Home Top Stories Newsom

Newsom

Tom’s legacy

0

steve@sfbg.com

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.

 

 

LIFE OF THE CAPITOL

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.”

 

 

SPARKING CHANGE

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.”

 

FLOOR SHOW

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.”

 

 

COMING OUT

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.”

 

 

WHAT’S NEXT

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SF-style cycletracks may spread throughout California under approved legislation

0

San Francisco-style cycletracks — bike lanes physically separated from automobile traffic — could proliferate in cities throughout California under a bill approved today [Fri/29] by the Legislature, provided Gov. Jerry Brown decides to sign it.

Assembly Bill 1193, the Protected Bikeways Act, by San Francisco Democrat Phil Ting, was approved today by the Assembly on a 53-15 vote after clearing the Senate on Monday, 29-5. The bill incorporates cycletrack design standards into state transportation regulations, which had previously stated that such designs weren’t allowed.

San Francisco pioneered the use of cycletracks anyway, borrowing the safety design for Europe, where they are common, and backing up that strategy with a willingness to defend the designs in court if need be. Since initially being placed on Market Street by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration, cycletracks have proliferated around the city.

“It’s huge, to be honest, even if it’s a little wonky,” California Bicycle Coalition David Snyder said of the legislation, which his group strongly backed. “The legal obstacles to putting in a cycletracks effectively prevented that type of bike lane from being installed in cities throughout California.”

Few cities were willing to buck the state on the issue, but Snyder believes there is a pent-up demand for cycletracks now that so many California cities have committed to improving their cycling infrastructure.

“The book said you couldn’t do it, and now the book will say you can do it, so all these cities will have another tool in their toolbelt,” Snyder said.

That is, if Gov. Brown signs it, something that cycling advocates are urging supporters to weigh in on before the Sept. 30 deadline to sign or reject legislation.   

Predicting earthquakes, from 14-year-old prophets to train-stopping ShakeAlerts to lessons from disaster flicks

0

Earlier today, I called my mother, a natural disaster film junkie, and asked her, “Do you know of any movies where someone predicts natural disasters, but no one believes the guy, and so everything goes a little haywire?”

“10.5, Day After Tomorrow, 2012, Volcano, Deep Impact, and Knowing,” she replied without any hesitation. “But in Knowing the protagonist gets help from aliens to predict disasters, so I don’t know if that’s bordering on fiction.”

Despite the hundreds of natural disaster blockbusters warning the public to listen when someone predicts catastrophe, earthquake prediction technology can’t defeat the rules of physics and the unpredictable nature of shaking earth. When a 14-year-old from Florida claims he predicted the recent Napa earthquake, for instance, doubts are raised, heads were tilted, and facts must be checked at once. 

“I started jumping up and down when I heard about the earthquake,” high school student Sugganth Kannan told us.

Kannan was sad about the destruction, sure, but he also thought the earthquake’s timing, location, and magnitude validated his prediction that an earthquake with a magnitude of at least 5.0 would occur 50 miles from the South Napa location within 180 days from last December when he made the prediction. So, he was close, but off by a few months. 

To make his prediction, Kannan used the Spatial Connect Theory, which states that all earthquakes within a fault zone are related. Then, looking at past earthquakes, he made functions based on the angle of change, geographical difference, and the time between earthquakes to eventually come up with a pattern. His work has been published in the Journal of Geology & Geosciences

Of course, earthquakes in California are both as no-kidding-predictable as they are scientifically unpredictable. According to the US Geological Survey, which cites studies examining the past 14,000 years, catastrophic earthquakes strike along the southern San Andreas fault about once every 150 years. And if you don’t believe the US Geological Survey, there’s always Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has stated, “There’s a real likelihood of a major, major earthquake in the next 10, 15, 20 years.” We’re seismically active, and we know it. 

While 14-year-old Kannan and the lieutenant governor might want futures as earthquake prophets, Richard Allen, director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, is just happy he can predict earthquakes within 10 seconds of their first furious rumble. He helped pioneer an early warning system called ShakeAlerts that’s currently got 150 subscribers and does just that. 

Now there’s an idea for a natural disaster movie: Nicholas Cage predicts an earthquake a whopping 10 seconds before the disaster happens, causing BART trains to automatically come to dramatic, adrenaline-rushing halt, saving thousands of lives! It might not be fodder for disaster movies, but it is good news for actual and real world of real and actual earthquakes. 

BART is one of Shake Alert’s users. When the Napa earthquake went off, an alarm went off at BART’s offices announcing an approaching earthquake. Spokesperson John McPartland explained at a press conference on Monday that the trains moving at 33 MPH or less would have stopped had they experienced a a 3.1 earthquake or higher. But in the Bay Area, the magnitude was much smaller, and the trains raced on, unknowing.

“If there’s an earthquake, and you’re on BART, the best thing you can ask for is for the train to stop,” said Allen. You can check out a video for CISN ShakeAlert here. In the video, you can hear buzzing, and then a somewhat intense robotic voice telling you, “Earthquake! Earthquake! Light shaking expected in 10 seconds. Earthquake!”

“The farther away from the earthquake, the sooner you’ll get the alert,” Allen told the Guardian. “In the best case scenario — as in, the worst case scenario earthquake — you’ll get up to a minute warning. For this one, BART got 10 seconds. There’s no way to improve that. It’s physics.”

He hopes to get more funding to bring ShakeAlert to more people, and to one day develop a mobile app so anyone can be alerted seconds before an earthquake occurs. Ten seconds might not sound like a lot of time, but for those knitting with dangerous needles, or cooking with sharp knives, or just generally doing things not conducive to huge earthquakes with large, pointy things, 10 seconds could mean a whole lot. Although California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law to turn Shake Alert into a statewide program last fall, the project has only received $10 million of the $80 million it needs for new sensors and infrastructure. 

Then there’s virtual reality. Michael Oskin, a professor of earth and planetary sciences who studies earthquakes and seismicity at UC Davis, has taken his students to the site of the Napa earthquake to take photographs of the destruction and use the photographs to build 3D models to help them understand the wrath of the quake and what could come next.  At UC Davis’ W. M. Keck Center for Active Visualization in Earth Sciences (KeckCAVES), researchers get to experience earthquakes virtually and take heed. 

Much of Oskin’s work with virtual reality assimilation revolves around looking at earthquakes before and after they’ve occurred, examining the fault lines throughout these phases, and studying how the faults have moved afterwards. 

“If you want to understand the record of faulting, you look at earthquakes that have just happened to see how complicated they are and how they’ve changed. Then you get a better sense of how to interpret them,” Oskin said. From there, he can also create a virtual world to provide a visual of what could happen to houses built along fault lines.

“Hopefully in 20 years, the tools will be available for everyone to use – on laptops and 3D TV screens so you can visualize an earthquake on a screen in 3D,” Oskin said. “It’s not high end software. It’s just creative programming.”

If earthquake forecasting apps for all is the dream, we’re certainly getting closer. John Rundle, a UC Davis physics professor, co-launched OpenHazards.com, which produces earthquake forecasts and a mobile app. 

“What we do is we count smaller earthquakes to forecast bigger earthquakes,” Rundle explained. “Once a magnitude 6 earthquake occurs, like the one in Napa, we start counting the number of small earthquakes that occur in the region after that. Once we get 1000 earthquakes with a magnitude of 5, it’s time for another 6 to occur. We convert that statement into a probability around the world, every night, and display it on the website.” 

Rundle said his system has a 80-85 percent accuracy rate.  “If you were to make a whole bunch of random forecasts today, and you were to do that tomorrow and the next day and then compare the forecasts we use, Open Hazard would be better 80-85 percent of the time,” he explained. “That’s roughly equivalent to a weather forecast three or four days into the future. That’s where our accuracy is.” 

Back in 2012, an Italian judge convicted seven scientific experts of manslaughter and sentenced them to six years in prison for failing to give warning before the April 2009 earthquake that killed over 300 people. But that’s why earthquake forecasting is called forecasting, and not predicting. Fortune tellers may not be trusted, but you can’t kill the weatherman, especially over quakes. 

