David Lee

Sorting out a strange election


steve@sfbg.com, tredmond@sfbg.com

The way the San Francisco Chronicle pundits put it, Mayor Ed Lee was the clear winner in a grand San Francisco election. “All his measures on the ballot won hands down,” noted Willie Brown, the high-paid lawyer and political operative who also functions as a Chron columnist. “It was a great day for Ed Lee,” proclaimed columnist C.W. Nevius.

Well, not really.

There are a lot of ways to explain and analyze the inconsistent results of one of the most heavily propagandized elections in recent San Francisco history. But no matter how you look at it, the election was at best a wash for the mayor. Indeed, we’d argue that voters rejected the basic premise of the mayor’s political agenda – that tax cuts and favors for big business are the best economic policy – despite record-breaking outside spending selling that agenda and targeting those who stood in its way.

Let’s take a look at the real facts:

• Every single initiative backed by the mayor, the ones he’s getting credit for – from the City College parcel tax to the housing fund to the business tax – was either a compromise with progressives or a measure that originated on the left. There was nothing the mayor pushed that had any significant progressive opposition; his wins were equally, if not more dramatically, wins for the left.

• Both people the mayor appointed to office were soundly rejected by the voters. Rodrigo Santos, his high-profile appointee to the troubled City College Board of Trustees, spent almost $200,000 and finished a distant sixth. Sup. Christina Olague lost to the candidate Lee had rejected for appointment, London Breed, in a complicated race where the mayor’s actual role was unclear (he never withdrew his endorsement of Olague even as his allies trashed her in nasty ways).

• A million-dollar effort funded by some of the mayor’s allies to oust Sup. Eric Mar was a spectacular failure, suggested some serious problems in the mayor’s political operation, and undermined his emphasis on “civility.”

• The voters made clear on every level that they believe higher taxes on the wealthy and closing tax loopholes on big business are the right approach to the economy and to funding government. From Prop. 30 to Prop. 39 to Prop. A to Prop. E, the message was pretty clear: The tax revolt that started in California in 1978 may be winding down, and the notion of making property owners and the wealthy pay for education and public services is no longer a radical idea.

Robert Cruikshank, who writes for the Calitics blog, argues that the November election signals a major sea change in California. “[The] vote to pass Prop 30 — by a larger margin than most observers expected — does more than just provide $6 billion of badly needed funding to the state’s public school,” he wrote. “It brings to a close a 34-year long tax revolt that came very close to destroying California’s middle class, locking its low income families into permanent poverty, and left the state on the edge of financial ruin.”

That sounds like a progressive message. The agenda put forward by the mayor’s closest allies, including right-wing billionaire Ron Conway, who played a heavy-handed role in this election, not only failed to carry the day; the big-money types may have overplayed their hand in a way that will shape the political narratives going forward.


Let’s start with the ballot measures (before we get to the huge and confusing mess that was D5).

Proposition A, the parcel tax for City College, didn’t come out of the Mayor’s Office at all; it came from a City College board whose direction the mayor tried to undermine with the appointment of Santos, a pro-development engineer so conservative that he actually endorsed the Republican opponent of Assembly member Tom Ammiano.

Lee didn’t even endorse Prop. A until a few weeks before the election, and played almost no role in raising money or campaigning for its passage (see “Words and deeds,” 9/11/12). Yet it got a higher percentage of the vote than any of the three measures that Lee actively campaigned for: Props. B, C, and E.

Then there’s Prop. C, the Housing Trust Fund. Lee’s office played a central role in drafting and promoting the measure -– but it wasn’t exactly a Lee initiative. Prop. C came out of the affordable housing community, and Lee, who has strong ties to that community, went along. There were tough negotiations -– the mayor wanted more guarantees and protections for private developers -– and the final product was much more what the progressives who have spent decades on the housing front wanted than what the mayor would have done on his own.

The way the mayor envisioned business-tax reform, the city would have eliminated the payroll tax, which tech firms hate, and replaced it with a gross-receipts tax -– and the result would have been revenue-neutral. It was only after Sup. John Avalos and the progressives demanded that the tax actually bring in more money that the outlines of Prop. E were drafted and it received strong support from groups across the ideological spectrum.

“You had a lot of consensus in the city about these ballot measures,” political consultant David Latterman, who usually works with downtown-backed campaigns, said at SPUR’s post-election round-up.

The supervisorial races were a different story, with unprecedented spending and nasty messaging aimed at tipping the balance in favor of real estate and development interests. Mayor Lee didn’t get directly involved in the District 1 race, but he was clearly not a supporter of incumbent Sup. Eric Mar.

The real-estate and tech folks who are allied with Lee spent more than $800,000 trying to oust Mar — and they failed miserably, with Mar winning by 15 points. While Mar did have the backing of Chinatown powerbroker Rose Pak, who raised money and helped organize ground troops to help, Mar’s victory was primarily the result of a massive outpouring of support from labor and progressive activists, many reacting to the over-the-top effort to oust him.

Mar, who voted to put Lee in office, won’t feel a bit indebted to the mayor for his survival against a huge money onslaught. But in District 5, the story was a whole lot more complicated, and impact more difficult to discern.


Before we get into what happened in D5, let’s dispel some of the simplistic and self-serving stories that circulated in the wake of this election, the most prominent being that Olague’s loss -– the first time an incumbent was defeated in a ranked-choice election –- was payback for crossing Mayor Lee and voting to reinstatement Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.

It’s certainly true that Lee’s allies went after Olague and supported London Breed, and that they tried to make an issue of domestic violence, but there was much, much more to this district election. Breed is an SF native with a compelling personal story who ran a strong campaign –- and that three strongest progressive candidates in the race each had major flaws that hurt their electability. By most accounts, the Olague campaign was a disaster until the very end. Equally important, the progressive community was divided over D5, leaving room for Breed to slip in.

“It’s hard to unravel what happened here,” Latterman said.

San Francisco Women for Responsibility and an Accountable Supervisor was an independent expenditure group fronted by domestic violence advocates and funded by more than $100,000 from the families of Conway and fellow right-wing billionaire Thomas Coates. It attacked Olague’s Mirkarimi vote as being soft on domestic violence — but it also did a last minute mailer criticizing Olague’s vote for CleanPowerSF, muddling its message of moral outrage.

On election night, Olague told us she believed her split with the Mayor’s Office really had more to do with CleanPowerSF –- which the board approved with a veto-proof majority over the objections of Lee and the business community –- and with her insisting on new revenue from Prop. E than it did with Mirkarimi, whose ouster she dismissed as “a power play” aimed at weakening progressives.

“They don’t want to say it, but it was the whole thing around CleanPowerSF. Do you think PG&E wanted to lose its monopoly?” she said.

Yet Olague said the blame from her loss was also shared by progressives, who were hard on her for supporting Lee, courting his appointment to the D5 seat, and for voting with him on 8 Washington luxury condo project and other high-profile issues. “The left and the right both came at me,” she told us. “From the beginning, people were hypercritical of me in ways that might not be completely fair.”

Fair or not, Olague’s divided loyalties hurt her campaign for the D5 seat, with most prominent progressives only getting behind her at the end of the race after concluding that John Rizzo’s lackluster campaign wasn’t going anywhere, and that Julian Davis, marred as he was by his mishandling of sexual impropriety accusations, couldn’t and shouldn’t win.

Olague told us she “can’t think of anything I would have done differently.” But she later mentioned that she should have raised the threats to renters earlier, worked more closely with other progressive candidates, and relied on grassroots activists more than political consultants connected to the Mayor’s Office.

“The left shouldn’t deal with consultants, we should use steering committees to drive the agenda,” Olague said, noting that her campaign finally found its footing in just the last couple weeks of the race.

Inside sources say Olague’s relations with Lee-connected campaign consultant Enrique Pearce soured months before the campaign finally sidelined him in the final weeks, the result of his wasteful spending on ineffective strategies and divided loyalties once a wedge began to develop between Olague and the Mayor’s Office.

Progressive endorsements were all over the map in the district: The Harvey Milk Club endorsed Davis then declined to withdraw that endorsement. The Tenants Union wasn’t with Olague. The Guardian endorsed Rizzo number one. And none of the leading progressive candidates had a credible ranked-choice voting strategy — Breed got nearly as many second-place votes from Davis and Rizzo supporters as Olague did.

Meanwhile, Breed had a high-profile falling out with Brown, her one-time political ally, after her profanity-laden criticism of Brown appeared in Fog City Journal and then the San Francisco Chronicle, causing US Sen. Dianne Feinstein to withdraw her endorsement of Breed. That incident and Olague’s ties to Lee, Brown, and Pak may have solidified perceptions of Breed’s independence among even progressive voters, which the late attacks on her support from landlords weren’t ever able to overcome.

Ironically, while Breed and some of her prominent supporters, including African American ministers in the district, weren’t happy when Lee bypassed her to appoint Olague, that may have been her key to victory. Latterman noted that while Olague was plagued by having to divide loyalties between Lee and her progressive district and make votes on tough issues like reinstating Mirkarimi –- a vote that could hurt the D5 supervisor in either direction -– Breed was free to run her race and reinforce her independence: “I think Supervisor Breed doesn’t win this race; challenger Breed did.”

But even if Breed lives up to progressive fears, the balance of power on the Board of Supervisors could be up in the air. District 7 soundly rejected Mike Garcia, the hand-picked successor of the conservative outgoing Sup. Sean Elsbernd.

At press time, progressive favorite Norman Yee seemed headed for victory, although FX Crowley was within about 30 votes, making this too close to call. But either way, the once-solid conservative seat will now be a swing vote on many issues, just as Breed will be in the once-solid progressive D5.

“The Board of Supervisors as a whole is becoming a helluva lot more interesting,” was how political consultant Alex Clemens put it at SPUR election wrap-up. “Determining what’s going to happen before it happens just got more difficult.”


The other big story of this election was money, gobs of it, and how it can be spent effectively — or used to raise suspicions about hidden agendas.

Third-party spending on D1 loser David Lee’s behalf was $454,921, with another $219,039 to oppose Mar, pushing total spending to defeat Mar up over the $1 million mark, roughly doubling the previous record. Labor groups, meanwhile, spent $72,739 attacking Lee and $91,690 backing Mar. But many political analysts felt that lop-sided spending only served to turn off voters and reinforce the idea that powerful interests were trying to buy the seat.

In District 5, the landlords, Realtors, and tech moguls spent $177,556 in support of Breed, while labor spent $15,067 attacking her as a shill for the landlord lobby. The only other D5 candidate to attract significant spending by outside groups was Olague, who had $104,016 spent against her, mostly by the families of Conway and Coates, and $45,708 spent in support of her by SEIU 1021. Yet ultimately, none of these groups bought very much with their money. Conway, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, and San Francisco Association of Realtors each spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of their money, and the most obvious result was to convince San Franciscans that they’re working together to move an agenda in San Francisco. They may have the mayor on their side, but in a politically sophisticated city like San Francisco –- with its cost of living being driven up by the schemes of Lee, Conway, and the Realtors -– they seem to have a long way to go before they achieve they’re stated desire of destroying the progressive movement, particularly with its rising new leaders on the left, including Matt Haney and Sandra Fewer on the school board and Steven Ngo and Rafael Mandelman on the City College board. As Haney said on Election Night, “It was a good night for progressive San Francisco,” which stands for important egalitarian values. “We are the ones about equity and compassion. That’s what this city is about.”

