Mayor's race

Tom’s legacy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

But what about Ammiano’s own political future?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


































































































Crime and politics


San Franciscans awoke March 26 to the surprising news that state Sen. Leland Yee (D-SF) had been arrested on federal corruption charges as part of early morning police raids targeting an organized crime syndicate based in Chinatown, along with reputed gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow and two dozen others.

Yee had a reputation for sometimes trading votes for campaign contributions, a perception that had only gained strength in recent months as he launched his first statewide campaign, running to lead the Secretary of State’s Office, casting key votes for landlords and big industries that he refused to explain to local activists.

So in a year when two other Democratic Senators have also been stung by federal corruption and bribery probes, the televised image of Yee in handcuffs wasn’t beyond the realm of possibilities. It was surprising, but not shocking.

Yet by the mid-afternoon when the 137-page federal criminal complaint was unsealed and journalists started reading through what undercover FBI agents had discovered during their five-year criminal investigation, it read more like a sensational organized crime and espionage novel than a court document, a real page-turner that just got more wild and incredible as it went on.

timelineYeeWhat began with the FBI investigating a murder and leadership transition in the San Francisco branch of the ancient Chinese organized crime syndicate known as the Triad, led by an undercover FBI agent who had infiltrated the group, evolved into a widening investigation accusing Yee of arranging an illegal arms trafficking deal with a Muslim rebel group in the Philippines in exchange for $100,000 funneled into his campaign, on top of smaller favors that Yee allegedly did in exchange for envelopes with $10,000 in cash.

It was even worse for local political consultant Keith Jackson, a key Yee fundraiser who was also on contract with Lennar Urban for its Bayview-Hunters Point development projects, with the undercover FBI agents allegedly drawing Jackson into big cocaine deals, money laundering, bribery, and even a murder-for-hire plot. If the complaint is to be believed, Jackson seemed willing to do just about anything to enrich himself and raise money for Yee.

Meanwhile, the public image that Chow has been cultivating for himself since his 2003 release from federal prison — that of a reformed career gangster turned Chinatown civic leader, someone praised by local politicians for inspiring fellow ex-convicts to turn their lives around — was replaced the complaint’s description of a powerful “Dragonhead” overseeing a vast criminal enterprise involved in drugs, guns, prostitution, protection rackets, moving stolen booze and cigarettes, and money laundering.

“I think the whole city is in shock at the moment,” Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who represents Chinatown and ran against Yee in the 2011 mayor’s race, told the Guardian that afternoon. “Today’s widespread law enforcement actions are incredibly disturbing. The detail and scale of the criminal activities are shocking.”

In the days that followed, Yee withdrew his candidacy for Secretary of State and was suspended by his colleagues in the California Senate. But where this wild tale of crime and corruption goes next — and who else gets implicated as these powerful and well-connected defendants look to cut deals to avoid the lengthy prison sentences they all face — is anyone’s guess.



Chow, 54, was raised a criminal, telling the History Channel’s “Gangland” that he stabbed someone in Hong Kong at the age of nine before moving to San Francisco in 1977 and getting involved in the Hop Sing Boys gang and Chinatown’s criminal underworld.

He survived the Golden Dragon Massacre, a shooting between rival Chinatown gangs that left five dead, but he was arrested in 1978 for a robbery and sent to prison for the first time, released in 1985. The next year, he was sent back to prison for attempted murder and more gang mayhem, released in 1989.

“I did time with Charles Manson, a good friend of mine. Kimball, a serial killer. I did time with a bunch of amazing people. Each person you talk to you learn something from. Ain’t no stupid people inside the prison, you can say that,” Chow told Gangland.

In 1991, a gangster named Peter Chong was sent from Hong Kong to San Francisco to extend the reach of the Wo Hop To Triad. He enlisted Chow as his right-hand man, and together they extended the reach of the Wo Hop To across the Western United States, trying to create an all encompassing gang named the Tien HaWui, “The Whole Earth Association.”

Chow was arrested again in 1995 on a variety of racketeering and other criminal charges and sentenced to 25 years in prison. But he later testified against Chong and got his sentence reduced, and he was released from federal prison in 2003.

After his release, Chow publicly claimed to go legit, working on book and movie deals about his life, as well as building connections in the political world. Chow posed for photos with then-Mayor Gavin Newsom and other local political figures.

But the latest criminal complaint said that even as Chow pretended to be moving on, he continued to make incriminating statements to the undercover agents “confirming his knowledge of and involvement in criminal activity.”



The criminal complaint alleges that “Chow is currently the Dragonhead, or leader, of the San Francisco-based Chee Kung Tong organization,” which it described as a criminal syndicate connected to Hung Mun, a criminal dynasty that began in 17th century China, “also referred to as a Chinese secret society and the Chinese Freemasons.”

It says Chow was sworn in as CKT head in August 2006, soon after the still-unsolved murder of CKT head Allen Leung. Chow’s swearing-in was reported in local Chinese media sources, so SFPD and FBI conducted surveillance there and launched an investigation.

The FBI says it began infiltrating CKT five years ago, including an undercover FBI agent dubbed UCE 4599, who in May 2010 was introduced to Chow, who “then introduced UCE 4599 to many of the target subjects.” UCE 4599 told Chow he was a member of La Cosa Nostra, the Italian mob.

In March 2012 he was inducted into CKT as a “Consultant,” the complaint alleges. It says that Jackson — a former San Francisco school board member and political consultant — had also be inducted into CKT as a “Consultant,” participating in various criminal conspiracies.

The gang members are accused of laundering money made from “illegal activities, specifically illegal gambling, bookmaking, sports betting, drugs, and outdoor marijuana grows.” They allegedly laundered $2.3 million between March 2011 and December 2013 for UCE 4599, with members collecting a 10 percent fee for doing so.

The complaint says Jackson “has a long-time relationship with Senator Yee,” and “has been involved in raising funds for” Yee’s run for mayor “and for Senator Yee’s current campaign in the California Secretary of State election.” And much of the complaint details deeds allegedly committed by Jackson and Yee.

In fact, the second person named in the complaint, right after Chow, is Yee, “aka California State Senator Leland Yee, aka Uncle Leland.”

As the complaint alleges, “Senator Yee and Keith Jackson were involved in a scheme to defraud the citizens of California of their rights to honest services, and Senator Yee, [Daly City resident Dr. Wilson] Lim, and Keith Jackson were involved in a conspiracy to traffic firearms.”



Yee and Jackson met UCE 4599 through Chow, and then Jackson allegedly solicited him to make donations to Yee’s 2011 San Francisco mayoral campaign “in excess of the $500 individual donation limit. UCE 4599 declined to make any donations to Senator Yee, but introduced Keith Jackson and Senator Yee to a purported business associate, UCE 4773, another undercover FBI agent,” who made a $5,000 donation to Yee’s mayoral campaign.

Yee had $70,000 in debt after that mayor’s race and worked with Jackson on ways to pay off that debt. “This included soliciting UCE 4773 for additional donations and in the course of doing so, Senator Yee and Keith Jackson agreed that Senator Yee would perform certain official acts in exchange for donations from UCE 4773.”

Yee allegedly agreed to “make a telephone call to a manager with the California Department of Public Health in support of a contract under consideration with UCE 4773’s purported client, and would provide an official letter of support for the client, in exchange for a $10,000 donation.”

Meanwhile, it says Jackson and Yee continued raising money for his Secretary of State race by soliciting donations from UCE 4599 and UCE 4180, another undercover agent. “They agreed that in exchange for donations from UCE 4599 and UCE 4180, Senator Yee would perform certain officials acts requested by UCE 4599 and UCE 4180.”

That included Yee issuing an “official state Senate proclamation honoring the CKT in exchange for a $6,800 campaign donation, the maximum individual donation allowed by law.” Yee allegedly did so, and it was presented by one of his staff members at the CKT anniversary celebration on March 29, 2013.

Yee and Jackson are also accused of introducing a donor to unidentified state legislators working on pending medical marijuana legislation, the donor being another undercover agent who claimed to be a medical marijuana businessman from Arizona looking to expand into California, “and in payment for that introduction, UCE 4180 delivered $11,000 cash to Senator Yee and Keith Jackson on June 22, 2013.”

In September, after making another introduction, Yee and Jackson allegedly received another $10,000 cash donation for their services. Then Jackson allegedly had an idea for getting even more money.

“Jackson told UCE 4599 that Senator Yee, had a contact who deals in arms trafficking.” Jackson then allegedly requested UCE 4599 make another donation “to facilitate a meeting with the arms dealer with the intent of UCE 4599 to purportedly purchase a large number of weapons to be imported through the Port of Newark, New Jersey.”

That deal for up to $2.5 million in weapons involved automatic weapon and shoulder-fired missiles, the complaint said, and “Senator Yee discussed certain details of the specific types of weapons UCE 4599 was interested in buying and importing.”

