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Tech Bubble 2.0


OPINION We all remember the first dot-com bubble, right? Web technology start-ups flocked to San Francisco in the late 1990s. Thousands of would-be entrepreneurs and techies filled up the city. Gentrification of Central City neighborhoods accelerated sharply. Apartment rents jumped, followed by the condo boom. Demand for commercial office space, especially South of Market, quickly grew red-hot. Rents zoomed, and office developers rushed dozens of proposed new projects forward.

The leaders of Mayor Willie Brown’s gutless Planning Department rubber-stamped all they could, and decried the annual limit imposed on their approvals by the 1986 community-activist-sponsored Proposition M ballot measure.

The activists and the mayor put two competing measures on the November 2000 ballot in response. Both lost, but the progressive slate for the Board of Supervisors swept that election, defeating most of the mayor’s candidates.

And then Tech Bubble 1.0 popped. The peak year was 2000. The big dot-com bust, 9/11, and finally the Great Recession all followed.

The city’s office market crashed. Some new office buildings were foreclosed by their lenders. Many approved office developments went unbuilt. Overall office market vacancies approached 20 percent by 2010.

Ah, but here we go again — Tech Bubble 2.0! A new wave of recent technology industry start-ups — like Twitter and Yelp — are joining the growing survivors of Bubble Number 1 — like Salesforce. And San Francisco has become a premiere national media venue for the tech industry.

Thousands of would-be entrepreneurs and techies are again filling up the city. Apartment rents are going through the roof. Gentrification of Central City neighborhoods is accelerating even faster. Demand for commercial office space, still in SoMa, is red-hot again.

But by 2011 so much vacant space was on the market, and so many approved buildings were waiting for anchor tenants to start construction, that there has been room for them all so far. Several new buildings got underway. Mayor Ed Lee strategically took advantage of this market boom to target economic expansion to the Central Market District, the last disinvested zone of San Francisco’s Downtown.

Even today though, city office vacancies still exceed 5 percent. And according to the most recent Planning Department report, more than a dozen already-approved new buildings, totaling more than 4.5 million square feet, are waiting to start construction in the Transbay Transit District, South of Market, and Mission Bay. Another 5 million feet of office space is proposed for more than a dozen more pipeline projects for those areas. Plus another 2.5 million feet is planned for projects on Port property — including the San Francisco Giant’s huge project — that are not even on the Planning Department’s list yet!

How does this total of 12 million square feet of pending new San Francisco office buildings compare to historic demand? Going back to 1986, the amount of new office space actually built — true long-term market demand through the boom/bust business cycles — averages out to about only 750,000 square feet a year. The city’s old-school corporate headquarters dramatically downsized or even moved out of San Francisco — like Chevron and Bank of America — and that’s still ongoing. The new tech industry is mostly replacing them. So these 30+ identifiable current projects would provide a 16-year supply of office space at historic rates.

But even in the face of this evident market glut of future office buildings, the usual civic development hypsters are once again muttering about gutting Proposition M, and radically upzoning Soma for even greater office expansion. Is that who City Hall will listen to this time too?

Bubble? What Bubble? [Pop!]

John Elberling is executive director of the Tenants and Owners Development Corporation.

The Pope’s political sins



OPINION I still remember when I was removed from solitary confinement into the general inmate population of Tres Alamos — one of the infamous concentration camps of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet -– and the special welcome given to us 30 or so freshly arrived detainees by the commander of the camp, Conrado Pacheco.

He was dressed in his best military attire. I will never forget the clattering of his black shiny boots, his watery eyes, his mouth salivating like a predator before a feast.

The bloody military rule was in full swing. It was the end of 1975, a time when one of the fiercest repressions was unleashed against the left, the supporters of the ousted Salvador Allende’s government — and the progressive wing of the Catholic church, lead mostly by Jesuit priests.

Next to me was a tall dirty man with a somber yet authoritative look behind his glasses. A bold lawyer who later became president of Amnesty International, Jose Zalaquett’s unclenched look made Conrado Pacheco uneasy. The curas buenos — the good priests Patricio Gajardo and US citizen Daniel Panchot — were also standing in the line.

The roughed up lawyer and priests were from the Comité Pro Paz. Created a few months after the military coup of 1973 the Committee for Peace was the only organization that, under the protection of a sector of the Catholic Church, was defending and giving sanctuary to the thousands of victims of human rights violations.

The welcoming speech of the commander waxed Nazi-like verbose about nationalism, order, communist evil, Che Guevara, and sarcastic references about God. “Mister lawyer here,” I remember him saying while looking at Zalaquett, “since he should be outside and not inside … I’m not sure what he can do to defend you all.” And pointing at the priests, the scoundrel said, “since we have two distinguished representatives of God, you all now know where to go in case you have some pending debts with the Lord, you all fucking sinners!”

All these memories flooded back to me when I learned about the ascent of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis I, and the stories dripping out of Argentina about his collusion with the military during the guerra sucia, dirty war.

Horacio Verbinsky, an Argentinean investigative journalist who has written extensively about the church and the military, wrote in his 1995 book, The Silence, that Bergoglio gave information to the Argentinean secret police about the activities of the Jesuit priests Francisco Jalics and Orlando Yorio, after they refused to stop working with the poor in Buenos Aires’ shanty towns. Bergoglio dropped their protection, a sort of immunity offered to the Jesuit society by the military, which eventually lead to their arrest. Both were brutally tortured and dumped drugged and naked on a wasteland.

Bergoglio also befriended General Emilio Massera, a member of the Argentinean military junta, who was later accused of crimes against humanity and of stealing the babies of disappeared political prisoners to be raised by military families.

Jalics, Yorio, and those two fathers I came to know in prison, Gajardo and Panchot, were among those priests who followed to the letter the teachings of Christ to protect the helpless, to feed and be with the needy and did not capitulate in silence.

The Vatican has recognized that Bergoglio asked “a request for forgiveness of the Church in Argentina for not having done enough at the time of the dictatorship …” But the statement, read by Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi March 15, falls short.

The Sumo Pontífice, the Pope Francis l, the one who will lead more than 1.1 billion people, must come clean and respond to all the testimony that is fogging his character. He must side with truth and justice; the only door that can lead us to reconciliation. After all, forgiveness, after the truth comes out, has always been an option in the Catholic Church.

Fernando Andrés Torres is a San Francisco writer

The real CPMC story


OPINION The recently announced terms for the development of California Pacific Medical Center’s hospitals at Cathedral Hill and St. Luke’s generated front-page and lead stories in the local news media. But nearly without exception, only part of the story was reported. Missing from most accounts of the terms of the new deal, which dramatically changed last year’s failed draft development agreement negotiated by Mayor Ed Lee, was the decisive role played by a community/labor coalition, San Franciscans for Healthcare, Housing, Jobs and Justice.

Key details of the agreement have yet to be finalized, and provisions of the terms announced on March 5th need to be improved. But the new agreement, in virtually all respects, is an improvement over the old one. And on the same day the terms of the new deal was announced one of the union members of the coalition, the National Union of Healthcare Workers signed a contact with CPMC that protected union organizing rights, job security at Cathedral Hill and full employer paid health care — issues that had been unresolved over the last few years. Still missing is an ageement between Sutter and its nurses, a critical component of labor peace.

The basic structure of the current terms mirror almost exactly the positions outlined by the SFHHJJ over the last year, including a requirement for labor peace with all unions at CPMC. This was no accident; it was the result of the efforts of the community/labor coalition. When the old deal was stalled at the Board of Supervisors in early 2013 and it was clear that the Mayors Office had no idea how to proceed, the members of the coalition came up with a framework to get discussions going again. The key ingredient was the involvement of a skilled an knowledgeable mediator, mutually respected by all parties and the participation of Sutter Corp. in Sacramento — the real party able to make actual binding corporate commitments, not the subsidiary the mayor had dealt with.

The second step was to agree to a framework of issues that would form the substance of negotiations — and the coalition’s own comprehensive set of positions served as that framework.

The next step was to get a critical mass of supervisors to agree to participate in the negotiations. Two Supervisors, David Chiu and David Campos, agreed to the coalition’s framework and the use of a third-party mediator. They added a third supervisor, Mark Farrell, to their group in order to assure buy-in from the full board.

Finally, the mediator had to be found and in that the coalition (and the rest of the city) simply were lucky that Lou Girardo was willing and able to provide his own special skills and credibility.

The SFHHJJ is not the first community/labor coalition in San Francisco history. Such coalitions were present in both the District 1 and District 5 supervisors races last year with mixed success, and in 2008 a community/labor coalition fought for revenue measures, again with mixed success but real unity. A new labor/community coalition has emerged to oppose Scott Wiener’s ill-advised weakening of our local California Environmental Policy Act procedures.

As the Democratic Party transforms itself into ever greater political irrelevancy by becoming the home of moderate Republicanism at all levels of government, community and labor co-operation seems to be growing over an increasing number of issues, showing a level of political vibrancy impossible to ignore.