Mayoral meltdown

95

joe@sfbg.com

When he launched an unexpected mayoral bid in 2011, Mayor Ed Lee campaigned on a platform of changing the tone of San Francisco politics. The appointed mustachioed mayor claimed he put the civility back in City Hall, marking a sharp departure from the divisive tone of city politics as progressives battled former Mayor Willie Brown, followed by Mayor Gavin Newsom.

“We’ll continue the high level of civility in the tone we’ve set since January, and solve the problems with civil engagement,” he told Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, then his mayoral opponent, at a 2011 debate.

Yet over the past two weeks, Mayor Lee has started swinging hard against supervisors who have introduced measures that go against his own priorities. So much for civility at City Hall.

 

COMPROMISE EVERYTHING

When asked about the outcome of her newly revised affordable housing measure, Sup. Jane Kim did not sound enthusiastic.

“It was definitely a compromise,” Kim said. But compromise is a word you use when you find a middle ground. By most accounts, Mayor Lee weakened the measure by hammering the right pressure points.

Kim crafted a novel solution to the city’s housing affordability crisis for the November ballot. Her initial Housing Balance Requirement would have established controls on market-rate housing construction, requiring a reevaluation whenever affordable housing production falls below 30 percent of total construction. The goal was to ensure that a certain amount of affordable housing would be built — but it was unpopular with housing developers.

Lee immediately drummed up a ballot measure in opposition to Kim’s, the Build Housing Now Initiative. The nonbinding policy statement asked the city to affirm his previously stated affordable housing goals. So what was the point?

It contained a poison pill which would have killed Kim’s Housing Balance Requirement. If Lee’s measure was approved, Kim’s would fail. The two politicians were in heated negotiations, trying to diffuse this ballot box arms race up to the very moment Kim’s measure went before the Board of Supervisors for approval at its July 29 meeting.

By the end of that process, Kim’s measure had been gutted.

Mirroring the mayor’s Build Housing Now Initiative, the new Housing Balance Requirement is a nonbinding policy statement asking the city to “affirm the City’s commitment” to support the production or rehabilitation of 30,000 housing units by 2020, with at least 33 percent of those permanently affordable to low or moderate income households.

Kim said she’d won funding pledges and promises for a number of affordable housing projects from the mayor. But Lee did not sign any agreement.

Essentially, the revised measure is a promise to promise, a plan to plan. Kim told us flatly, “We didn’t get the accountability we wanted.”

Political insiders told us the Mayor’s Office put pressure on affordable housing developers, who backed the original measure but later asked Kim to revise it to reflect the mayor’s wishes. The Mayor’s Office allegedly threatened to cut their funding next year, or divert projects to other affordable housing organizations.

Everyone acknowledged the mayor was pissed.

Tenants and Owners Development Corporation, an affordable housing developer in SoMa, sat in on the negotiations. The city paid $170,961 in contracts to TODCO last year, according to the City Controller, and over $250,000 the year before. John Elberling, president of TODCO, and Peter Cohen, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, denied the mayor influenced them to ask Kim to revise her measure.

“I didn’t hear my phone ringing saying we’ll pull funding for affordable housers if you don’t do X, Y and Z,” Cohen told us. Yet he acknowledged the mayor “brought certain leverages to bear” in the closed-door negotiations to “compromise” on Kim’s ballot measure. Then everything changed.

“Yes,” Cohen said, “we then convinced the lead supervisor to change her position.”

Despite being labeled as a “compromise,” many observers read this as a sign that Lee had prevailed. Now the same hammer is coming down on Sup. Scott Wiener.

 

BALLOT BATTLE

“I agree with the mayor on many things,” Wiener told us. But the mayor is targeting Wiener’s new Muni funding ballot measure, hoping to knock it off the ballot.

“It’s not personal,” Wiener said. “It’s a policy disagreement.”

The mayor has a transportation bond on the ballot, asking voters to pony up $500 million to fund Muni. But Lee already blew a $33 million hole into Muni’s proposed budget when he decided to pull a Vehicle License Fee measure off the ballot. When that measure began to poll badly, he got cold feet, and withdrew it.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s budget outlined a doomsday scenario if the funding ballot measures failed to pass. It would be impossible to improve transit travel time, reliability, or to fund pedestrian and bike safety projects, the SFMTA staff noted in recent budget presentations.

Seeing the potential fallout due to the mayor pulling the VLF measure, Wiener placed his own measure on the ballot, tying expansion for Muni funding to the city’s growing population. If passed, Muni could see a $22 million bump just next year.

Openly, the mayor told reporters he would hold the supervisors who supported Wiener’s ballot measure “accountable.” Lee then initiated a conversation about slashing funding to city programs, signaling that supervisors’ favored projects could be jeopardized.

“Last week, the Board of Supervisors sent a measure to the ballot that the budget does not contemplate,” Kate Howard, the mayor’s budget director, wrote in a memo. She directed departments to cut their budgets by 1.5 percent, and asked for “contingency plans” including a “revisit” of hiring plans and scaling back existing programs and services.

Wiener issued a statement describing the move as “an empty scare tactic.”

“For whatever reason,” he wrote, “the Mayor’s Office felt the need to issue these emergency instructions now — a full year before the fiscal year at issue, in the middle of an election campaign, without even knowing whether the measure will pass.”

John Elberling, president of TODCO, recalled when then-Mayor Willie Brown used the same schoolyard-bully tactics to ensure his favored measures passed.

“The punchline is there were competing ballot measures, one from our side and one from Willie’s side,” Elberling told the Guardian. “There was an effort to reach a compromise, but that failed. I was in the meeting where he shot it down.”

“He said ‘I will make the decisions,’ quote unquote. ‘There is no compromise unless I say there’s a compromise.’ That was quite memorable,” Elberling recalled.

When things didn’t go his way, “Willie Brown took a housing project away from us,” Elberling said.

But Mayor Lee’s bluster and anger is new, and Elberling said it should be taken with a grain of salt. “Is it a bluff? That’s always a question. Real retaliation like Willie did, that’s a real thing. But huff and puff, that goes on all the time.”

 

King of the commons

9

steve@sfbg.com

When Susan King attends the Aug. 24 Sunday Streets in the Mission District — the 50th incarnation of this car-free community gathering, coming the week before her 50th birthday — it will be her last as director of an event she started in 2008.

That successful run was made possible by King’s history as a progressive community organizer who also knew how to do fundraising, a rare combination that has made Sunday Streets more than just a bicycle event, a street faire, or a closure of streets to cars that the city imposes on its neighborhoods on a rotating basis.

Instead, King took the ciclovia concept that started in Bogota, Colombia in the late ’70s — the idea was creating temporary open space on streets usually dominated by cars (See “Towards Carfree Cities: Everybody into the streets,” SFBG Politics blog, 6/23/08) — and used it as a tool for building community and letting neighborhoods decide what they wanted from the event.

“I regard the organizing as community organizing work rather than event organizing, and that’s significant,” King told the Guardian. “We’re creating the canvas that community organizations can use.”

San Francisco was the third US city to borrow the ciclovia concept to create open streets events — Portland, Ore, was the first in June 2008, followed quickly by New York City — but the first to do one that didn’t include food trucks and commercial vending, which Sunday Streets doesn’t allow.

“It’s not a street fair, it’s about meeting your neighbors and trying new things,” King said, referring to free activities that include dance, yoga, and youth cycling classes and performances. “It’s a really different way of seeing your city. A street without cars looks and feels different.”

Now, after seeing how Sunday Streets can activate neighborhoods and build community, and watching the concept she helped pioneer be adopted in dozens of other cities, King says she’s ready for the next level.

“I want to apply what I know on a larger scale, ideally statewide,” King said of her future plans. “This really opened my eyes up to the possibilities.”

 

WORKING WITH COMMUNITIES

After a lifetime of progressive activism — from grassroots political campaigns to city advisory committees to working with the Green Party — King knew the value of listening to various community stakeholders and earning their trust.

“We try to be culturally competent and work with each neighborhood,” King said. “We want to work with the neighborhood instead of dropping something on the neighborhood.”

That distinction has been an important one, particularly in neighborhoods such as Bayview and the Western Addition, where there is a long history of City Hall officials and political do-gooders trying to impose plans on neighborhoods without their input and consent.

“We worked really closely together and she gave me a lot of leeway to do Sunday Streets in a way that it worked for the community,” said Rebecca Gallegos, who managed public relations for the Bayview Opera House 2010-2013. “I can’t say enough great words about Susan. She was a truly a mentor to me. They’re losing someone really great.”