The complaint says that Yee expressed discomfort with how openly UCE 4180 discussed overt “pay to play” links between cash donations and official actions. “I’m just trying to run for Secretary of State. I hope I don’t get indicted,” Yee allegedly told two undercover FBI agents during a walk on June 20, 2013, urging them to be less explicit about connecting official favor with campaign donations.

“Despite complaining about UCE 4180’s tendency to speak frankly and tie payment to performance, and threatening to cut off contact with UCE 4180, Senator Yee and Keith Jackson continued to deal with UCE 4180 and never walked away from quid pro quo requests make by UCE 4180,” the complaint said. “In fact, Senator Yee provided the introductions sought by UCE 4180 and accepted cash payments which UCE 4180 expressly tied to the making of the introductions.”

Yee’s attorney, Paul DeMeester, told reporters they will contest the charges: “We will always in every case enter not guilty pleas, then the case takes on a life of its own.”


Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this report.




On the waterfront


Who should decide what gets built on San Francisco’s waterfront: the people or the Mayor’s Office and its political appointees? That’s the question that has been raised by a series of high-profile development proposals that exceed current zoning restrictions, as well as by a new initiative campaign that has just begun gathering signatures.

Officially known as the Voter Approval to Waterfront Development Height Increases initiative, the proposal grew out of the No Wall on the Waterfront campaign that defeated Propositions B and C in November, stopping the controversial 8 Washington luxury condo tower in the process.

“The idea was to have a public process around what we’re going to do with the waterfront,” campaign consultant Jim Stearns told the Guardian.

San Franciscans have been here before. When developers and the Mayor’s Office proposed big hotel projects on the city’s waterfront, voters in 1990 reacted by approving Proposition H. It created a temporary moratorium on new hotels and required the city to create a Waterfront Land Use Plan to regulate new development, which was approved in 1997 and hasn’t been updated since.

It was an important transition point for the city’s iconic waterfront, which was still dominated by industrial and maritime uses when the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989 led to the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway and opening up of shoreline property controlled by the Port of San Francisco.

Ironically, then-Mayor Art Agnos supported a luxury hotel project at Seawall Lot 330 (which is now part of the proposed Warriors Arena project at Piers 30-32) that helped trigger Prop. H. Agnos stayed neutral on that measure and says he was supportive of setting clear development standards for the waterfront.

Today, Agnos is one of the more vocal critics of the Warriors Arena and how the city is managing its waterfront.

“What’s happened in the last three to four years is all those height limits have been abrogated,” Agnos said of the standards set by the WLUP. “With the sudden availability of big money for investment purposes, there is now funding for these mega-developments projects.”

The trio of high-profile projects that would be most directly affected by the initiative are the proposed Warriors Arena, hotel, and condos at Piers 30-32/Seawall Lot 330; a large housing and retail project proposed by the San Francisco Giants at Pier 48/Seawall Lot 337; and a sprawling office, residential, and retail project that Forest City wants to build at Pier 70. Each project violates parts of the WLUP.

“We need to let the people protect the waterfront and current height limits,” Agnos said, “because clearly there is no protection at City Hall.”



On a drizzly Saturday, Jan. 11, a few dozen activists crowded into the office at 15 Columbus Avenue, preparing to go collect signatures for the new waterfront initiative. It was a space that was already familiar to many of them from their fall campaign against height increases on the 8 Washington project.

“What we’re doing today is launching the next phase of that campaign,” campaign manager Jon Golinger told the assembled volunteers, calling this space “the center of the fight for San Francisco’s future.”

The campaign must collect at least 9,702 valid signatures by Feb. 3 to qualify for the June election, but Golinger said those involved in the campaign actually have six months to gather signatures if they want to wait for the November election.

Golinger said they would prefer June in order to build off of the momentum of the fall campaign and not get caught up in the more crowded November ballot. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm from the last election to ensure the waterfront gets the protection it needs,” he told us.

As for getting the necessary signatures, Golinger said he isn’t worried, noting that almost two years ago, he and other activists collected twice that many signatures — referendums require 10 percent of those voting in the last mayor’s race, but initiatives need only 5 percent — to challenge just the 8 Washington project.

Here, the stakes are much higher, spanning the entire seven-mile waterfront.

“We want the voters to have a say when a project goes beyond the rules that are in place,” said Sup. David Campos, the first elected official to endorse the measure and the first person to sign Golinger’s petition.

Campos also connected the campaign to the eviction crises and tenant organizing now underway, including the first in a series of Neighborhood Tenants Conventions taking place that day, culminating in a Feb. 8 event adopting a platform. “That struggle is part of this struggle,” Campos said. “We have to make sure we’re working collectively.”

The official proponent of the initiative is Becky Evans, who has been working on issues related to San Francisco’s waterfront for more than 40 years. “I remember walking along the waterfront with Herb Caen back in the ’70s,” she said of the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist for whom the promenade on the Embarcadero is now named.

Evans is a longtime Sierra Club member who also served on the city’s first Commission on the Environment, and she believes the shoreline is a critical intersection between the city’s natural and built environments, one where the citizens have an active interest.

“I think the 8 Washington process — including the petition gathering and the vote — awoke a bunch of people to making a difference in what happens to the city,” Evans told us, calling the waterfront a defining feature of San Francisco. “For many people, our skyline is the bay, not the buildings.”



The initiative has few overt critics at this point. Both city and Port officials refused to comment on the measure, citing a City Attorney’s Office memo advising against such electioneering. “I’m incredibly limited as to what I can say,” the Port’s Brad Benson told us.

And none of the spokespeople for the affected development projects wanted to say much. “We’re taking a wait and see attitude,” PJ Johnston, a spokesperson for the Warriors Arena, said when he finally responded to several Guardian inquiries.

“Right now, we’re trying to understand it,” said Staci Slaughter, the senior vice president of communications for the San Francisco Giants, whose proposal for Pier 48 and Seawall Lot 337 includes 3.7 million square feet of residential, commercial, parking, and retail, including the new Anchor Steam Brewery.

That project is just launching its environmental studies, which was the subject of a public scoping meeting on Jan. 13. Slaughter did tell us that “right now, the majority of the site doesn’t have an established height limit,” a reference to the fact that most of the site is zoned for open space with no buildings allowed.

Diane Oshima, associate director of waterfront planning at the Port, told us that during the adoption of the WLUP, “We did not broach the subject of changing any height limits.” But the plan itself says that was because tall buildings weren’t appropriate for the waterfront.

“Maintain existing building height and bulk limitations and encourage building designs that step down to the shoreline,” is the plan’s first design objective. Others include “Improve views of the working waterfront from all perspectives” and “Remove certain piers between Pier 35 and China Basin to create Open Water Basins and to improve Bay views.”

The plan also specifies acceptable uses for its various waterfront properties. Residential isn’t listed as an acceptable use for either Pier 48 or Seawall Lot 337, both of which are slated mostly for open space and maritime uses. Office space and entertainment venues are also not deemed allowable uses on either property, although it does list retail as an allowable use on Pier 48.

By contrast, Piers 30-32 and the adjacent Seawall Lot 330 were envisioned by the plan to allow all the uses proposed for it: “Assembly and Entertainment” and retail on the piers and residential, hotels, and retail on the property across the street — but not at the heights that are being proposed.

The plan calls Pier 70 a “mixed use opportunity area” that allows most uses, but not hotels or residential, despite current plans that call for construction of about 1,000 homes at the site to help fund historic preservation efforts.

Slaughter answered questions about her project’s lack of compliance with the WLUP by saying, “The whole project is going through a community planning process.”

Yet Agnos said that neither that process nor the current makeup of the Port or Mayor’s Office can get the best deal for the public against rich, sophisticated teams of developers, investors, and professional sports franchises.

“They don’t have the expertise for the multi-billion-dollar deals that are in front of them,” Agnos said of the Port of San Francisco. “The new identity for San Francisco’s Port is it has the most valuable land in the country, and maybe the most valuable land in the world.”

Left turn?


Dan Siegel, an Oakland civil rights attorney and activist with a long history of working with radical leftist political movements, joined a group of more than 150 supporters in front of Oakland City Hall on Jan. 9 to announce his candidacy for mayor.

With this development, the mayor’s race in Oakland is sure to be closely watched by Bay Area progressives. Siegel’s bid represents a fresh challenge from the left against Mayor Jean Quan at a time when concerns about policing, intensifying gentrification, and economic inequality are on the rise.

Siegel is the latest in a growing list of challengers that includes Joe Tuman, a political science professor who finished fourth in the 2010 mayor’s race; Oakland City Councilmember Libby Schaaf; and Port Commissioner Bryan Parker.

In a campaign kickoff speech emphasizing the ideals of social and economic justice, Siegel laid out a platform designed “to make Oakland a safe city.” But he brought an unusual spin to this oft-touted goal, saying, “We need people to be safe from the despair and hopelessness that comes from poverty and long-term unemployment. We need safety for our tenants from unjust evictions and … gentrification.”