Calvin Welch is a longtime community organizer in San Francisco and is a member of the SFHHJJ CPMC Negotiating Committee

The right to transgender health care


OPINION When I first came out as a transgender man in the mid 1990s, I quickly realized that I would have to pay out-of-pocket for the health care I needed.

Nearly every insurance plan has outdated exclusions that bar transgender people from receiving medically necessary health care. Everything from cancer screenings to the care related to gender transition is commonly excluded, despite being provided without exclusion to non-transgender health insurance customers.

For working people everywhere, including members of the LGBT community, accessible, affordable, quality healthcare is critical. And for union members like myself, healthcare equity is part of a basic and broader vision for equality for all people.

In recognition of this vision, Pride at Work, the SEIU National Lavender Caucus, National Center for Transgender Equality, the Transgender Law Center, and Basic Rights Oregon have partnered for the very first Transgender Month of Action, aimed at lifting the healthcare inequities that face our community.

I began to gender transition in 1996, starting with hormone therapy, a process that required walking through countless hoops. I will forever be thankful to the Tom Wadell Clinic and Lyon Martin Clinic for making hormone therapy accessible to low-income and uninsured trans people like myself, but I know I was one of the lucky ones. A few years later, when I was insured, I began to feel as if insurance companies were the gatekeepers of my body.

I knew that I needed to get chest surgery and that it wouldn’t be covered by my insurance, so I held a rent party and told my friends and loved ones that I needed help. It took a lot of vulnerability to do that. Like everyone else, transgender people need acute care when they are sick and preventative care to keep us from becoming ill, including services that are traditionally considered to be gender specific — such as Pap smears, prostate exams, and mammograms.

But insurers frequently expand discriminatory exclusions in a way that denies transgender people coverage for basic services. Take the outrageous example of a transgender woman in New Jersey who was denied coverage for a mammogram on the basis that it fell under her plan’s sweeping exclusion for all treatments “related to changing sex.”

Sometimes, trans people are denied care completely. In the late 1990s, I went to a gynecologist, but the doctor refused to treat me. Over the next 10 years, likes so many other trans people, I did not get an exam, too embarrassed and outraged to seek treatment.

In 2001, I worked with the a group of transgender healthcare activists to remove discriminatory exclusions for trans employees. When the Board of Supervisors voted to remove these exclusions, it was a huge and historic victory. Since that decision over a decade ago, San Francisco has proudly provided inclusive health care to city employees — and there’s been no cost increase to the overall plan.

Pride at Work, the organization that brings together LGBT union members and their allies, has a sign in the office that states: An injury to one is an injury to all. That’s the premise that underscores the labor movement’s commitment to LGBT equality, including trans-inclusive healthcare.

And it’s why Pride at Work is organizing local and national efforts to educate LGBT people and labor unions about the importance of ensuring access to basic healthcare for transgender people and providing coverage of medically-necessary transition-related care in health insurance. This first-of-its-kind effort is inspired by the belief that all workers deserve to have all medically-necessary care covered by health insurance, including transgender people whose healthcare needs are not being met.

Gabriel Haaland is co-vice president of Pride at Work.

Why labor should oppose the pipeline


OPINION As pressure from the fossil-fuel industry, conservative Canadian and US politicians, and some construction unions mounts on President Obama to greenlight the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline project, a growing coalition has a different message.

On February 17, tens of thousands rallied against the pipeline in cities across the US, including San Francisco — a testament to the climate movement, ranchers and farmers, First Nations leaders, most Canadian unions, some US unions (including my nurses’ organization), transport and domestic workers, and young people who are rightfully alarmed over the global impact of Keystone XL.

For nurses, who already see patients sickened by the adverse effects of pollution and infectious diseases linked to air pollutants and the spread of water and food borne pathogens associated with environmental contaminants, Keystone XL presents a clear and present danger.

First, extracting tar sands is more complex than conventional oil drilling, requiring vast amounts of water and chemicals. The discharge accumulates in highly toxic waste ponds and risks entering water sources that may end up in drinking water, as is already occurring.

Second, the corrosive liquefied bitumen form of crude the pipeline would carry is especially susceptible to leaks that can spill into farmland, water aquifers and rivers on route, threatening an array of adverse health outcomes.

Public health costs from fossil-fuel production in the US through contaminants in our air, rivers, lakes, oceans, and food supply are already pegged at more than $120 billion every year by the National Academy of Sciences. The Environmental Protection Agency warns that exposure to particulate matter emitted from fossil fuel plants is a cause of heart attacks, long term respiratory illness including asthma, cancer, developmental delays and reproductive problems. Global-warming inducted higher air temperatures can also increase bacteria-related food poisoning, such as salmonella, and animal-borne diseases like the West Nile virus.

That’s just the tip of the melting iceberg given the planet altering consequences of rising sea levels, intensified weather events including droughts, floods and super storms already in evidence, and mass dislocation of coastal populations and starvation that may well follow our failing to stem climate change.

Far more jobs would be created by converting to a green economy. As economist Robert Pollin put it in his book Back to Full Employment, every $1 million spent on renewable clean energy sources creates 16.8 jobs, compared to just 5.2 jobs created by the same spending on fossil-fuel production.

And, as one person acerbically commented on a recent New York Times article, there are no jobs on a dead planet.

Further, stumping for the pipeline puts labor in league with the many of the most anti-union, far right corporate interests in the U.S., such as the oil billionaire Koch Brothers and energy corporations, abetted by the politicians who carry their agenda.

The future for labor should not be scrambling for elusive crumbs thrown down by corporate partners, but advocating for the larger public interest, as unions practiced in the 1930s and 1940s, the period of labor’s greatest growth and the resulting emergence of a more egalitarian society.

Deborah Burger is a registered nurse and co-president of National Nurses United, the nation’s largest organization of nurses.

What Obama said — and what he meant


OPINION The words in President Obama’s State of the Union speech were often lofty, spinning through the air with the greatest of ease. But let’s decode the president’s smooth oratory in the realms of climate change, war and civil liberties.

“For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.”

We’ve done so little to combat climate change — we must do more.

“I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change…”

Climate change is an issue that can be very good for Wall Street. Folks who got the hang of “derivatives” and “credit default swaps” can learn how to handle “cap and trade.”

“The natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. We need to encourage that.”

Dual memo. To T. Boone Pickens: “Love ya.” To environmentalists who won’t suck up to me: “Frack you.” (And save your breath about methane.)

“After a decade of grinding war, our brave men and women in uniform are coming home.”

How’s that for an applause line? Don’t pay too much attention to the fine print. I’m planning to have 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan a year from now, and they won’t get out of there before the end of 2014. And did you notice the phrase “in uniform”? We’ve got plenty of out-of-uniform military contractors in Afghanistan now, and you can expect that to continue for a long time.

“We don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we’ll need to help countries like Yemen, Libya and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.”

We don’t need flag-draped coffins coming home. We’re so civilized that we’re the planetary leaders at killing people with remote control from halfway around the world.

“We must enlist our values in the fight. That’s why my administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism efforts.

I’m sick of taking flak just because I pick and choose which civil liberties I want to respect. If I need to give a bit more information to a few other pliant members of Congress, I will.

“The leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations. And we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.”

Maybe it’s just about time for another encore of “preemptive war.”

Norman Solomon is co-founder of RootsAction.org and founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. His books include “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” He writes the Political Culture 2013 column.

Time out by the Bay


OPINION Pretend that you and your best friends are entrusted — temporarily — with responsibility to run a big city. The energy of its people, the diversity of its residential neighborhoods, and its natural beauty have made this a successful city. The centerpiece of its natural beauty is its front yard, a body of sparking water called “The Bay.” You are entrusted with keeping the Bay accessible and visible to the people — all of whom own it.

One day developers come along and say that they want to build an entertainment complex on public property, right on this Bay. It will be a big, 14-story structure. It will bring in some 2 million patrons for more than 200 entertainment events each year. And, the developers go on, it will be in the middle of a residential community, mess up traffic and block physical and visual access to the Bay. Furthermore they tell you, we will need you to violate all the controls you have painfully placed on building heights and uses on the waterfront. And, by the way, they will need a subsidy of $120 million in public money.

Lastly they tell you, they will play 41 professional basketball games in the building. This will double or triple the value of their franchise — but unfortunately requires that they significantly increase the ticket price for their fans.

As a good manager you might ask what the landlord, the Port — which holds the land as a public trust — will get in return for its $120 million subsidy and for the use of public property. You are astonished to learn that, for the next many decades, the Port receives not a penny. Knowing the environmental damages, the impact on transportation in your city and being concerned about maintaining livable neighborhoods, you might then say: “Hold on — this is a bad deal. Is there not a better, less costly, less destructive, less divisive location in our city?”

You might say that — but SF’s city management has not. There has been no effort whatsoever to find a more appropriate location, one less destructive to San Francisco’s environmental values, that would require less than a $120 million subsidy.