Election makes the Board of Supervisors tougher to predict


I’m still a bit too bleary-eyed for serious political analysis on D5 or other races today, but I’ll offer a few of my own post-election observations and those that politicos Alex Clemens and David Latterman delivered during their usual political wrap-up at the SPUR office this afternoon, noting how this election has altered local political dynamics.

“The Board of Supervisors as a whole is becoming a helluva lot more interesting,” Clemens said, noting that progressive District 5 just elected London Breed, the most moderate candidate in that race, while conservative District 7 gave the most progressive candidates, Norman Yee and FX Crowley, its top two spots (with Crowley the likely winner once ranked choices ballots are tallied).

The result is that both the progressive and moderate blocs lost their most reliable votes to the squishy center, so that “determining what’s going to happen before it happens just got more difficult,” a dynamic that could play out most strongly on land use issues.

“I think land use politics is going to be even more interesting,” Clemens said, with Latterman adding, “In this city, all politics really comes down to land use.”

Assessor Phil Ting’s election to the Assembly also now paves the way for Mayor Ed Lee to appoint his replacement, with Sup. Carmen Chu widely considered the clear favorite, which would in turn give Lee an appointment to her District 4 seat on the board.

Yet Clemens speculated that Lee may wait to replace Chu until after the next Board of Supervisors is seated in early January – which would allow that person to finish her final two years and still run for an additional two full terms, whereas the Charter would otherwise limit that person to one more term – which could complicate an already complicated election for board president. Sups. Jane Kim and Scott Wiener are the likeliest contenders, but anything could happen.

“Counting to six from 10 is going to be so much fun to watch,” Clemens said, although he added, “I believe in the era of Ed Lee, it’ll all be worked out beforehand.”

Neither Clemens nor Latterman agreed that the overwhelming expenditures on political hit pieces (mostly against D1 Sup. Eric Mar, who won a surprisingly big margin of victory) by allies of Lee, or the fact that they turned on Sup. Christina Olague in nasty fashion, would diminish Lee’s public standing or the aura of civility he’s tried to cultivate.

Personally, I don’t agree, and it think progressives have been given an opportunity to highlight the money-driven nature of the agenda that Lee and his billionaire backer Ron Conway have for San Francisco. It’s also significant that the most anti-progressive candidates – Lee’s City College appointee Rodrigo Santos, D1’s David Lee, and D7’s Mike Garcia – all fell far short of victory.

Progressives now have a chance to set a positive, proactive agenda for the city, of the kind eloquently voiced by new school board member Matt Haney, whom Clemens thanked for running such a strong and positive campaign, as well as top City College finisher Steve Ngo and Sup. David Campos, who shared an election night campaign party and positive message about progressive prospects.

“That’s what me, Steve, and David were saying here tonight,” Haney told me, calling for an end to the adversarial style of practicing politics. “Our values are love and compassion.”

Latterman and Clemens did acknowledge that that record-breaking spending against Mar may have backfired, but they gave more credit to Mar’s campaign. “You don’t bet against [Mar campaign manager] Nicole Derse in a ground game in the last week of the campaign,” Latterman said.

Derse, who was there, noted its innovative voter identification efforts and strong grassroots volunteer push, a drive partially helped by those reacting to the big-money attacks. Latterman also acknowledges that the strange and controversial videos attacking Mar didn’t help, telling the crowd, “And tactically, don’t have the Realtors make the videos.”

As for District 5, neither politico claimed to fully understand the complex variables that shaped the race.

“It’s hard to unravel what happened here,” Latterman said of the D5 race, noting the complicated dynamics created by Olague’s mayoral appointment, her vote to reinstate Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, Julian Davis’ problems, and the outside spending. He praised Breed’s campaign, calling it a “a solid win,” but he also said Breed’s independence helped her and she might have suffered the same fate as Olague if she had gotten the appointment from Lee back in January: “I think Supervisor Breed doesn’t win this race; challenger Breed did.”

Lee down in D7, promises to maintain presence


The barrage of mailers put out by the Coalition for Sensible Government, which campaign manager Thomas Lee described as more a source of frustration than anything else, don’t seem to be helping David Lee, who is currently behind incumbent, Eric Mar in his race for District 1 supervisor.

In an address to the group of students and volunteers at the small campaign headquarters Lee stated that, “Regardless of what happens I will be here in the community working to make this district thrive.”

He thanked the volunteers, the police and fire departments for their endorsements, and more donors from the district than in any other campaign, though no mention of who those donors are or what political leaning they may represent.

The emphasis on neglect in Lee’s campaign rhetoric, like bringing business back to the “85 empty storefronts in the district and dealing with potholes that need to be filled,” seemed to be reflected in the opinions of community members present who were upset with Mar’s lack of presence in the district.

Most members of the group were insistent on it’s being a strongly grassroots effort, walking bus routes in the morning and hosting house parties and coffees to meet the community. Though with tens of thousands of dollars from private donors, and a blitz of advertising sponsored by real estate interests, compared to Mar with his small donation based fundraising and aid of Public Financing, this version of Lee’s attempts seemed mildly insincere.

Finally, some clarity in SF


So right after I complained about SF dragging its feet on returns, we get another big chunk and it shows Eric Mar taking D1 handily. Amazing: A carpet-bombing campaign of big money, and the quiet progressive pulls it out.

Now: He had the support of Rose Pak, but mostly he had troops on the ground, a lot of them from the labor movement and a lot of them pro-tenant folks who saw the clear and present danger that David Lee would bring to City Hall.

Lee has to be in shock — how can you spend $800,000 and lose in a district race? The guy got 7,300 votes; that’s about $109 a vote. Stunning.

But it shows that, as former Sup. Chris Daly put it, “when progressive are united, we win.”

Progressives were never united in D5 — except in their opposition to London Breed. So now we have to see if the second-place votes break that way — or if a district that elected two Green Party members will wind up putting a moderate centrist on the board.

It’s odd — right now, it appears that either Norman Yee or F.X. Crowley will win in D7, making the most conservative district in the city a swing vote. And if London Breed is elected, the most liberal district in the city could become a swing vote. Weird times.

Tomorrow I’ll try to get some perspective on how all of this happened.

Mar jubilant at early returns


The first precinct reports are coming in — just a few — and they share Sup. Eric Mar holding and even expanding his lead in District 1. Too early to call it, but Mar is jubilant and so are his supporters. Joe Fitzgerald send this report:

If there was a loud and clear message from the Eric Mar supporters at his election party, it was that realtors and rent-control opponents can’t keep a good progressive down.

“We’re going to kick their ass,” said Mar. “We’re going to show that the anti-rent control, realtors and big business people downtown can’t do this again.”

Mar was talking about the barrage of hit mailers that have attacked him relentlessly in the past few weeks.

The residents themselves were fed up with it.

“I like to use two bags to recycle all this shit,” Brian Hudgins, a novelist from the neighborhood told us. He was amazed by how Lee, an obvious moderate, targeted his liberal, progressive apartment complex.

“The mailers turned people off,” Mar said.

Norman Ten is an ardent Mar supporter. Wearing his blue “Eric Mar for Supervisor” shirt, he said that as a scientist, he looks at the facts when he votes.

“That David Lee guy had offices and headquarters over on Post street. Now that’s not even in the Richmond, now is it?” he said.

Chris Daly, the fiery progressive ex-supervisor even made an appearance at Mar’s party. He saw this election as a particularly blatant attack on progressives.

“Its just like my 2006 race,” he said. “But when progressive San Francisco is united, we win.”

Locally grown



FILM First and foremost, make it your business to see Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, which is playing the San Francisco Film Society’s “Cinema By the Bay” series and the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, both of which open this week. (See DocFest article elsewhere in this issue.)

Director Jesse Vile’s film shares some themes with The Sessions, in that its subject is a fiercely talented person who manages to be wildly alive despite being almost completely paralyzed. Hailing from Richmond in the East Bay, Jason Becker got his first guitar at age five as a Christmas present; it wasn’t long before his family realized he was a genuine riff-slingin’ musical prodigy. Home movies and MTV-style videos capture the teenage metalhead’s ascension from school talent shows to jam-packed arenas, and his delight at being hired for a highly sought-after gig in David Lee Roth’s post-Van Halen band.

He was just 20 — big-haired, wide-eyed, and fond of saying “Daaaang!” whenever anything took him by surprise — when he sought medical treatment for what he thought was a pinched nerve but what turned out to be ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Though his body deteriorated rapidly, his remarkably supportive family invented a way for him to communicate using only his eyes. Today, he can no longer play his beloved instrument, but he still makes music — and takes delight in embarrassing whoever’s “translating” for him by cracking off-color jokes.

Closing night selection CXL (from first-time feature director Sean Gillane and writers Theo Miller and Katherine Bruens) follows perpetually bummed-out writer Nolan (Cole Smith), whose Mission District existence is so realistic (oy, that awkward hipster house party) the film could only have been made by a local. Though he still pines for his ex, he falls for Cassie (Lisa Greyson), whose penchant for zany behavior lurches her dangerously close to Manic Pixie Dream Girl status: “I open random doors!” she exclaims when Nolan asks her what she does for fun. Groan.

But wait! Thankfully, CXL changes course before morphing into Ruby Sparks 2 — a dark plot twist ushers in a cheerfully surreal second half, as Nolan’s book, hilariously titled Dehydrated Tears, becomes an unexpected success, and his relationship with Cassie (and with reality) evolves in ways I won’t spoil here. A recurring sight gag has a pack of Nolans trailing behind the real one — suggesting that maybe there are parallel realities at play, or just a guy with a hell of a lot of personal baggage.

Finally, film fans will remember photographer Lucy Gray for “Big Tilda,” a piece that projected huge digital collages of actor (and San Francisco International Film Festival favorite) Tilda Swinton onto SF’s City Hall as part of SFIFF 2006. “A Conversation with Lucy Gray” includes a screening of her short film debut, Genevieve Goes Boating, about a playwright who pens a whimsical story about a girl who sets sail on a homemade boat — narrated by Swinton, of course. *



Fri/9-Sun/11, $12–<\d>$25

New People Cinema

1746 Post, SF


Vote early and often


The most expensive, ugliest, longest and most money-dominated election in my memory is finally winding down, and unless something really weird happens, Obama’s going to win another term. It’s likely the Democrats will control the Senate and the GOP will retain a narrow edge in the house, meaning four more years of gridlock (and possibly the end of Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s career).

But the real message will be the role of big money — not just ordinary big money, but billionaire money — in California and San Francisco elections.

The state ballot has become a billionaire playground, with four of the ten initiatives created, written, put on the ballot and funded by stinking rich individuals who have their own personal and political agendas. In San Francisco, billionaires Ron Conway and Thomas Coates are trying to buy the District 5 election. An Arizona group linked to the Koch brothers is trying to shut down Prop. 30 (and leave the state in fiscal disaster).

And I’ve never seen as much real-estate money go into one supervisorial district.

We know both presidential campaigns are billion-dollar operations, and a lot of the same bad money is going into each of them. But on the local level, it’s a very different situation. There’s a concerted campaign here to drive progressives out of local office and install people more friendly to landlords and developers — at a time when the city’s going to be facing the greatest displacement pressure since the first dot-com boom. You don’t see the Association of Realtors putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into local races very often; there’s an opportunity here and they see it and they want to weaken tenant protections so they can make more money.