Siegel voiced support for raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. He also called for shuttering Oakland’s recently approved Domain Awareness Center, a controversial surveillance hub that integrates closed circuit cameras, license plate recognition software, and other technological law enforcement tools funded by a $10.9 million grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security.

He spoke about pushing for improvements in public education “to level the playing field between children from affluent backgrounds and children from poor backgrounds,” and described his vision for reorganizing the Oakland Police Department to foster deeper community engagement.

Among Siegel’s supporters are East Bay organizers with a deep history of involvement in social justice campaigns. His campaign co-chair is Walter Reilly, a prominent Oakland National Lawyers Guild attorney who said he’s been involved with civil rights movements for years. “This is a continuation of that struggle,” Reilly told the Bay Guardian, adding that leadership affiliated with “a progressive and class-conscious movement” is sorely needed in Oakland.

Left Coast Communications was tapped as Siegel’s campaign consultant. Siegel’s communications director is Cat Brooks, an instrumental figure in Occupy Oakland and the grassroots movement that arose in response to the fatal BART police shooting of Oscar Grant, whose Onyx Organizing Committee is focused on racial justice issues.

Olga Miranda, an organizer with San Francisco janitors union, SEIU Local 87, also spoke on Siegel’s behalf during the kickoff event. “San Francisco has become for the rich, and we understand that,” she said. “But at the same time, Oakland isn’t even taking care of its own.”

Referencing a recent surge in Oakland housing prices due in part to an influx of renters priced out of San Francisco, she added, “Dan understands that if you live in Oakland, you should be able to stay in Oakland.”

Siegel’s decision to challenge Quan for the Mayor’s Office has attracted particular interest since he previously served as her legal advisor, but their relationship soured after a public disagreement.

In the fall of 2011, when the Occupy Oakland encampment materialized overnight in front of Oakland City Hall, Siegel resigned from his post as Quan’s adviser over a difference in opinion about her handling of the protest movement. Police crackdowns on Occupy, which resulted in violence and the serious injury of veteran Scott Olsen and others, made national headlines that year.

“I thought that the Occupy movement was a great opportunity for this country to really start to understand the issues of inequality in terms of wealth and power,” Siegel told the Bay Guardian when queried about that. “And I thought the mayor should embrace that movement, and become part of it and even become a leader of it. And obviously, that’s not what happened.”

Since then, his relationship with Quan has been “Cool. As in temperature, not like in hip,” he said during an interview. “I don’t want to make this personal. But we have a difference about policy and leadership.”

With Oakland’s second mayoral election under ranked-choice voting, the race could prove fascinating for Bay Area politicos. Also called instant runoff voting, the system allows voters to select their first, second, and third choice candidates. If nobody wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the last-place candidates are eliminated in subsequent rounds and their vote redistributed until one candidate crosses the majority threshold.

Quan, who ran on a progressive platform in 2010, was elected despite winning fewer first-place votes than her centrist opponent, former State Senate President Don Perata. She managed to eke out an electoral victory with a slim margin (51 percent versus Perata’s 49), after voting tallies buoyed her to the top with the momentum of second- and third-place votes, many gleaned from ballots naming Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan as first choice.

Early polling conducted by David Binder Research showed Quan to be in the lead with the ability to garner 32 percent of the vote, as compared with 22 percent for Tuman, who placed second. That’s despite Quan’s incredibly low approval ratings — 54 percent of respondents said they disapproved of her performance in office.

When Schaaf announced her candidacy in November, Robert Gammon of the East Bay Express opined, “Schaaf’s candidacy … likely will make it much more difficult for Quan to win, particularly if no true progressive candidate emerges in the months ahead.” But Siegel’s entry into the race means there is now a clear progressive challenger.

The Guardian endorsed Kaplan as first choice in 2010, and gave Quan a second-place endorsement. While there has been some speculation as to whether Kaplan would run this time around — the David Binder Research poll suggested she would be a formidable opponent to Quan — Kaplan, who is Oakland’s councilmember-at-large, hasn’t filed.

Siegel, meanwhile, cast his decision to run as part of a broader trend. “I feel that not only in Oakland, but across the country, things are really ripe for change,” he told the Guardian.

Indeed, one of the biggest recent national political stories has been the election of Kshama Sawana, a socialist who rose to prominence during the Occupy Wall Street movement, to the Seattle City Council.

“When you have a city like Oakland where so many people are in poverty or on the edge of poverty, or don’t have jobs or face evictions,” Siegel told us, “it’s no wonder that the social contract falls apart. It seems to me that what government should do is elevate the circumstances of all people, and particularly people who are poor and disadvantaged.”

Start the mayor’s race now



We hope you enjoyed last week’s cover package, “The Rise of Candidate X,” a parable about politics and the media in San Francisco. While it was clearly a fantastical tale, it also had a serious underlying message that we would like to discuss more directly here. Bold actions are needed to save San Francisco. It will take a broad-based coalition to keep the city open to all, and that movement can and should morph into a progressive campaign for the Mayor’s Office, starting now.

While 22 months seems like an eternity in electoral politics, and it is, any serious campaign to unseat Mayor Ed Lee — with all the institutional and financial support lined up behind him — will need to begin soon. Maybe that doesn’t even need to involve the candidate yet, but the constellation of progressive constituencies needs to coordinate their efforts to create a comprehensive vision for the city, one radical enough to really challenge the status quo, and a roadmap for getting there.

It’s exciting to see the resurgence of progressive politics in the city over the last six months, with effective organizing and actions by tenant, immigrant rights, affordable housing, anti-corporate, labor, economic justice, LGBT, environmental, transit, and other progressive groups.

Already, they’ve started to coordinate their actions and messaging, as we saw with the coalition that made housing rights a centerpiece of the annual Milk-Moscone Memorial March. Next, we’d like to see progressive transportation and affordable housing activists bridge their differences, stop fighting each other for funding within the current zero-sum game of city budgets, and fully support a broad progressive agenda that seeks new resources for those urgent needs and others.

Yet City Hall is out of touch with the growing populist outrage over trends and policies that favor wealthy corporations and individuals, at the expense of this city’s diversity, health, and real economic vitality (which comes from promoting and protecting small businesses, not using local corporate welfare to subsidize Wall Street). The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce recently gave this Board of Supervisors its highest-ever ranking on its annual “Paychecks and Pink Slips” ratings, which is surely a sign that City Hall is becoming more sympathetic to the interests of business elites than that of the average city resident.

This has to change, and it won’t be enough to focus on citizens’ initiatives or this year’s supervisorial races, which provide few opportunities to really change the political dynamics under the dome. We need to support and strengthen the resurgent progressive movement in this city and set its sights on Room 200, with enough time to develop and promote an inclusive agenda.

San Francisco has a strong-mayor form of government, a power that has been effectively and repeatedly wielded on behalf of already-powerful constituents by Mayor Ed Lee and his pro-downtown predecessors. Lee has used it to veto Board of Supervisors’ actions protecting tenants, workers, and immigrants; and the commissions he controls have rubber-stamped development projects without adequate public benefits and blocked the CleanPowerSF program, despite its approval by a veto-proof board majority.

Maybe Mayor Lee will rediscover his roots as a tenant lawyer, or he will heed the prevailing political winds now blowing through the city. Or maybe he’ll never cross the powerful economic interests who put him in office. But we do know that the only way to get the Mayor’s Office to pursue real progressive reforms is for a strong progressive movement to seek that office.

New York City, which faces socioeconomic challenges similar to San Francisco’s, has exciting potential right now because of the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who waged a long and difficult campaign based on progressive ideals and issues. By contrast, San Francisco seems stuck in the anachronistic view that catering to capitalists will somehow serve the masses.

The Mayor’s Office has been a potent force for blocking progressive reforms over the last 20 years. Now is the time to place that office in service of the people.


The next election


EDITORIAL This week’s dismal election in San Francisco is a symptom of deeper problems in our political system, both here and across the country. It isn’t voter apathy that caused what is expected to be record low turnout at the polls. It was an understandable loss of faith in an electoral system dominated by money and insider political games. And that’s what we need to address before the next election.

Three of the four officeholders on the Nov. 5 had no opposition, while Dist. 4 Sup. Katy Tang had only token opposition from someone new to town with no relevant experience. Why would these important, coveted, well-paying jobs have no applicants? Because the cost of admission is just too high, and it looks to many observers like the fix is in.

Tang and Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu were each appointed to their posts by Mayor Ed Lee, and it is because of that connection that they were able to raise nearly $200,000 each, the most in this field of experienced office-holders. They also unfairly benefited from the power of incumbency, which can be formidable (as Lee knows, given that he was appointed mayor on the condition that he wouldn’t run for office, breaking that pledge and spending millions of dollars to win the 2011 mayor’s race).