And time has virtually run out to ask the basic question of whether the proposed site on Pier 30/32 is an appropriate site for this entertainment complex. The city is rushing headlong into making this deal. The Board of Supervisors does have final authority, but when it gets there, so much time and effort will have been spent that the likelihood of it being stopped is virtually zero.

You, the pretend manager, would surely call a time out. You would put together city officials and representatives of the city’s neighborhoods with the developer and require that they, together, come up with a site that all could gladly support. That might be what you’d do -– but it is not what is happening in the real world of City Hall.

It’s time for people like you, and others like you, to demand that the real city officials call a temporary halt to their juggernaut and provide a process that would first answer the basic question of whether Pier 30/32 is an appropriate site for this entertainment complex or whether alternative sites would not better serve the city and its Bay.

Rudy Nothenberg has held senior positions in the administrations of six San Francisco mayors.

Milk’s real legacy


OPINION Ever since Supervisor David Campos announced his proposal to add Harvey Milk’s name to SFO, there’s been an unending string of criticism — mostly from one source — that has an eerily familiar ring to it.

We heard it years ago when we tried to change the name of Douglas School in the Castro to Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy. Believe it or not, it took seven years before the School Board finally voted for the name change — and there was still bitterness. This was a school in Harvey’s neighborhood that Harvey personally helped when he was alive.

And of course Harvey heard it himself, when he was constantly told not to rock the boat, not to make waves, not to be so out about being gay. Why? Because it would be divisive, alarm our friends, empower the gay community’s enemies, and set the movement back. And forty years later, people are still saying that.

It’s not just Harvey Milk. When we went to change the name of Army Street to Cesar Chavez, the same cast of characters voiced the same empty complaints, and it wasn’t until a vote of the people that it was finally settled.

Now we come to Campos’s courageous proposal to add Harvey’s name to San Francisco International Airport. For the city that wildly celebrated gay marriages at City Hall (another event that naysayers were quick to criticize), the city that is the emotional heart of the gay civil rights movement, and the city in which Harvey Milk lived, rose to prominence, and died — this should be a no-brainer. People say this is divisive? In fact, it should be an issue that unites us.

Yes, it will cost the airport some money to change its signage. But this can be done over time, through attrition, and can be far less than the estimates. (Which still only amount to one-half of one percent of the airport’s annual budget.)

But by far the most pernicious charge against the proposal is that it would tarnish Harvey’s legacy if it loses. Let me tell you — a little adversity never scared off Harvey Milk. He knew how to take a punch. And he knew how to move the civil rights agenda forward through provocative proposals.

For example, did you know before this that 80 airports in the United States are named after individuals, and not one is gay? How long are we going to be second-class citizens?

I commend Supervisor Campos for having the guts to put this proposal forward. That’s the real legacy of Harvey Milk: a city with openly gay elected officials who are willing to put their own careers on the line to challenge the status quo. Harvey would be proud.

And, as the powers that be sanctimoniously intone that we shouldn’t name the airport after any individual, our great city itself is named after St. Francis.

If being named after an inspiring individual is good enough for our city, it’s good enough for our airport.

Assemblymember Tom Ammiano represents the 17th District.


Housing stability for all


OPINION San Francisco is in the midst of a housing affordability crisis. It’s way too expensive to live here, and for those fortunate enough to have housing they can afford, we need to provide stability. This need for housing stability applies to renters as well as homeowners. If we’ve learned anything from the foreclosure crisis, homeowners are not all rich, and they are not all stable in their housing.

Last week’s Guardian argued against legislation I’m co-sponsoring, which provides one-time relief to owners of tenancies-in-common (TICs) — mostly middle- and working-class first-time homeowners who reside in their units — while providing strong protection to renters. While the editorial correctly stressed the need to support rent control, it failed to acknowledge the need to support housing stability for homeowners as well.

Rent control is one of the pillars of our city. It stabilizes housing prices, recognizes that housing isn’t just another commodity, keeps communities intact, and helps maintain San Francisco’s diverse fabric. I’ve long supported rent control, as reflected by my voting record. I supported a series of rent control measures designed to reduce evictions, including requiring sales disclosure of a unit’s eviction history, requiring increased relocation benefits to evicted tenants, outlawing harassment of tenants, and restricting use of the Ellis Act by real-estate speculators. As a member of the Board of Supervisors, I authored successful legislation to ban conversion of rent-controlled units to student dorms and to provide temporary affordable units to renters displaced by disasters.

The current legislation I’m co-sponsoring will provide needed relief to struggling TIC owners, many of whom are experiencing serious financial distress, while protecting the small number of tenants who live in these units. TIC owners have group mortgages, meaning that if one owner defaults, all owners default. They pay double the interest rate other homeowners pay and usually cannot refinance. The legislation will allow them to convert their units to condos and obtain their own mortgages, at lower rates and less foreclosure risk.

While some caricature TIC owners as speculators and wealthy people, that’s untrue. Many TIC owners are quite middle class, former renters who scraped together a down payment to purchase a home. Many are teachers, social workers, public employees, and other workers who are anything but speculators. These are people who, if they didn’t own TICs, would be renting. They aren’t Martians who dropped out of the sky. They’re our neighbors, co-workers, and fellow San Franciscans. They are part of the city’s fabric.

Under the legislation, owner-occupied TICs that are in the condo lottery will be able to convert to condos by paying a fee of $20,000 per unit, with the proceeds dedicated to affordable housing. Buildings with Ellis Act and other problem evictions are typically prohibited from condo converting in San Francisco, under a 2006 law, and that restriction applies to this legislation. In other words, this legislation won’t encourage Ellis Act evictions. Moreover, buildings that aren’t owner-occupied can’t condo convert. Nor can buildings with more than six units. The legislation is one-time in nature and not an ongoing invitation to condo convert.

The legislation covers very few units with tenants — 85% are owner-occupied — and protects this small number of tenants by mandating they receive lifetime leases, with full rent and eviction controls identical to our rent control laws. This protection is stronger than what most tenants receive in buildings that win the condo lottery currently.

Renters and homeowners both deserve housing stability. This legislation moves us in that direction.

Supervisor Scott Wiener represents District 8.


TIC legislation is a rent control issue


OPINION If legislation introduced by Supervisors Scott Wiener and Mark Farrell passes the Board of Supervisors next month, up to 2,000 tenancies in common will be allowed to bypass the lottery process and convert to condominiums.

Add those to the nearly 6,000 conversions that have occurred from 2001-2011 (according to stats from the Department of Public Works), and you have a sizable chunk of rent-controlled units that will have been yanked from our housing stock in the past decade or so in a city that can’t afford to lose rental units, especially those that preserve affordability while tenants live in them. TICs are still under rent control; condos lose it when they’re sold.

Which makes the Wiener and Farrell legislation a rent-control issue. Not to mention a really bad idea at a really bad moment in time.

San Francisco’s perennial housing crisis can’t possibly get worse. Rents are the highest in the country — and still rising. The average rent in the city these days is $3,000. The vacancy rate is low.

Ellis Act evictions, a tool for creating TICs by allowing a landlord or speculator to circumvent just-cause eviction protections, are on the upswing. They’re not as high as they were at the height of the dot-com boom of the late 90s, but, considering that these days many landlords and speculators threaten tenants with Ellis or buy them out rather than do the dirty deed, the number of folks displaced for TICs is higher than what is recorded at the Rent Board. Some tenants have actually received letters from new landlords with two checkboxes — one for Ellis and the other for a buyout. Take your pick, which way do you want to be tossed out and possibly left homeless?

The folks being displaced are from every district and represent the diversity about which we always brag: longterm, generally low-income seniors, disabled people, people with AIDS, families, and people of color. And they’re less likely to find other apartments they can afford.

Wiener claims that buildings where there are evictions will not be eligible for conversion, but many of the TICs currently in the lottery, which will be eligible for conversion under the Wiener/Farrell legislation, were created by evictions. Almost 20 percent of the units in the pipeline were formed before legislation was put into place to restrict conversions if tenants are ousted. How many of the other 80 percent are the result of threats and buyouts, de facto evictions? Or were entered into the lottery even when they shouldn’t have been?

Brian Basinger, founder of the AIDS Housing Alliance, was evicted from his apartment for a TIC, yet his place was converted to a condo, despite the fact that he’s a protected tenant.

Allowing as many as 2,000 conversions not only diminishes the rent-controlled housing stock, but it also jacks up rents. Not to mention it gives speculators incentive to do more Ellis evictions or buyouts — after all, though Wiener and Farrell say this is a one-time only deal, once Pandora’s box is opened, it’s going to be hard to keep it shut. I think landlords and speculators know that.

The Housing Element of the City’s General Plan, adopted in 2009, instructs officials to “preserve rental units, especially rent controlled units, to meet the City’s affordable housing needs.”

This legislation won’t preserve rent-controlled units. It’s a bad fit for our city.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca, who’s worked for the Housing Rights Committee for 13 years, is a longtime queer tenants right/affordable housing advocate.

