I started getting all the usual calls last week, from all of the usual national media outlets, with all the usual questions that a local political reporter gets when a local politician makes good. “Who is Nancy Pelosi, really? What do her constituents think of her? Is she going to bring Burning Man and gay marriage to Washington?”
My answer to everyone, from the liberals to the conservatives, was exactly the same:
Relax. There’s nothing to get excited about. Pelosi is by no means a San Francisco liberal. She’s a Washington insider, a born and bred politician who cares more about power and money than she does about any particular ideology.
I’m glad the Democrats are in charge, and Pelosi deserves tremendous credit for making that happen. But she’s not about to push any kind of ambitious left-wing political or cultural agenda.
Just look at her record. Pelosi was weak on the war and late in opposing it. She was the author of the bill that gave that well-known pauper George Lucas the lucrative contract to build a commercial office building in a national park. She worked with Republicans such as Don Fisher of the Gap on the Presidio privatization and set a precedent for the National Park System that the most rabid antigovernment conservatives can love.
Just this week Bloomberg News reported that Pelosi is working with Silicon Valley venture capital firms to weaken the post-Enron Sarbanes-Oxley law, which mandates strict accounting procedures for publicly held corporations.
And just a couple of weeks before the election, she told 60 Minutes that same-sex marriage is “not an issue that we’re fighting about here.”
I think it’s pretty safe to say she’s never been to Burning Man.
Pelosi, who is backing antiwar but also anti-abortion Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha for majority leader, has an agenda for her first 100 hours. It’s nice moderate stuff — raising the minimum wage (to all of $7.25 an hour), lowering interest on student loans (but not replacing loans with grants), and allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower-priced drugs (but not making Medicare a national health insurance program for every American). Tactically, it’s brilliant: there won’t be a lot of national opposition, and Bush will look like a heel if he vetoes the bills.
In fact, as a political strategist and tactician, Pelosi has proven brilliant. She’s whipped together a dysfunctional party and led the most important electoral change to this country in more than a decade.
Along the way, though, she’s pretty much stopped representing San Francisco. On issue after issue, her constituents are way to the left of her. This fall she didn’t even bother to show up in the district (except to extract money for Democratic congressional campaigns around the country). She spent election night in Washington.
There are a lot of people who think that’s fine. Now that she’s speaker, she’ll be able to do a lot for this city, particularly when it comes to bringing in federal money. I appreciate the fact that her work on the national level, which often involved running away from San Francisco, will allow more-progressive Democrats like Los Angeles’s Maxine Waters to chair powerful committees that can go after White House cronyism and corruption.
But if the right-wing talk show hosts are worried about San Francisco liberals like me, they can take it easy: Nancy Pelosi is not one of us. SFBG

East Bay races and measures


Editor’s note: The following story has been altered from the original to correct an error. We had originally identified Courtney Ruby as running for Alameda County Auditor; the office is actually Oakland City Auditor.