The first Sunday Streets on Aug. 31, 2008, extended from the Embarcadero into Bayview, opening up that neighborhood to many new visitors. King cited a survey conducted at the event showing 54 percent of respondents had never been to Bayview before.

“Susan wore a lot of hats. Not only did she create community in all the neighborhoods in San Francisco, but she knew how to go after the money,” Gallegos told us. “She walks the walk and doesn’t just talk the talk.”

Meaghan Mitchell, who worked with the Fillmore Community Benefits District, also said King’s skills and perspective helped overcome the neighborhood’s skepticism about City Hall initiatives.

“Susan came in and was very warm and open to our concerns. She was a joy to work with,” said Mitchell, who went on to work with King on creating Play Streets 2013, an offshoot of Sunday Streets focused on children.

The neighborhood was still reeling from a massive redevelopment effort by the city that forced out much of its traditional African American population and left a trail of broken promises and mistrust. Mitchell said King had to spend a lot of time in community meetings and working with stakeholders to convince them Sunday Streets could be good for the neighborhood — efforts that paid off as the community embraced and helped shape the event.

“It was nice to know the Fillmore corridor could be included in something like this because we were used to not being included,” Mitchell told us. “Community organizing is not an easy job at all because you’re dealing with lots different personalities, but Susan is a pro.”

 

ROUGH START

It wasn’t community organizing that got King the job as much as her history with fundraising and business development for campaigns and organizations, ranging from the San Francisco Symphony to the San Francisco Women’s Building.

At the time, when city officials and nonprofit activists with the Mode Shift Working Group were talking about doing a ciclovia, King was worried that it would get caught up in the “bike-lash” against cyclists at a time when a lawsuit halted work on all bike projects in the city.

“I thought that would never fly,” King said. “We started Sunday Streets at the height of the anti-bike hysteria.”

But her contract with WalkSF to work on Masonic Avenue pedestrian improvements was coming to an end, she needed a job, and Sunday Streets needed a leader who could raise money to launch the event without city funds.

“I know how to raise money because I had a background in development,” said King, who raised the seed money for the first event with donations from the big health care organizations: Kaiser, Sutter Health/CPMC, and Catholic Healthcare West. And as a fiscal sponsor, she chose a nonprofit organization she loved, Livable City, for which Sunday Streets is now a $400,000 annual program.

King had a vision for Sunday Streets as an exercise in community-building that opens new avenues for people to work and play together.

Immediately, even before the first event, King and Sunday Streets ran into political opposition from the Fisherman’s Wharf Merchants Association, which was concerned that closing streets to cars would hurt business, and progressive members of the Board of Supervisors who were looking to tweak then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, whose office helped start the event.

City agencies ranging from the Police Department to Municipal Transportation Agency required Sunday Streets to pay the full costs for city services, something that even aggressive fundraising couldn’t overcome.

“We were in debt to every city department at the end of the second year. It was the elephant in the room going into that third year,” King said.

But the Mayor’s Office and SFMTA then-Director Nat Ford decided to make Sunday Streets an official city event, covering the city costs. “It was the key to success,” King said. “There’s no way to cover all the costs. The city really has to meet you halfway.”

King said that between the intensive community organizing work and dealing with the multitude of personalities and interests at City Hall, this was the toughest job she’s had.

“If I would have known what it would be like,” King said, “I would never have taken the job.”

 

SUNDAY STREETS SOARS

But King had just the right combination of skills and tenacity to make it work, elevating Sunday Streets into a successful and sustainable event that has served as a model for similar events around the country (including at least eight others also named Sunday Streets).

“The Mission one just blew up. It was instantly popular,” said King, who eventually dropped 24th Street from the route because it got just too congested. “But it’s the least supportive of our physical activity goals because it’s so crowded. It was really threatening to be more of a block party.”

That was antithetical to the ethos established by King, who has cracked down on drinking alcohol and unpermitted musical acts at Sunday Streets in order to keep the focus on being a family-friendly event based on fitness and community interaction.

Even the live performances that Sunday Streets hosts are required to have an interactive component. That encouragement of participation by attendees in a noncommercial setting drew from her history attending Burning Man, as well as fighting political battles against the commercialization of Golden Gate Park and other public spaces.

“It was my idea of what a community space should look like, although I didn’t invent it…We really want to support sustainability,” King said. “We’re not commodifying the public space. Everything at Sunday Streets is free, including bike rentals and repairs.”

As a bike event, the cycling community has lent strong support to Sunday Streets, with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition strongly promoting it along the way.

“The success of Sunday Streets has been a game changer in showcasing how street space can be used so gloriously for purposes other than just moving and storing automobiles. At every Sunday Streets happening we are reminded that streets are for people too,” SFBC Director Leah Shahum told us. “Susan’s leadership has been such an important part of this success.”

Appealing to San Francisco values

4

EDITORIAL When lawyers become politicians, and when those politicians assume offices where they can exercise discretion about when to appeal judicial rulings, the decision to do nothing can be as big and impactful as the decision to file a lawsuit.

Luckily for California, it is progressive-minded attorneys from the Bay Area who have found themselves in the position of advancing public policy through wise decisions about when to let rulings stand and when to challenge them. And it is our hope that Attorney General Kamala Harris remembers her Bay Area roots when making a couple of important pending decisions on appealing some high-profile recent rulings.

Harris was already weighing whether to appeal a judge’s ruling striking down teacher tenure laws (see “Pride and prejudice,” June 24) when another judge ruled that California’s death penalty is unconstitutional (see “Death sentence for executions?” Page 16).

Her opponent in fall runoff election, Republican Ron Gold, has called for Harris not to appeal the teacher tenure ruling — and he would almost certainly make great political hay of a decision by Harris not to challenge the death penalty ruling. But Harris should easily defeat this also-ran challenger in November and she should maintain the courage of her convictions in making these decisions.

We urge Harris to aggressively appeal the teacher tenure ruling and not be swayed by the judge’s fallacious argument that teacher tenure hurts urban schoolchildren. And on the death penalty, which Harris has long opposed, we urge her to help end the barbaric, expensive, and ineffective executions (which could mean appealing the recent ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and then not appealing a favorable ruling there, which would serve to end capital punishment in California).

That kind of selective use of the Attorney General’s Office discretion on appeals would follow in the tradition of Gov. Jerry Brown, when he was attorney general, choosing not to appeal the ruling striking down Prop. 8 and instead helping to legalize same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, we’re happy that City Attorney Dennis Herrera decided to “aggressively defend” Prop. B, which requires voter approval for projects that exceed current height restrictions on the San Francisco waterfront, against a lawsuit by the State Lands Commission.

Likely prompted by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, one of three members of that commission and someone who has long been friendly to big investors and developers, this lawsuit should have never been filed — and Herrera was right to say so and pledge a vigorous defense of the measure.

The people of San Francisco and California are lucky to have Harris and Herrera in the position to make these important decisions.

Progressives challenge mayor’s abuse of authority

4

EDITORIAL Mayor Ed Lee has repeatedly overstepped his authority on behalf of the entrenched political and economic interests who put him into office, and we’re happy to see Sup. John Avalos and his progressive allies on the Board of Supervisors starting to push back and restore a more honest and equitable balance of power at City Hall.

There was no excuse for Lee and his political appointees on the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to sabotage a decade of work creating the CleanPowerSF program, the only mechanism the city has for creating the renewable energy projects we need to meet our climate change goals.

This was a program created by a veto-proof majority on the Board of Supervisors, the body that the City Charter gives the authority to create such programs on behalf of the people who elect them, then the SFPUC used a vote that should have been a procedural formality to block it (see “Power struggle,” 9/17/13).

Lee refused to work with the supervisors to address his stated concerns — most of which have already been addressed by now anyway, from the program’s cost to the involvement of Shell Energy North America, which is now out — draining the CleanPowerSF funding and providing more evidence that this ruse was really all about protecting PG&E from competition.

So Avalos and other progressives of the Budget & Finance Committee last week rejected the SFPUC budget, forcing Lee and allies to now bargain in good faith. That’s the kind of realpolitik in service of progressive values that we’ve been missing at City Hall in recent years, the willingness to get tough with the grinning mayor who disingenuously talks about civility while his operatives stab their opponents in the back.

