the right idea this is a rich state, and the millionaires have done quite well the past few years. But the rest of us will get hit a bit too, and I hate to say it, but we should.

Because the teachers don’t have to be underpaid, the roads don’t have to be crumbling, the parks don’t have to be overcrowded, the hospitals don’t need to be teetering on the edge of collapse. We can have high-speed rail to LA.

Taxes are a small sacrifice for the public good. My parents’ generation seemed to get that. California’s baby boomers apparently don’t. SFBG

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Editor’s Note

The Healthy Saturdays folks were out leafleting in Golden Gate Park this weekend, on a stunningly beautiful Sunday, along with thousands of other people enjoying the car-free sunshine. The message on the handouts: Call the mayor (554-7111); the supervisors have approved a plan to at least try extending the car ban to Saturday, and now it’s in the mayor’s court.

Which will be interesting, as Steven T. Jones reports on page 19, because Gavin Newsom thinks of himself as an environmentalist who is pro-bicycle and propublic transportation but the people who were a big part of his political base from day one are upper-crust de Young Museum types who, for their own selfish reasons, don’t want the roads in the park closed.

De Young Museum baroness Dede Wilsey and Ken Garcia, the San Francisco Examiner‘s resident crank, are the chief architects of the argument that the Saturday road closure is a bad idea. They’re pushing this God-and-the-flag line "let the voters decide" and claiming that since a similar plan lost at the ballot once, only a public referendum would be adequate authority for a rather simple land-use decision. Put it to the voters, they say; that’s fair, right?

Well, I’m not here to dis American democracy or anything, but there’s a little secret I want to share: Most elections aren’t fair. Anytime the size of the electorate is larger than about 40,000 voters (a typical San Francisco supervisorial district), you can’t effectively communicate your message without a big chunk of money and the larger the jurisdiction, the more money it takes.

Consider California.

There are three major candidates for governor, and all of them are wealthy people. But only two are truly, obscenely, stinking rich, with wealth in the $100 millionplus range, and they are, right now, the odds-on favorites to make the November final in large part because of their abilities to put personal wealth into the race. In other words, if you want to run for governor of California, being rich garden-variety rich isn’t nearly enough.

The same goes for San Francisco, on a different sort of scale. If citywide elections were fair, and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. didn’t have the ability to write a blank check every time an activist group tried to pass a public-power measure, San Francisco would have kicked out the private-power monopoly half a century ago. If citywide elections were fair, and Gavin Newsom didn’t have the ability to outspend Matt Gonzalez by a factor of about 6 to 1, the odds are at least even that Gonzalez would be mayor today.

That’s why Dede Wilsey and Ken Garcia, who both know better, are blowing some sort of smoke when they call for a "vote of the people."

But maybe we should call their bluff. How’s this for a deal:

The museum folks have plenty of money, so Wilsey can raise, say, $200,000. Then she can split it in half she gets $100,000, and the road-closure activists get $100,000. No outside, "independent" expenditures (they can control their side, and we can control ours), no tricks, no bullshit. Level playing field, fair election and let’s see who can walk more precincts and turn out more people on election day. That same model would work for all kinds of civic disputes.


PS: As an in-line skater with plenty of bruises to prove it, I have another suggestion: For even-more-healthy Saturdays, maybe they could resurface the roads. SFBG

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› tredmond@sfbg.com


I’ve been having mixed feelings about this Matt Gonzalez for Congress thing. I mean, I was one of the first people to start talking (more than a year ago) about how Gonzalez ought to challenge Nancy Pelosi: Despite all the accolades she gets as the first woman minority leader and potentially the first woman speaker of the house, Pelosi is a terrible politician. She’s venal, driven by campaign money, and has no real agenda except power. She’s the one who privatized the Presidio, potentially paving the way for the privatization of millions of acres of national parkland. And as the representative of one of the most liberal districts in the country, it took her forever to even sort of come out against the war.

My original thought was that Pelosi has never been held accountable for her actions, and a good solid challenge from the left would force her to come back and actually campaign. She’d have to face her constituents, answer some questions and possibly even move a bit in the direction of the district on some key issues.

Besides, it would send a lovely shock wave through the local Democratic Party, where a significant number of local leaders privately despise Pelosi, but would be pressured by the national heavies to endorse her. We could see who really has political courage in this town.

Of course, there’s a serious downside to all of this. Progressive San Francisco is in a somewhat precarious state right now: We have nobody who looks like a mayoral candidate, and the coalition that came together around the Gonzalez mayoral campaign was always fragile anyway. A major congressional campaign by the Greens right now with the battle to oust the Republicans from the House in full swing would create a lot of bitter feelings, and the fact that a guy was taking on a nationally prominent woman wouldn’t make it any better.