Oakland City Auditor
Incumbent Roland Smith has to go. He’s been accused of harassing and verbally abusing his staff and using audits as a political weapon against his enemies. The county supervisors have had to reassign his staff to keep him from making further trouble. And yet somehow he survived the primary with 32 percent of the vote, putting him in a November runoff against Courtney Ruby, who led the field with 37 percent. Ruby, an experienced financial analyst, would bring some credibility back to the office.
Peralta Community College Board, District 7
Challenger Abel Guillen has extensive knowledge of public school financing and a proven commitment to consensus building and government accountability. In the last six years Guillen, who was raised in a working-class community and was the first in his family to go to college, has raised $2.2 billion in bond money to construct and repair facilities in school districts and at community colleges. Incumbent Alona Clifton has been accused of not being responsive to teachers’ concerns about the board’s spending priorities and openness.
Berkeley mayor
This race has progressives tearing at each other’s throats, particularly since they spent a ton of cash last time around to oust former mayor Shirley Dean and replace her with Tom Bates, who used to be known as a reliable progressive voice.
Bates’s reputation has shifted since he became mayor, and his record is a mixed bag. This time around, he stands accused of setting up a shadow government (via task forces that duplicate existing commissions but don’t include enough community representatives), of giving developers too many special favors instead of fighting for more community benefits, and of increasingly siding with conservative and pro-landlord city council member Gordon Wozniak.
The problem is that none of Bates’s opponents look like they would be effective as mayor. So lacking any credible alternative, we’ll go with Bates.
Berkeley City Council, District 1
Incumbent Linda Maio’s voting record has been wimpy at times, but she is a strong proponent of affordable housing, and her sole challenger, Merrilie Mitchell, isn’t a terribly serious candidate. Vote for Maio.
Berkeley City Council, District 2
A valiant champion of every progressive cause, incumbent Dona Spring is one of the unsung heroes of Berkeley. Using a wheelchair, she puts in the energy equivalent of two or three council members and always remains on the visionary cutting edge. If that weren’t enough, her sole challenger, Latino businessman and zoning commissioner Raudel Wilson, has the endorsement of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce. Vote for Spring.
Berkeley City Council, District 7
Incumbent Kriss Worthington is an undisputed champion of progressive causes and a courageous voice who isn’t afraid to take criticism in an age of duck and run, including the fallout he’s been experiencing following the closure of Cody’s on Telegraph Avenue, something conservatives have tried to link to his support for the homeless. His sole challenger is the evidently deep-pocketed George Beier, who describes himself as a community volunteer but has the support of landlords and the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce and has managed to blanket District 7 with signage and literature, possibly making his one of the most tree-unfriendly campaigns in Berkeley’s electoral history. Keep Berkeley progressive and vote for Worthington.
Berkeley City Council, District 8
Incumbent Gordon Wozniak postures as if he is going to be mayor one day, and he’s definitely the most conservative member of the council. During his tenure, Wozniak has come up with seven different ways to raise rents on tenants in Berkeley, and he didn’t even vote against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s special election last year. Challenger Jason Overman may be only 20 years old, but he’s already a seasoned political veteran, having been elected to the Rent Stabilization Board two years ago. Vote for Overman.
Berkeley city auditor
Ann-Marie Hogan is running unopposed for this nonpartisan post, which is hardly surprising since she’s done a great job so far and has widespread support.
Berkeley school director
With five candidates in the running and only three seats open, some are suggesting progressives cast only one vote — for Karen Hemphill — to ensure she becomes board president in two years, since the job goes to the person with the most votes in the previous election.
Hemphill has done a great job and has the support of Latino and African American parent groups, so a vote for her is a no-brainer.
So is any vote that helps make sure that incumbents Shirley Issel and David Baggins don’t get reelected.
Nancy Riddle isn’t a hardcore liberal, but she’s a certified public accountant, so she has number-crunching skills in her favor. Our third pick is Norma Harrison, although her superradical talk about capitalism being horrible and schools being like prisons needs to be matched with some concrete and doable suggestions.
Rent Stabilization Board
If it weren’t for the nine-member elected Rent Stabilization Board, Berkeley would have long since been taken over by the landlords and the wealthy. This powerful agency has been controlled by progressives most of the time, and this year there are five strong progressives running unopposed for five seats on the board. We recommend voting for all of them.
Oakland City Council
When we endorsed Aimee Allison in the primary in June, we pointed out that this was a crucial race: incumbent Patrician Kernighan has been a staunch ally of outgoing mayor Jerry Brown and Councilmember Ignacio de La Fuente — and now that Ron Dellums is taking over the Mayor’s Office and a new political era could be dawning in Oakland, it’s crucial that the old prodevelopment types don’t control the council.
Kernighan’s vision of Oakland has always included extensive new commercial and luxury housing development, and like De La Fuente, she’s shown little concern for gentrification and displacement. Allison, a Green Party member, is the kind of progressive who could make a huge difference in Oakland, and she’s our clear and unequivocal choice for this seat.