Avalos is also sponsoring a fall ballot measure that would let voters fill vacancies on the Board of Supervisors, rather than letting the mayor, who heads the executive branch, stack the legislative branch of government in his favor. We should have done that a decade ago after Gavin Newsom executed his infamous “triple play” to gain another ally on the board, and it’s especially relevant now that two supervisors are running against either other for the Assembly.

Avalos isn’t stressing the balance of powers argument for his Let’s Elect our Elected Officials Act of 2014, which would call a special election to fill vacancies in all the locally elected positions if the next election was more than year away (both the Board of Education and City College Board of Trustees would appoint interim members). It even gives up the supervisors’ power to appoint a new mayor (with the board president serving the interim, as is now the law). San Francisco isn’t a dictatorship, as much as that might please Lee’s business community allies. The people and our district-elected supervisors need to have a stronger voice in how this city is being run, so we at the Bay Guardian are happy to see a few new green shoots of democracy springing up at City Hall.

The strange, unique power of San Francisco mayors

64

Mayor Ed Lee wields a strange and unique power in San Francisco politics, passed down from Mayor Gavin Newsom, and held by Mayor Willie Brown before him.

No, we’re not talking magic, though mayors have used this ability to almost magically influence the city’s political winds. 

When elected officials leave office in San Francisco and a seat is left vacant, the mayor has the legal power to appoint someone to that empty seat. A study by San Francisco’s Local Agency Formation Commission conducted March last year shows out of 117 jurisdictions in California, and ten major cities nationwide, only seven jurisdictions give their executives (governors, mayors) the ability to appoint an official to a vacant seat. The other jurisdictions hold special elections or allow legislative bodies to vote on a new appointment. 

The power of a San Francisco mayor then is nearly singularly unique, the report found, but especially when seen in the context of the nation’s major cities.

“Of the 10 cities surveyed here,” the study’s authors wrote, “no other city among the most populous grants total discretion for appointments.” 

The study is especially relevant now, as Sup. John Avalos introduced a charter amendment to change this unqiuely San Franciscan mayoral power, and put the power back in the hands of the electorate.

His amendment would require special elections when vacancies appear on public bodies like the community college board, the board of education, or other citywide elected offices. He nicknamed it the “Let’s Elect our Elected Officials Act,” and if approved by the Board of Supervisors it will go to this November’s ballot.

Avalos touched on the LAFCo study while introducing his amendment at the board’s meeting on Tuesday [5/20]. 

“One of the striking results is how unique San Francisco’s appointment process is,” Avalos said. “There’s no democratic process or time constraint when the mayor makes these appointments.”

He pointed to then-Assessor Recorder Phil Ting’s election to California Assembly in 2012. Camen Chu, his successor, was not appointed by the mayor until February 2013, he said, a longstanding vacancy.

So what’s the big deal? Well, voters notoriously tend to vote for the incumbents in any race, so any official with their name on the slot as “incumbent” come election time has a tremendous advantage. In fact, only one supervisor ever appointed by a mayor was ever voted down in a subsequenet district-wide (as opposed to city-wide) election. This dataset of appointed supervisors was culled from the Usual Suspects, a local political-wonk blog:

Supervisor

Appointed

Elected

 

Terry Francois

1964

1967

 

Robert Gonzalez

1969

1971

 

Gordon Lau

1977

1977

 

Jane Murphy

1977

Didn’t run

 

Louise Renne

1978

1980

 

Donald Horanzy

1978

Lost in 1980

Switched from District to

Citywide elections.

Harry Britt

1979

1980

 

Willie B. Kennedy

1981

1984

 

Jim Gonzalez

1986

1988

 

Tom Hsieh

1986

1988

 

Annemarie Conroy

1992

Lost in 1994

 

Susan Leal

1993

1994

 

Amos Brown

1996

1998

 

Leslie Katz

1996

1996

 

Michael Yaki

1996

1996

 

Gavin Newsom

1997

1998

 

Mark Leno

1998

1998

 

Alicia D. Becerril

1999

Lost in 2000

Switched from Citywide to

District elections.

Michela Alioto-Pier

2004

2004

 

Sean Elsbernd

2004

2004

 

Carmen Chu

2007

2008

 

Christina Olague

2012

Lost in 2012

Only loss by a district

appointed supervisor.

Katy Tang

2013

2013


So mayoral appointments effectively sway subsequent elections, giving that mayor two prongs of power: the power to appoint someone who may agree with their politics, and the power to appoint someone who will then owe them.

A San Francisco Chronicle article from 2004 describes the power derived from appointees former Mayor Willie Brown infamously enjoyed.

Once at City Hall, Brown moved quickly to consolidate power, and using the skills he honed during his 31 years in the state Assembly, gained control of the Board of Supervisors. Before the 2000 election, he appointed eight of the 11 members, filling vacancies that he helped orchestrate, as supervisor after supervisor quit to run for higher office or take other jobs.

The board majority was steadfastly loyal, pushing through Brown’s policies and budget priorities with little debate. In a 1996 magazine article, he was quoted as likening the supervisors to “mistresses you have to service.”

Voters may soon choose what elected officials they want in offices. The mistresses of the mayor, or the mistresses of the people.

Graph of the LAFCo study produced by Guardian intern Francisco Alvarado. LAFCo looked at California jurisdictions as well as ten major cities nationwide.

Guardian endorsements

139

OUR CLEAN SLATE VOTERS GUIDE TO TAKE TO THE POLLS IS HERE.

 

Editor’s Note: Election endorsements have been a long and proud part of the Guardian’s 48-year history of covering politics in San Francisco, the greater Bay Area, and at the state level. In low-turnout elections like the one we’re expecting in June, your vote counts more than usual, and we hope our endorsements and explanations help you make the best decisions.

 

GOVERNOR: JERRY BROWN

There is much for progressives to criticize in Jerry Brown’s latest stint as governor of California. He has stubbornly resisted complying with federal court orders to substantially reduce the state’s prison population, as well as shielding the system from needed journalistic scrutiny and reforms of solitary confinement policies that amount to torture. Brown has also refused to ban or limit fracking in California, despite the danger it poses to groundwater and climate change, irritating environmentalists and fellow Democrats. Even Brown’s great accomplishment of winning passage for the Prop. 30 tax package, which eased the state back from financial collapse, sunsets too early and shouldn’t have included a regressive sales tax increase. Much more needs to be done to address growing wealth disparities and restore economic and educational opportunity for all Californians.

For these reasons and others, it’s tempting to endorse one of Brown’s progressive challenges: Green Party candidate Luis Rodriguez or Peace and Freedom Party candidate Cindy Sheehan (see “Left out,” April 23). We were particularly impressed by Rodriguez, an inspiring leader who is seeking to bring more Latinos and other marginalized constituencies into the progressive fold, a goal we share and want to support however we can.

But on balance, we decided to give Brown our endorsement in recognition of his role in quickly turning around this troubled state after the disastrous administration of Arnold Schwarzenegger — and in the hope that his strong leadership will lead to even greater improvement over his next term. While we don’t agree with all of his stands, we admire the courage, independence, and vision that Brown brings to this important office. Whether he is supporting the California High-Speed Rail Project against various attacks, calling for state residents to live in greater harmony with the natural world during the current drought, or refusing to shrink from the challenges posed by global warming, Jerry Brown is the leader that California needs at this critical time.

 

LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR: GAVIN NEWSOM

Gavin Newsom was mayor of San Francisco before he ascended to the position of Lieutenant Governor, and we at the Bay Guardian had a strained relationship with his administration, to put it mildly. We disagreed with his fiscally conservative policies and tendency to align himself with corporate power brokers over neighborhood coalitions. As lieutenant governor, Newsom is tasked with little — besides stepping into the role of governor, should he be called upon to do so — but has nevertheless made some worthwhile contributions.

Consider his stance on drug policy reform: “Once and for all, it’s time we realize that the war on drugs is nothing more than a war on communities of color and on the poor,” he recently told a crowd at the Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles. “It is fundamentally time for drug policies that recognize and respect the full dignity of human beings. We can’t wait.” In his capacity as a member of the UC Board of Regents, Newsom recently voted against a higher executive compensation package for a top-level administrator, breaking from the pack to align with financially pinched university students. In Sacramento, Newsom seems to come off as more “San Francisco” than in his mayoral days, and we’re endorsing him against a weak field of challengers.