One of the best arguments in favor of district elections is that money doesn’t necessarily buy electoral success. In a district with roughly 30,000 voters, it’s possible to practice old-fashioned grassroots retail politics, to win by knocking on doors and going to house parties and meeting people. It’s not all about TV ads. And if that holds up with this election, Sup. Eric Mar — with a far superior field operation — will survive the blistering assault he’s under in District 1. If David Lee — who has taken the Mitt Romney approach and refused to speak to reporters (they might ask him a question or two about his inaccurate campaign dirt) — wins, it will be the greatest blow to democracy in San Francisco that we’ve seen in years.

On the other hand, if the D1 voters reject all that money and sleaze and Mar wins — and if the District 5 voters reject the billionaire money and someone other than London Breed wins — San Francisco will be sending a profound message: We don’t want your dirty money here, and our votes are not for sale.

Polls are open until 8. Vote early and often.

Record-breaking spending floods District 1 with political propaganda


District 1 supervisorial candidate David Lee and independent expenditure campaigns supporting him have spent nearly $800,000 – shattering previous spending records for a district election – bombarding Richmond District voters with a barrage of mailers and other media pushing a variety of claims and criticisms about incumbent Sup. Eric Mar that sometimes stretch credulity and relevance.

But is it working? Or is the avalanche of arguments – much of it funded by “big money from Realtors, Landlords, and Downtown Special Interests,” as a recent Mar mailer correctly notes – feeding speculation that Lee would do the bidding of these powerful players on the Board of Supervisors?

Mar campaign manager Nicole Derse thinks that’s the case, arguing the Lee campaign would have leaked internal polls to the media if they were favorable, and it wouldn’t be escalating its attacks on so many fronts hoping for traction, such as yesterday’s press conference hitting Mar on the issue of neighborhood schools.

“They’re pretty desperate at this point and throwing anything out there that they can,” Derse told us, later adding, “I feel good, but we really have to keep the fire up.”

Mar and the independent groups supporting him, mostly supported by the San Francisco Labor Council, have together spent about $400,000. Most of the mailers have been positive, but many have highlighted Lee’s political inexperience and his connections to big-money interests, raising questions about his claims to support tenants and rent control.

Lee campaign manager Thomas Li, who has been unwilling to answer our questions throughout the campaign, did take down some Guardian questions this time and said he’d get us answers, but we haven’t heard back. On the issue of why the Realtors and other groups who seek to weaken tenant protections were supporting Lee, Li simply said, “Our position has been steadfast on protecting rent control and strengthening tenant protections.”

The Lee campaign has repeated that on several mailers – possibly indicating it is worried about that issue and the perception that Lee’s election would give landlords another vote on the board, as tenant and other progressive groups have argued – but most of its mailers recently have attacked Mar on a few issues where they must believe he is vulnerable, even when they distort his record.

Several mailers have noted Mar’s support for a city budget that included funding for a third board aide for each of the 11 supervisors – a budget the board unanimously approved – as well as his support for public campaign financing, despite the fact that Lee’s campaign has taken more than $150,000 in public financing in this election, 30 percent more than Mar’s. They have also criticized Mar for supporting the 8 Washington high-end condo project, even though Lee also voted for the project as a member of the Recreation and Parks Commission.

As this Ethics Commission graphic shows, Lee has been by far the biggest recipient of independent expenditures in this election cycle, with hundreds of thousands of dollars coming from the downtown-funded Alliance for Jobs and Sustainable Growth and the Realtor-created Citizens for Responsible Growth.

Mar and his allies have hit back with mailers noting that most of the funding for the Chinese American Voter Education Project, Lee’s main political and communications vehicle in recent years, has simply gone to pay his $90,000-plus annual salary, which he didn’t fully report on financial disclosure forms required of city commissioners. They have also hit Lee for his support for the Recreation and Parks Department’s closure of recreation centers and other cuts while he “consistently supported privatization of our parks.”

At this point, it’s hard to know how this flood of information and back-and-forth attacks will influence District 1 voters, but we’re now days away from finding out.

Olague attacks led by billionaires and a consultant/commissioner with undisclosed income


Understanding how political activists are being paid is important to understanding what their motivations are. For example, is Andrea Shorter – a mayor-appointed former president of the Commission on the Status of Women – leading the campaigns against Sup. Christina Olague and Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi out of concern for domestic violence, or is it because of their progressive political stands, such as supporting rent control and opposing corporate tax breaks?

As a city commissioner who is required under state law to report her income on annual financial disclosure forms to the city, the public should be able to know who is paying this self-identified “political consultant.” But we can’t, because for each of the last five years, Shorter has claimed under penalty of perjury on Form 700 to have no reportable income, which means less than $500 from any source – an unlikely claim that was the source of complaints filed today with the Ethics Commission and Fair Political Practices Commission.

Shorter led efforts to have her commission support Mayor Ed Lee’s failed effort to remove Mirkarimi from office for official misconduct, and now she’s become one of the main public faces leading an independent expenditure campaign called San Francisco Women for Accountability and a Responsible Supervisor Opposing Christina Olague 2012, funded with more than $100,000 by Lee’s right-wing financial supporters: venture capitalist Ron Conway and Thomas Coates (and his wife), who has also funded statewide efforts to make rent control illegal.

Neither Shorter nor Conway responded to our requests for comment, but tenant advocates and Olague supporters are pushing back with an 11:30am rally at City Hall tomorrow (Thurs/1). Organizers are calling on activists “to beat back the attacks on rent control and workers by billionaires Ron Conway and the Coates family. The 1 Percent Club, Coates and Conway want San Francisco to be a playground for the rich. Take a stand to say that these opportunists CANNOT buy elections!”

The Ethics Commission complaint against Shorter was filed this morning by sunshine activist Bob Planthold, who also filed a similar complaint a couple weeks ago against District 1 supervisorial candidate David Lee, who also appears to have grossly understated his income of the same financial disclosure form during his service on the Recreation and Parks Commission.

“There’s been too little attention by mayor after mayor after mayor in that the people they appoint are allowed to be sloppy, negligent, unresponsive, and under-responsive to these financial disclosure requirements,” Planthold told us.

Although the Ethics Commission doesn’t confirm or deny receiving complaints or launching investigations, Planthold said Ethics investigators have already notified him that they were investigating the Lee complaint, and he expects similar action against Shorter. “Ethics is pursuing my complaint against David Lee. It’s not one of the many that they decided to ignore,” Planthold said.

The FPPC complaint against Shorter is being filed by former Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, who told us, “The complaint speaks for itself.”

Although Shorter claims no income on public forms, the political consulting firm Atlas Leadership Strategies lists Shorter as the CEO of Political Leadership Coaching, which works with political candidates and causes. Atlas also represents PJ Johnston, who was press secretary for then-Mayor Willie Brown and now represents a host of powerful corporate clients.

“Her brand of discreet, highly confidential, political coaching works to equip leaders with tools to exercise more effective, impactful, innovative and – where possible – transformative leadership,” was one way Atlas describes Shorter.

Is she working in a discreet and confidential way to elect moderate London Breed to one of the city’s most progressive districts? Is she being paid for that work by Conway or anyone else? Is she doing the bidding of Mayor Lee and his allies in hopes of greater rewards?

Or should voters just take at face value her claim to really be standing up for “accountability” from public officials? Is this really about the statement Shorter makes in the video prominently displayed on the sfwomenforaccountability.com website: “Christina Olague has lost the trust of victims’ advocates. She has set our cause back. I’m profoundly disappointed in her and I can’t support her anymore.”?

With less than a week until the election, voters can only speculate.

The sleazy money typhoon


CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct inaccurate information.


The flood of money into the San Francisco elections over the past month is mind-boggling. We’ve never seen this level of independent-expenditure attacks in district elections. We’ve never seen an out-of-nowhere conservative candidate with no political experience at all spend half a million of his own money to buy a San Francisco Assembly seat. It could be a very ugly Nov. 6.

The most dramatic entry in the last-minute sewer-money contest is the political action committee just formed to attack Sup. Christina Olague over her vote to retain Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi. San Francisco Women for Responsibility and Accountable Supervisor exists only to oppose Olague; Ron Conway, a close ally Mayor Ed Lee, has thrown $20,000 into the group, and his wife Gayle put up $49,000. Linda Voight, who is married to real-estate industry mogul and rent-control foe Thomas Coates, put up another $49,000. That more than $100,000 coming in during the last 10 days of a campaign and it’s an unprecedented amount of negative money for a district race.

The idea that a tech titan and a big landlord would use the Mirkarimi vote in a hit-campaign is disturbing to a lot of people, particularly Ted Gullicksen, who runs the San Francisco Tenants Union:

Conway’s committee attacks Christina Olague for supporting Ross Mirkarimi.  But really he is just using the issue of domestic violence as a tool to unseat a political opponent.  By doing so, he is cheapening the issue of domestic violence to further his crass political agenda of repealing rent control.

(Conway, in an Oct. 30 note, says he does not oppose San Francisco’s rent control laws. Coates has put significant money into anti-rent-control efforts.)

It’s also, apparently, payback from two of the mayor’s money guys — and it makes a screwy election even stranger. Particularly since none of the other prominent candidates in D5 are out there going after Olague on her vote and most of them probably would have voted the same way.

Conventional wisdom is that attacking Olague helps London Breed, who is the candidate the landlords have chosen (and spent $40,000 on). But nobody knows exactly what will happen when all the ranked-choice ballots are counted. John Rizzo has largely weathered the story of attacks from all sides and will be #2 on a lot of ballots. I think Julian Davis is finished, and more of his supporters will go to Rizzo or Olague than to Breed.

Still, it’s entirely possible that the most progressive district in the city will be represented by someone who is likely to be more aligned with the moderates and conservatives than with the left.

Then there’s Michael Breyer, who has now put more than $500,000 of his own money into the Assembly race against Assessor Phil Ting. Breyer’s never done anything in local politics; he claims to talk about old-fashioned San Francisco values and hypes his family members from past generations who have been active in the community, but he grew up on the East Coast and moved here in 2002. But with that kind of money, the more conservative candidate has been able to bring the race close to even.

And if he can use his own fortune to top Ting — who’s been a decent Assessor and has long ties to the community — it’s going to be a bad moment for San Francisco politics.



Realtors and tech spending big to flip the Board of Supervisors


Wealthy interests aligned with Mayor Ed Lee, the real estate industry, big tech companies, and other downtown groups are spending unprecedented sums of money in this election trying to flip the balance of power on the Board of Supervisors, with most of it going to support supervisorial candidates David Lee in D1 and, to a lesser degree, London Breed in D5.

The latest campaign finance statements, which were due yesterday, show Lee benefiting from more than $250,000 in “independent expenditures” from just two groups: the Alliance for Jobs and Sustainable Growth PAC, which got its biggest support from tech titans Mark Benioff and Ron Conway; and the Coalition for Responsible Growth, funded by the San Francisco Association of Realtors.

Lee’s campaign has also directly spent another nearly $250,000 on its race to unseat incumbent Sup. Eric Mar – bringing total expenditures on his behalf to more than $500,000, an unheard-of amount for a district election. Mar has spent $136,000 and has $24,100 in the bank, and he is benefiting from another $125,000 that San Francisco Labor Council unions have raised on his behalf.