No Oscar for the guv’s budget


OPINION Given that Gov. Jerry Brown put out his proposed budget the same day that Oscar nominations came out, it’s tempting to make some comparisons.

Brown’s budget, like the nominated musical “Les Misérables,” has plenty of numbers, and will make some people cry.

But I take the new budget seriously, the same as every budget I’ve seen since I got to Sacramento. Unlike most of the recent budgets, this one doesn’t feature a big deficit. Give the Governor some credit for that, but let’s look at how he’s done it. Not all of it is pretty.

To start with, education gets a boost. That’s clearly what California’s voters wanted when they passed Proposition 30 in November. The budget will give more generous increases to the school districts that have more education challenges, and it boosts funding for higher education. We can cheer that.

It also funds the next steps for implementing federal health care reform. That bodes well for efforts to make sure all Americans and all Californians are insured. Under ideal circumstances, of course, we’d be talking about single payer.

There are other, less cheerful things in our future.

There’s an across-the board 20 percent cut to In-home Health Supportive Services beginning in November. This comes from an odd “optimistic” assumption from the governor that the courts that kept him from making those cuts earlier will let him do it now.

Child care funding is flat, which would be tolerable if it weren’t for past cuts. It’s hard to find a better investment in our state than child care. Kids in good child-care programs do better when they get to school. Child care allows more people to work and attend job training. Restoring child-care funding is critical for the state.

Keeping CalWORKS benefits at half of what they used to be is similarly shortsighted, as are cuts to the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, reductions in Medi-Cal provider rates and funding changes for students in higher education.

While preaching austerity, Brown keeps pouring money into a prison system that needs more reform. Sentencing and release programs could be altered to reduce the need for overstuffing prisons without risk to Californians. Overcrowding continues, with one women’s prison in the Central Valley at 180 percent of capacity. This is not stewardship that inspires confidence.

Prison programs to help people beat drug addictions and find jobs when they come out are gone. We are missing a chance for long-term reductions based on rehabilitation. Instead we continue to shuffle bodies around.

Spending choices are not the only problem. The governor skipped some ways of boosting revenue. What about the rules surrounding Proposition 13? Local jurisdictions would benefit from closing loopholes that allow corporations to avoid reassessment when property changes ownership.

I also want discussion of an oil severance tax. Here in the Bay Area — in Richmond and San Bruno — we’ve seen and lived with major downsides of the energy industry. I think it’s time that the oil producers who continue to make big profits pay a tax for the oil that’s taken out of California.

You can see that the Governor’s “director’s cut” budget doesn’t deserve a little gold statue — even if it is the best picture (fiscally) we’ve seen in a few years. We’ll look for silver linings when the Legislature starts working on our playbook.

Assemblymember Tom Ammiano represents the 13th District.

Hacking the US debt


OPINION The so-called Fiscal Cliff has been averted. But the country actually has a much bigger issue — the debt ceiling.

For the uninitiated, the debt ceiling is exactly what it sounds like, an artificial limit imposed by Congress the keep the president from borrowing money. The ceiling was originally passed back in 1917 to prevent the government from excess spending during the First World War. Besides its constitutionality being questionable, it’s also useless and dangerous.

The far right goes bananas about the national debt, and points to the ceiling as a way to keep it from growing. But the debt growth in question is simply to pay back bills on products and services that Congress already used. So to impose a ceiling now is not to cut growth, but to default on US creditors.

The Republicans are refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless they get huge cuts in social programs — and if current spending hits the ceiling, the United States would be unable to pay its bills.

But there’s a solution, a way President Obama could get around the GOP and its threats altogether. It’s a unorthodox — but legal. Call it debt hacking.

Obama could simply direct the Treasury to print a series of platinum coins in denominations of at least $1 trillion. It’s not perfect, and it’s not without potential cost — but compared to defaulting on debt or cutting Social Security and Medicare, it’s not a bad option.

The president is legally barred from asking the US Mint to print more money — gold coins or paper bills — without the permission of Congress. But under an obscure 1996 law, there’s an exception for platinum.

So upon realizing that the GOP leaders in Congress will push the republic into default, President Obama could direct the Mint to produce, say, three coins — each with the face value of $1 trillion. The coins would be deposited into the general treasury account at the Federal Reserve. This would then be converted into credit to buy back and retire enough debt to give Obama, and the country, some breathing space.

In fact, Obama could do something even bolder and create more coins, to go beyond breathing space and pay off almost all the national debt except for that held by Social Security. But that sort of action — the government just printing new money — can, many economists warn, create hyperinflation.

Still, the Federal Reserve magically produced about $30 trillion to help bail out banks not long ago, and there was little discernible inflation. The government wouldn’t actually be creating new money — it would simply be replacing debt that the country pays interest on with paper (or digital accounting) that it doesn’t. And right now, inflation is the least of our national worries; a little inflation might even help homeowners and those with heavy credit-card debt pay off what they owe with cheaper money in the future.

Of course, no government can do this on a regular basis. The US Dollar could lose its reserve status if investors start to fear the potential of future platinum coins appearing. But what are the alternatives? US dollars and US debt are, and will remain, trusted investments. China may not purchase as many bonds in the future, but the money we save on interest payments could be well worth it.

It’s a crazy idea, but these are crazy times — and if the GOP continues to threaten to destroy the economy, Obama might want to consider something bold.

Johnny Venom is an economist and commodities trader.

More school security? Maybe not.


OPINION I pretty much live in schools. Almost every morning, I get my three-year-old ready for pre-school, my seven-year-old ready for first grade, and myself ready for high school, where I teach English. Almost everyday, I’m in at least three schools. But never before had I thought so thoroughly about school security until Monday, Dec. 17, when I drove my daughters, and then myself, to school for the first time after the shootings in Newtown.

My first stop is my daughter’s public elementary school in San Francisco. Because I often have an 8am class and am pressed for time, I almost never walk her into school. I pull up along a curb, where fifth graders clad in fluorescent vests open the back door of my car to escort my daughter out. From there, she walks alone into a side door and then out onto an outdoor basketball court, where the whole school gathers every morning. Her teacher then takes my daughter to her classroom, which is, incidentally, closest to the front door to the school, which is always open during the day. A potential shooter would have no problem entering, and with enough ammunition and a deadly enough gun, he could kill at will.

I asked for the first time that day: would it be better to close off the campus?

The next stop is my three-year-old daughter’s pre-school. There, I park my car, get her out, and walk to the front entrance, where an administrative assistant buzzes me in upon recognition. Because it’s busy in the mornings, I often hold the door for other parents trying to get in. Of course, it would be very easy for a killer to force his way in behind one of us, or he could simply shoot the glass if he was determined enough.

Again, the questions arise: should the director have a gun in her office? Should we put up metal doors? Should the school hire a security guard monitoring cameras before letting parents and children into the school?

Finally, I arrive at my high school, which is a rather affluent independent school. I park on the street and walk right in. Often the receptionist doesn’t even notice me. We have a completely open campus, with many doors into which someone could enter with no resistance whatsoever. We have security guards, but they are unarmed and more concerned with directing traffic around the school than with a potential intruder. All of our students have off-campus privileges. Should we keep students on campus? Should we bar all the doors? Place an armed security guard at every entry point into the school?

The answer I’ve come to is no.

The question of school security gets at the very nature of what schools are. Schools both are and are not of the world. On the one hand, schools are a place that prepares our youth for the world. They’re also a place where young people can learn to take risks, where they can make mistakes before they go out into the “real” world. On the other hand, however, schools reflect our neighborhoods, our counties, our cities, our states, our country, and our world.

If we bar our schools off from the outside world, the message that we’re sending to our children is that the world is a place to be feared, a place where calculus won’t do you any good — but where a gun will. To “secure” our schools is to admit our collective failure at making the outside world safe. It is to admit that one of the fundamental values of any society, and in particular our American society—trust—has been broken.

I would hope instead that we work now to change the world enough to communicate to our children that the world is, in fact, a place that is not just safe but that they are invited into, a place where they can thrive and find happiness rather than a place to fear and hide from. Our responsibility is not to gate schools off from the world but to take the need for gates down altogether.

Scott Laughlin teaches English at University High School.

Putting transit first


By Stuart Cohen, Leah Shahum, Rob Boden, and Elizabeth Stampe

OPINION Every day, San Franciscans pay the price of an underfunded transportation system. We have all experienced painfully overcrowded bus rides … or, worse yet, the bus that never shows up. Now, Muni is reducing service during Christmas week, as it is faced with a $7 million deficit this fiscal year.

Today, we are finally facing up to the reality that our declining transportation system hurts us all. It hurts our economy and it hurts people all along the economic spectrum. San Francisco is a world-class city in many ways, but we have a long way to go to have a world-class transportation system.

San Franciscans want better transit options: reliable, fast, comfortable buses, and safe and pleasant streets for walking and biking. San Franciscans support the city’s official transit-first policy, but lacking political will, the city hasn’t delivered on it.