 

SECRETARY OF STATE: DEREK CRESSMAN

Although the latest Field Poll shows that he has only single-digit support and is unlikely to make the November runoff, we’re endorsing Derek Cressman for Secretary of State. As a longtime advocate for removing the corrupting influence of money from politics through his work with Common Cause, Cressman has identified campaign finance reform as the important first step toward making the political system more responsive to people’s needs. As Secretary of State, Cressman would be in a position to ensure greater transparency in our political system.

We also like Alex Padilla, a liberal Democrat who has been an effective member of the California Senate. We’ll be happy to endorse Padilla in November if he ends up in a runoff with Republican Pete Peterson, as the current polling seems to indicate is likely. But for now, we’re endorsing Cressman — and the idea that campaign finance reform needs to be a top issue in a state and country that are letting wealthy individuals and corporations have disproportionate influence over what is supposed to be a democracy.

 

CONTROLLER: BETTY YEE

The pay-to-play politics of Leland Yee and two other California Democrats has smeared the Assembly. Amid the growls of impropriety, a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting has painted Speaker of the Assembly John Perez, a leading candidate for Controller, with a similar brush. CIR revealed Perez raised money from special interest groups to charities his lover favored, a lover later sued for racketeering and fraud.

Betty Yee represents an opportunity for a fresh start. On the state’s Board of Equalization she turned down campaign donations from tobacco interests, a possible conflict of interest. She also fought for tax equity between same-sex couples. The Controller is tasked with keeping watch on and disbursing state funds, a position we trust much more to Yee’s careful approach than Perez’s questionable history. Vote for Yee.

 

TREASURER: JOHN CHIANG

While serving as California’s elected Controller, John Chiang displayed his courage and independence by refusing to sign off on budgetary tricks used by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and some legislative leaders, insisting on a level of honesty that protected current and future Californians. During those difficult years — as California teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, paralyzed by partisan brinksmanship each budget season, written off as a failed state by the national media — Chiang and retiring Treasurer Bill Lockyer were somehow able to keep the state functioning and paying its bills.

While many politicians claim they’ll help balance the budget by identifying waste and corruption, Chiang actually did so, identifying $6 billion by his estimate that was made available for more productive purposes. Now, Chiang wants to continue bringing fiscal stability to this volatile state and he has our support.

 

ATTORNEY GENERAL: KAMALA HARRIS

Kamala Harris has kept the promise she made four years ago to bring San Francisco values into the Attorney General’s Office, focusing on the interests of everyday Californians over powerful vested interests. That includes strengthening consumer and privacy protections, pushing social programs to reduce criminal recidivism rather than the tough-on-crime approach that has ballooned our prison population, reaching an $18 billion settlement with the big banks and mortgage lenders to help keep people in their homes, and helping to implement the Affordable Care Act and the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state.

Harris has maintained her opposition to the death penalty even though that has hurt her in the statewide race, and she brings to the office an important perspective as the first woman and first African American ever to serve as the state’s top law enforcement officer. While there is much more work to be done in countering the power of wealthy individuals and corporations and giving the average Californian a stronger voice in our legal system, Harris has our support.

 

INSURANCE COMMISSIONER: DAVE JONES

We’ve been following Dave Jones’s legislative career since his days on the Sacramento City Council and through his terms in the California Legislature, and we’ve always appreciated his autonomy and progressive values. He launched into his role as Insurance Commissioner four years ago with an emergency regulation requiring health insurance companies to use no more than 20 percent of premiums on profits and administrative costs, and he has continued to do what he can to hold down health insurance rates, including implementing the various components of the Affordable Care Act.

More recently, Jones held hearings looking at whether Uber, Lyft, and other transportation network companies are adequately insured to protect both their drivers and the general public, concluding that these companies need to self-insure or otherwise expand the coverage over their business. It was a bold and important move to regulate a wealthy and prosperous new industry. Jones deserves credit for taking on the issue and he has earned our endorsement.

 

SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS: TOM TORLAKSON

This race is a critical one, as incumbent Tom Torlakson faces a strong challenge from the charter school cheerleader Marshall Tuck. An investment banker and Harvard alum, Tuck is backed by well-heeled business and technology interests pushing for the privatization of our schools. Tech and entertainment companies are pushing charter schools heavily as they wait in the wings for lucrative education supply contracts, for which charter schools may open the doors. And don’t let Waiting for Superman fool you, charter schools’ successful test score numbers are often achieved by pushing out underperforming special needs and economically disadvantaged students.

As national education advocate Diane Ravitch wrote in her blog, “If Tuck wins, the privatization movement will gain a major stronghold.” California ranks 48th in the nation in education spending, a situation we can thank Prop. 13 for. We’d like to see Torlakson advocate for more K-12 school dollars, but for now, he’s the best choice.

 

BOARD OF EQUALIZATION: FIONA MA

Fiona Ma was never our favorite member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and in the California Legislature, she has seemed more interested in party politics and leadership than moving legislation that is important to San Francisco. There are a few exceptions, such as her attempts last year to require more employers to offer paid sick days and to limit prescription drug co-payments. But she also notoriously tried to ban raves at public venues in 2010, a reactionary bill that was rejected as overly broad.

But the California Board of Equalization might just be a better fit for Ma than the Legislature. She’s a certified public accountant and would bring that financial expertise to the state’s main taxing body, and we hope she continues in the tradition of her BOE predecessor Betty Yee in ensuring the state remains fair but tough in how it collects taxes.

 

ASSEMBLY, DISTRICT 17: DAVID CAMPOS

The race to replace progressive hero Tom Ammiano in the California Assembly is helping to define this important political moment in San Francisco. It’s a contest between the pragmatic neoliberal politics of Board of Supervisors President David Chiu and the populist progressive politics of Sup. David Campos, whom Ammiano endorsed to succeed him.

It’s a fight for the soul of San Francisco, a struggle to define the values we want to project into the world, and, for us at the Bay Guardian, the choice is clear. David Campos is the candidate that we trust to uphold San Francisco’s progressive values in a state that desperately needs that principled influence.

Chiu emphasizes how the two candidates have agreed on about 98 percent of their votes, and he argues that his effectiveness at moving big legislation and forging compromises makes him the most qualified to represent us in Sacramento. Indeed, Chiu is a skilled legislator with a sharp mind, and if “getting things done” — the prime directive espoused by both Chiu and Mayor Ed Lee — was our main criterion, he would probably get our endorsement.

But when you look at the agenda that Chiu and his allies at City Hall have pursued since he came to power — elected as a progressive before pivoting to become a pro-business moderate — we wish that he had been a little less effective. The landlords, tech titans, Realtors, and Chamber of Commerce have been calling the shots in this city, overheating the local economy in a way that has caused rapid displacement and gentrification.

“Effective for whom? That’s what’s important,” Campos told us during his endorsement interview, noting that, “Most people in San Francisco have been left behind and out of that prosperity.”

Campos has been a clear and consistent supporter of tenants, workers, immigrants, small businesses, environmentalists — the vast majority of San Franciscans, despite their lack of power in City Hall. Chiu will sometimes do right by these groups, but usually only after being pushed to do so by grassroots organizing and lobbying efforts.

Campos correctly points out that such lobbying is more difficult in Sacramento, with its higher stakes and wider range of competing interests, than it is on the local level. Chiu’s focus on always trying to find a compromise often plays into the hands of wealthy interests, who sometimes just need to be fought and stopped.

We have faith in Campos and his progressive values, and we believe he will skillfully carry on the work of Ammiano — who is both an uncompromising progressive and an effective legislator — in representing San Francisco’s values in Sacramento.

 

ASSEMBLY, DISTRICT 19: PHIL TING

Incumbent Phil Ting doesn’t have any challengers in this election, but he probably would have won our support anyway. After proving himself as San Francisco’s Assessor, taking a strong stance against corporate landowners and even the Catholic Church on property assessments, Ting won a tough race against conservative businessman Michael Breyer to win his Assembly seat.