From crime to city finance, Allison is well-informed and has cogent, practical proposals. She favors community policing and programs to help the 10,000 parolees in Oakland. She wants the city to collect an annual fee from the port, which brings in huge amounts of money and puts very little into the General Fund. She wants to promote environmentally sound development, eviction protections, and a stronger sunshine ordinance. Vote for Allison.
East Bay Municipal Utility District director, Ward 4
Environmental planner Andy Katz is running unopposed. Despite his relative youth, he’s been an energetic and committed board member and deserves another term.
AC Transit director at large
Incumbent Rebecca Kaplan is a fixture on the East Bay progressive political scene and has been a strong advocate of free bus-pass programs and environmentally sound policies over the years. A former public interest lawyer, Kaplan’s only challenger is paralegal James K. Muhammad.
Berkeley measures
Measure A
This measure takes two existing taxes and combines them into one but without increasing existing rates. Since 30 percent of local teachers will get paid out of the revenue from this measure, a no vote could devastate the quality of education in the city. Vote yes.
Measure E
Measure E seeks to eliminate the need to have a citywide special election every time a vacancy occurs on the Rent Stabilization Board, a process that currently costs about $400,000 and consumes huge amounts of time and energy. The proposal would require that vacancies be filled at November general elections instead, since that ballot attracts a wider and more representative group of voters. In the interim, the board would fill its own vacancies.
Measure F
Measure F follows the council’s October 2005 adoption of amendments that establish the proper use for public and commercial recreation sports facilities, thereby allowing development of the proposed Gilman Street fields. Vote yes.
Measure G
Measure G is a nice, feel-good advisory measure that expresses Berkeley’s opinion about the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions to the global climate and advises the mayor to work with the community to come up with a plan that would significantly reduce such emissions, with a target of an 80 percent reduction by 2050. Vote yes.
Measure H
In left-leaning Berkeley this is probably the least controversial measure on the ballot. Do we really need to spell out all over again the many reasons why you should vote yes on this issue?
If this measure passes, both Berkeley and San Francisco will have taken public stands in favor of impeachment, which won’t by itself do much to force Congress to act but will start the national ball rolling. Vote yes.
Measure I
Measure I is a really bad idea, one that links the creation of home ownership opportunities to the eviction of families from their homes. It was clearly cooked up by landlord groups that are unhappy with Berkeley’s current condo conversion ordinance, which allows for 100 conversions a year. Measure I proposes increasing that limit to 500 conversions a year, which could translate into more than 1,000 people facing evictions. Those evictions will hit hardest on the most financially vulnerable — seniors, the disabled, low- and moderate-income families, and children. With less than 15 percent of current Berkeley tenants earning enough to purchase their units, this measure decreases the overall supply of rentals, eliminates requirements to disclose seismic conditions to prospective buyers, and violates the city’s stated commitment to fairness, compassion, and economic diversity. Vote no.
Measure J
A well-meaning measure that’s opposed by developers, Measure J earns a lukewarm yes. It establishes a nine-member Landmarks Preservation Commission; designates landmarks, structures of merit, and historic districts; and may approve or deny alteration of such historic resources but may not deny their demolition. It’s worth noting that if Proposition 90 passes, the city could face liability for damages if Measure J is found to result in substantial economic loss to property — all of which gives us yet another reason to say “vote no” on the horribly flawed Prop. 90 while you’re voting yes on Measure J.
Oakland Measures
Measure M
Measure M would amend the City Charter to allow the board that oversees the Oakland Police and Fire Retirement System (PFRS) slightly more leeway in making investment decisions. The board claims that its current requirements — which bar investment in stocks that don’t pay dividends — are hampering returns. That’s an issue: between July 2002 and July 2005, the unfunded liability of the PFRS grew from $200 million to $268 million — a liability for which the city of Oakland is responsible. We’re always nervous about giving investment managers the ability to use public money without close oversight, but the new rules would be the same as ones currently in place in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Measure N
Oakland wants to improve and expand all library branch facilities, construct a new main library at the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, and buy land for and construct two new library facilities in the Laurel and 81st Avenue communities. The upgrades and construction plans come in response to residents’ insistence that they need more space for studying and meeting, increased library programs and services, tutoring and homework assistance for children, increased literacy programs, and greater access to current technology and locations that offer wi-fi.
This $148 million bond would cost only $40 a year for every $100,000 of assessed property. Vote yes.
Measure O
Ranked-choice voting, or instant runoff voting, is a great concept. The city of Oakland is using it to elect officials in the November election without holding a prior June election. There’s only one problem: so far, Alameda County hasn’t invested in voting equipment that could make implementing this measure possible. Voting yes is a first step in forcing the county’s hand in the right direction. SFBG