Breed has benefited from more than $40,000 in spending on her behalf by the two groups. Her campaign is also leading the fundraising field in her district, spending about $150,000 so far and sitting on more than $93,000 in the bank for a strong final push.

Incumbent D5 Sup. Christina Olague has done well in fundraising, but the reports seem to indicate that her campaign hasn’t managed its resources well and could be in trouble in the final leg. She has just $13,369 in the bank and nearly $70,000 in unpaid campaign debts, mostly to her controversial consultant Enrique Pearce’s firm.

Slow-and-steady D5 candidates John Rizzo and Thea Selby seem to have enough in the bank ($20,000 and $33,000 respectively) for a decent final push, while Selby also got a $10,000 boost from the the Alliance, which could be a mixed blessing in that progressive district. Julian Davis still has more than $18,000 in the bank, defying the progressive groups and politicians who have pulled their endorsements and pledging to finish strong.

In District 7, both FX Crowley and Michael Garcia have posted huge fundraising numbers, each spending around $22,000 this year, but Crowley has the fiscal edge going into the final stretch with $84,443 in the bank compared to Garcia’s less than $34,000. But progressive favorite Norman Yee is right in the thick of the race as well, spending $130,000 this year and having more than $63,000 in the bank.

The following is a detailed look at the numbers (we didn’t do Districts 3, 9, and 11, where the incumbents aren’t facing serious or well-funded challenges) for the biggest races:


Independent Expenditures


Alliance for Jobs and Sustainable Growth PAC

The downtown-oriented group is run by notorious campaign attorney Jim Sutton. It has raised $447,500 this year, including $225,000 in this reporting period (Oct. 1 to Oct. 20).

It has spent $107,808 this period and $342,248 this reporting period. It has $243,599 in the bank and $105,334 in outstanding debt.

Donors include: Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff ($100,000), venture capitalist Ron Conway ($35,000), San Francisco Police Officers Association ($25,000), Healthplus Share Services out of Walnut Creek ($20,000), Committee on Jobs ($47,500), and Operating Engineers Local 3 ($10,000)

The Alliance has spent $143,763 this year, including $16,921 in this reporting period, supporting D1 supervisorial candidate David Lee and attacking his opponent Eric Mar; and $10,205 each in support of D5 candidates Thea Selby and London Breed.


Coalition for Sensible Growth (with major funding by the SF Association of Realtors)

Raised nothing this reporting period but $225,000 this year.

Spent $75,636 this period and $287,569 this year. Has $170,744 in the bank and $152,000 in outstand debts.

It has spent $101,267 supporting D1 candidate David Lee, $26,405 support of David Chiu in D3, $2,739 each supporting FX Crowley and Michael Garcia in D7, $12,837 opposing Norman Yee in D7, $29,357 backing London Breed in D5, and $20,615 promoting Prop. C (the Housing Trust Fund).

The San Francisco Labor Council Labor & Neighbor PAC has raised $84,563 for its various member unions and spent $93,539 this year on general get-out-the-vote efforts.

The Labor Council also supports three Teachers, Nurses and Neighbors groups supporting Eric Mar in D1 (raising $125,000 and spending $85,437), FX Crowley in D7 (raising $50,000 and spending $40,581), and Christina Olague in D5 (raising $15,000 and spending $15,231)


Supervisorial Races:

District 1

Eric Mar

Raised $18,270 this period, $135,923 this year, and got no public finances this period.

He has spend $61,499 this period, $187,409 this year, and has $24,180 in the bank with no debt.

Donors include: Sup. David Chiu ($250), board aides Judson True ($100) and Jeremy Pollock ($100), redevelopment attorney James Morales ($200), developer Jack Hu ($500), engineer Arash Guity ($500), community organizer James Tracy ($200), Lisa Feldstein ($250), Marc Salomon ($125), Petra DeJesus ($300), and Gabriel Haaland ($200).

David Lee

Raised $4,174 this period, $140,305 this year, and no public financing matches this period.

He has spent $245,647 this year and $55,838 this period. He has $5,871 in debts and $26,892 in the bank.

Donors include the building trades union ($500), property manager Andrew Hugh Smith ($500), Wells Fargo manager Alfred Pedrozo ($200), and SPO Advisory Corp. partner William Oberndorf ($500).

District 5

John Rizzo

Raised $5,304 this period (10/1-10/20), $29,860 this year, and $14,248 in public financing

He has $19,813 in the bank

Donors are mostly progressive and environmental activists: attorney Paul Melbostad $500), Hene Kelly ($100), Bernie Choden ($100), Dennis Antenore ($500), Clean Water Action’s Jennifer Clary ($150), Matt Dorsey ($150), Arthur Feinstein ($350), Jane Morrison ($200), and Aaron Peskin ($150).


Julian Davis

Raised $8,383 this period, $38,953 YTD, and got $16,860 in public financing in this period (and $29,510 in the 7/1-9/30 period).

He has $67,530 in YTD expenses, $18,293 in the bank, and $500 in debts.

Some donors: Aaron Peskin ($500), John Dunbar ($500), Heather Box ($100), Jim Siegel ($250), Jeremy Pollock ($200), BayView publisher Willie Ratcliff ($174), and Burning Man board member Marian Goodell ($400). Peskin and Dunbar both say they made those donations early in the campaign, before Davis was accused of groping a woman and lost most of his progressive endorsements.


London Breed

Raised $15,959 this period, $128,009 YTD, got $95,664 in public financing this period.

Total YTD expenditures of $150,596 and has $93,093 in the bank

Donors include: Susie Buell ($500), CCSF Board member Natalie Berg ($250), Miguel Bustos ($500), PG&E spokesperson and DCCC Chair Mary Jung ($250), SF Chamber of Commerce Vice President Jim Lazarus ($100), Realtor Matthew Lombard ($500), real estate investor Susan Lowenberg ($500), Municipal Executives Association of SF ($500), Carmen Policy ($500), SF Apartment Association ($500), SF’s building trades PAC ($500), and Sam Singer ($500).


Christina Olague

Raised $7,339 this period, $123,474 YTD, and got $39,770 in public financing this period.

Has spent $54,558 this period, $199,419 this year, has $13,367 in the bank, and has $69,312 in outstanding debt.

Donors include: former Mayor Art Agnos ($500), California Nurses Association PAC ($500), a NUHW political committee ($500), the operating engineers ($500) and electrical workers ($500) union locals, Tenants Together attorney Dean Preston ($100), The Green Cross owner Kevin Reed ($500), SEIU-UHW PAC ($500), Alex Tourk ($500), United Educators of SF ($500), and United Taxicab Workers ($200).

Some expenses include controversial political consultant Enrique Pearce’s Left Coast Communications ($15,000), which documents show is still owed another $62,899 for literature, consulting, and postage.


Thea Selby

Raised $5,645 this period, $45,651 YTD, and got $6,540 in public financing this period.

Spent $29,402 this period, $67,300 this year, and has $33,519 in the bank.

Donors include:

David Chiu board aide Judson True ($100), One Kings Lane VP Jim Liefer ($500), SF Chamber’s Jim Lazarus ($100), Harrington’s Bar owner Michael Harrington ($200), and Arthur Swanson of Lightner Property Group ($400).


District 7


Norman Yee

Raised $8,270 this period and $85,460 this year and received $65,000 in public financing.

Spent $15,651 this period, $130,005 this year, and has $63,410 in the bank and no debt.

Donors include: Realtor John Whitehurst ($500), Bank of America manager Patti Law ($500), KJ Woods Construction VP Marie Woods ($500), and Iron Work Contractors owner Florence Kong ($500).


FX Crowley

Raised $5,350 this period, $163,108 this year, and another $25,155 through public financing.

He spent $76,528 this period, $218,441 this year, and has $84,443 in the bank and $7,291 in unpaid debt.

Donors include: Alliance for Jobs & Sustainable Growth attorney Vince Courtney ($250), Thomas Creedon ($300) and Mariann Costello ($250) of Scoma’s Restaurant, stagehands Richard Blakely ($100) and Thomas Cleary ($150), Municipal Executives Association of SF ($500), IBEW Local 1245 ($500), and SF Medical Society PAC ($350)


Michael Garcia

Raised $8,429 this period, $121,123 this year, and $18,140 through public financing.

He spent $45,484 this period, $222,580 this year, and has $33,936 in the bank.

Donors include: Coalition for Responsible Growth flak Zohreh Eftekhari ($500), contractor Brendan Fox ($500), consultant Sam Lauter of BMWL ($500), Stephanie Lauter ($500), consultant Sam Riordan ($500), and William Oberndorf ($500)


The most shameless campaign mailer of the year


This is out-of-control shameless: David Lee — the pro-landlord, pro-downtown, pro-any-form-of-development candidate who is running against Sup. Eric Mar in District 1, is trying to hit Mar for supporting 8 Washington.

Here’s the headline: “Housing for the rich … or housing for everyone?” There’s even a picture of the proposed project. The flip side says that Mar “opposed the construction of 19,148 units of middle-class housing” while he “supported multimillion dollar condominiums on the waterfront at 8 Washington Street.”

The middle-class housing at issue here is, of course, ParkMerced, where Mar joined tenant groups in opposing a deal that could wind up costing the city thousands of rent-controlled units. It’s likely Lee would have supported that deal; fair enough.

The 8 Washington discussion is far more interesting — because David Lee was far from a critic of the project and certainly not among the large group of opponents. “He never said a word against the project,” Brad Paul, who helped organize the opposition, told me. “And the people who are backing him were in favor of it. This sounds like shameless political opportunism.”

So would David Lee have done anything different from Mar on this issue? We can’t know for sure, since Lee has announced a policy that until the election is over, he isn’t going to talk to reporters. (That alone is pretty odd, but it seems to be in synch with his really expensive campaign of misleading information that there’s no easy way to correct.)

But I know this: Among the most vocal propoponents of 8 Washington was the SF Building and Construction Trades Council, which is strongly endorsing and spending money on getting Lee elected. Same for the Alliance for Jobs and Sustainable Growth, a downtown front group. Let’s be serious: No way Lee would ever have opposed this project.

So he’s blasting his opponent for something he would have done, too — probably with more vigor and less concern for community benefits.

Meanwhile, Mar is getting screwed here. The main reason he voted for 8 Washington, as far as I can tell, was that labor leaders (and not just the Building Trades) told him it was important to them. The idea, I’m told, was that Mar would get an early, united, and strong endorsement from labor if he went along. Not pretty, and not a great recommendation for Mar — but that was the deal.

And almost immediately, the Building Trades went with Lee, stabbing in the back the guy who had crossed his progressive base for them.

Nice. Really nice.

UPDATE: I missed a point. In his role as a Rec-Park commissioner, Lee actually voted in favor of 8 Washington. Rec-Park had to grant an exemption to the law barring buildings from casting shadows on city parks, and 8 Washington would have shaded part of Sue Bierman Park. So he’s on the record as a supporter.


Was Realtor-financed attack ad illegally coordinated with Lee?


District 1 supervisorial candidate David Lee might have violated election laws prohibiting candidates from coordinating with groups doing independent expenditures after being featured in a pricey attack ad blasting his opponent, incumbent Sup. Eric Mar.

The San Francisco League of Pissed Off Voters yesterday filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission requesting an investigation into illegal coordination between Lee and the Association of Realtors, which produced an ad entitled “Send Mar Back to Mars,” in which Lee appears to have participated in the filming.