Since then, he’s been a reliable vote for legislation supported by most San Franciscans, and he’s sponsoring some good bills that break new ground, including his current AB 1193, which would make it easier to build cycletracks, or bike lanes physically separated from cars, all over the state. He also called a much-needed Assembly committee hearing in November calling out BART for its lax safety culture, and we hope he continues to push for reforms at that agency.

 

PROPOSITION 41: YES

Over a decade ago, Californians voted to use hundreds of millions of our dollars to create the CalVet Home and Farm Loan Program to help veterans purchase housing. But a reduction in federal home loan dollars, the housing crisis, and a plummeting economy hurt the program.

Prop. 41 would repurpose $600 million of those bond funds and raise new money to create affordable housing rental units for some of California’s 15,000 homeless veterans. This would cost Californians $50 million a year, which, as proponents remind us, is one-tenth of 1 percent of the state budget. Why let hundreds of millions of dollars languish unused? We need to reprioritize this money to make good on our unfulfilled promises to homeless veterans.

 

PROPOSITION 42: YES

This one’s important. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown sought to gut the California Public Records Act by making it optional for government agencies to comply with many of the requirements built into this important transparency law. The CPRA and the Ralph M. Brown Act require government agencies to make records of their activities available for public scrutiny, and to provide for adequate notice of public meetings. Had the bill weakening these laws not been defeated, it would have removed an important defense against shadowy government dealings, leaving ordinary citizens and journalists in the dark.

Prop. 42 is a bid to eliminate any future threats against California’s important government transparency laws, by expressly requiring local government agencies — including cities, counties, and school districts — to comply with all aspects of the CPRA and the Brown Act. It also seeks to prevent local agencies from denying public records requests based on cost, by eliminating the state’s responsibility to reimburse local agencies for cost compliance (the state has repeatedly failed to do so, and local bureaucracies have used this as an excuse not to comply).

 

SF’S PROPOSITION A: YES

Prop. A is a $400 million general obligation bond measure that would cover seismic retrofits and improvements to the city’s emergency infrastructure, including upgrades to the city’s Emergency Firefighting Water System, neighborhood police and fire stations, a new facility for the Medical Examiner, and seismically secure new structures to house the police crime lab and motorcycle unit.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to place Prop. A on the ballot, and a two-thirds majority vote is needed for it to pass. Given that San Franciscans can expect to be hit by a major earthquake in the years to come, upgrading emergency infrastructure, especially the high-pressure water system that will aid the Fire Department in the event of a major blaze, is a high priority.

 

SF’S PROPOSITION B: YES

As we report in this issue (see “Two views of the waterfront”), San Francisco’s waterfront is a valuable place targeted by some ambitious development schemes. That’s a good thing, particularly given the need that the Port of San Francisco has for money to renovate or remove crumbling piers, but it needs to be carefully regulated to maximize public benefits and minimize private profit-taking.

Unfortunately, the Mayor’s Office and its appointees at the Port of San Francisco have proven themselves unwilling to be tough negotiators on behalf of the people. That has caused deep-pocketed, politically connected developers to ignore the Waterfront Land Use Plan and propose projects that are out-of-scale for the waterfront, property that San Francisco is entrusted to manage for the benefit of all Californians.

All Prop. B does is require voter approval when projects exceed existing height limits. It doesn’t kill those projects, it just forces developers to justify new towers on the waterfront by providing ample public benefits, restoring a balance that has been lost. San Francisco’s waterfront is prime real estate, and there are only a few big parcels left that can be leveraged to meet the needs of the Port and the city. Requiring the biggest ones to be approved by voters is the best way to ensure the city — all its residents, not just the politicians and power brokers — is getting the best deals possible.

 

SF SUPERIOR COURT JUDGE: DANIEL FLORES

Daniel Flores has an impressive list of endorsers, including the Democratic, Republican, and Green parties of San Francisco — a rare trifecta of political party support. But don’t hold the GOP nod against Flores, who was raised in the Excelsior by parents who immigrated from El Salvador and who interned with La Raza Centro Legal while going to McGeorge School of Law. And he did serve in the Marines for six years, which could explain the broad range of support for him.

Flores is a courtroom litigator with experience in big firms and his own practice, representing clients ranging from business people to tenants fighting against their landlords. Flores told us that he wants to ensure those without much money are treated fairly in court, an important goal we support. We also liked Kimberly Williams and hope she ends up on the bench someday, but in this race, Flores is the clear choice.

 

CONGRESS, DISTRICT 12: NANCY PELOSI

This was a hard decision for us this year. Everyone knows that Pelosi will win this race handily, but in past races we’ve endorsed third party challengers or even refused to endorse anyone more often than we’ve given Pelosi our support. While Pelosi gets vilified by conservatives as the quintessential San Francisco liberal, she’s actually way too moderate for our tastes.

Over her 21 years in Congress, she has presided over economic policies that have consolidated wealth in ever fewer hands and dismantled the social safety net, environmental policies that have ignored global warming and fed our over-reliance on the private automobile, and military policies that expanded the war machine and overreaching surveillance state, despite her insider’s role on the House Intelligence Committee.

Three of her opponents — Democrat David Peterson, Green Barry Hermanson, and fiery local progressive activist Frank Lara of the Peace and Freedom Party — are all much better on the issues that we care about, and we urge our readers to consider voting for one of them if they just can’t stomach casting a ballot for Pelosi. In particular, Hermanson has raised important criticisms of just how out of whack our federal budget priorities are. We also respect the work Lara has done on antiwar and transit justice issues in San Francisco, and we think he could have a bright political future.

But we’ve decided to endorse Pelosi in this election for one main reason: We want the Democrats to retake the House of Representatives this year and for Pelosi to once again become Speaker of the House. The Republican Party in this country, particularly the Tea Party loyalists in the House, is practicing a dangerous and disgusting brand of political extremism that needs to be stopped and repudiated. They would rather shut the government down or keep it hopelessly hobbled by low tax rates than help it become an effective tool for helping us address the urgent problems that our country faces. Pelosi and the Democrats aren’t perfect, but at least they’re reasonable grown-ups and we’d love to see what they’d do if they were returned to power. So Nancy Pelosi has our support in 2014.

 

CONGRESS, DISTRICT 13: BARBARA LEE

Barbara Lee has been one of our heroes since 2001, when she was the only member of Congress to vote against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, braving the flag-waving nationalism that followed the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon to warn that such an overly broad declaration of war was dangerous to our national interests. She endured death threats and harsh condemnation for that principled stand, but she was both courageous and correct, with our military overreach still causing problems for this country, both practical and moral.

Lee has been a clear and consistent voice for progressive values in the Congress for 16 years, chairing both the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Progressive Caucus, taking stands against capital punishment and the Iraq War, supporting access to abortions and tougher regulation of Wall Street, and generally representing Oakland and the greater Bay Area well in Washington DC. She has our enthusiastic support.

 

CONGRESS, DISTRICT 14: JACKIE SPEIER

Jackie Speier has given her life to public service — almost literally in 1978 when she was an aide to then-Rep. Leo Ryan and survived the airstrip shootings that triggered the massacre at Jonestown — and she has earned our ongoing support. Speier has continued the consumer protection work she started in the California Legislature, sponsoring bills in Congress aimed at protecting online privacy. She has also been a strong advocate for increasing federal funding to public transit in the Bay Area, particularly to Muni and for the electricification of Caltrain, an important prelude to the California High-Speed Rail Project. In the wake of the deadly natural gas explosion in San Bruno, Speier has pushed for tough penalties on Pacific Gas & Electric and expanded pipeline safety programs. She has been a strong advocate of women’s issues, including highlighting the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses and in the military, seeking greater protections, institutional accountability, and recourse for victims. More recently, Speier has become a key ally in the fight to save City College of San Francisco, taking on the federal accreditation process and seeking reforms. Speier is a courageous public servant who deserves your vote.

Politics over policy

97

Joe@sfbg.com

Paid Sunday parking meters were unanimously repealed by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors on April 15.

Sunday meters will be free starting July 1, a losing proposition for many, including seniors and people with disabilities who advocated for free Muni passes at the same SFMTA meeting.

There’s a dire need. Betty Trainer, board president of Seniors & Disability Action, relayed a senior’s story printed on one of 500 cards collected by her advocacy group.

“I’m often cold and can’t walk like I used to,” Trainer read aloud. “Most days I’m stuck in my room on my own. Help me out. No one should be a recluse for lack of money.”