We need a better system, one that the power brokers who put Lee into office can’t game as easily as they do. Maybe we should hold special elections for each vacancy, with shorter campaigns requiring less fundraising and thus opening up the field. Alternatively, we could make all appointees temporary caretakers and prohibit them from immediately running for a full term.

We should also limit how much developers can spend on political campaigns pushing their projects. The $2 million that Pacific Waterfront Partners just spent selling the 8 Washington luxury condo project to voters — particularly the deceptions and limits on reviews by the Planning Department in Prop. B — was obscene and unfair. But it was a smart investment on seeking profits of more than 50 times that figure.

In the post-Citizens United world, where money equals speech, there are legal barriers to doing what needs to be done. But we need to be creative and aggressive at pushing for political reform, from public financing, spending caps, and greater disclosure on campaigns to reforming the City Charter to end our strong mayor form of government, from his appointments to commissions and elective offices to the unchecked power that he has to control the spending of public money.

If we want to woo voters back to the polls, we need to give them something to vote for, and a package of political reforms would be a good place to start.

UPDATE: This editorial was corrected to fix a misspelling of Katy Tang’s last name. 


East Bay Endorsements 2012


The East Bay ballot is crowded, with races for mayor, city council and school board in Berkeley and Oakland, plus a long list of ballot measures. We’re weighing in on what we see as the most important races.





This one’s simple: Progressives on the council like Parker, who’s a pretty unbiased attorney. Her challenger, Jane Brunner, is a supporter of Ignacio De La Fuente. Vote for Parker.







In some ways, this is a replay of the 2010 mayor’s race, where Rebecca Kaplan and Jean Quan, running as allies in a ranked-choice voting system, took on and beat Don Perata, the longtime powerbroker who left town soon after his defeat. This time around, it’s Kaplan, the popular incumbent, facing Ignacio De La Fuente, a Perata ally, for the one at-large council seat.

De La Fuente, who currently represents District 3, would have easily won re-election if he stuck to home. But for reasons he’s never clearly articulated, he decided to go after Kaplan. The general consensus among observers: De La Fuente wants to be mayor (he’s tried twice and failed), thinks Quan is vulnerable, and figures winning the at-large seat would give him a citywide base.

It’s a clear choice: Kaplan is one of the best elected officials in the Bay Area, a bright, progressive, practical, and hardworking council member who is full of creative ideas. De La Fuente is an old Perata Machine hack who wanted to kick out Occupy Oakland the first day, wants curfews for youth, and can’t even get his story straight on cutting the size of the Oakland Police Department.

De La Fuente is all about law and order, and he blasts Kaplan for — literally — “coddling criminals.” But actually, as the East Bay Express has reported in detail, De La Fuente, in a fit of anger at the police union, led the movement to lay off 80 cops. And the crime rate in Oakland spiked shortly afterward. Kaplan opposed that motion, and tried later to rehire many of those cops — but De La Fuente objected.

Public safety is one of the top local issues, and Kaplan not only supports community policing (and more cops) but is working on root causes, including the lack of services for people released into Oakland from state prison and county jail. She’s also a strong transit advocate who’s working on new bike lanes and a free shuttle on Broadway. She helped write the county transportation measure, B1. She richly deserves another term — and De La Fuente deserves retirement.





It would be nice to have a Berkeley person as mayor of Berkeley again.

The city’s still among the most progressive outposts in the country — and Mayor Tom Bates, for all his history as one of the leading progressive voices in the state Legislature and a key part of the city’s left-liberal political operation, has taken the city in a decidedly centrist direction. Bates these days is all about development. He’s a big supporter of the sit-lie law (hard to imagine the old Tom Bates ever supporting an anti-homeless measure). He didn’t even seek the mayoral endorsement of Berkeley Citizens Action, which he helped build, and instead hypes the Berkeley Democratic Club, which he used to fight. After ten years, we’re ready for a new Berkeley mayor.

Worthington is the voice of the left on the City Council. He’s an aggressive legislator who is never short of ideas. He’s talking about the basics (holding separate council meetings on major issues so people who want to speak don’t have to wait until midnight), to the visionary (a 21-point plan for revitalizing Telegraph Avenue). He’s against sit-lie and wants developers to offer credible community benefits agreements before they build. We’re with Worthington.

Alameda County ballot measures







The Oakland Zoo does wonders with rescue animals; instead of bringing in creatures from the wild or from other zoos, the folks in Oakland often find ways to take in animals that have been abused or mistreated elsewhere. Measure A1 would impose a tiny ($12 a year) parcel tax to support the public zoo. Critics say the money could go for zoo expansion, but the expansion’s happening anyway. Vote yes.







Quite possibly the most important thing on the East Bay ballot, Measure B1 creates the funding for a long-term transportation plan. Almost half of the money goes for public transit and only 30 percent goes for streets and road. There’s more bicycle money than in any previous transportation plan. Every city in Alameda County supports it. Vote yes.

Berkeley ballot measures







Not our first choice for a street improvement bond, it’s a bit of a hodgepodge that squeaked through a divided council. But the city’s deferred street maintenance is a major problem and this $30 million bond would be a modest step forward.







Berkeley has lost half its public pools in the past two years; the facilities are unusable, and it’s going to take about $20 million to refurbish and rebuild them. This bond measure would allow the city to re-open the Willard Pool and build a new Warm Water Pool — critical for seniors and people rehabbing from injuries. Vote Yes.







Berkeley often does things right, and this is a perfect example: Instead of building new facilities that it can’t afford to operate (hell, SF Recreation and Parks Department), Berkeley is asking for two things from the voters: Bond money to rebuild the municipal pools, and a special tax to provide $600,000 a year for operations. We support both.







Measure P doesn’t raise anyone’s taxes. It’s just a housekeeping measure, mandated by state law, allowing the city to keep spending taxes that were approved years ago for parks, libraries, medical services, services for the disabled, and fire services. Vote yes.







Berkeley’s been collecting utility taxes on cell phones for some time now, but the law that allows it is based on federal language that has changed. So the city needs to make this modest change to continue collecting its existing tax.







The council districts in Berkeley were set when the city adopted district elections in 1986, with a charter amendment saying all future redistricting should conform as closely as possible to the 1986 lines. Nice idea, but the population has changed and it makes sense for the council to have more flexibility with redistricting.







It’s hard to believe that progressive Berkeley, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending similar laws in court, wants to criminalize sitting on the sidewalk. It hasn’t worked in San Francisco, it won’t work in Berkeley. Vote no.







Council Members Kriss Worthington, Jesse Arreguin, and Max Anderson all oppose this plan, which would open up West Berkeley to more office development — with no guarantee of community benefits. Everyone agrees the area needs updated zoning, but this is too loose.







Berkeley has needed a strong sunshine law for years; this one isn’t the greatest, but it’s not the worst, either; it would mandate better agendas (and allow citizens to petition for items to be put on the agenda) for city boards and commissions, would create a new sunshine commission with the ability to sue the city to enforce the law, and would require elected and appointed officials to make public their appointments calendars.







This sounds like a great idea — mandate that the city present certified financial audits of its obligations before issuing any more debt. In practice, it’s a way to make it harder for Berkeley to raise taxes or issue bonds. Vote no.

Oakland ballot measures







Measure J would authorize $475 million in bonds for upgrading school facilities. This one’s a no-brainer; vote yes.


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.

SFBC keeps its distance from Critical Mass anniversary ride


Today’s 20th anniversary Critical Mass ride has received overwhelming media coverage in the last few days, including a surprisingly laudatory editorial in yesterday’s Examiner, so people are expecting the ride to be huge. But the talk of last night’s CM20 birthday celebration at CELLspace was about Quintin Mecke’s widely circulated letter blasting the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition for refusing to even put the event on its calendar or in its newsletter.

By contrast, even the San Francisco Planning & Urban Research Association (SPUR) – founded and funded by downtown players with little love for Critical Mass – listed today’s “special anniversary ride” and related events throughout the week in its calendar and on its newsletter, recognizing this “monthly bicycling event that began in San Francisco and inspired similar events throughout the world.”

As I wrote in this week’s cover story, SFBC and Critical Mass grew up together on a similar, symbiotic trajectory, effectively working an outside/insider strategy (think MLK/Malcolm X) that has won cyclists a recognized spot on the roadways. But SFBC always warily kept its distance from Critical Mass, worried about offending politicians, the mainstream media, or the driving public.

That’s an understandable strategy, given the persistent resentment many feel toward Critical Mass. But when considered in combination with SFBC’s increasingly corporate culture and sponsorships and its controversial recent decision to allegedly overrule its member vote in its District 5 supervisorial endorsements, SFBC is in danger of losing the allegiance of much of the cycling community (which remains a minority of road users, and thereby political outsiders almost by definition).

David Snyder — SFBC’s executive director through its biggest growth period, SPUR’s former transportation policy director, and currently the executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition — is reluctant to wade into the current controversy, but he does acknowledge the important role Critical Mass played in winning political acceptance for cyclists in San Francisco. 