“Our concern is that Lee’s campaign has collaborated with the San Francisco Realtors Association in providing footage,” says Fabiana Ochoa, a member of the steering committee for the League.  “That’s really a violation of the law.  It’s a concern this year because we see how national super PACs have an influence on campaigns.”

Lee’s direct fundraising and the allegedly independent expenditures on his behalf this week topped $557,486 – more than any other San Francisco supervisorial campaign in history — prompting the Ethics Commission to again raise the expenditure cap on the public financing in Mar’s race. Lee and his campaign have refused to answer questions about this or other issues. 

“No one has ever seen that kind of spending here in San Francisco.  It’s turned into a challenging and nasty campaign,” Ochoa said.  “It’s a small district but the game has changed.”

Progressive groups — including the League, San Francisco Tenants Union, and Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club — are fighting back with a rally scheduled for this Monday at 5pm outside the Realtors Association office at 301 Grove Street. They’re urging participants to bring pots and pans, reminiscent of the group of scowling children who were smeared with dirt and banging pots and pans in the video.   

In an email to the Guardian, the Ethics Commission’s Executive Director John St. Croix said, “The Ethics Commission can not confirm, deny or discuss complaints.” If the Ethics Commission does investigate and finds that Lee knowingly participated in this advertisement, it is unclear what exactly the penalty will be and the District Attorney’s office is not jumping to any conclusions yet. “For now it’s still with the Ethics Commission so we can’t comment on it,” says Stephanie Ong Stillman, press secretary for the D.A.’s office.

In a time when corporations are considered people and wealthy interests have unprecedented political influence in elections, all eyes are on the candidates and how honestly they run their campaigns.  Current San Francisco law prohibits candidates from organizing with independent expenditures like this one.

The ad, which cost $50,000 to make, mocks Mar’s efforts to remove toys from McDonald’s Happy Meals by featuring kids protesting his policies.  The glossy 3 ½ minute commercial is high-quality with Hollywood production value, leaving skeptical viewers wondering if Lee’s cameo was staged and his participation deliberate.   If it was, then Lee also violated laws that ban candidates from accepting campaign contributions exceeding $500.

The Association of Realtors clearly has an interest in David Lee, considering Mar supports tenant rights, and the Tenants Union has make its rally and campaign an effort to “save rent control” and called it a “march on the 1 percent” that is trying to buy the Board of Supervisors and remake San Francisco.

Realtors Association President Jeffery Woo would not discuss the issue when reached by phone.  In an emailed press statement to the Guardian, the Association of Realtors wrote, “ We stand by the facts, and humor, of the video we produced on the election in District 1 and do not plan to remove it from YouTube as it has achieved success in raising important issues in San Francisco.”

The Guardian also reached out to the political media expert who produced the film, Fred Davis, but he did not return our calls. 

Davis, who served as chief media strategist for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, is a Hollywood-based veteran of campaign marketing and has produced some of the most notorious political ads in recent history including the Demon Sheep video for Carly Fiorina’s 2010 GOP senate campaign.  He also created the highly lampooned 2010 ad featuring Delware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, who assured viewers that she was “not a witch.” 

Judge for yourself whether Lee participated in the making of this video:


Supervisors reinstate Mirkarimi, rejecting Lee’s interpretation of official misconduct


The Board of Supervisors has voted to reinstate Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi and reject the official misconduct charges that Mayor Ed Lee brought against Mirkarimi for grabbing and bruising his wife’s arm during a New Year’s Eve argument, for now ending an ugly saga that has polarized San Franciscans.

The vote was 7-4, two votes shy of the nine needed to sustain the charges and remove Mirkarimi, who now resumes the position voters elected him to in November with back pay going back to March when Lee suspended him. Sups. Christina Olague, David Campos, John Avalos, and Jane Kim voted in Mirkarimi’s favor, condemning the domestic violence incident but saying that it didn’t meet what is and should be a high and clear standard for overruling the will of voters, a concern also voiced by Sup. Mark Farrell. 

“I do take this job seriously, that we are public policy makers,” said Kim, a lawyer who emphasized their duty to set clear standards for officials during these unprecedented proceedings rather than being swayed by emotional responses to conduct by Mirkarimi that she called “incredibly egregious.”

But for most of the supervisors, that was enough. Sup. Eric Mar, who is in the middle of difficult reelection campaign against the more conservative and well-financed David Lee, said he thought is was important to have “zero tolerance” for domestic violence and his vote was “in the service of justice and a belief it will combat domestic violence.”

Earlier in the hearing, Kim had led the questioning of Deputy City Attorney Sherri Kaiser, whose broad interpretation of official misconduct standards and inability to set clear guidelines troubled Kim, just as it had earlier to Ethics Commission Chair Benedict Hur, the sole vote on that body against removal after it conducted six months worth of hearings.

“I agree with Chairman Hur, I think we need to take the most narrow view of official misconduct,” Kim said, echoing a point that had also been made by Campos, who quoted Hur’s comment from the Aug. 16 hearing where the commission voted 4-1 to recommend removal: “I have a lot of concern about where you draw the line if you don’t relate this to official duties.”

Farrell also shared that concern, which he raised in questioning Kaiser and during the final board deliberations almost seven grueling hours later. 

“I worry a great deal about the potential for abuse in this charter section,” Farrell said, warning this and future mayors to use great caution and restraint before bringing official misconduct charges. Yet he still found that the “totality of the circumstances” warranted removal because Mirkarimi had compromised his ability to be the top law enforcement officer.

Each supervisor expressed what a difficult and joyless decision this was, and even those who supported Mirkarimi strongly condemned his actions and the efforts by some of his supporters to minimize the seriousness of his actions and the need for him to change.

“I have tremendous mixed feelings about Ross Mirkarimi,” Avalos said, noting his many proud progressive accomplishments but adding, “I’ve always seen Ross as someone who has deep flaws….[This saga] offers a chance for personal transformation and I think that’s something Ross really needs to do.”

Mirkarimi seems humbled by the hearing, and the stinging criticism of his former colleagues and his one-time allies in the domestic violence community, and he pledged to work on “regaining their trust” as he tries to embody the city’s long-held value on redemption.

“I appreciate all the comments of by the Board of Supervisors and I hear the message. The next step is mending fences and moving forward,” Mirkarimi said. Later, he told reporters, “We’re absorbing all the comments that were made by the Board of Supervisors. They are my former colleagues and I take it very seriously.”

That need to heal the deep and emotional divide between San Franciscans who see this case in starkly different ways – which was on vivid display during the hours of public testimony – was sounded by several supervisors. “We will need to come together as a city on this,” Board President David Chiu said.

Most of those who spoke during the nearly four hours in public comments favored Mirkarimi and condemned the efforts to remove him as politically motivated, overly judgmental, and setting a dangerous precedent rather than resorting to usual method for removing politicians after a scandal: recall elections.

“If anything happens to the man, it should come back to me to make that decision. Don’t do their dirty work for them,” one commenter said.

The most politically significant person to speak during public comment was former Mayor Art Agnos, who said he was a friend and supporter of Mirkarimi, but he was more concerned with the scary implications of this decision. “I respectfully urge that this Board protect all elected officials from the dangerous discretion used in this case and reinstate Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.”

Most of those who spoke against Mirkarimi were domestic violence advocates, who were adamant that Mirkarimi be removed, casting it as a litmus test for whether the city takes their issue seriously. “This is a disciplinary proceeding, it is not election stealing,” said Beverly Upton, head of the Domestic Violence Consortium, who has lead the campaign to oust Mirkarimi since the incident was made public.

But the two sides seemed to be speaking past one another, each expressing righteous indignation that people didn’t see the issue like they did, indicating how polarizing these long-lingering proceedings have become and how difficult to heal that rift may be.

“It made my stomach turn to hear some of the comments that were made,” Sup. Carmen Chu said, condemning the actions of Mirkarimi supporters in vocally or visibly supporting one another. “That was wrong, this is not a joyous event.”

Yet Farrell said he was also concerned that Mirkarimi’s opponents would go after supervisors who made a principled stand against removing him. “I hope no one takes pot shots at the people who voted against this,” he said.

That principled stand – condemning Mirkarimi’s behavior but having a high standard for removing an elected official – was a trail blazed by Hur, who opened the hearing by presenting the Ethics Commission’s findings and a decision that he was the sole vote against. He noted the “challenge of my presentation” but made careful efforts to accurately represent the views of the commission majority.

Yet he ended up using almost half of his time at the podium — his allotted 10 minutes plus a few extra minutes to respond to questions from supervisors — to stress the danger of broadly interpreting the city’s official misconduct language and not requiring direct connection to an official’s duties.

“Public policy suggests we should interpret this more narrowly than proposed by the majority,” Hur said, later adding that his colleagues on the commission “did not provide a clear basis for how official misconduct is delineated.”

When Sup. Malia Cohen asked what he meant by the “public policy” interest at stake here, he replied, “The need to have policies that are clear…It does benefit the public when the laws are clear.” (Cohen later voted to remove Mirkarimi, stating with little explanation, “I believe the reading of the charter is narrow and appropriately applied in this case.”)

The issue of what qualifies as official misconduct — and whether there is a predictable way for officials to know where that line is drawn, or whether it’s entirely up to the discretion of mayors — was also highlighted by Kaiser’s long presentation, but probably not in the way she intended.

Kaiser appealed to people’s sense of outrage about the initial arm-grab and subsequent guilty plea — claiming Mirkarimi “attacked his wife” and “this conduct was serious!” — and seemed to think that was an adequate test of whether bad behavior by an elected official warrants his unilateral removal from office.

Kaiser took issue with Hur’s contention that a lack of clear, limiting standards gives too much power to future mayors to remove their political enemies for minor incidents.

“The mayor certainly does not agree with Hur’s argument for a bright line rule,” Kaiser said. She mocked the notion that mayors would abuse this expanded power. “The check on that is the Ethics Commission, and the check on that is this body.” Kaiser’s position was that the statute should be read as broadly as possible and that the process should be trusted to protect against political manipulations.

But Chiu also took issue with that standard, saying “having clarity in the law seems to make sense” and asking Kaiser how officials can know what standards they’re expected to meet.

“I don’t agree and I didn’t mean to convey the standard is murky,” Kaiser replied, but as she tried to elaborate, her standard began to seem ever murkier.

“It depends on the circumstance,” Kaiser said. “But that doesn’t make it too vague to apply. It makes it more nimble.”

A nimble standard might suit mayors just fine, but the idea seemed to bother the supervisors, even Farrell, who told Kaiser that her position “seems to me very contradictory.”

At the end of the hearing, Campos returned to Kaiser’s “nimble” comment as a reason for rejecting that argument and Lee’s charges: “I don’t think the analysis made me comfort. She said the interpretation was nimble, but I don’t know the difference between nimble and vague, and I think they are one in the same.”

“Most cases will be clear, but there are decisions on the periphery,” Kaiser told Farrell during the earlier questioning, not making it clear which category she’d put the Mirkarimi case into.

Kim was the next to try to pin Kaiser down on whether there’s a discernible standard for the city to apply to this and future cases, saying she’d like to see a “bright line rule or a test.” Kaiser said that it depends on the office, but that a law enforcement officer shouldn’t commit a crime.

“Then any misdemeanor the sheriff pleads to is official misconduct, is that right?” Kim asked.

No, she said, the conduct must be while someone is in office — seemingly contradicting her earlier point – and found to be so by the board and commission. But then she said, “It is true that any misdemeanor relates to the duties of a sheriff.”