Still, there will always be those issues, and you can always argue that it’s not the right time to do something bold and dramatic, and the Green Party has as much right as anyone to run a strong candidate for Congress. A couple of months ago, I was still open to it.

And then it got to be April, and the filing deadline passed, and frankly, I didn’t get the sense Gonzalez was that eager. Now some of his allies are pushing him to mount a write-in campaign for the Green Party nomination and frankly, with all due respect, the whole thing has a sort of last-minute, half-assed look to it.

So I called Gonzalez this week to bat things around, and it turns out he’s in almost exactly the same place I am. You want to run for the US Congress against a nine-term incumbent, you have to start early, take it seriously, raise a bunch of money, deal with the problems head-on … and frankly, that’s not where we are right now. "If it was a year ago, I might be thinking different," Gonzalez told me.

So I think he’ll pass this time, and I think that’s right. But that’s not the end of the story. As he pointed out, if the Democrats do retake Congress, they’ll probably turn out to be a disappointment on about a hundred levels, and even more power will even further corrupt Pelosi. And if we start thinking about it early enough, 2008 could be a fine year. SFBG

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Editor’s notes

I used to say San Francisco politics was a contact sport, but these days I think it’s more of a steel-cage match, which is generally fine with me. I have no beef with blood sport, and most of us are consenting adults who chose of our own free will to participate in this high-stakes game. But even ugly fights have unwritten rules, and one of them is that you don’t make disparaging comments about people’s gender, race, or sexual orientation. It’s just not OK.

I mention this because there’s a pretty serious furor in the queer community over an attack by developer Joe O’Donoghue on transgender activist Robert Haaland.

Ol’ Joe, who also likes to think of himself as a poet, is fighting with Haaland over Proposition D, which would bar the city from sending some mentally ill people to Laguna Honda hospital (and would, as an aside, rezone lots of city-owned land for private nursing homes). Haaland works for the big city-employee union, Local 790, which is campaigning against Prop. D; O’Donoghue, who is a major backer of the measure, has decided to personalize the campaign. In a lyrical missive that’s been widely distributed, O’Donoghue refers to "our transfigured Robert" and (in the not-so-subtle cloak of biblical language) suggests that Haaland is a bitter and angry human being because he was born a woman. Another letter refers to Haaland as "Robbi" and threatens to donate to the Prop. D campaign the same amount of money as the city had to pay to Haaland to settle a transgender police-harassment case. It’s actually pretty vicious stuff.

Some queer leaders are arguing that there ought to be a city law banning political "hate speech," which is entirely the wrong approach: You can’t outlaw any kind of speech without bad First Amendment problems. But we all can, and should, tell O’Donoghue (whose political statements are getting increasingly mean-spirited and personal) that he’s crossed a very big line and that if he’s going to pull shit like this, he’s no longer welcome in local politics. The guy has a lot of campaign money to throw around, and it’s tempting even for folks on the left to take it. But every decent San Franciscan ought to tell him to take a hike.

Now this: I’ve enjoyed all the historical stuff in the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner about the 1906 earthquake, but everyone’s leaving out one of the best parts. It was the failure of the private Spring Valley Water Company to maintain its pipes that helped doom firefighting efforts and that was a big factor in the passage of the Raker Act, which gave the city a public water system. Of course, the Raker Act also required us to run a public power system, which (as I’ve probably mentioned a time or two) has been blocked by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. all these years.

And this: The axes are falling with fury over at the Village Voice, where longtime Washington bureau chief Jim Ridgeway one of the top alternative press reporters in the country was canned the first week in April, and writer Jennifer Gonnerman resigned. Sydney Schanberg, the Pulitzer Prizewinning media columnist, had already left, and the Bush Blog had been canceled. All of this drew the attention of Democracy Now, which did a lengthy report April 13. They even got me out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to join the East Coast discussion. Somehow, though, nobody from the Phoenix-based New Times crew that just bought the Voice was available for comment. Chickens. >SFBG

For a full transcript, go to www.sfbg.com.

San Francisco needs better candidates


The last time we had a major Democratic primary race for state assembly in San Francisco, you didn’t see a lot of head-shaking. In 2002 you were for Mark Leno or you were for Harry Britt, and either way you had very few doubts. Two strong candidates, two people who were eminently qualified to represent San Francisco in Sacramento, two people who had the credentials to be Democratic party leaders.

But I’ve talked to a lot of people about the June 6, 2006, race to fill the spot of Assemblymember Leland Yee, who is trying to move on to the state senate, and what I’m getting is: Gee, well, yeah. Gotta vote for somebody.