In increasingly expensive San Francisco, seniors and people with disabilities often can’t afford to take a bus. They asked the SFMTA board to grant them mobility, but were denied.

Tom Nolan, president of the SFMTA Board of Directors, said it would be a matter of “when, not if” the board would revisit funding free Muni for elderly and disabled passengers, and would likely take up the question again in January.

Yet many who spoke out at the meeting hammered home the point that paid Sunday meters could have easily covered the cost of such a program.

Meanwhile, a SFMTA study found that paid Sunday meters also made life easier for drivers and business proprietors. So why would the SFMTA board vote down a measure with so many benefits?

Ultimately, the decision on Sunday meters stemmed from political pressure from the Mayor’s Office. The vote reflects decision-making not predicated on whether the policy worked or not, but whether it could be sacrificed to gain political leverage.

 

GOOD FOR EVERYBODY

The SFMTA’s December 2013 “Evaluation of Sunday Parking Management” study may not sound like entertaining bedtime reading, but the report identifies surprising biggest winner of the paid Sunday meter program: drivers.

“It is now easier to find parking spaces in commercial and mixed use areas on Sundays,” the report begins. Between 2012 and 2013, the average parking availability on Sunday doubled during metered hours, increasing from 15 percent to 31 percent. Parking search times were lowered as well.

Sunday drivers in 2012 spent an average of 14 minutes circling for a spot; in 2013, the average was dramatically reduced to four minutes.

That created a ripple effect benefiting businesses too, as higher turnover meant more customers cycling through parking spaces, something the business advocates have pointed out.

“You can drive into merchant areas now where you couldn’t before,” Jim Lazarus, senior vice president of public policy at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, told us in an interview for a previous story.

Paid Sunday meters also provided sorely needed funding for Muni.

The SFMTA’s most recent budget projection anticipated that paid Sunday meters would yield as much as $11 million. The already approved Free Muni for Youth program and the stalled free Muni for seniors and people with disabilities program would cost Muni about $9 million, all told.

That nearly direct cost correlation could be the reason why the free Muni issue got wrapped into arguments against repealing paid Sunday meters.

“To some people $23 may not be much, but to [seniors], every penny counts,” Pei Juan Zheng, vice president of the Community Tenants Association, told the board. She spoke in Cantonese, through a interpreter. “I know some senior couples who can only afford one Muni pass and share it, taking turns to go on doctor’s visits.”

meterbigSo paid parking meters benefit many diverse constituents, and even SFMTA Executive Director Ed Reiskin publicly favored them. Making Sunday meters free again wasn’t Reiskin’s idea, he told us back in February.

That order came straight from Mayor Ed Lee.

 

POLITICAL MINDS

Lee’s statement to the press the day after the meters were repealed said it all.

“Repealing Sunday parking meters is about making San Francisco a little more affordable for our families and residents on Sunday, plain and simple,” Lee wrote. “Instead of nickel and diming our residents at the meter on Sunday, let’s work together to support comprehensive transportation funding measures this year and in the future that will invest in our City’s transportation system for pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders and drivers alike.”

Lee’s reasoning doesn’t address Sunday meters as policy, but as political fallout.

Two initiatives seeking funds for Muni are headed for the November ballot. In public statements, Lee repeatedly expressed fear that keeping in place Sunday meter fees, which generate revenue for Muni, would dissuade car-bound voters from supporting more funding for Muni at the polls.

The SFMTA board didn’t even pretend to vote against the measure for its policy merits, instead vocalizing what insiders already knew: Mayor Lee wanted the paid meters killed.

“We need to take a step back and make sure we win in November,” said Joel Ramos, an SFMTA director, moments before the vote.

“I know Mayor Lee has some of the best political minds in his office,” Cheryl Brinkman, another SFMTA director, chimed in. “Lee is certain this will help us in November and help us with our ballot measures.”

It seems these “best political minds” had greater sway in the end than SFMTA’s own policy reports on funding and benefits brought by Sunday meters.

 

VOTING FOR THE MAYOR

The SFMTA Board of Directors is appointed solely by the mayor. Efforts in 2010 to reform the body to be a mix of appointments from the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor’s Office went nowhere.

So as things stand, SFMTA directors’ chances of reappointment depend upon the will of the mayor.

After the SFMTA board voted on Sunday meters, we phoned Brinkman to ask if Lee’s appointment power swayed her vote on paid Sunday meters. She dismissed the idea, saying, “I have really strong confidence in this MTA board.”

But Brinkman did say she was told by the Mayor’s Office, though not the mayor himself, that Lee wanted to “kind of give people a break.”

Past SFMTA directors have run afoul of the mayor’s wishes on parking meter issues before. In 2010, StreetsBlog SF wrote how then-SFMTA director Bruce Oka was called into then-Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office for a stern scolding after he publicly backed extending paid parking meter hours.

“I don’t know if you’ve heard this about the Mayor’s Office, but they tend to be a little aggressive when they want people to be in line with the mayor,” Oka told StreetsBlog SF.

Notably, Lee opted to not reappoint Oka, instead appointing Cristina Rubke, whose sole political experience beforehand was advocating in public comment for the America’s Cup, according to SF Weekly. Oka was unavailable for comment for this story.

It’s not an unreasonable reach to say Oka’s frequent outspoken opposition to the positions of sitting mayors may have cost him his reappointment.

And Oka’s story raises another question: Does the SFMTA genuflect to the wishes of the Mayor’s Office? A look at past SFMTA board votes shows members’ startling consensus with the mayor, and with each other, for an ostensibly political board.

On smaller projects where one may expect political agreement, it’s there: The SFMTA board voted unanimously in 2011 to convert a portion of Haight Street for two-bus lanes, and in 2012 the board voted unanimously to approve Oak and Fell streets bike lanes.

But the board votes unanimously on more politically divisive matters too. Earlier this year, the commuter shuttle pilot program was greeted with controversy centered on Google buses. The packed SFMTA board meeting was perhaps one of the most contentious in recent memory, with those delivering public comment split between favoring the pilot program, or not.

But despite the fractious debate, the board voted unanimously to enact the commuter shuttle pilot program, a project the mayor had publicly championed.

“I don’t want to give anyone the impression that this mayor pressures the MTA board,” Brinkman told us. “This mayor,” she said, “really doesn’t.”

Before the vote, directors Ramos and Brinkman both acknowledged paid Sunday meters offer many benefits for drivers, but said the SFMTA failed to make the political argument for those benefits.

“We need to regroup and better explain parking management,” Brinkman told us in a phone interview. “Not just to the people who park but the Board of Supervisors, and even up to the Mayor’s Office.”

But even the directors who spoke favorably about paid Sunday meters voted to repeal them.

Hours after the public comment session finally wound to an end, it was time for SFMTA board members to vote on Sunday meters. Rather than discussing pros and cons, they swiftly rejected the program. And, in a move that should surprise no one, they voted unanimously.

SF’s culture of corruption

12

EDITORIAL The extent of the charges in the criminal complaint against Sen. Leland Yee, political consultant Keith Jackson, and others are shocking and sensational: international arms trafficking, drug dealing, money laundering, cavorting with organized crime figures, murder for hire. But the basic allegation that Yee and Jackson practiced a corrupt, transactional kind of politics wasn’t surprising to anyone who knew how they operated.

What’s worse, they were simply a more extreme — and now, thanks to FBI wiretaps and undercover agents, a better documented — example of the political corruption that is endemic to San Francisco and some other high-stakes American cities. The city of St. Francis gets sold out to the highest bidders everyday, by politicians who value wealthy constituents over the vast majority of us who are just trying to get by — and over the interests of city finances and governance.

Part of the problem is inherent in our money-driven political system, in which politicians are constantly hustling for cash from people who want things from them. Politicians deny they take actions with political contributions in mind, but well-heeled capital and labor interests don’t spend millions of dollars on contributions out of the goodness of their hearts. These are business transactions.

We wholeheartedly support the call Senate President Darrell Steinberg made for fundamental political reform during the March 28 vote to suspend Yee and two of his allegedly corrupt colleagues. These cases aren’t aberrations, they are indicative of how power get wielded when it’s based on wealth. That’s the reality that has gotten even uglier since the Citizens United decision equated money with political speech and upped the ante for would-be public servants.