By failing to make the tough decisions to fund our transit system, our leaders have put the burden on those who depend on affordable transportation options most. Transportation is one of the top expenses for people living in the Bay Area, after housing, and an exponentially greater burden for those with lower incomes.

Who will be hurt most by Muni’s skeletal service this holiday week? Working families.

That is why our organizations are proud to have joined together recently to support a proposal to update the Transit-Impact Development Fee (TIDF), which would have ensured that major developments pay their fair share into the city’s transit system. This would have included large nonprofits like Kaiser and the Exploratorium, when they build major new developments that generate thousands of new trips. The fee, probably about 1 percent of costs, would have paralleled the existing development fees for water, sewer, parks, and even art, that nonprofits already pay. It would not have included small nonprofits, and of course most nonprofits never build developments at all.

It would have helped visitors to large institutions have more dependable transit to get there, and helped the whole transportation system work better for everyone.

But it didn’t pass, and last week’s opinion piece (“The Muni vs. housing clash,” 12/18/12) mischaracterized the issue, suggesting a trade-off between basic services and transportation. But good, reliable, safe transportation is a basic service. Just like housing and health care, it’s something everyone should have access to, and something our city has declared a priority with its transit-first policy.

Unsafe streets are inequitable streets; low-income people and people of color are more likely to be hit by cars while walking. Underfunded transit is inequitable; low-income people have fewer options aside from walking or taking the bus, and the stakes are higher when the bus is late or doesn’t arrive.

Funding transit is a core progressive value. Great public transit — and being able to get around the city under your own power, by walking and bicycling — are great equalizers in a city like ours.

We should be investing more and expecting more from our transit system. Our organizations are proud to be doing just that. It’s time to help San Francisco finally live up to its transit-first policy — because that means putting people first.

Stuart Cohen works with TransForm, Leah Shahum with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Rob Boden with the San Francisco Transit Riders Union, and Elizabeth Stampe with Walk San Francisco.

The Muni vs. housing clash


OPINION Two votes at the Board of Supervisors and the Municipal Transportation Agency Dec. 4 laid out a stark contrast between two different approaches to transportation advocacy — one based on a sense of justice and the idea that public transit is an issue of equity, and another based on the self interest and transactional politics of a cash-strapped transportation agency and its dedicated allies.

After years of work, organizing transit riders and talking to policy makers from the local to the regional levels, a scrappy group of transit justice advocates, many of them young, most of them people of color, got the Municipal Transportation Agency board to approve a $1.6 million plan to fund free Muni passes for low-income youth. It sent a strong message that a new kind of transportation advocacy has arrived, one that puts race, class, and environment at the center.

Meanwhile, a separate vote was taking place at the Board of Supervisors that seemed to pit community organizations, nonprofit service providers, and affordable housing developers on opposite sides of the fence from what has become a mainstream transportation and bicycle advocacy community.

We should have been on the same side. But a last-minute maneuver by Sup. Scott Wiener to add to the MTA’s strained budget (a worthy goal) by expanding the 30-year Transportation Impact Development Fee (TIDF) to include nonprofits that provide critical services in our neighborhoods backfired and sent his amendments out the door in a 9-2 vote.

Many transportation and bicycle advocates seemed incredulous that the rest of the world did not accept their arguments.

I consider many of these transportation advocates friends and acquaintances whom I have known and worked with for years. But rather than seeing themselves as part of a greater social justice movement rooted in the communities who are most affected, some of these advocates have become increasingly narrow in their scope, single-minded in their pursuit of funding for bike lanes and bulbouts, as well as rapid transit projects serving downtown commuters.

Real-world politics requires that activists, organizers, and policy advocates be flexible and willing to figure out how to work with others very unlike themselves. Recently an organization I work for was able to work in a broad coalition, convened by the mayor, to develop and campaign for a Housing Trust Fund to create a permanent source of funding for affordable housing, as a direct response to the State of California taking away the city’s housing budget when it dissolved the redevelopment agencies. We walked into the room knowing that we would have to make tough decisions, and have to take those back to our allies in the progressive movement.

But we also walked in with non-negotiables. We were not going to entertain any attempt at weakening rent control by tying the Housing Trust Fund to lifting the condo conversion lottery. We would not support a set-aside without increasing city revenue to support not just our housing trust fund but also critical health and social services. We do not screw over our broader movement for pure self-interest.

We stand at a crossroads, and we could very well end up with two different transportation advocacy communities, both talking about the same thing, but with very little to say to each other. As the old mineworker’s song used to say, it’s time to decide: “Which side are you on?”

Fernando Martí works at the San Francisco Information Clearinghouse

A cab driver’s lament


OPINION I’m a San Francisco taxi driver. The reality on the streets is terrible.

Cab drivers are being squeezed from all sides. The Municipal Transportation Agency is part of the problem, because for the past year or so it has been energetically focused on enhancing the city’s revenues by selling taxi medallions (for $200,000) and putting hundreds of new cabs in service, at the expense of drivers.

That happened to coincide with the introduction of Sidecar and Lyft, to which the MTA’s response is painfully slow and ineffective. Neither problem is being resolved to the benefit of drivers.

SideCar and Lyft pretend that they’re just folks doing community service car-pooling, while being backed by millions of venture capital dollars. They are trying to be taxi services while avoiding using the word “taxi” in their names. They don’t want to talk about driver safety or insurance issues.

Cab drivers are heavily regulated for a reason — for your safety. There is accountability in the system.

There is no oversight of the new industry interlopers. The way these companies operate is not safe and not legal. When I went through my city-required week of driver training, photographing, fingerprinting, background check, and fee paying, everyone involved took it very seriously. If a cab driver screws up in any way, the company pulls him or her off the street.

Taxi drivers are held to a high standard of performance. We’re not the pizza delivery guy who’s now using his car to “ride-share” people around. Most of the time that won’t matter — until it really does matter. With SideCar and Lyft, if something goes wrong, you’ll find yourself with no protection and nowhere to turn.

I’m a night shift driver, and let me make it clear: Driving a taxi is a very hard job. You have to know the city, you have to deal with all kinds of people, have the patience of Job, make no mistakes, and be okay with little better than minimum wage — although there are no wages for cab drivers, what you make is whatever business you can manage to find — with no guarantees or benefits. The driver is the sole merchant, and he or she takes all the risks.

The regulatory framework needs to catch up with the technology, which is here to stay. The larger cab companies already use GPS technology. Luxor uses the “Taxi Magic” or “Cabulous” app to connect cabs to people who need rides.

But the taxi industry is already in a situation where, as a Guardian editorial noted, “too many cabs chasing too little money leads to bad behavior — and bad drivers.” The cease and desist order against the interlopers is being ignored. The fines imposed on them are being challenged and appealed.

So the industry is dysfunctional, with lawyers on all sides making things worse — and the drivers are the only ones who are suffering the consequences.

John Horn drives for Luxor Cab


Vote yes on fresh school meals


OPINION My young friend ate school meals in San Francisco for 12 years. With food in short supply at home, he had little choice but to eat cafeteria offerings, but he was disheartened by the rubbery meat patties and limp vegetables that characterize frozen reheated school lunches. That’s why he was thrilled to hear that SFUSD wants to replace frozen meals with freshly prepared entrees. Although his school lunch days are over, his younger siblings still rely on the cafeterias. He hopes they will never again be served a meal still frozen in the middle, or the lifeless, tasteless food he remembers.

For years, parents and students have identified “fresh healthy food” as the most wanted improvement to school meals. SFUSD has tried to respond; middle and high schools offer lunch choices prepared daily on site, in addition to the traditional frozen reheated entree. But now SFUSD is ready to move forward with a new meal contract that would ensure all meals at every school are freshly prepared locally.

School officials are bringing the proposed contract, with Oakland-based Revolution Foods, to the Board of Education on Dec. 11. With board approval, students will be enjoying freshly prepared meals as early as January 7th.

Healthier food, happier students and parents — what’s not to like? The price, of course. In expensive San Francisco, with above-average food and labor costs, the money the federal government provides for school meals for low income students is already insufficient to cover the cost of serving those meals. Replacing cheaper frozen entrees with freshly prepared offerings drives the price higher still, and despite the passage of Prop 30, SFUSD continues to face major financial challenges.

The board should approve the new meal contract despite its higher cost — because academic achievement, equity and proper nutrition are not unrelated issues. Better food means better nourished students; healthy kids take fewer sick days and are better able to learn. Kids who eat only a few bites of unappealing meals return to class without the fuel they need to power them through an academic afternoon. Hungry students struggle to focus, or even to stay awake; they can be quick to anger (a condition school counselors call “hangry” — angry because hungry) and disrupt learning for everyone.

SFUSD’s student nutrition department runs the largest public feeding program in the city; the majority of school cafeteria patrons are low-income children of color, so offering better food is an equity issue.

If the board nixes the new contract, meal costs will still increase in 2013, with food, milk and delivery prices already rising. So SFUSD would find itself paying more for the same frozen meals students reject now.