Writing wrongs


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If there’s one person you would expect to condemn the present state of America’s political affairs, it would be Billy Bragg, right? Surely Britain’s punk poet laureate should be grabbing every microphone within reaching distance to decry the evils of our current administration. But surprisingly, his reaction is quite the opposite. “I’m encouraged by the results of the last two elections, because I believe that America has not yet decided what kind of country it’s going to be in the 21st century,” he says on the phone from Winnepeg.
Bragg is currently on a bit of a multitasking tour to showcase his two latest works: Volume II (YepRoc), a box set, and The Progressive Patriot, a book. While Volume II is an expected retrospective that covers the second half of Bragg’s career from 1988 onward, The Progressive Patriot is uncharted territory for the singer-songwriter, a treatise that addresses Britain’s national identity, the emergence of organized racism, and the political road that weaves between the two.
Much as in Britain, Bragg sees battles of ideology as a key proving ground in the future of our country and agrees with the concept of “two Americas” as it pertains to the states’ political climate. “On one hand you’ve got the neoconservative Christian right, who are getting everybody to vote and still can’t get a majority,” he says, “and on the other side you’ve got the more compassionate idea of America as a multicultural society, which just can’t get everybody to vote.” Yet as bleak and insurmountable a problem as this may seem, Bragg takes the long view. “I’m in a fortunate position. I have the opportunity to travel around and meet people trying to manifest that ‘other’ America. Reading local newspapers in America, you see all sorts of things that are going completely against the neoconservative agenda in some states.” Volume II picks up at a crucial period of Bragg’s career, kicking off with his 1988 release, Workers Playtime (Go! Discs/Elektra). The album marked Bragg’s transition from punk iconoclast to, as he would later affectionately come to be known, the “Bard from Barking.” Instead of using just his guitar and a portable amp as on his earlier recordings, Bragg included bits of orchestration on Workers, plus a band to accompany his songs of law, love, and everything in between. “The album of lost love. It’s my great lost soul album!” he says with a wistful chuckle.
At the heart of that bittersweet collection is the amazing “Valentine’s Day Is Over,” a woman’s lament over her lover, rough economic times, and the beatings that result. “That economy and brutality are related / Now I understand,” the protagonist explains wearily. Bragg feels a particular satisfaction with that song and the topics it tackles. “I often cite that as the ideal Billy Bragg song because politics and ‘the love song’ overlap in that song. It’s a really hard thing to do, rather than being a ‘love song writer’ or a ‘political song writer.’ I hate it when people divide those two. Life isn’t divided like that.”
The ever-encircled worlds of life and politics also led Bragg to write the new book, with the ideas spurred by everything from recent elections in his hometown to raising his young son. “A far-right political party called the BNP earned a seat on the council in my hometown of Barking, East London,” the songwriter says. “That was a real shock to me because these were the people that I came into politics fighting. I realized that it needed something more than just writing a song.” Being a father further drives his desire for intelligent debate around the future of his country. His concerns about nationalism are expressed in the interest of cohesion, not the racist ideal of exclusion. He explains, “I’m interested to hear your background, but what is important to me is how my children and your children are going to get on with each other. Everything else is secondary to that.”
As you might expect, Bragg’s MySpace page also bears the mark of his beliefs and ideas. It also contains his songs: items that were conspicuously absent during his recent showdown with the networking Web site. Having successfully lobbied MySpace to retool their artist agreement so that the site doesn’t “own” any artist’s uploaded content, Bragg is now taking on MTV Flux, another networking site that features an upload ability similar to YouTube. A video featuring his challenge to Flux dots the page, along with archival footage of him at various events, such as a concert in Washington, DC, in 2002. That day he addressed the crowd and warned them of a greater looming evil — not of conservatives or imperialism but of cynicism.
He still stands behind that message. “I know from personal experience that cynicism eats away your soul,” Bragg says. “God knows Tony Blair’s been spreading cynicism around for the last few years. I’ve had to fight my own.” SFBG
Thurs/5, 8 and 10:30 p.m.
Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell, SF
(415) 885-0750
Sat/7, 4:40 p.m.
Speedway Meadow
Golden Gate Park, SF