Kim persisted: “This is where I get stuck. When does it fall below the standard of decency?”

“The charter doesn’t answer that question. It’s a case-by-case determination,” Kaiser said.

“What’s to guide us in the future?” Kim asked.

But again, there was no clear answer, it’s simply for mayors to decide. “It is a discretionary decision,” Kaiser said.

Kim, a lawyer, questioned whether the stance by Kaiser and Lee could lead the courts to strike down the city’s untested statute. “Does that open us up to the vagueness issue, which would make the clause unconstitutional?” Kim asked.

But Kaiser said San Francisco voters wanted to give the mayor wide power to interpret misconduct when they approved the broad new official misconduct language in 1995, part of a complete overhaul of the City Charter.

“Voters made a considered choice to put suspend and remove procedures in the charter,” she said, trying to counter the argument that recall elections should be used to remove elected officials. “These suspension and removal procedure is more nimble. It’s less expensive than a recall.”

Yet with a final price tag expected to be in the millions of dollars and proceedings lasting seven months, it’s debatable whether this process was really cheaper and more nimble.

Mirkarimi attorney David Waggoner began his presentation by saying, “There’s no question that on Dec. 31, 2011, Ross Mirkarimi made a terrible mistake.”

But it was a mistake that Mirkarimi admitted to, accepted the criminal punishment that followed his guilty plea, endured a forced six-month separation from his family, had his job and salary taken from him, was the target of a media and political campaigns that have deeply damaged his reputation, “his entire life’s work was destroyed almost in an instant.” All for pleading to a low-level misdemeanor.

“At the end of the day, the punishment does not fit the crime,” Waggoner said.

He noted that just three elected officials have been removed for official misconduct in the city’s history, each time for serious felonies. But now, it’s being applied to a misdemeanor with arguments that broaden a mayor’s ability to remove political adversaries.

“You must decide whether to uphold or overturn the will of the voters,” Waggoner told the supervisors.

He even took a swipe at the domestic violence advocates who have led the campaign to remove Mirkarimi: “Ironically, the very advocates who should be defending Eliana Lopez have been attacking her.”

Taking over from Waggoner, Mirkarimi’s other attorney, Shepard Kopp, said Mirkarimi had no official duties before taking the oath of office, and the charter makes clear there needs to be connection. “It says misconduct has to occur while an official is in office.”

Kopp also brought the focus back to the precedent in this historic case. “The other problem with the mayor’s position is it doesn’t give you any guidance or future mayors any guidance,” Kopp said, later adding, “To follow the mayor’s position is not workable policy and it doesn’t have any support under the law.”

Supervisors questioned Kopp and Waggoner, but it didn’t seem to reveal any new insights, simply reinforcing their points that official misconduct should be a rarely used tool applied only to serious crimes.

In her final five-minute final rebuttal, rather than letting her co-counsel Peter Keith speak or trying to mitigate some of the damage from her earlier testimony, Kaiser seemed to double-down on her tactic of using emotional arguments rather than addressing legal standards for removal.

She alleged Mirkarimi’s team offered “a theory that domestic violence doesn’t matter if you’re sheriff,” prompting an audible negative reaction from the crowd that Chiu gaveled down. That reaction was even louder and more outraged when Kaiser implied Mirkarimi “threatens the life of a family member.”

Those sorts of characterizations fed much of the crowd’s stated belief that this case was a “political witchhunt” designed to destroy a progressive leader, and the opposition expressed to some domestic violence advocates testimony could be used against the larger progressive community.

But Agnos, who sat in the audience throughout the long hearing, told us the frustration was understandable. “The crowd, after nine months of agony, expressed a lot of emotions, and that is inherent in mass crowds,” he said. “They didn’t mean ill will to the domestic violence community. There was no malevolent intent there.”

Supervisors who voted to reinstate Mirkarimi said they want to make clear their commitment to combating domestic violence. “I worry that this case has set us back because of the tensions around how we responded,” Avalos said.

“I think it’s important that no matter how we feel about this that we come together as a city,” Campos said. “People on both sides have legitimate viewpoints on this issue.”

Weird homophobic attack ad from the Association of Realtors


Gee, this ad that’s up on You Tube, apparently paid for the the San Francisco Association of Realtors, is creepy, strange and a bit homophobic.

It starts with a bunch of kids chanting about sending “Eric Mar back to Mars” — huh? — where, presumably, there are still happy meals with toys in them, because I can’t figure out why else all these children would be doing a political attack ad. Creepy element number one.

Then there’s a fake news announcer saying that “thousands of kids” are angry at Mar, when I saw maybe a dozen in the video — and they’re mad because they “are being bused long distances to schools they don’t want to attend.” (Creepy element number two — busing is a racial code word, even these days — and Mar, as a member of the Board of Supervisors, has nothing at all to do with the city’s school assigment policy.

Then we go to clips from the Daily Show making fun of Mar’s happy meal ban (including a superimposed legend “embattled Supervisor Eric Mar.”) Creepy element number three — why is he “embattled?” Only because the realtors don’t want a pro-tenant vote on the board.

After that it gets truly odd: The voice-over announces that Mar is famous “for suggesting that his meetings be held in the the hot tub of a local YMCA” — while a photo shows three apparently naked men cozying up around a big flume of steam. Ah — Mar is linked to a steamy male bath scene! Eeew.

“Our kids are right,” the ad says at the end. But does anyone think those (very) young children spontaneously took to the streets to complain about a member of the Board of Supervisors? Seriously — some parents clearly rounded up their kids and gave them pots and pans to bang on and created a totally false an pretty outrageous political hit piece.

Oh, and at the end, the ad hypes David Lee — and again claims that “neighborhood schools” are a part of his platform. Fine, be ignorant: David Lee isn’t running for School Board.

I can’t believe the Association of Realtors really endorses this stuff. I’ve called over there to ask about it, but haven’t heard back.

Check it out. Am I crazy, or is this some ugly shit?



David Lee and his landlord backers raise the stakes in District 1


Realtors and commercial landlords have transformed the supervisorial race in District 1 into an important battle over rent control and tenants’ rights, despite their onslaught of deceptive mailers that have sought to make it about everything from potholes and the Richmond’s supposed decline to school assignments and economic development.

It’s bad enough that groups like the Coalition for Sensible Government – a front group for the San Francisco Association of Realtors, which itself is in the middle of internal struggles over its increasing dominance by landlords rather than Realtors – have been funding mailers attacking incumbent Eric Mar on behalf of downtown’s candidate: David Lee. Combined spending by Lee and on his behalf is now approaching an unheard of $400,000 (we’ll get more precise numbers tomorrow when the latest pre-election campaign finance statements are due).

What’s even more icky and unsettling is the fact that Lee – a political pundit who has been regularly featured in local media outlets in recent years, usually subtly attacking progressives while trying to seem objective – has refused to answer legitimate questions about his shady background and connections or the agenda he has for the city. He refused to come in for a Guardian endorsement interview or even to respond to our questions. His campaign manager, Thomas Li, told me Lee is too busy campaigning to answer questions from reporters, but he assured me that Lee will be more accessible and accountable once he’s elected.

Somehow, I don’t find that very reassuring. But I can understand why Lee is ducking questions and just hoping that the avalanche of mailers will be enough to win this one. In a city where two-thirds of residents rent, but where landlords control most of the city’s wealth, it’s politically risky to be honest about a pro-landlord agenda.

“It’s pretty clear that is a real estate-tenant battleground,” Ted Gullicksen, executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, told us. “District 1 is all about rent control, really. If David Lee wins, we’ll see the Board of Supervisors hacking away at rent control protections. The only question is whether it will be a severe hack or outright repeal.”

Real estate and development interests have already been able to win over Sups. Jane Kim and Christina Olague on key votes – and even Mar, who has disappointed many progressives on some recent votes, which many observers believe is the result of the strong challenge by Lee and his allies – but an outright flip of District 1 could really be dangerous.

“I want people to know how high the stakes are in this election. I want people to know that outside special interests are trying to buy this election,” Mar told us.

Mar is far from perfect, but at least he’s honest and accessible. With all the troublesome political meddling that we’ve seen in recent years from Willie Brown and Rose Pak on behalf of their corporate clients, particularly commercial landlords – which has been a big issue in District 5 this election and the mayor’s race last year – progressives were disturbed by rumors that Pak is helping Mar.

When we asked him about it, he didn’t deny it or evade the issue. “Yes, I have the support of just about all the Chinatown leaders, including Rose Pak,” Mar told us. “I’m proud to have a strong Chinese base of support.”

When asked about that support and how it will shape his votes, Mar noted that he also has strong support from labor and progressives, and that he will be far stronger on development and tenants issues than Lee. “I view myself as an independent, thoughtful supervisor who works very hard for the neighborhood,” Mar said. “There’s an accusation [in mailers paid for the Realtors] that the Richmond has become unlivable, and that’s just not true.”

We have a stack of official documents showing how Lee has used his Chinese-American Voter Education Project and his appointment to the Recreation and Parks Commission to personally enrich himself and his wife, using donations from rich corporations and individuals whose bidding he then does, and we mentioned some of that in our endorsements this week. We’ll continue seeking answers from Lee and his allies about their agenda for the city.

In fact, just as I was writing this post, Lee sent a message to supporters responding to our editorial and other efforts to raise these issues. “I know it is shocking, but while working as a full-time employee for CAVEC for the last twenty years, I was paid a salary. But let me tell you this was no six figure job with benefits,” he wrote. Actually, CAVEC’s federal 990 form shows he was paid $90,000 per year, while his wife, Jing Lee, was paid up to $65,000 per year as “program director” up until 2006. 

“We did not receive any money from the government. All of our activities were funded by private donations and grants and our finances were audited on a regular basis,” Lee wrote, not noting that he has refused to make public a full list of his donors, although we know from a 2001 report in Asian Week that they included Chevron, Wells Fargo, Anheuser-Busch, Bank of America, Marriott, Levi Strauss, Norcal Waste Management (now known as Recology), State Farm, and the late philanthropist Warren Hellman, who at the time was funding downtown attacks on progressives through groups including the Committee on Jobs.

District 1 has always been an important San Francisco battleground. During the decade that progressives had a majority on the Board of Supervisors, District 1 was represented first by Jake McGoldrick and then by Mar. Neither McGoldrick nor Mar always voted with the progressives, yet McGoldrick had to endure two failed recall drives funded by business and conservative interests.

Now, they have increased their bet, raising the question that President Barack Obama posed in last night’s presidential debate: “Are we going to double down on the top down policies that got us into this mess?”

Let’s hope not.

D5, Mirkarimi, and 8 Washington


Everybody knows that the timing of the Board of Supervisors vote on ousting the sheriff for official misconduct is bad for Ross Mirkarimi. We’re talking about a huge, high-profile decision just weeks before some of the key board members are up for re-election, two of them in hotly contested races. For Sups. Eric Mar and Christina Olague, it’s going to particularly difficult: Mar’s in a moderate district, and he’ll be attacked from the more conservative David Lee if he supports Mirkarimi. Olague’s in a progressive district where Mirkarimi was a popular supervisor, so no matter what she does, she’ll take heat.

But I was a little surprised by Randy Shaw’s analysis, which suggests that Olague will be motivated entirely by political spite:

D5 Supervisor Christina Olague once faced a tough decision on Ross, but since Mirkarimi allies have attacked her on a number of issues it would be very unlikely for her to support him.