“In the mid-’90s, when the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition was a couple thousand members, the brouhaha around Critical Mass [particularly the crackdown in ’97] increased our membership by 50 percent at one point,” Snyder told us. “At that time, we benefitted hugely form the attention Critical Mass paid to safe streets for bicycles. And I don’t think we need Critical Mass to do that anymore…The Bicycle Coalition’s goal these days isn’t to develop an awareness of unsafe streets, it’s to develop a bold agenda to fix them.”

I spoke with Mecke, who finished second in the 2007 mayor’s race, at last night’s event, and he was frustrated by his follow-up conversations with SFBC leaders, who seem to have taken a very defensive posture instead of welcoming this interesting conversation. I called SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum to discuss these issues, and I’m waiting to hear back from her and I’ll update this post when I do.

But in the meantime, to feed the discussion, here’s the full text of Mecke’s letter, followed by another letter to SFBC on the endorsement issue:

Dear Bike Coalition:

Sadly, I can’t say I was surprised when I read this week’s SFBC Newsletter and found absolutely zero mention of the 20th Anniversary of Critical Mass.  According to your own newsletter, apparently the only thing happening in the San Francisco bike world that is worthy of your 12,000 members knowing about on Friday, Sept. 28 is SFBC’s Valet Bike Parking at the DeYoung Museum.  Seriously?

This is the San Francisco Bike Coalition and you couldn’t even bring yourselves to stick a small mention of Critical Mass in your newsletter or on your website (or god forbid you actually celebrate/acknowledge CM and show some pride), a cycling event created here in San Francisco which has spread across the globe to multiple continents since its inception & inspired thousands of cyclists to take to the street?  It’s truly amazing that Critical Mass was on the cover of the Guardian this week and even SF Funcheap listed the event but SFBC wouldn’t even put a mention at the bottom in the “Upcoming Events” section, hidden away amongst all the SFBC sponsored events? Not even a listing of the critical mass website or the community events going on all week long?  Your website lists the celebration of the 15th anniversary of TransForm but not Critical Mass?

Wow.  I’m truly speechless.  How embarrassing but more to the point, how sad. Are you afraid of offending Chuck Nevius or Mayor Lee? I don’t know how, why or what SFBC has become as an organization at this point but it’s disappointing as a long time cyclist to see the city’s only (?) organized bike advocacy organization which continually touts how many members you have to not even show the smallest amount of solidarity to your fellow cyclists and to the city’s own cycling history.  That being the case, history will march on without you.

Contrary to our “biking” Supervisor David Chiu’s comments in today’s Chronicle (I always enjoy politicians running from anything deemed controversial), it’s actually SFBC that is simply one tiny part of a much larger movement made up of a variety of cyclists from all walks of life whose decision twenty years ago to ride freely in the street once a month for just a few short hours has laid the groundwork for cycling reforms, political action and transformative experiences across the country and the world.

What a shame that instead of celebrating all parts of the cycling community, SFBC has decided to distance itself from the historic roots of its own community in the name of moderation, families on bikes and political expediency.

Enjoy Bike Valet night at the DeYoung Museum, it sounds like an awesome event.



Dear Leah:

My name is Gus Feldman. I am an avid bicyclist, a Bike Coalition member, and the President of the District 8 Democrats.

I’m in receipt of a letter from you, dated September 12, 2012, requesting that I renew my SFBC membership. I am writing to inform you that I will only renew my membership if the SFBC Board of Directors publicly releases the results of the SFBC member vote for the District 5 supervisor race.

While it is clear that the membership vote is one of several factors used by the SFBC Board of Directors to determine endorsements, the refusal of the Board to grant SFBC members the ability to see the results of their votes demonstrates an unacceptable degree of secrecy. By withholding this information, the Board is publicly stripping SFBC members of all agency in the endorsement process.

If in fact the popular suspicion is true – that Julian Davis won the most votes from SFBC members, but the Board decided to grant Christina Olague the top endorsement in the interests of expediting the construction of separated bike lanes on Oak & Fell streets – we would greatly appreciate the Board publicly declaring and explaining the decision. Such a decision is certainly logical, as the Oak/Fell bikes lanes are a key priority for many SFBC members. The fact that the Board has elected to conceal the vote results, as opposed to explaining to SFBC members why and how Olague received the number one endorsement, is highly insulting as it insinuates that the Board does not have faith in SFBC members’ capacity to understand the rationale by which the Board arrived at their determinations. 

Please understand that if the Board elects to depart from the current practice of concealing the vote results, and transitions to one of transparency, I will promptly renew my membership.

Gus Feldman

Feeling the heat, Olague kills RCV repeal for now


After reviving a controversial effort to repeal the city’s ranked-choice voting (RCV) system and paying a political price for her shifting stands on the issue, Sup. Christina Olague today made the motion to send all three competing reform proposals back to the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee, effectively killing efforts to place them on the November ballot.

“The public would benefit from more public discussion on the issue,” Olague said, adding that she doesn’t think the measures should be on the crowded fall ballot competing with other important priorities.

Olague had been torn between supporting the desires of Mayor Ed Lee (who appointed her to the seat) and downtown interests to repeal RCV and those of her longtime allies in the progressive community who sought to defend it from total repeal – and she hadn’t been returning calls or indicating where she now stood before today’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

But after hearing more than 30 minutes of impassioned public comments on both sides of the issue, she made the motion to end the controversy for now, which was unanimously approved by the board. Olague also addressed the heat she felt indirectly, saying RCV “should not be a litmus test for whether someone is progressive” and “sadly, the discussion had degenerated to be about personalities.”

Her colleagues seemed happy to be done with this fight for now as well. Sup. Mark Farrell, who sponsored the measure to repeal RCV for all citywide offices, said it would be a “huge mistake” to have competing voting system measures on the fall ballot. Olague had previously offered an alternative to repeal RCV for just the mayor’s race, like Farrell’s measure using a September primary election and November runoff. Board President David Chiu responded to the RCV repeal effort by proposing another alternative, that one using RCV in the November election but having a December runoff between the top two mayoral finishers.

Chiu said he was happy to delay his proposal, saying, “I have thought the system we have is working quite well.”

Mecke joins crowded District 5 supervisorial race


Progressive activist Quintin Mecke jumped into the District 5 supervisorial race today, echoing gentrification concerns raised this week by the Guardian and The New York Times and promising to be an independent representative of one of the city’s most progressive districts, a subtle dig at Sup. Christina Olague’s appointment by Mayor Ed Lee.

“The City is at an economic crossroads. As a 15 year resident of District 5, I cannot sit idly by while our City’s policies force out our residents and small businesses, recklessly pursuing profits for big business at whatever cost,” he began a letter to supporters announcing his candidacy, going on to cite the NYT article on the new tech boom that I wrote about earlier this week.

“What we do next will define the future of San Francisco; the city is always changing but what is important is how we choose to manage the change. One path leads to exponential rent increases, national corporate chain store proliferation, and conversion of rent-controlled housing. The other path leads to controlled and equitable growth, where the fruits of economic development are shared to promote and preserve what is great about this City and our district,” Mecke wrote.

Mecke came in second to Gavin Newsom in the 2007 mayor’s race and then served as the press secretary to Assembly member Tom Ammiano before leaving that post last week to run for office. Mecke joins Julian Davis and John Rizzo in challenging Olague from her left, while London Breed and Thea Selby are the leading moderates in a race that has 10 candidates so far, the largest field in the fall races.

Although he never mentioned Olague by name, Mecke closed his message by repeatedly noting his integrity and independence, a theme that is likely to be a strong one in this race as Olague balances her progressive history and her alliance with the fiscally conservative mayor who appointed her.

“Politics is nothing without principles; and it’s time now to put my own principles into action in this race,” Mecke wrote. “District 5 needs a strong, independent Supervisor. I am entering this race to fight for the values that I believe in and to fight to preserve what is great about District 5 and the city. I have brought principled independence to every issue I’ve worked on and that’s what I’ll continue to bring to City Hall.”

In an interview with the Guardian, Mecke said he sees the campaign as a “five-month organizing project” to reach both regular voters and residents of the district who haven’t been politically engaged, including those in the tech sector. He’d like to see the perspective of workers represented in discussions about technology, not simply the narrow view of venture capitalist Ron Conway that Mayor Lee has been relying on.

“Local politics needs new blood,” Mecke said, “it needs to hear from these people.”

Freeing the information


The Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter, will honor champions of the First Amendment at the 27th annual James Madison Awards Banquet on Thursday, March 15, at the City Club of San Francisco.

William Bennett Turner, who has spent his career defending the First Amendment and civil rights, as well as 25 years teaching new generations of journalists and attorneys, is to receive this year’s Norwin Yoffie Award for Career Achievement from the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter.

Turner heads a list of a dozen recipients of the James Madison Awards that SPJ NorCal presents annually to champions of the First Amendment and freedom of information.