Progressive Voter Index


By Steven T. Jones
Despite Mayor Gavin Newsom’s rhetorical efforts to dismiss the importance of ideology in San Francisco politics, this is a town the is deeply divided between progressives and Establishment moderate-to-conservatives. And the battle we fight is an important one that will determine whether San Francisco remains open to low-wage workers, tolerant of diversity, and a leader in combatting the dismal and divisive policies being perpetrated on the state and federal levels.
OK, OK, maybe y’all know that. But to get more insights in where the battlelines are drawn in San Francisco — right down to the level of individual precincts and neighborhoods — you’ll need to spend a little time studying the latest version of the Progressive Voters Index. Kudos to political scientists Rich DeLeon and David Latterman — and the good folks over at www.sfusualsuspects — for providing this valuable resource.

Shackling the tax man


Late last month, David Cay Johnston of the New York Times managed to get a story about IRS layoffs picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle and placed on page three. That’s no small challenge, even in one of the most politically charged cities in the nation. It was not a sexy story, neither to liberals nor to conservatives.
But the story’s timing was impeccable.
Johnston reported that the IRS was poised to lay off 157 of its 345 estate- and gift-tax attorneys working at agency offices throughout the country — a division of investigators that generates more revenue for the federal treasury by catching tax cheats than any other group of auditors, about $2,200 for every hour that they work.
Dismantling the estate tax has been among the most aggressive crusades taken up by the Republican Party and its friendliest contributors for at least the last decade. Leaked to the Times by IRS whistle-blowers, the story about the layoffs surfaced just days before Congress rejected for the fifth time since 2001 an attempt by fiscal conservatives to get rid of the estate tax. The legislation failed despite Republican control of both the House and Senate. Even tempting Democrats with the first federal minimum-wage hike in 10 years couldn’t do the trick.
So how could defending the estate tax and the right of the IRS to collect it survive two branches of the federal government dominated by a political party that holds most taxation in contempt? It’s because families awash in seemingly infinite wealth are the only ones who get hit by the tax — despite false claims made by the GOP that the estate tax kills small businesses.
California filed more estate-tax returns in 2001 than any other state in the country by a margin of thousands. The only state that came close was Florida, and California still filed around 6,000 more returns, according to the most recent IRS numbers.
In other words, the Golden State is filthy, stinking rich and more vulnerable to the estate tax than other states. GOP party leaders in Washington insist the issue will return in the form of a new bill, and the IRS is behaving as if the estate tax has already disappeared. If it does, the richest families in the United States — highly concentrated in California and the Bay Area — stand to collectively save billions of dollars.
The Bay Area contains within its sloping hills and mammoth upstart tech firms higher income levels and more general wealth than almost anywhere else in the country. In fact, the San Francisco metropolitan area is the fourth wealthiest in the nation, according to Merrill Lynch, and two tiny cities between here and Mountain View, where Google is based, have the highest per capita median income in the United States. Those two cities, Atherton and Hillsborough, have a combined population of about 17,000, and while many of these techie tycoons are young, the day will come when they die and pass millions of dollars on to their descendants. Will there be enough tax investigators available to audit those estates? Will there even be an estate tax?