That’s pretty insulting. Shaw, who has supported her in the past, is saying that Olague won’t make up her own mind based on the actual issue and case in front of her. She was pretty clear when I called her: “I will vote on the merits of this issue,” she said. “If I was motivated to vote based on who had pissed me off I’d have a hard time voting on anything.”

I’ve disagreed with Olague quite a few times, and one could easily argue that she’ll be under immense pressure from the mayor. (“The mayor doesn’t want a lot from Christina, but he does want this,” one insider told me.) But is it impossible for Shaw to imagine that, in one of the toughest matters she will ever have to handle, the supervisor might actually listen to the testimony, consider the merits of the case, and vote to do what she thinks is right?

Meanwhile, Joe Eskenazi at the Weekly has already announced the Guardian’s endorsement in D5 — which is interesting, since we’re barely started interviewing the candidates. Eskenazi calls Julian Davis “the Guardian’s fair-haired boy” (which, speaking of insults, is not a terribly appropriate way to refer to an African American man), indicating that he’s already our candidate.

For the record: We have not made an endorsement in District Five. We plan to endorse a slate of three candidates for the ranked-choice ballot, and we’ll publish that endorsement the last week in September or the first week in October.



Slough Feg’s Mike Scalzi talks metal, philosophy


(For a review of Slough Feg’s latest, The Animal Spirits, go here. Read on for an interview with the band’s guitarist-singer, Mike Scalzi.)

San Francisco Bay Guardian: I noticed a clear theological theme running through the album. Was that – the Reformation – an area of historical interest to you? I’m interested in that choice, of a less exciting historical topic than maybe a more violent event…

Mike Scalzi: It’s not as metal, certainly. But in another way, Martin Luther was very metal, in that he was dedicated. Though he was Christian, in his dedication and his rebellion, he was metal. I was reading about all that stuff in an anthology of Western cultures. It was very general – I had to teach it. I’m a teacher. I started teaching Philosophy of Religion a year ago for the first time, and I’m not really that into teaching it, because its not my area of expertise, but I kinda had to.

[Writing music] helps me, actually. If I can write a song about it, it becomes more ingrained in my everyday thought. It becomes more second nature to say “oh, the 95 Theses!” It’s not just as a teaching aid, though. When it comes to Renaissance Christian theologians, he’s the most metal one. He’s out in the world. He’s out doing stuff, being a revolutionary. And a lot of his views are funny, a lot of the things he said were really funny and really extreme.

SFBG: Less metal for being ultimately successful, though. A lot of those so-called heretics were metal in the sense that they died for their principles, or were burnt at the stake or what have you.

MS: But he was the most badass one! Obviously, I don’t agree with him – he was a fundamentalist and all that, and he brought on fundamentalism in a way, I guess. But at least he said that trying to believe that the Bible is literal fact by reason alone is preposterous. That’s why he thought you had to exercise faith – because it’s preposterous. Everything in the Old Testament is preposterous, but you have to believe in it, purely to test your faith.

After seven records, you have to think of new things. I don’t want to repeat myself.

SFBG: What was the rubric for the lyrics that were included in the liner notes?

MS: Oh, those are the lyrics to “Trick the Vicar”

SFBG: Oh, so it’s just the one song?

MS: That was my decision. I’m sick of like…I’ve done that on every record and…

SFBG: People parse your lyrics?

MS: Oh, I don’t care about that. They come up with all sorts of weird interpretations, as if I really care that much. “Oh this means this and that means that. This is the deep meaning in this.” There’s no deep meaning in this shit! At least not that I know about! But at this point, trying to find things to say is a challenge.

With “Trick the Vicar,” I thought the lyrics to that would be important because it’s all one big pun. There’s obviously no deeper meaning, other than just being entertaining. It’s like something from a Benny Hill skit or something. So on the inside of the CD, I had all the puns – I came up with all those puns in the same month. They’re really silly, obviously.

SFBG: Well I did mean to confirm whether or not “boister” was a word.

MS: Good, good! No, its not. But when I say “There’s a boister that goes on in the cloister”…

SFBG: …from context it’s pretty clear.

MS: Yeah. It’s just a bunch of silliness, but it works for the song. I like silliness, and that’s one of the things that’s missing from a lot of metal: a good sense of humor. Metal used to have a sense of humor, in the 70s and 80s.

SFBG: That’s something that I was meaning to ask you about, if there’s a way to account for that sudden lack of humor. You have this form of music that has this potential to be taken seriously, but also the potential to be looked at with a sense of humor, or with an understanding of its many tongue-in-cheek aspects. It seems like a lot of its biggest fans, a lot of the people with the kind of familiarity with it that would enable them to see the humor, are the people least able to see it.

MS: Well, there are a lot of stupid people. You go to a metal show and you run into a lot of morons. Around here, you don’t have as many.

SFBG: I think it’s sort of like a dumbbell shaped-graph. On the one end, it attracts a lot of stupid people, but on the other end, it attracts a lot of people who are discerning and smart.

MS: I think, basically, they’re going to laugh at you one way or another. Being a metal guy, especially when you’re old, or older, or from the last generation of metal, they’re going to laugh at you. You make the choice of whether they’re going to laugh at you or with you. And I choose to laugh with them!

Also, metal, or indeed all rock and roll, is inherently funny. It is! People used to know that!

SFBG: Or inherently fun. That’s what a lot of people seem to lose sight of.

MS: Metal is inherently funny. No matter what! It’s funny. That’s one of the best things about it! It’s ridiculous, and it’s great because it’s ridiculous. People realized that way back. Black Sabbath, maybe not Led Zeppelin — they never had much of a sense of humor – Deep Purple, Judas Priest. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Early glam metal – Twisted Sister, Quiet Riot – they all had a sense of humor. Van Halen! Give me a break…that band was all humor until Sammy Hagar came, and it lost its sense of humor, and it started to suck.

The way that these things incorporated humor resembled vaudeville. That was David Lee Roth’s whole thing. Humor is part of entertainment. The most serious, heavy band, Black Sabbath, was also the most funny, because they realized – they were a British band with a British sense of humor.

SFBG: It’s interesting that you mention that. Do you think the trans-Atlantic shift had anything to do with that loss of humor?

MS: No, because Van Halen is the funniest. Maybe they’re not metal. Manowar! I don’t know if you want to open that can of worms. There’s a lot of evidence that they started out as a joke. They started out tongue-in-cheek and got serious as they went along. They know they’re funny; they may not want to acknowledge it, but they are.

SFBG: And the humor is bound up in the fact that everyone knows there is a joke, but no one will actually admit it. You can listen to it and pretend that you’re taking it seriously.

MS: It’s true of hardcore too. It used to be funny, now its all [imitates hardcore singing]. It’s lost its humor – some of it hasn’t, but most of it has. That’s one of my problems with a lot of the metal in this country, or in Germany too – people take it too seriously.

It’s the same thing with entertainment. I’m accused of being too traditionalist and narrow, but I’m bored by anything else. The way that entertainment used to be, in my opinion, was better. Period. It just used to be better. And now, it lacks.

I guess the question you’re asking is “why?” I don’t know why. I think it’s something about the world and the way people see entertainment. It has a much wider scope than it used to. People are much more involved in it as fans, and take it seriously as a statement, which is great, but maybe some of the actual enjoyment of it – from the performance standpoint and the artists’ standpoint – has been diminished by the fact that people hold it too close to their heart. The fragility of their egos and their identity are wrapped up in it in a way that causes problems.

SFBG: Like many discussions about the evolution and history of metal, I blame Nirvana. They taught people, or people took away from them this idea that if a band was trying to entertain you, that was somehow false.

MS: Well, that happened way before Nirvana, but that’s when it hit mainstream.

SFBG: There’s that line in Smells Like Teen Spirit: “Here we are now/Entertain us.”

MS: I don’t know if I have much to say about that. At the time, I didn’t like it. I heard their first album, before they were really popular, and I didn’t like it then. I was playing shows in San Francisco at the time, and I knew that I was not down with what was happening as a result of them. “Don’t try.” “Don’t give a shit.” “Nevermind.” “Be a loser.” I mean, sure, I thought that when I was a teenager. That’s the 14-year-old mentality: “everything sucks, so fuck it, man.” By the time you’re in your twenties you’ve grown out of that, you try to do something, unless you end up like Kurt Cobain, and you just fade off into negative, negative, everything sucks, and then die. [Sarcastically.] That’s great! That’s my hero! [Chuckles ruefully.] What the fuck is that?

SFBG: So, part and parcel of the conversation we’ve been having is the fact that you’re a very opinionated guy…

MS: So you’ve read my blog posts. There’s a new one today! I was just reading the comments.

SFBG: I did read them. I can only imagine what kind of comments you’re going to get on the most recent one. I was wondering if there’s something you can identify about metal that helps it attract opinionated people. Or, to reverse the chicken and the egg, if there’s something about being into metal that makes people opinionated?

MS: Well, I don’t think people get into metal for some other reason, and then get opinionated once they’re into metal. Unless you want to get into the fact that most metal is so bad now that you can get into it and say “oh god I’m so opinionated because there’s so much garbage out there. That’s true of a lot of kinds of music though.

It attracts opinionated people because it is extreme music. It attracts people who are into a certain kind of mentality. It happens from such an early age! I can’t analyze it. I got into metal, like a lot of people, when I was pretty young, and that was a long time ago! I don’t remember exactly. I don’t have immediate access to that feeling first being attracted to it. To me, its something that happened so far back that its like…

SFBG: …it’s like asking “why do you like mac ‘n’ cheese?”

MS: Exactly. And I have more access to what’s happened since then. But I don’t feel like I’m actively opinionated. People take things in, and they call them like they hear them. To me, things assault my sense, not the other way around. Nobody remembers being born into the world of music or food or anything and going “Hmm, I’m going to investigate this thing!” It’s more you hear something and you’re passed into this impression that you have. And some things, you get an impression and you go “Argh, that sucks! That really bothers me!” So my opinions, like those of most people who are opinionated, come from being stimulated by something in a positive or negative way. I would say I call it like I hear it.

I never thought of myself as opinionated until I moved here. People said that if I moved to San Francisco there would be all this great music. They said, “People out there are very enlightened.” And then I got here – 20 years ago – and I thought, “Everybody here’s not really that enlightened. There’s a lot of stupid bullshit going on out here.”

SFBG: Switching tacks completely, I’m curious about your master’s degree in philosophy. I read a little bit in another interview about what you teach, but I’m curious about what you focused on in your studies.

MS: I ended up studying Descartes for my thesis. I was interested in Descartes as a graduate student because his method was very simple and intuitive, and the whole point of it was a do-it-yourself type thing, rather than getting involved in this long academic tradition. Obviously, like anyone else, he comes from an academic tradition, but his point in Meditations [on First Philosophy] was to say “let’s erase everything that happened beforehand in philosophy and science and start on your own, with what you can know by yourself.”

I just found Descartes pretty easy to understand. I was able to maneuver in that ontology. I started taking seminars on Descartes, and I subsequently got interested in German idealism, like Kant and Schopenhauer, and like every metalhead, I was interested in Nietzsche.

In a master’s degree, you end up focusing on major guys because they have these comprehensive exams that test your knowledge of Plato, Descartes, Hume, etc. I stuck to a lot of that, because I knew I would have to take an exam on it.