The thing is, Sup. Fiona Ma, the front-running candidate, has been absolutely horrible in office, a terrible vote on everything I care about. Her lukewarm supporters say she’d be a good liberal compared to most of the state legislators, and that may be true, but it’s hardly a ringing endorsement. Her opponent, Janet Reilly, is taking some excellent stands on issues, running hard to the left of Ma but she’s never held any elective office before, and, frankly, not that many people in San Francisco even know who she is. If she didn’t have a lot of money, she wouldn’t be much of a factor in this race.

Then you look slightly southward, at the race for state senate. The candidates: Yee, who has done almost nothing to distinguish himself in the state legislature, and Mike Nevin, a former San Francisco cop and San Mateo County supervisor. I don’t know a single person in the progressive San Francisco world who can get a bit excited about either of them.

San Francisco has got to start doing better.

Leno’s term will be up in two more years. I can think of a lot of great Democratic candidates (Tom Ammiano, Chris Daly, Robert Haaland), but we all ought to be thinking about it, now, the same way we need to be thinking about the next mayor of San Francisco and the next member of Congress. Otherwise we’ll have a lot of Fiona Mas and Bevan Duftys in our future.

Now this: Speaking of politicians who need to get out of the way, Leslie Katz, the chair of the local Democratic County Central Committee, recently pulled an act of world-class political sleaze. She opposes Sup. Chris Daly’s Proposition C, a measure that would force the mayor to serve on the Transbay Terminal board, but the committee wasn’t quite ready to take a stand. So March 22, shortly after noon, she filed an official no-on-Prop.C ballot argument on behalf of the San Francisco Democratic Party.

In other words, she decided on her own to file a legal document to appear in the ballot handbook committing the party to a position it hadn’t taken.

In the end the party did vote later to oppose Prop. C. But Katz sent a clear signal that she had the committee wired and wasn’t even going to wait for the formality of an actual vote. Nasty business. It sends the exact wrong signal about the local party. She ought to resign in disgrace.<\!s><z5><h110>SFBG<h$><z$>

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So let’s get this straight:

The lieutenant governor is running for insurance commissioner. The insurance commissioner is running for lieutenant governor. The former governor is running for attorney general. The attorney general is running for treasurer.

Round and round and round we spin. Talk about a clusterfuck.

There was a time, and it wasn’t all that long ago, when every single constitutional office in California was held by a Democrat. And it’s entirely possible that this fall — with the Republican president and Republican governor in political free fall — the Democrats will actually lose some top jobs in Sacramento.

Let me humbly suggest one reason why: We have a bunch of people running for office who really ought to find something else to do with their lives.

I’m not the only one who thinks this. If you talk to people who think about the future of the California Democratic Party — people who might actually play a role in it, say, 10 years from now — what you hear is this: Why are the same old names bouncing around like petrified Ping-Pong balls?

John Garamendi has been running for some office or other (including unsuccessfully for governor) for the past 20 years. He’s been insurance commissioner twice. Now, since he clearly can’t get the top job, he’s angling for number two.

Cruz Bustamante has virtually disappeared since he dared run in the recall election that brought Arnold Schwarzenegger to power. Perhaps he can slip into Garamendi’s post for a while, while he figures out what else to do. Bill Lockyer thought about running for governor but realized he wasn’t going to win, and although he’s not a terrible attorney general, he’s decided to run for treasurer, which makes no sense unless he’s waiting around to try another office at some point.

Jerry Brown was governor once, and after a period of self-imposed exile, he decided to run for president (of the United States), then mayor of Oakland. By the way, he’s a lawyer, so now he wants to be attorney general.

None of these people is evil, and the state could do worse — way worse — than electing any of them. But is anyone else getting the distinct feeling that we’re the party of, well, yesterday?

Just thought I’d ask.

One of my favorite political movies is Robocop, the 1987 Paul Verhoeven sci-fi film that is not generally considered a great social statement about anything. But when you pay attention (and watch it with the right, um, mind-set), Robocop is actually a story about privatization: Detroit has turned over its police force to the Omni Consumer Products Corporation, which decides to save money (for the company’s bottom line) by cutting staff and squeezing pay — to the point where there’s inadequate backup when our hero gets into a firefight with the bad guys and almost gets shot to bits. They revive him as a cyborg, and he tries to be an honest cop — but deep in his electronic DNA is a rule that he can’t arrest or harm any officer of the Omni Consumer Products Corporation.

I thought about that when I heard that the patrol specials — a crew of private armed civilians who wear uniforms and badges and walk the streets under a 19th-century tradition — was asking for expanded authority in San Francisco (see page 5). The message that the group recently sent to the Police Commission: Privatization is the wave of the future in urban law enforcement.

Yikes. *