Following Johnston’s revelations, a Times editorial suggested the layoffs were a politically motivated attempt by the Bush White House to circumvent the legislative process. What it can’t accomplish through Congress it can do by handcuffing the tax police.
“This is an election year issue,” said Jay Adkisson, a private sector tax lawyer from Laguna Niguel who documents egregious cases of fraud on his Web site, Quatloos! “They’re trying to appease Republican voters who were angry over the failure of Congress to do something about the estate tax.”
The story of the IRS layoffs didn’t just catch the attention of readers. Congress responded too. Twenty-three lawmakers — including, somewhat predictably, Democrat Tom Lantos of California’s 12th District — immediately fired off a letter to Bush-appointed IRS commissioner Mark Everson demanding to know if the agency could now effectively investigate estate-tax avoiders.
None but the most obscenely wealthy Americans pay even a dime in taxes when they earn an inheritance upon a death in the family. Estates aren’t hit with taxes until they reach a value of $2 million, or $4 million for a married couple. Only estates exceeding those amounts are assessed any tax, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).
And if the family hires a savvy tax attorney or estate planner, those nontaxable values could easily rise to $10 million, according to Adkisson.
A research director at the Brookings Institution named Diane Lim Rogers opined in the Chronicle last May that because of current exemptions, about one half of one percent of dead people will actually be followed to the grave by the tax man. Besides, it’s the beneficiaries of an inheritance who pay. Despite grand claims made by Republicans that the beneficiaries of an estate will be paying half of what they’re handed in taxes, even the estates eligible for taxation see on average a 20 percent rate, according to the CBPP, which relied on the IRS for its statistics. For those who do pay estate taxes, deep discounts are available through charitable donations.
“The argument made about lots of people being ‘burdened’ by estate taxes is that they go through lots of convoluted tax-planning strategies in order to avoid the estate tax, so even if they don’t end up paying any estate tax, they are still adversely affected [burdened] by the existence of the tax,” Rogers wrote in an e-mail to the Guardian.
But even considering the cost of estate planning, Rogers said, no one would rationally spend more avoiding taxes than they would actually paying them.
Keith Schiller, a respected private sector tax attorney based in Orinda, earns princely sums teaching millionaires how to take advantage of loopholes in the federal tax code. He’s not opposed to the estate tax on principle; he just wants to simplify the way his clients pay their dues.
“I do believe the estate tax serves a social function of breaking down generational dynastic wealth,” he said in a phone interview.
Schiller said the IRS is conducting nowhere near the estate-tax audits it once did and that may be the only justification for laying off auditors. Still, the knowledge required by agency investigators to analyze and understand complex estate-tax avoidance schemes is immense. About 50 estate- and gift-tax attorneys based in Southern California and the Bay Area exclusively handle returns filed for the IRS from inside the state.
David Dean, president of the San Jose–based National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) Local 238, said it’s not clear which offices will have layoffs. All 350 estate-tax auditors are being offered buyout deals that include their pensions plus up to $25,000, or $13,000 after taxes.
Dean and the NTEU, which represents the auditors and opposes the layoffs, insist the IRS isn’t entirely sure how much money is hidden from the agency each year through either elaborate trusts or simple refusals to file. It’s known as the “tax gap,” and three days after Johnston’s story appeared, the inspector general of the IRS, J. Russell George, told Congress that the agency’s estimated figures for delinquent estate taxes hadn’t been updated in years. His report described a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the IRS expressed no desire to update the figures because “consideration is being given to eliminating or reducing the number of people required to pay estate taxes.” The last estimate was about $8 billion, but that figure is for the most part unreliable, he testified.