In his legendary career, Turner has argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, two on First Amendment rights, published more than 40 law review articles and taught First Amendment law at the University of California, Berkeley, for 25 years. He was instrumental in overhauling conditions in the Texas prison system and in 2011 he published the critically-acclaimed book, Figures of Speech: First Amendment Heroes and Villains.

The Yoffie award is named for one of the founders of SPJ NorCal’s Freedom of Information Committee, who as an editor and publisher of the then-family-owned Marin Independent-Journal was a vigorous advocate for transparency and accountability in the public-services sector. Other honorees are:

– Roger Woo, a teacher at Tokay High School in Lodi, California, has forged a strong reputation for quality teaching over decades of instruction. He has seen the work of his students recognized hundreds of times for stories, photos and layout. And in the words of a former student, now a newspaper publisher, Woo taught ethics, pride, and professionalism. Woo will be honored with the Beverly Kees Educator Award, named for a late, former SPJ NorCal president who was an educator and nationally recognized journalist.

– Attorney Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, will receive the Legal Counsel award for her litigation and oversight of countless significant First Amendment and open government cases. She is currently challenging the National Security Agency for alleged spying on the communications of Americans.

– Erin Siegal is being honored in the Author category for her investigation of human rights abuses in Guatemala’s adoption industry, as well as the U.S. government’s role, in which children have been stolen, sold, and offered as orphans to well-intentioned Western parents. Her book, Finding Fernanda, has received wide acclaim.

– The Hercules Patch, the local news site operated by America Online, receives the News Media award for its dogged tracking of the questionable financial management practices in the East Bay city of Hercules. Patch produced more than 13 investigative stories and 100 daily stories, and created 20 databases to follow the money.

– The San Francisco Chronicle, also will be honored in the News Media category for keeping a spotlight on the aftermath of the deadly PG&E natural gas line explosion and fire in San Bruno. The Chronicle’s persistence on the story kept readers abreast of the political fallout, the bureaucratic failings, and reform measures meant to prevent another such disaster.

– Tim Redmond, executive editor of The San Francisco Bay Guardian, receives the Professional Journalist award for his investigation of state agencies’ legally questionable acquisitions of a drug used for lethal injections that is no longer produced in the United States.

– Patrick Monette-Shaw, this year’s Advocacy award recipient, spent nearly two years following a crooked money trail to expose mishandling of millions of dollars at San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital. The scandal he reported in the Westside Observer and his articles led to an investigation of the city controller’s Whistleblower program.

– Susie Cagle, a cartoonist and journalist, has earned this year’s Cartoonist Award for her dedicated reporting on Occupy Oakland and for portraying the confrontation through her art. Additionally, she stood up for the rights of all journalists after being arrested at an Occupy Oakland rally that turned violent.

–, produced by Larry Bush, gets the accolade in the Community Media category for shining a bright light not only on San Francisco government but also on the city’s Byzantine political world. Bush, as editor and publisher, has spent nearly 30 years fighting to keep city government publicly accountable.

– Allen Grossman is the recipient of this year’s Citizen award for his efforts over the past several years to advance open government at San Francisco City Hall, whether by prodding the city’s Sunshine Ordinance Task Force to hold agencies and public officials accountable or by prying loose disclosable records that Ethics Commission staff aides wanted to withhold.

– The Bay Citizen, which put campaign finance data to good use, is to receive the Computer-Assisted Reporting award for its detailed political database on the San Francisco mayor’s race in 2011. The Bay Citizen made it easy to track contributions of every stripe. In addition, The Bay Citizen’s use of police records and public input has produced a highly interactive chart of bicycle accidents, letting riders pinpoint the most dangerous routes in the city.

The James Madison Freedom of Information Awards is named for the creative force behind the First Amendment and honors local journalists, organizations, public officials, and private citizens who have fought for public access to government meetings and records and promoted the public’s right to know and freedom of expression. Award winners are selected by SPJ NorCal’s Freedom of Information Committee.


Thu/15 reception at 5:30 p.m., dinner and awards ceremony at 6:30 p.m., $50 SPJ members and students/$70 general admission

City Club of San Francisco

155 Sansome, SF

SF Chamber poll distorts the facts…again


The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce this week released its annual City Beat poll – promoting its results at the top of its website and feeding it to media outlets such as the San Francisco Examiner, which faithfully reported its finding, apparently without seeking underlying data – and once again the poll was marred by distortions and hidden agendas.

For example, the Chamber claims that 58 percent of the poll’s 500 respondents prefer runoff elections (up from 52 percent in 2011) and 31 percent prefer ranked-choice voting (down from 42 percent last year), with the balance refusing to answer or saying they don’t know. But what the Chamber doesn’t say is that voters were read a series of arguments for each system first, and the anti-RCV statement contained a flat-out inaccuracy.

“Critics of ranked choice voting say that it is a confusing system that results in lower voter turnout – as the last Mayoral election had the lowest overall voter turnout in more than 35 years. They say candidates are getting elected with extremely low number of votes which doesn’t represent the true will of the voters. Instead of ranked choice voting, they propose having run-off elections so that voters have a clear choice on something as important as Mayor,” the statement read.

Yet it’s simply not true that November’s 42.47 percent turnout was the lowest in 35 years (as you can see here). Off-year elections have far lower turnouts, as did the last mayoral election in 2007, which had a turnout of 35.6 percent. Even the hotly contested, pre-RCV November mayoral election of 2003 had a turnout of 45.67 percent, just a few percentage points higher that the low turnout that the question implies that RCV causes.

But Jim Lazarus, the Chamber’s vice president of public policy, won’t concede the error, telling the Guardian that respondents understand the statement to apply to only closely contested mayoral elections. “We believe the average voter realizes a competitive race is what we’re talking about,” Lazarus said, dismissing the 2007 mayor’s race as uncompetitive.

Yet Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, which supports RCV, said the poll was deceptive and seems designed to achieve results that are consistent with public policy stands that the Chamber has taken. “I think they do a better job of making their arguments than the RCV arguments,” he said.

“Supporters of ranked choice voting say it gives voters more choices and does not force voters to vote twice in just five weeks on the same contest. They say it has resulted in more diverse representatives for the city. They also say that it encourages campaigns to find common ground and ways to work together because they must win supporters of other candidates,” reads the polling statement.

Richie concedes that supporters of RCV have made these statements, but he said they aren’t the strongest arguments or the ones they generally tend to lead with, such as how big spending by well-funded independent expenditure groups tend to dominate the low-turnout runoff elections, which more conservative candidates win every time in San Francisco.

But Lazarus claims the Chamber was trying to honestly gauge public opinion, not influence it in favor of Chamber positions. “We didn’t skew it, we’re trying to get honest answers,” he told us. “It doesn’t do us any good to fake the outcomes. We aren’t doing this for PR reasons or press releases.”

Yet many of the issues the poll dealt with are active campaigns in which the Chamber is trying to influence the decisions made at City Hall, such as its longstanding crusade to repeal the city’s payroll tax. In the poll results, 57 percent of respondents said the supported a “payroll tax decrease from 1.5 percent to 1 percent, making up the difference with other revenues.” In the Examiner story, the paper even deleted that last crucial clause.

Yet what neither the Chamber nor the Examiner told readers was that the question was set up with this statement: “It has also been suggested that reforming the city’s payroll tax system could spur job growth. I would like to read you some potential tax reforms that have been suggested to help spur job growth.”

But even with that repetition of “spur job growth” as a prompt, only 25 percent of respondents agree with the crusade of the Chamber and its allies in City Hall to “Eliminate the payroll tax all together, replacing lost revenue with higher license fees and taxes on businesses.”

On the half-dozen tax measures the poll asked about, none of which received majority support, the questions were set up with this statement, “Some members of the Board of Supervisors have suggested a vote on new taxes may be necessary to help solve this budget deficit,” referring to the oft-demonized legislative body that enjoyed 45 percent in this poll, rather than Mayor Ed Lee, who has made similar suggestions and enjoys 68 percent support.

The poll was conducted by David Binder Research, and Binder was out-of-town and unavailable to answer questions. Lazarus said the language in the questions was jointly developed by Binder and the Chamber.