SFBG: That Kantian or Cartesian originalist thinking – wiping the slate clean, starting with the Categorical Imperative, or something like that…

MS: …well, Kant is much more in the tradition, he’s not trying to wipe the slate clean. He’s just trying to be revolutionary.

SFBG: I’ll admit I’m only tenuously familiar with Kant, but I remember his ethics being founded on a sort “first principle” that ignores cultural baggage and so forth.

MS: Well, that’s what people say, but his point is to come up with something that is not dependent on circumstance in any way at all. Something that’s not empirical, that’s totally dependent on reason. Just like Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” in a way.

It’s something that you try to universalize by saying “what if everybody did this?” [Motions toward cookie on the table.] What if I were to steal this cookie? What if everybody did that? If it produces a contradiction – if its unreasonable for everybody to do something – you have to decide if it would be possible. Not if it would be right or wrong.

In order to establish a standard of right and wrong, you have to decide if it’s reasonable – could everyone do it. Suppose I don’t keep a promise – I say I’m going to show up here at 11, and I don’t. If I don’t do that, and I don’t keep my promise, what happens? It undermines the principle of the promise in the first place. If I don’t keep a promise, whatever, no big deal. What if nobody keeps promises. Could everybody do what I did? If no one keeps promises, there wouldn’t be promises in the first place.

SFBG: There’d be no point.

MS: You couldn’t make promises, because there’d be no such thing.

SFBG: Like if everyone stole, there would be no point in having property.

MS: If there were no property, you couldn’t steal. If there were no taking anybody’s word for anything, you couldn’t make a promise. It undermines its own possibility. It’s a contradiction that makes the act itself impossible. If its irrational to that extent, to the point where it makes the act itself a contradiction, then, according to Kant, its not morally permissible. That’s a little bit of a long answer.

SFBG: I’m going to attempt a sort of interviewer Triple Lutz here. Is Descartes’ idea of discarding what has come before, or Kant’s idea of ignoring circumstance to come up with principle…

MS: …Rational principle…

SFBG: …purely rational principle. Can that be applied to your creative process? In the sense that…

MS: No. [Laughs.] I wish I could say that it could. That’d be a brilliant piece of journalism. But as much as I’d love to be able to say that there’s some heavy metal calculus that I use in order to write by sheer principles of reason…no. At least, not for me. It’d be cool if there was some guy, some alchemist songwriter guy who was trying to find the principle of guitar or whatever.

SFBG: You could sort of take a stab at the categorical imperative of metal though, being like Maiden, Priest, and Sabbath, and not being affected by sort of the whims of circumstance.

MS: That’s the problem I’m encountering though. I don’t want to say that everything’s all based on the past. I don’t want to be a heavy metal anachronism. That’s what I’m getting in a lot of these responses to my Invisible Oranges articles. Again, to be philosophical about it, I get this confusion of cause and consequence. A lot of people say to me: “you don’t like death metal because you haven’t explored it.”

I try to keep the analysis somewhat objective, about why I don’t like the cookie monster vocals, the guitar sounds that are very brittle, and the drums that are triggered – clickety, clackety, clickety doesn’t sound “brutal.” It sounds like some bullshit to me.

People say, “You haven’t explored it enough. You haven’t heard the good stuff. You haven’t gone to the lengths that it takes to appreciate it.”

SFBG: If it’s good, it shouldn’t take any “lengths.”

MS: It’s confusing the cause with the consequence. It’s not that I don’t like extreme metal because I haven’t listened to enough of it. I haven’t listened to enough of it because I don’t like it. People think that I’ve come up with some sort of rigid heavy metal calculus and say “I like Priest, I like Maiden, I like Sabbath, Saint Vitus, whatever, some underground stuff too. These are the criteria of what I will listen to.”

It’s not like that! I grew up with the evolution of the whole thing, listening to it happen, and I heard things, and I said “I don’t like that! That’s crap! That sounds like someone who doesn’t care about what they’re doing.” It just sounds like shit to me, for whatever reason. And I heard more and more of it, and I chose not to investigate it.

SFBG: Getting back to philosophy just briefly, I saw in another interview that you described your music as having a Machiavellian aspect. I understand a Nietzschian aspect, but how does Machiavelli come into it?

MS: I was probably joking! I’m not sure. I was just being macho, talking about taking over the world. It’s a very vague characterization of Machiavelli, who I don’t really know shit about anyway.

SFBG: I was struck by the William Blake references in one of your old songs, “Tiger! Tiger!” Blake has always struck me as very metal.

MS: The reason that I put that stuff in there is not because of William Blake. It’s because of Alfred Bester, who quoted him.

SFBG: I noticed that you mentioned that author a lot in other interviews.

MS: A lot of sci-fi fans haven’t read him! This is insane to me. When people read The Stars My Destination – the original title of which was Tiger! Tiger! – they say “that’s the greatest fiction book I’ve ever read.” I was not a sci-fi or fantasy reader until I was 26, and someone got me that book. It was completely a fluke. I got it and I was like, “Ehh, I don’t really like science fiction books,” and then I finished it and said, “This is the best book I’ve ever read in my life.” Only on the basis of that did I get into science fiction.

SFBG: It’s tempting to ask you questions about Slough Feg’s distinctive sound, but seeing where my fellow interviewers have gone before, I was wary. It seems like we journalists want to get you to say “Oh, I choose to write songs with major chords because of this reason which is easy to print,” and your response is to say, “Look, this just my creative process; it’s how it sounds good to me.”

MS: Well, something that sounds good to me vocally sounds good because it’s catchy. If I remember it. I don’t always tape everything that I do. So, why do I remember it? That’s a whole question. Maybe I remember it because it sounds a little bit unique, maybe for some other reason.

SFBG: I think the music stands out to people, whether on record or live, because it makes melodic choices that almost seem like a deliberate subversion of the conventions of metal, like all those major chords. But I’m assuming that wasn’t a choice to subvert. That there wasn’t a point at which you were like, “Heavy metal is in minor keys – I’m going to do it a different way.”

MS: Well maybe there was! Again, it wasn’t a conscious choice. I don’t write Slough Feg songs according to music theory. I don’t say, “Now we’re going to do a song like this; now we’re going to do a song with these chords, or with this type of vocals.” If you do that, it ends up sounding overly stiff and deliberate.

But having said that, that’s not to say that there isn’t some kind of overall approach. When I do write stuff, what do I edit out? What do I keep? Stuff that reaches a certain criteria after the fact. Not when I come up with riffs, or vocals – that just happens. But what do I choose to keep? I don’t think about it consciously – it’s second nature to me now, so its hard to say – but basically, at one point, I wanted to write things that imitated Maiden, Sabbath, Thin Lizzy, Alice Cooper, Saint Vitus, Black Flag, and all that.

It became second nature to say “I want to pick up where Maiden left off,” but not to use major chords. The first “Irish-sounding” song I ever did was called “The Red Branch,” and I was sitting around in my living room, in a place I lived in years and years ago, I was sitting in my living room with an acoustic guitar, just joking around, singing to somebody as a joke, and I thought, “That’s a cool chord change!”

I keep a lot of things that other people would throw away, that they’d be scared to put on a record because it’s too silly-sounding. I say to myself “this is actually something that someone else wouldn’t do, and have the nerve to take seriously.” I think a lot of people are embarrassed to play Slough Feg-type songs. They were 20 years ago, at least. And now we’ve developed the sound to the point that it’s sort of obnoxious. People are like “what the hell man! This guy is willing to do this?!”

That’s what happened in San Francisco in the mid-nineties, playing this music. People would be like “God, you’re willing to get up onstage and play that? That sounds like nursery-rhyme music with metal instruments. It’s major. You’re singing like you’re in a 50s musical!”

Those are the kind of influences that I incorporate, maybe because it was something people weren’t willing to do, and so it sounded fresh to people.

SFBG: That sort of discomfort you describe is interesting, because you have this whole other offshoot of metal that’s built on discomfort. Black metal is based around saying “which chords can I play that will make people uncomfortable, that are the most dissonant.” You’ve come up with an incredibly unique way to do the same thing. You challenge people’s expectations, you make them uncomfortable, you take them out of their comfort zone, but instead of being really really heavy, or really fast, or really dissonant, or really down-tuned, you just have your own personal approach: to write chord changes that are, you know, silly.

MS: Or just really, really, traditional. Not that I intended that. But this is good, I think we hit the nail on the head in sense. When I started developing the sound, in the early nineties, a lot of it was a reaction. I didn’t write these looney tunes in 1989. I wrote them when I got here, and I started playing some shows, and I noticed that all the bands were drab, and all the bands played sort of one-dimensional speed metal. And I was totally nonplussed by it.

What I was writing was a reaction. I was saying “what can be done at this point?” Punk rock and speed metal and grindcore are just an extension of the same dirge – being obnoxious by being a dirge.

SFBG: And it’s an arms race, right? You can only go so fast. And then the next band that comes along has to go faster than that.

MS: And also it’s the attitude that’s so passe after a while. Spitting blood and whatever. I wanted touch on what people inevitably heard – kid’s music, or what your parents were playing – and pose the question: “are you willing to admit that this is enjoyable to you?” Slough Feg songs that do sound like they’re from a 50’s musical. Are you able to admit that this is catchy to you? That’s the punk rock maneuver, that I was able to think of it in those terms. And that’s what set us apart. But in a totally different way, in a way that goes back to like, “This is inherently enjoyable. Are you willing to partake in it, or are you too cool for it?”

SFBG: And it’s diametrically opposed to black metal. Black metal is “I will alienate you by doing something that is not enjoyable.” Your approach is “I will alienate you by doing something that is too enjoyable.”

MS: After the fact, that’s how we can analyze it. I think that’s a proper way to look at it. My songs do assault the listener, and people say “I can’t get it out of my head!” Because it’s written in very simple way – they’re really not that hard to write, but it’s a kind of songwriting that people aren’t willing to do.

Someone said to me in the 80’s, when I liked Venom a lot – they’re a very silly, vaudevillian form of Satanic metal – “Why do you like this? Anybody can do that. Anybody can play Venom songs.” And I said “yeah, that’s true. But nobody is willing to. That’s what makes it special.”


And the dreidl will rock


I have a new obsession: www.jewsrock.org. I found the site while researching an old obsession, NOFX’s “The Brews” (I was trying to prove to a friend that it wasn’t a cover of another song, and that, in fact, the song she thought was the original was actually Manic Hispanic’s cover of “The Brews,” called “Cruise”), and nearly fell off my chair. The only thing I love more than punning and pro-Jewish jokes is rock music. And combining all three? Holy chutzpah, I’m a happy little semi-Semite. Check out the site to find for a guide to who’s who in Jewish rock (The Challah Fame), Q&As with famous Heebs (The Four Questions), features on musical icons like David Lee Roth (“And the Dreidl will Rock”), and essays on music and Jewishness (“Heavy Shtetl”). Even more perfect? Cruise the site while listening to Oakland’s parody of racist punk band Screwdriver, called (of course) Jewdriver. Just make sure you visit before Friday at sundown, because we sure as shit don’t rock on Shomer fucking Shabbos.

Photo courtesy of Roberta Bayley.
Who knew? Joey Ramone (a.k.a. Jeffrey Hyman) is one of the Chosen. But I wish the goyim could keep Kenny G.