But the law still exists, regardless of whether an anti–estate tax agenda eventually succeeds in Congress.
“If a law is on the books, you still have to close down on the cheaters,” said JJ MacNab, an estate planner who spent 18 years in the Bay Area working for tech clients. “If you don’t enforce a law on the books, no one’s going to have faith in the system.”
MacNab now lives in Washington and as a hobby assists people who buy into tax-avoidance schemes that turn out to be illegal. She said these days, it’s low-income earners who are likelier to be audited, a conclusion Johnston also came to in his 2003 best-seller, Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich — and Cheat Everybody Else. The book shows how the recent layoffs are a small part of a larger movement to weaken the IRS’s investigative capabilities.
And that movement begins with those who can afford to fund it. Who are they? Well, they’re not your average farmer.
Consistently during the debate over estate taxes, the GOP has co-opted the populist language that once dominated America’s agrarian communities by claiming that the “death tax” bleeds poor farming families dry. It’s a spectacular rhetorical tool, but it’s an ugly distortion.
In fact, it’s the nation’s wealthiest families who have led the charge to dismantle the estate tax, not its small farmers, according to an April report put together by two groups, Public Citizen and United for a Fair Economy. The analysis identified a handful of enormously wealthy families that stand to save more than $70 billion if their lobbying efforts succeed. And that lobbying effort, the report notes, has amounted to around $490 million in direct and indirect lobbying expenditures since 1998.
The list includes Ernest Gallo of the E & J Gallo Winery, based in Modesto, and John A. Sobrato of Sobrato Development, listed by Forbes as one of the largest commercial landlords in Silicon Valley, with a familial net worth of approximately $2 billion. The Gallo family is reportedly worth about $1 billion.
The rest of the list is in part a who’s who of America’s billionaires: Wal-Mart’s Walton family; Charles and David Koch of the nation’s largest privately held company, the Kansas-based Koch Industries (also benefactors of libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, founded in San Francisco); and the Dorrance family of the Campbell Soup Co.
Ernest Gallo’s participation in antitax measures is particularly well documented. Elected officials he has supported with contributions in the past sponsored federal legislation in the ’70s and ’80s that allowed for millions of dollars in estate-tax exemptions for the Gallo family. One bill was even dubbed by estate-tax supporters the “Gallo amendment.”
The Public Citizen report links the Gallos to anti–estate tax lobbyist Patricia Soldano and her Orange County–based Policy and Taxation Group (PTG), which has spent $4 million lobbying solely against the estate tax since 1998. While the authors are unable to pinpoint exactly how much the Gallos had given to PTG directly, both the Sobratos and the Gallos are listed as clients of the group. The Gallos have reportedly spent hundreds of thousands of their own dollars supporting individual candidates.
It’s doubtful that very many people who actually paid estate taxes last year would know how to repair a grain harvester. In 2001, Johnston of the Times famously challenged the anti–estate tax American Farm Bureau Federation and the Bush administration to find just one example of a farm estate being sold to pay the taxes on it. Johnston reported they were unable to do so.
Estate planner Schiller likened opponents of the estate tax to medieval villagers who complained of gout to prove how well nourished they were.
“People want to believe they have an estate-tax problem,” he said, “so they can feel successful.” SFBG