Nathaniel Blumberg: Open to change


By Wilbur Wood

 (Wilbur Wood was a student of Nathaniel Blumberg in the early 1960s at the University of Montana in Missoula. And he was the leader  of a contingent of Blumberg students that turned up in San Francisco, many dispatched by the  Dean to work on the Guardian during the highly active and newsworthy 1960s.   Wilbur was a poet and a reporter,  with a master’s degree in creative wiriting at San Francisco State, so he fit in well at the Guardian. He had edited his campus paper,  so I made him city editor. He covered the 1967 mayor’s race and operated as if he were directed by Blumberg himself.  Wilbur followed Joe Alioto around, from place to place, and found that Alioto was changing his story depending on the audience.  Wilbur, as a Blumberg mentee, was not shocked. He nailed Alioto and  wrote one of the most amusing and  illuminating stories of the campaign. but it did not deter Alioto from becoming mayor. Wilbur ‘s big triumph as city editor was his work in positioning and editing an investigative story exposing how the members of the  local  San Francisco draft boards were anonymous, establishment types who worked in secrecy at secret meetings to draft a disproportionate number of minorities.  The expose  appeared in Deccember, 1967, in  the red hot middle of the Vietnam War. It was a bombshell, the first such story ever done in the nation, and led to extensive litigation on behalf of draftees in federal court, pioneering reforms in the draft, and inspired a national New York Times investigation.  It was written by Eugene Hunn, the husband of Nancy Engelbach Hunn from Kalispell, Montana, and a classmate of Wilbur’s and a student of Blumberg at the Montana School of Journalism.

(Alas, Wilbur  went back to Montana, as all Montana people seemed to do, and is now a poet, reporter, and philosopher living in his hometown of Roundup, Montana with his wife Elizabeth. She worked as an ad representative at the Guardian. Elizabeth and Wilbur run a a writing, editing, and consulting business called Stone House Productions. The stonehouse was built by Wilbur’s grandfather and is where the two live, work, and play.   Others in this Guardian era also went back to Montana:  Printer Bowler, Troy Holter, Larry Cripe, Nancy Engelbach Hunn, Karen King, Bruce DeRosier, Doug Giebel et al, a talented group of journalists, writers, and political activists bristling with Montana populism. The Blumberg/Montana contributions were enormously valuable in our early days when we had lots of ideas and ambitions but slender resources.   Why they left San Francisco to go back to Montana is still a mystery to me.)

I’m late for class, jogging, short-cutting across a mowed lawn in front of the School of Journalism. A window squeaks open and the unmistakable voice of the Dean, Nathan Blumberg, roars out a second story window: “BARBARIAN!”

Astonished, I plop down on the ground, speechless, chagrined, then leap up and disappear into class. It is the early 1960s. The Dean is, at that time, a man who believes that people should walk on the sidewalks, not upon the carefully tended lawns, at the University of Montana. He sees a reason for rules, even as he openly questions many of them

A scant six or seven years later, this same man is gliding over those same lawns, sailing Frisbees into the sky, chasing the return throws from students, the occasional faculty colleague, and former students back for a visit.

“When did Nathan start calling himself Nathaniel?” asks Bruce Brugmann, editor and publisher of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. We’re talking on the phone on the day of Nathaniel Blumberg’s death, February 14, 2012. Valentine’s Day. It is fifty-four days before his 90th birthday, on April 8. (April 8, Blumberg was delighted to learn, is Buddha’s birthday.)

“The name change happened in the 1970s or early ‘80s,” I tell Brugmann. Bruce, back in 1953, at the University of Nebraska, was a student of Nathan Blumberg. “We called him by his last name,” Brugmann said, “outside class. We never used his first name.”

Nor did we in the early ‘60s, I reply. He was The Dean, Dean Blumberg — until Printer Bowler (one of his students) began calling him “Coach.” Things were starting to loosen up by then.

“Blumberg is who inspired me,” Brugmann says. “He was highly critical of the mainstream press–and this was back in the ‘50s. He pointed out their faults in class. He advised me to go someplace – he mentioned San Francisco — and start an independent weekly newspaper. When I could do that, I did.”

But why change his name from Nathan? Both Brugmann and I know people who, through the years, met Blumberg and later named their sons Nathan. “It’s about affirming his full identity,” I say to Bruce. “He decided to accept his name as it appears on his birth certificate: Nathaniel Bernard Blumberg.”

NBB arrives at middle age in the 1960s — a man of high principles, acute intelligence, possessing an inquiring mind along with great reservoirs and pride and stubbornness, his career a success. He arrives at middle age but does not come to a stop. He opens up. Opens his heart to an expanding circle of friends. His property on Flathead Lake becomes a destination. Music, talk, good food and drink flow in the clearing under the tall trees.

Not long ago Nathaniel brought up an argument he and I engaged in, more than 40 years ago, driving up the Big Sur Coast on our way back to San Francisco. We’d made a day trip to San Simeon, and toured the hilltop castle of the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Our argument was about Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement. Blumberg thought the two issues were different, and that linking one with the other would damage the prospects for each cause, anti-war and anti-segregation. “You said the two were connected,” Blumberg reminded me, adding that about a year later, Martin Luther King, Jr., made that connection in public, in a speech at the Riverside Church in New York City. Nathaniel wanted to tell me that I had been right.

A veteran of World War II, NBB wrote the story of his weaponry unit going up against highly trained Nazi soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge. He honored that moment in history, but he approved of the next generation’s aversion and resistance to the war it had been handed: Vietnam. Although he was part of what Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation,” Nathaniel rejected that label. He preferred the Sixties Generation, he told me, more than once, because “you did not accept the word of the government as truth.” Nor did we accept, he said, the word of the big corporations.

Nathaniel supported anyone trying to create a world based on love.

Les Gapay, a forrmer Blumberg student, writes a Blumberg remembrance and Blumberg writes his own obituary.





Would Sept. elections be better than RCV?


A proposal by Supervisors Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell to end San Francisco’s experiment with Ranked Choice Voting will come before the board Feb. 14, and RCV suporters are organizing to fight it. According to an email I just got from Steve Hill, one of the leaders in the RCV movement, “the vote is going to be close.”

The first version of the Elsbernd-Farrell legislation would have returned the city to the pre-RCV situation — the general election for city offices would take place in November, and runoffs in any race where nobody got a majority (almost every contested city race these days) would take place in December. 

The December turnout in Board of Supervisors races was always way lower that the turnout in the November election (although that hasn’t always been the case in mayoral races — more people voted in the Matt Gonzalez-Gavin Newsom runoff than voted in that year’s general election).

But the two conservative supervisors have backed off that plan and replaced it with another one: The first election (in effect, the primary) would be held in September, with the runoff in November.

Some years, that would be three elections in the city in five months — the normal June state election, a September city election, and a November general election.

I realize that a lot of people, including some of my friends on the left, aren’t thrilled with RCV. If the mayor’s race had a runoff, it would have been a head-to-head contest between Ed Lee and Dennis Herrera, and that would have been fun. (Where would David Chiu, who got stabbed in the back by Lee and who criticized him during the general election, have gone in the runoff? What about Leland Yee?)

But I have to say, a September election seems like a really terrible idea. When are the candidates going to campaign — during August, when about half of the city is out of town? Would the candidates all have to trek out to Burning Man? (You can’t send direct mail flyers to the playa.) Maybe you hold the election late in September — but then the absentee ballots would arrive when, over Labor Day weekend? Talk about low turnout.

The whole idea of RCV was to get more people involved in electing their representatives at City Hall. You can talk about whether it helps the left or the right or incumbents or whatever, but it’s really all about turnout. One election: More people vote. Two elections: Fewer people vote. September election: Very few people vote.

Then in November, when the turnout is highest, the choice will be lowest, because the candidates who did well in the low-turnout election (typically the more conservative candidates) will be the only ones on the ballot.

On balance, I’m sticking with RCV — but if you have to change it, why not make the primary election in June? There’s already a June election in even-numbered years, it’s no added expense — and there’s the additional value of forcing candidates for mayor and supervisor to declare their intentions and get in the race early on. No more Ed Lee August surprise.

I asked Elsbernd about it and he told me that New York City holds its primary in September, and that’s an effective model. And, he pointed out, there’s no June primary in the odd-numbered years, when the mayor, sheriff, city attorney, treasurer and public defender are on the ballot.

True — but if you’re going to have a special municipal election anyway, June makes more sense to me. People are used to voting in June. I worry about September.

How should San Franciscans vote?


The Board of Supervisors Rules Committee will consider competing proposals for changing how elections are conducted in San Francisco tomorrow (Thu/26) at 2 p.m., taking public testimony and voting on which ideas should go before voters in June.

Sups. Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell propose to end the ranked-choice voting (RCV) system and go back to runoff elections, while Sups. David Campos and John Avalos propose modifying RCV to allow more than three candidates to be ranked and changing the public campaign financing system to make qualifying more difficult and thus thin the electoral herd a bit. They would also consolidate odd-year elections for citywide offices into a single year, a proposal that Sup. Scott Wiener is also offering as a stand-alone measure.

“We believe our current election system fundamentally works. However, we heard concerns from voters during our last election that it was difficult to discern the different ideas and ideologies of the numerous candidates in the race. We are introducing an ordinance today that is designed to address this concern,” Avalos said in a public statement on Jan. 10 when their measure was introduced.

That package came in reaction to the proposal to repeal the RCV system that voters approved in 2002, a campaign that has been strongly promoted for years by political moderates, downtown groups such as the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, and the San Francisco Chronicle and other mainstream media outlets.