The SF Board of Education meets at 6pm, in the Irving G. Breyer Board Meeting Room on the ground floor at 555 Franklin Street.

Dana Woldow is the parent of three SFUSD graduates, and has been an advocate for better school food since 2002.

A crisis of will


OPINION In 2009, I was working in Congress when the eminent South African judge Richard Goldstone came to the House of Representatives to defend the UN report he authored on war crimes committed by both Israelis and Palestinians during that year’s war.

Goldstone stood before a few of members of Congress and told them that before they condemned the report, they should at least read it. A few staffers and I sent emails across Capitol Hill offering to hand deliver a paper copy of the entire 575 page report. Only two members took up our offer. That afternoon 344 out of the 435 members of US Congress voted in favor of condemning the report. Most members said the same thing: we need to move forward and not point fingers.

But pointing fingers, Goldstone reminded us, is sometimes the most important thing to do. Without ascertaining who violated the law and therefore who should be held accountable, we create no system of punishment for those who harm civilians. We give them, in short, no incentive not to do such things again. As I left the Capitol building, an Israeli friend who worked with me in support of Judge Goldstone reminded me that in Congress the ultimate four letter word is “accountability.”

Three years later Goldstone’s fear has come true: The same war is happening again. And it is happening again because the US too often looks away when Israel violates international law.

You can almost copy a news article from 2009 and paste it into a newspaper today: Israel kills children in Gaza. Hamas fires rockets into southern Israel, killing civilians. The US issues a statement defending Israel’s right to self defense. The US says Hamas must change its actions but will not deliver these messages to Hamas because the US does not talk to terrorists. Then a few months later, a fact-finding report is released saying Israelis used US weapons and failed to distinguish between civilians and combatants. The UN votes on the report, the US vetoes, and the report’s author, like Goldstone, is vilified. Pundits come on TV and debate who fired first, and Fox News argues if there is a Palestinian proclivity to violence and hopelessness. And finally, NGOs put together donor pitches about how the solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict is getting Israelis and Palestinians to spend a summer on a picturesque lake in Maine.

But the solution is not getting Israelis and Palestinians to drink tea together. Nor is the solution to investigate Palestinian culture. The solution is addressing US aid to Israel. Last year, the US gave $3.1 billion to Israel. In comparison, Ethiopia received just $580 million. And while US law stipulates that no US weapon should be used to carry out human rights abuses, these laws are seldom applied to Israel. Even when 23-year-old American Rachel Corrie was killed by an Israeli bulldozer, the US did not press Israel for justice.

This is not to absolve Palestinians of guilt—Israelis civilians have also been killed, and we must not forget that. But we should not think this is an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a issue of occupation.

Thankfully there is rising resentment over this lopsided support. Jon Stewart regularly skewers Israel and there is a growing group of Americans—across all faith lines—who wonder if the US should give Israel so much money given its record.

But this shift is not reflected among US politicians. This is a crisis of will, after all, not a crisis of solutions.

Protest — and run for office


OPINION Millions of Americans are eager, even desperate, for a political movement that truly challenges the power of Wall Street and the Pentagon. But accommodation has been habit-forming for many left-leaning organizations, which are increasingly taking their cues from the party establishment: deferring to top Democrats in Washington, staying away from robust progressive populism, and making excuses for the Democratic embrace of corporate power and perpetual war.

It’s true that many left-of-center groups are becoming more sophisticated in their use of digital platforms for messaging, fundraising and other work. But it’s also true that President Obama’s transactional approach has had demoralizing effects on his base. Even the best resources — mobilized by unions, environmental groups, feminist organizations, and the like — can do only so much when many voters and former volunteers are inclined to stay home.

For people fed up with bait-and-switch pitches from Democrats who talk progressive to get elected but then govern otherwise, the Occupy movement has been a compelling and energizing counterforce. Its often-implicit message: protesting is hip and astute, while electioneering is uncool and clueless. Yet protesters’ demands, routinely focused on government action and inaction, underscore how much state power really matters.

To escape this self-defeating trap, progressives must build a grassroots power base that can do more than illuminate the nonstop horror shows of the status quo. To posit a choice between developing strong social movements and strong electoral capacity is akin to choosing between arms and legs. If we want to move the country in a progressive direction, the politics of denunciation must work in sync with the politics of organizing — which must include solid electoral work.

Movements that take to the streets can proceed in creative tension with election campaigns. But even if protests flourish, progressive groups expand and left media outlets thrive, the power to impose government accountability is apt to remain elusive. That power is contingent on organizing, reaching the public and building muscle to exercise leverage over what government officials do — and who they are. Even electing better candidates won’t accomplish much unless the base is organized and functional enough to keep them accountable.

Politicians like to envision social movements as tributaries flowing into their election campaigns. But a healthy ecology of progressive politics would mean the flow goes mostly in the other direction. Election campaigns should be subsets of social movements, not the other way around.

For progressives, ongoing engagement with people in communities has vast potential advantages that big money can’t buy — and (we hope) can’t defeat. But few progressive institutions with election goals have the time, resolve, resources or patience to initiate and sustain relationships with communities. For the most part, precinct organizing is a lost art that progressives have failed to revitalize. Until that changes, the electoral future looks bleak.

Norman Solomon is founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and co-founder of rootsaction.org. A longer version of this piece appears in the Nov. 24 edition of The Nation.

The practice of politics



ESSAY San Francisco’s progressive movement needs restoration and renewal. Our focus on immediate fights and indignities has blurred our perspective on the larger, longer struggle for a more just, sustainable, and inclusive society. It’s time to regain that vision by taking a new path and practicing a different kind of politics.

Back-to-back local scandals involving progressive male politicians treating women badly have spawned waves of ugly reactions and recriminations on all sides. Those frustrations have bubbled up against an overwhelming tidal wave of money from wealthy individuals and corporations used to deceive and divide the voting public on the local and national levels.

Real concerns about domestic violence have been reduced to an election-year weapon, cheapening an important issue. Stubborn injustices like lack of gender equity in pay and promotions and access to contraception have been countered with mythical “binders full of women,” a new take on the old dodge of personal responsibility. Unacceptable groping or grabbing is alternatively denied, dismissed, or blamed on the women. Little has changed except the modern polish on our dated pronouncements.

The turbulence of this political year has tested our tolerance and we’ve lost our balance, if not our minds from time to time. But we can learn from our mistakes. San Franciscans should be leading the way forward, not just with our gadgets and technological innovations, but with the example we set in how we practice our politics.

Perhaps I’m not the best one to call out my comrades and propose our next steps. I’m a single, straight man, and I’ve fought as fiercely as anyone on behalf of the Guardian’s progressive values and worldview, sometimes resorting to the same nastiness that we’ve seen bubbling over this year.

But as I’ve covered this year’s high-profile political scandals involving Ross Mirkarimi and Julian Davis for the Guardian — and read the vitriolic comments reacting to my stories and expressed in public forums — it has caused me to rethink my own approach and that of the progressive movement. So I want to offer my insights, make amends, and contribute to the dialogue that our community desperately needs to have.


Let me start by saying that I understand why people perceive political conspiracies against Mirkarimi, Davis, and other progressive politicians in San Francisco. Wealthy interests really do have a disproportionate influence over the decisions that are shaping this city’s future, to the detriment of the working and creative classes.

A small group of powerful people installed Ed Lee as mayor using calculated deceptions, and he has largely been carrying out their agenda ever since, practicing dirty politics that have fractured and debilitated the progressive movement. In this election cycle, we saw the willingness of Lee’s deep-pocketed benefactors, such as right-wing billionaire Ron Conway, to shatter previous spending records to achieve their unapologetically stated goal of destroying San Francisco’s progressive movement.

But if we want to replace economic values with human values — emphasizing people’s needs over property and profits, which is the heart of progressivism — we can’t forget our humanity in that struggle. Choosing conflict and the politics of division plays into the hands of those who seek to divide and conquer us. We need to embody the change we want to see and build new systems to replace our ailing political and economic models.

When Mayor Lee decided in March to suspend Sheriff Mirkarimi without pay and without any investigation — and by the way, showing no interest in hearing from the alleged victim, Eliana Lopez — progressives had good reason to be outraged. Domestic violence advocates and the Chronicle’s editorial writers may not see it this way, but I understand why it seemed politically motivated.

I also understand why people wanted Mirkarimi gone, believing that someone who admitted to domestic violence couldn’t possibly remain San Francisco’s chief elected law-enforcement officer. This was a black-and-white issue for them, and they saw progressive opposition to his removal as condoning his actions, despite our arguments that his criminal punishment was separate from the question of what the standard should be for removing an elected official from office.

Both sides fervently believed in their respective positions and were largely talking past one another, unable to really communicate. Positions hardened and were charged with emotion until they boiled over during the Oct. 9 hearing on Mirkarimi’s removal.