Ballot measures


Results for the props are interesting, too. Prop. A is behind, 53-47, but that’s the conservative side of town showing up in the absentees. So there’s a good chance it will survive. Prop. B, the TIC-disclosure measure, is ahead, 50-49, which means it’s almost certainly going to be victorious; if the conservatives are voting for it, it’s over.

Prop. D is losing, big — 32.8 yes, 67 percent no. That means this one is over, and Doug Comstock, the campaign manager, as much as admitted it to me a few minutes ago.

Marry, marry quite contrary


In the coming year the federal government will unfurl a $500 million grant program with the sole purpose of encouraging low-income people to get hitched. The idea is that advertising, counseling, and mentoring by real, live married couples will increase the marriage rate in "at-risk" communities — leading to increased prosperity.

Conservatives have long argued that pushing marriage is just smart social policy. After all, studies have shown that married people tend to have more stable, financially secure lives that are more conducive to child rearing. Though the jury is still out on exactly how this correlation works (it’s possible that financially secure people are simply that much more likely to wed, rather than the other way around), President George W. Bush has been championing marriage since at least 2001.

His plan to promote the institution among the poor immediately generated opposition from feminists, domestic violence activists, libertarians, and advocates for the poor. And Congress proved unwilling to find the money — until this month.

Buried in the federal budget reconciliation bill approved Feb. 1 was language that directs up to $150 million a year through 2010 to programs meant to encourage marriage and "responsible fatherhood." Each year up to $50 million will go to "father-oriented" grants; the rest will go to promoting wedlock.

Though the funding got almost no press coverage, skepticism remains high among advocates for women and the poor. And it’s fed by a seemingly inconsistent provision in the bill, one that will make it so that two-parent families on welfare are less likely to get cash assistance — just because they’re married.

The first and probably most obvious complaint about marriage promotion is that the state should not be involved in people’s personal decisions about if, when, and whom to marry. For some, the emphasis on traditional, heterosexual unions also smacks of religious and moral fundamentalism.

There’s also the fact that a marriage — no matter how loving, satisfying, or good for the kids — doesn’t directly help someone’s economic standing. Some advocates for the poor would prefer to see money invested directly in services, job training, or cash grants.

Plus, some marriages just aren’t loving or satisfying or good for the kids. Studies have shown that roughly 65 percent of women who are receiving welfare have been battered during the past three years. Pushing victims of domestic violence into unions could have tragic consequences, activists say.

But the most basic criticism of this approach — and one that’s particularly common among women who are familiar with the welfare system — is that having a man around doesn’t necessarily improve a woman’s economic status, no matter how much more men tend to be paid.

Albany resident Renita Pitts, who has five kids and was married for close to 20 years, told us that having a husband can often feel like "having another child — another grown child. At least the little ones mind."

Pitts says that, except for a few years when she was working, she and her ex-husband spent most of their marriage on welfare and using drugs. On occasion, he also beat her.

"The minute my husband left, I was able to get off drugs," she said. "My whole life just opened up. I started going to school full time; I became a citizen in my community. It seemed like my life improved financially, emotionally, and physically."

Pitts is now getting a Bachelor of Arts from UC Berkeley, where she also hopes to complete a PhD in African American Studies. In her free time she works with the Women of Color Resource Center because she wants to show other women that even when it doesn’t seem like it, they have options.

Pitts is worried about marriage-promotion policies, which she described as "another way or form to control low-income women’s bodies." If the government wanted to help women find stability, she said, they would focus on education, health care, and job training. Saying the bill is "contradictory in so many ways," Pitts pointed out the inherent discrimination against gays and lesbians and the incongruence with welfare laws that privilege single-parent families.

As the director of Welfare Policy for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank in Washington, DC, Sharon Parrott was one of the first people to note that particular inconsistency. In a Jan. 31 policy paper, she pointed out that during legislative negotiations Republicans had backed off of earlier plans to eliminate rules that penalize married couples. This resulted in a strange contradiction in the bill: It earmarks unprecedented funding for marriage promotion, but also requires states to enforce newer, tighter work requirements for two-parent families on welfare. Those requirements are so strict that analysts like Parrott believe states that offer assistance to two-parent families will be penalized automatically — and might stop giving couples the same kind of help that’s currently available to single adults.

Parrott told us that the contradiction seems to be the result of complicated legislative rules dictating what can or cannot be included in a budget bill — rather than some intentional and nefarious plot to reduce welfare rolls. But she said that the contradiction shows that, "for all the lip service they’ve played to marriage, when it comes to helping poor two-parent families, they are not so committed."

She also pointed out that the fiscal 2007 budget proposal Bush sent to Congress Feb. 6 suggests upping the annual investment in marriage and fatherhood promotion to $250 million per year. *