During a forum at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association last week, Elsbernd debated Steven Hill – the author and activist who created the city’s RCV system – on the issue. Much of it came down to differences over how to gauge the will of voters and allow them to make good decisions.

Hill’s argues that runoff elections – which have traditionally been held in December, although the current proposal could create either June/November or September/November elections – tend to have very low turnout of voters (who tend to be more white, rich, and conservative than in general elections). And they are usually dominated by nasty, corporate-funded independent expenditures campaigns designed to sully the more progressive candidate.

“Let’s face it, December was just a terrible time of year for an election,” Hill said, adding that September would be just as bad, June is too early, and both options would also likely have low turnouts.

Hill said that while RCV may have flaws, so does every electoral system, but that RCV is an accurate gauge of voter preference. He displayed charts and statistics showed that the winning candidate in every election since RCV started has won a majority of the continuing ballots, which are those that remain after a voter’s first three choices have been eliminated.

But Elsbernd seized on that idea to say, “Continuing ballots, that’s what this issue is all about.” He made the distinction between continuing ballots and total ballots cast, saying the latter is what’s important and that few winners under RCV receive a majority of total ballots cast.

“Our elected officials should be elected by a majority of the votes cast,” Elsbernd said.

He said that runoff elections offer voters a clear distinction between different candidates and their ideologies, and he even dangled a proposition that might have appealed to progressives in the last mayor’s race: “Wouldn’t we have loved our month of Ed Lee debating John Avalos about the future of San Francisco?”

Elsbernd cited crowded field free-for-all races like the District 10 race of 2010, in which Malia Cohen came from behind to win using RCV, saying they muddy up the contests. “The benefit of the runoff is you get that true one on one,” Elsbernd said, calling for “real discussion, real debates, about what San Franciscans want.”

Yet Hill said the crowded fields of candidates in some recent races wasn’t caused by RCV, a system that promotes real democracy by giving voters more than one choice of candidates rather than being stuck with the lesser of two evils. And rather than showing the problems with RCV, Hill said Cohen’s election (an African-American woman elected to serve a largely African-American district) and that of Mayor Jean Quan in Oakland (who came from behind to beat Don Perata, who many perceived as a corrupt party boss) show how RCV can help elevate minority and outsider candidates.

All those arguments – and many, many more – will likely be made during what’s expected to be a long afternoon of public testimony.

Progressives split on bag ban, ex-cons


A couple of interesting votes at the Board of Supes Dec. 6. Sup. Ross Mirkarimi lost two pieces of legislation — a mandate that stores charge for bags at checkout counters and a tax credit for companies that hire ex-offenders.

The bag ban went down 7-4. Well, actually, it was continued to February, by which time Mirkarimi will be gone. Sup. Jane Kim said she wanted to see more outreach to minority businesses, and was quoted in the press saying she would support it at a future date, but I suspect the delay marks the end of the bill. Without Mirkarimi around to push it, the measure will probably just die. It’s odd because San Francisco used to be on the cutting edge of environmental issues; the bag ban is getting picked up by other cities and will probably be law all over the country in a decade.

Voting for the continuation were three supes who said they supported the “concept” — Scott Wiener, David Chiu and Kim.

The ex-offender tax credit went down 6-5 — and on this one, Sup. Malia Cohen, who is not always with the progressives but whose district has the largest number of parolees in the city, supported Mirkarimi. So did Kim, Eric Mar, and David Campos. The swing vote: Sup. John Avalos, the progressive leader in the mayor’s race and one of the most solid left votes on the board.

Avalos told me that he doesn’t support tax breaks; he’s been consistent on that, and I understand. I don’t support tax breaks, either. I don’t think they’re very effective and they cost the city money. But there are two elements that make this unusual — for one, if anyone actually used the tax credit and hired an ex-offender, the money the city would likely save by keeping that person from going back to jail would greatly exceed the amount of the tax reduction.

Besides, I was waiting to see Lee come up with an excuse to veto the bill — particularly at a time when more and more ex-offenders are going to be released in San Francisco. I know this is just petty politics and all that, but this was a tough decision involving a very unpopular group (nobody wants to be nice to former criminals) — and Lee got off easy.

Rank complaints


Even before all the votes had been cast on election day, the two most conservative members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors proposed a ballot measure to repeal the city’s ranked-choice voting (RCV) system, prompting all the usual critics of this voter-approved electoral reform to denounce it as confusing and undemocratic.

Those same two supervisors, Sups. Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell, were also the ones who unsuccessfully pushed for a weakening of the public financing system last month, changes that will likely be wrapped into discussions in the coming weeks over how elections are conducted in the city. And progressive supporters of both systems warn that district supervisorial elections will probably be the next target of this concerted push to roll the clock back on electoral reforms in the city.

"The [San Francisco] Chronicle and the [San Francisco] Chamber [of Commerce] have been at it from day one," Steven Hill, who helped crafted both the RCV and public financing systems, told us. "They’re really clear about what they want to eliminate, so we should be clear about what we need to defend and we can’t get confused by this."

Indeed, the Chronicle ran an editorial Nov. 14 advocating the repeal of ranked-choice, calling it "a fundamentally flawed system that is fraught with unintended consequences." The paper, as well as its allies at the Chamber and other downtown institutions, has been equally vociferous in criticizing public financing and district elections.

Hill said that’s because moneyed interests prefer systems that they can manipulate using the millions of dollars in unregulated independent expenditures they can summon — an ability they demonstrated again in his election on behalf of Mayor Ed Lee — such as low-turnout runoff elections, citywide supervisorial races, and elections without the countervailing force of public financing. "They’ve been doing this steadily and looking for ways to chip away at it," Hill said.

But conservatives aren’t the only ones raising questions about RCV; some progressives say the system needs adjustment, too.

Although Farrell opposes all three of those electoral reforms, he insists that his concerns about RCV are about voter confusion and the perception that winners don’t have majority support and could be viewed as illegitimate. "There is just so much voter confusion out there," Farrell said, citing comments from voters who don’t understand how their votes are tabulated to produce a winner.

Hill counters that voters do have a clear understanding of how to rank their choices, downplaying the importance of whether they understand all the details of what happens next. But Farrell said that and the majority rule issue have undermined people’s faith in the elections.

"People get very upset when they realize someone didn’t get a majority of the vote," he told us, referring to how the majority threshold drops as voters’ top three candidates are eliminated. "To me, it’s just simpler to go back to the runoff system."

Many moderate politicians agree. "I don’t like ranked choice voting and I never have," City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who finished third in the mayor’s race, told us on election night. "I defended it all the way to the 9th Circuit [Court of Appeals in his role at City Attorney], but I think it’s bad policy."

Sup. Scott Wiener, a Herrera supporter we spoke to at the same election night party, also wants to see a change. "I supported ranked-choice voting and until recently I continued to support it, but this race changed by mind," Wiener said, attributing the large mayoral candidate field and free-for-all debates to RCV. "There is no way most voters will be able to distinguish among the candidates."

But Hill says it’s a mistake to attribute the large field to RCV, or even to the public financing system that some are also trying to blame, a problem he said can be addressed in other ways, such as changing when and how candidates qualify for public matching funds.

Wiener said he hasn’t made up his mind about repealing RCV, and he said that he absolutely opposes a return to the December runoff election. One alternative he suggested was a system like that in place in New York City, with the initial election in September and the runoff during the general election in November. But he does think some change is needed, and he’s glad Elsbernd and Farrell proposed an RCV repeal.

"They’re starting a conversation with the repeal, but that’s not where it’s going to end," Wiener said.

Indeed, the system still has the support of most progressives, even Sup. John Avalos, who finished second in the mayor’s race and would now be headed into a runoff election against Ed Lee under the old system. "I continue to support ranked choice voting," Avalos told us. It takes six supervisors to play the charter amendment repealing RCV on the ballot.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who was narrowly elected sheriff in the ranked-choice runoff despite a 10-point lead in first place votes, said of the Farrell and Elsbernd proposal, "I do want to hear their criticisms."

"I understand the larger discussion, which was a bit of a misguided approach that some of our colleagues used to go after ranked choice voting on election day," Mirkarimi said. "But they are good politicians and they seized an opportunity."

Mirkarimi did say he was open to "maybe some tweaks. I do think ranked choice works better when you have many choices." Others, such as former Sup. Matt Gonzalez, have also recently advocated a ranked-choice system that allows more choices, which would address the majority-vote criticism because fewer ballots would be exhausted.

Hill said the legislation that voters approved back in 2002 already calls for more choices, but the technology used in the city’s current system only allows three choices. Yet he said the city’s vendor, Dominion Voting Systems, has developed a system allowing up to 11 choices, for which it is currently seeking federal certification.

Although he said various tweaks are possible, "I think the system worked well in this election," Hill said, noting that few San Franciscans would have wanted to drag this long campaign out by another month or to pay for another election.