But there’s never any excuse for booing or making derogatory comments to domestic violence advocates who braved a hostile crowd to offer their opinions on the issue. Tolerance and respect for differing opinion are core progressive tenets, and our faith in those values must override our emotional impulses, which only feeds a fight that we lose just by fighting.

It was against this backdrop — and partially as a result of this polarized climate — that revelations of Davis’ bad behavior toward women were made public. Davis is a friend of mine, and I was aware that he could act like an over-entitled jerk toward women, particularly during his worst period several years ago, although I had no idea how bad it really was.

As with many political scandals, the issue here wasn’t just the original incidents, but how someone responds to them. That’s the mark of someone’s character and integrity. Most people do the wrong thing sometimes, but if we learn from our mistakes and truly make amends — which isn’t something we claim, but something offered to us if our intentions seem true — then we become better people.

As we said in our editorial withdrawing our endorsement from Davis a few weeks ago, being a progressive has to be more about the movement than the person, and it’s time that we remember that. So as a movement, the moment has arrived to come clean, admit our flaws, start anew, and try to lead by our example rather than our rhetoric or our stands on the issues.


They say confession is good for soul, so let me give it a shot. Shortly after Sup. Jane Kim took office in 2010, we had a series of confrontational conflicts over some votes she made and her failure to come clean about what her relationship was with Willie Brown, which seemed to me related. She offered a misleading answer to my question and then said she wouldn’t answer any more questions from me, which infuriated me because I believe politicians have a duty to be accountable. And so I continued to be hard on her in print and in person.

Now, I realize that I was being something of a bully — as political reporters, particularly male reporters, have often been over the years. I want to offer a public apology for my behavior and hope for forgiveness and that our relationship — which was a friendly one since long before she took office — can be better in the future.

While I felt that I was treating Kim like I would any politician, and I probably was, the fact is that the style of combative political exchanges — embodied in the last decade by Mirkarimi, Chris Daly, Aaron Peskin, and many others, mostly men but some women like Carole Migden — is what has brought the progressive movement and San Francisco politics in general to the lowly point that we now find ourselves.

My old friend and ex-girlfriend Alix Rosenthal and other political women I know have long tried to impress upon me the value of having more females in office, regardless of their ideology, as long as they aren’t actual conservatives. I have always bristled at that idea, believing ideology and political values to be more important than identity politics, which has been used as a wedge to divide the progressive movement.

At first, I supported Davis because I saw in him a progressive warrior. But most progressives know in our hearts that nobody wins wars. We are all diminished just for fighting them, and their fallout can be felt in unexpected ways for years to come. Even though I agreed with the Board of Supervisors decision to reinstate Mirkarimi, I felt sad and sick watching the celebrations that followed, and I understood that winning that battle might do real damage to the progressive movement.

So I’m proposing that we just stop fighting. We need to stop demonizing those we don’t agree with. “We are not the enemy,” Domestic Violence Consortium head Beverly Upton told supervisors at the Mirkarimi hearing, and she’s right. We can still disagree with her position, and we can say so publicly and call for her to talk to Lopez or take other steps, but we shouldn’t make her an enemy.


Having written this essay before the Nov. 6 election, I don’t know the outcome, but I do know progressive power is waning just as we need it most. Landlords and Realtors are intent on rolling back renter protections, while technology titans and other corporate leaders will keep pushing the idea that city government must serve their interests, something the mayor and most supervisors already believe. And they’re all overtly hostile to progressives and our movement.

Against this onslaught, and with so much at stake, the temptation is to fight back with all our remaining strength and hope that’s enough to change the dynamics. But it won’t. Now is the time to organize and expand our movement, to reach out to communities of color and the younger generations. We need to grow our ability to counter those who see San Francisco as merely a place to make money, and who are increasingly hostile to those of us standing in their way.

It may sound trite, but we need to meet their hate with our love, we need to counter their greed with our generosity of spirit. In the year 2012, with all the signs we see in the world that the dominant economic and political systems are dying, we need to work on building our capacity to create new systems to replace them. If they want to build a condo for a billionaire, we should find a way to build two apartments for workers. If they want to bend the campaign rules and dump millions of dollars into one of their candidates, we should use free media and bodies on the street to stand up for someone with more integrity.

Our heroes are people like MLK and Gandhi, and — and most recently and perhaps more relevantly, Arundhati Roy, Amy Goodman, and Aung San Suu Kyi — and we should heed their examples now more than ever. I’m not going to presume to lay out a specific agenda or new tactics, leaving that leadership to those who embody the new approaches and visions that I’m willing to learn and lend my energies and experience to supporting.

But the one essential truth that I’ve come to embrace is that our current struggles and paradigms are as unsustainable as the system that we’re critiquing. It’s time to embrace a new way of doing things, and to join the vast majority of people around the world in creating a new era.

KCSM and the future of community TV


OPINION On October 24th, the San Mateo Community College District Board of Trustees voted unanimously to reject the final two bidders (of an original six) for the broadcast license for KCSM television, bringing to an end an 18-month process by the district to try to sell the television broadcast license housed at the College of San Mateo since 1964. KCSM television reaches 10 Bay Area counties and is broadcast on 60 municipal cable systems in Northern California.

The 48-year old TV station was originally established as a broadcast training facility. From 1964 to 1980, the College of San Mateo ran one of the most comprehensive broadcast journalism programs in the country. In 2004, the station converted to a digital-only signal and in 2009, dropped PBS affiliation and became one of the largest independent public televisions stations in the country.

The district, which operates the College of San Mateo, Skyline College and Canada College, has experienced the severe financial pressures affecting California higher education generally and community colleges in particular. Throughout the US, colleges and universities have been shedding non-commercial broadcast licenses at a rapid rate, causing a crisis in independent media that has long had a home at educational facilities. KCSM-TV is the largest Bay Area media asset to go on the chopping block so far.

KCSM currently broadcasts a block of distance learning opportunities and on-line courses that provide a lifeline to many Bay Area residents who for reasons of disability or family obligations can’t participate in campus-based education. It also features a variety of cultural-exchange, craft/hobby, theatrical and informational programs including Ideas in Action, the Miller Center forums and Moyers and Company. The station is also one of the few sources for children’s programs free of commercials and provides 16 hours of week of kids TV.

Educational broadcasters are a bulwark against the commercially-driven broadcast media, whose need to deliver eyes and ears to advertisers compels them to avoid potentially controversial content and pander to the audiences that are most likely to buy large amounts of consumer goods. The freedom to present content that appeals to smaller niche audiences or presents ideas that may be challenging to some aspects of the status quo largely belongs to the independent media. So when a big chunk of it goes up for sale, it affects everyone who values the free exchange of ideas without a corporate blockade.

My organization, democratic communication advocates Media Alliance, filed a public records request with the District to obtain the details of the bids for the broadcast license and the documents are available for review at media-alliance.org.

Unsuccessful bidders for the station included Christian broadcaster Daystar Television Networks, low-power San Jose station KAXT, the Minority Television Project, which operates KMPT, Channel 32, and Belmont’s Locus Point Networks, a startup run by two former telecom executives The final two runners-up were Public Media Company, a division of the Colorado LLC Public Radio Capital, the radio brokers who have been active in scooping up college radio stations, and San Mateo Community Television, a newly established nonprofit connected with Independent Public Media of Colorado.

At the October 24th board meeting, district trustees stated repeatedly that despite the collapse of the process, they were unwavering their determination to sell the television license. This follows previous board meetings at which some trustees referred to the $5 million public asset as the equivalent of a junked car.

A new bid cycle is likely to ensue, which will provide an opportunity for an open and transparent process to find a responsible local operator to serve Bay Area residents and their informational and educational needs. It’s more than time for colleges and universities to stop speculating on broadcast infrastructure like Maui condos and strive to fulfill the public interest obligations inherent in the free gift of a non-commercial license to broadcast.

Tracy Rosenberg is the executive director of Media Alliance, an Oakland-based advocate for community media. They can be found at www.media-alliance.org.

The case for Prop F


By Mike Marshall

OPINION Progressives have a rare opportunity to improve San Francisco’s water and power policies by passing Proposition F, the Water Conservation and Yosemite Restoration Initiative, this November. Prop F would require the city to do something it’s been reluctant to do: develop a plan for making our outdated, wasteful water system more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Despite San Francisco’s “green” reputation, we don’t yet recycle water, we treat rainwater as sewage, we wash our streets and flush our toilets with drinking water, and we use Yosemite National Park as a water storage tank (Hetch Hetchy Valley, where we built a dam almost 100 years ago, was one of Yosemite’s grandest valleys and contained an extraordinary ecosystem).

Meanwhile, other California cities and counties have developed much more eco-friendly water systems. Orange County, not known for progressivism, recycles 92 million gallons of water a day.

Opponents of Prop F claim that reform of our water system would be too expensive, but they cite unreliable and inflated cost estimates. One of Prop F’s purposes is to replace such speculation with realistic numbers.

Opponents say it’s “insane” to take away San Francisco’s water source, but that’s misleading; Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is a storage site (one of nine reservoirs in our water system), not a water source. The Tuolumne River is our primary water source, and will remain so regardless of whether we return Hetch Hetchy Valley to the National Park Service for restoration.

Opponents claim we’d lose the hydropower generated by the current system, but our hydropower facilities are downstream from Yosemite, and would continue to power all the same city services they currently do. It’s true that if we relinquish the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, we’ll have less power to sell to other energy markets, but we can make up the difference by increasing our investment in renewable power such as wind and solar, which we should be doing anyway.

In fact, San Francisco owns 42 miles of above-ground right-of-way between Yosemite and the city, where we can place enough solar panels to generate at least 40 megawatts per year—an idea that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has never even considered. This, too, can be part of the plan that will result from passage of Prop F.

Remember, Prop F changes nothing about our current system. It simply requires the formation of a task force with a lean budget of $8 million to develop a specific plan for reform, which will be completed in 2015 and made available for public review, discussion and debate. San Francisco voters would then approve or reject the plan in 2016. Only if voters approve the plan will actual reform begin. This approach is appropriately cautious, thorough and transparent. If the costs of reform are too high, or if our commitment to a sustainable future is too low, voters will reject the plan and our current water system will continue unchanged.

Prop F opponents aren’t waiting to see what the costs of reform might be, or even whether the reform plan makes sense. They want to prevent the plan from happening. How does that serve the interests of San Francisco residents, when the plan would give them essential information about how and whether their water system can become more sustainable?

So please join me in voting for Proposition F. Let’s at least get a water reform plan on the table.

Mike Marshall lives in Hayes Valley is the Executive Director of Restore Hetch Hetchy.

Another look at Olague


OPINION As Election Day nears, the chaotic contest for supervisor in District 5 represents a critical decision for progressive voters in the district — and for activists across the city.

The campaign for Julian Davis, the original first choice of many left/liberal activists, has imploded and is now in free-fall. The repercussions of the board’s vote on Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi continues to reverberate, nowhere more than in District 5. And respected progressive advocates who had worked together for decades are now estranged, even as our city faces urgent challenges of great complexity.

I don’t know Davis or the other candidates in District 5, but I sat down with Supervisor Christina Olague last month after she received the endorsement of the San Francisco Labor Council. It was our first meeting, and as I rode the Metro to Civic Center I was, frankly, not expecting much. Like many San Franciscans, I could not help but be skeptical of anyone appointed by Mayor Ed Lee. I had heard of decisions made and votes cast by Olague that troubled me. I was not expecting to like her, but friends of mine in the labor movement encouraged me to speak with her directly and I’m glad I did.

I started to like Olague as we walked from her office to find some lunch. Before we got to a restaurant I was already asking her questions about some of the tougher choices she’s made. We didn’t agree on everything, of course, but I was struck by her candor, her common sense, and pragmatic progressive values.

Christina Olague grew up in a migrant labor community in the Central Valley. She survived the often-brutal working conditions and poverty that define the lives of some of the most cruelly exploited workers in the United States. She became active in politics early in life, put herself through school, and moved to San Francisco, where she became a familiar figure in the city’s grassroots community.

As a Latina, and as a member of the LGBT community, Olague’s life experiences shaped her politics and basic values. Her candidacy is important in a city that seems every day more destined to become an enclave reserved exclusively for only the very wealthy and most privileged.

I endorsed Olague several weeks before she cast her vote on the struggle between Lee and Mirkarimi. I would have continued to support her regardless of her vote that day. But the bitterness of that controversy, and the nature of the scandal now surrounding Davis, underscore the need for progressives to heal, to repair our alliances and to demonstrate political leadership grounded in respect for all our communities.

The UNITE HERE International Union represents hotel, restaurant, casino, food service and laundry workers throughout the US and Canada. The majority of our members — the people I work for — are immigrant women. In our union we stand together: LGBT and straight, brown and black and white, immigrant and native-born. In all our actions we seek to build power for working people and to strengthen the broader movement for peace and social justice.

San Francisco has seen many changes in the 40 years since I first hitchhiked here as a youth from Arizona. While the political landscape has certainly altered, I reject the notion that the city’s voters have moved irrevocably to the right. I do believe that progressive activists must do better in communicating our values and our vision for this beautiful and unique city we all love. I think Olague could be an important part of that process.

On behalf of the members of UNITE HERE Local 2, and as a longtime organizer for LGBT and worker rights, I ask my many friends in District 5 to take another look at Christina Olague and to consider casting your vote for her on November 6.

Cleve Jones is a longtime activist and the founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt

A new feminism for San Francisco


OPINION Accountability is one of the hardest things that we have to do. Being accountable stretches us to our very limits as human beings. Blame and deflection is a function of shame, and more often than not, when we make a mistake, it’s more common to point the finger at someone else than it is to acknowledge our mistake and work towards a different practice. The story time and time again is how it never happened — and then when the water gets too hot, there’s generally a soft acknowledgment that something did happen, but by then, the damage is done and trust is broken.

As feminists working in the progressive community for social justice, we are calling for a new type of accountability — one that’s not about demonization or polarization, but instead consists of checking ourselves, checking each other, supporting each other when we are brave, and having the courage and integrity to acknowledge our mistakes and work towards making whole what has been damaged.

Progressives need to take a look at ourselves and come together so that we can advance our vision for San Francisco. We aim to build a progressive movement in San Francisco that is rooted in compassion and love, that acknowledges our contradictions and works to create bridges across class, race, and gender that are so often the typical pitfalls that keep us from accomplishing what we really want and need. Checking ourselves is an act of love for ourselves and for our communities.

The last few weeks in San Francisco have not just been about men behaving badly; it’s also been about women treating each other badly. White feminists in San Francisco came together to “save” Eliana Lopez, an immigrant woman of color, but never actually included her in the conversation — and then treated her like she had Stockholm syndrome. Women who supported Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi were suddenly not feminists anymore. Survivors of domestic violence who supported Mirkarimi and supported redemption were shunned by a large portion of the domestic violence community.

We recognize that there are important reasons why domestic violence law allows charges to brought without the consent of the survivor; however, in this case, these laws were misused. How demoralizing to see a largely white, second-wave feminist advocate community come together around a woman they failed to include in the conversation about what she felt was best for herself and her family. Are we still in the 1950s?

The attempt to remove Mirkarimi from office was a political attack. It does a disservice to the cause of domestic violence to use it as a political tool to unseat a politician. At the same time, it was also regrettable that many progressives supporting the sheriff did not take the domestic violence charges against him seriously enough — both in the initial outcry that surrounded the charges and by being disrespectful towards the domestic violence advocates who testified at City Hall.

On the other hand, following close on the heels of the Mirkarimi situation, District 5 candidate Julian Davis was accused of a troubling history of inappropriate and nonconsensual groping by more than one woman. We have to take into account that there is an unacceptable cultural reality that people are likely to believe accusations against men of color by white women that are untrue, but that is not what has happened with the accusations brought forward about Davis.

In this scenario many in the progressive community knew about this history and were complicit in silencing any real conversation about it. It was only when Davis started intimidating one of the women that brought accusations against him with threats of legal action that a real conversation opened up.

Our goal is not to rehash Davis’s past behavior; everyone deserves redemption. However, it would make it easier for those of us who want to work with him going forward if he could take responsibility for his past instead seeking to silence his accusers.

Many have stood up to support the woman who came forward, but sadly others have not. For women and feminists in our movement it was exceedingly demoralizing to watch people who call themselves progressives attack a woman who came forward or dismiss her allegations because of political allegiances. One blog even went so far as to try and discredit her by alleging that she had been in a pornography film, as if somehow this would cast doubt on her allegations.

We seek a kind of feminism that supports and empowers women to make informed choices about their lives, not the type that falls into the same pattern of erasing the voices of women of color and immigrant women. We are calling for a cutting-edge feminist movement that includes men in our strategy of ending violence against women, and a feminist movement that walks away from this tired dualism between “victims and perpetrators,” when we all know that these so-called perpetrators are often victims of violence themselves.

We are calling for restorative justice that bridges the divides of class and race and gender and makes us stronger to achieve the lives that we want and need. We seek a feminist movement that sees housing and economic justice and racial justice and gender justice as all part of the same movement.

The truth of the matter is that in our progressive movement here in San Francisco, there is still a prominence of straight white men who continue to believe that they are the sole arbitrators of what is or is not progressive in this city, who go after women of color in leadership with a ferocity that they do not for our progressive male counterparts, and who continue to excuse problematic behavior in ways that undermine us all.

So much has happened so quickly that it has been hard to orient ourselves and keep fighting for our rights and our communities. After the election, we call for a public conversation around what it means to be a third- or even fourth-wave feminist progressive that we can build our work around — where men are feminist and women of color leaders can actually get some support from the progressive left. Gabriel Haaland is a queer, transgender Labor feminist and domestic violence survivor. Jane Martin and Alicia Garza are queer, feminist community organizers in San Francisco’s working-class communities of color