But much of the problem is particular to San Francisco, where cozy relationships between politicians and corporate interests are often feted in plain view. Former Mayor Willie Brown — a lawyer and unregistered lobbyist who won’t reveal his huge corporate client list despite having an influential weekly column in the San Francisco Chronicle — helped install his longtime City Hall functionary Ed Lee into Room 200 to guard against anyone asking too much of the rich and powerful. Yee and Lee represented rival Chinatown economic factions, both wanting to use the power of the Mayor’s Office for their interests.

In his March 22 column, Brown once again repeated a joke he’s used before, that the “e” in email stands for “evidence,” which is really only funny in a sick political culture that celebrates slick rule-breakers. And it was from Brown that Lee learned it was acceptable to brazenly give tax breaks and regulatory passes to the tech companies that his top fundraiser, venture capitalist Ron Conway, are invested in.

Megadeveloper Lennar Urban used its wealth and political connections to take control of San Francisco’s biggest tracts of undeveloped and underdeveloped land, including Hunters and Candlestick points and Treasure Island, paying off community groups and hiring Jackson and other political henchmen to get the job done.

In fact, the FBI complaint says Jackson was working on behalf of that project when he approached accused Chinatown gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow for support, leading to their alleged involvement in a string of wild criminal conspiracies. Meanwhile, Chow was getting public commendations from San Francisco-based politicians including Lee, Yee, Gavin Newsom, Dianne Feinstein, Fiona Ma, and even Tom Ammiano. Chow courted political legitimacy the same way politicians seek cash, and mainstream media outlets were happy to play along.

Throughout his political career, Yee has carried water for Pacific Gas & Electric, perhaps the most corrupting contributor to political campaigns in the city’s history. PG&E’s influence at City Hall had thankfully waned in recent years as a result of overreach and deadly criminal negligence, until Lee and his appointees last year killed CleanPowerSF (see “Challenge Mayor Lee and his lies,” 9/17/13) on a pretext so thin it could only be gift to PG&E.

In many ways, San Francisco hasn’t changed. It’s still the old Barbary Coast, ruled by capitalist thugs and corrupt politicians, only with glossy modern spin created by armies of well-paid political consultants. But we all deserve better.

Yee and Jackson should go to prison if there’s even a slice of truth to the allegations against them. And maybe they’ll cut deals and take other political figures down with them, giving us more of a peek behind the curtain of political power. But it’s up to all of us to break the close ties between economic and political power and begin to restore the democratic power of everyday people.

Crime and politics

10

steve@sfbg.com

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.

 

THE CRIMINAL

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 COMPLAINT

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.”

 

THE POLITICIAN

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.

 

 

 

Complaint against Yee includes firearms trafficking and envelopes full of cash

54

The federal criminal charges filed today against Sen. Leland Yee (D-SF), local political consultant Keith Jackson, reputed Chinatown organized crime boss Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, and 23 other defendants allege a vast criminal conspiracy that was penetrated by undercover FBI agents, who say they then gave Yee envelopes full of cash in exchange for official favors.

Among the many bizarre aspects of this blockbuster case, Yee stands accused of taking part in a conspiracy to illegally smuggle firearms into the country, and using those deals to help secure campaign contributions for his current campaign for Secretary of State, while he was sponsoring a trio of gun control bills that were signed into law last year.

Yee, who reportedly faces 16 years in prison for two felony counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to deal firearms without a license and to illegally import firearms, was arrested this morning during a series of early morning police raids, pleaded not guilty at his arraignment this afternoon, and was freed after posting a $500,000 unsecured bond.

Chow had a long criminal history as the admitted head of the Hop Sing gang in SF’s Chinatown, serving prison time. “Chow’s criminal history includes a guilty plea in federal court for racketeering, involving murder for hire, conspiracy to distribute heroin, arson, and conspiracy to collect extensions of credit,” the complaint notes. (You can read the full complaint here.)

Chow publicly claimed to go legit after being released from federal prison in 2006, and he has cultivated many high-profile business and political connections in San Francisco. But the 137-page criminal complaint that was unsealed today alleges that “Chow is currently the Dragonhead, or leader, of the San Francisco-based Chee Kung Tong organization,” which it describerd 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 after being released from federal prison, soon after the still-unsolved murder of CKT head Allen Ngai Leung. Chow’s swearing-in was reported in local Chinese media sources, so SFPD and FBI conducted surveillance there and launched an investigation.

CKT is allegedly part of Triad, an international Chinese organized crime group with ties to China and Hong Kong, and in San Francisco it is said to be comprised of Chow’s Hop Sing, a street gang with 200-300 members, and the Wah Ching gang headed by George Nieh, who was charged with a variety of crimes today.

“Nieh said he was in charge of the Wah Ching gang and Chow was in charge of the Hop Sing gang. Nieh said they used to be enemies, but banded together instead,” the complaint says, relating what they allegedly told FBI informants who had infiltrated the organization.

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.”

Chow allegedly told UCE 4599 that he oversees all of CKT criminal enterprises, but doesn’t actively run them anymore, acting as a arbiter, or as a judge when one CKT member kills another. Nieh allegedly heads the criminal activities division and reports to Chow.

They 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.

UCE 4599 told Chow he was a member of La Cosa Nostra, an Italian mob, and 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 who has worked for Lennar Urban and Singer Associates — had also be inducted into CKT as a “Consultant,” participating in various criminal conspiracies.

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.”

“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,” the complaint alleges.

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. Senator Yee made the call on October 18, 2012 and provided the letter on or about January 13, 2013,” and Jackson allegedly took the cash donation from the agent.

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 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.

In August of last year, in an effort to raise 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…Senator Yee discussed certain details of the specific types of weapons UCE 4599 was interested in buying and importing.”

The complaint, a declaration by FBI Agent Emmanuel Pascua, does indicate that both Chow and Yee sometimes tried to declare their legitimacy to the FBI agents.

“It should be noted that throughout this investigation, Chow has made several exculpatory statements about how he strives to become legitimate and no longer participates in criminal activity,” it says.

For example, Chow has been working on book and movie deals about his life, and he would regularly make statements attempting to distance himself from CKT’s alleged criminal activities, as well as building connections in the political world. Chow posed for photos with then-Mayor Gavin Newsom and other local political figures.  

“Chow has also been portrayed in many Chinese newspapers as being involved in community affairs and has been photographed posing with local politicians and other community leaders. For example, in August of 2006, Chow was photographed hold a Certificate of Honor from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for community service of the CKT,” it reads.

But the complaint also said that Chow continued to make incriminating statements to the undercover agents “confirming his knowledge of and involvement in criminal activity.”

The complaint says that Yee also made many exculpatory statements and expressed discomfort with how openly UCE 4180 discussed overt “pay to play” links between cash donations and official actions.

“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. 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.”

Officials in San Francisco and Sacramento are still reeling from the allegations. “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 us. “Today’s widespread law enforcement actions are incredibly disturbing. The detail and scale of the criminal activities are shocking.”

California Senate President Darrell Steinberg told reporters today that he has asked for Yee’s resignation and that he plans to introduce a resolution Friday to suspend Yee and two other Democrats chargeed with political corruption, Rod Wright and Ron Calderon.

Sen. Mark Leno (D-SF), who took part in that briefing, told the Guardian, “I’m frustrated and angered on behalf of my constituents that my Senate colleagues and I are there each day to create positive changes and all of these situations are distracting…It reflects badly on a great institution.”

Guardian reporter Joe Rodriguez Fitzgerald, who contributed to this report, has been covering this case from the federal courthouse today, and we’ll have more on this unfolding story in the coming days and the next issue of the Guardian. 

Clean Up The Plaza run by political consultant with ties to developers

168

Neighborhood and progressive political activists have long been suspicious of the shadowy Clean Up The Plaza campaign and its possible connections to a massive housing development proposed for 16th and Mission streets — and the Guardian has now confirmed that developer-connected political consultant Jack Davis is playing a key role in that campaign.

Asked by the Guardian whether he is being paid by the developers — Maximus Real Estate Partners, which has submitted plans to build a 10-story, 351-unit housing complex overlooking the 16th Street BART plaza — Davis told the Guardian, “That’s between me and the IRS.”

Our exchange with Davis and Gil Chavez, a Davis roommate who runs the Clean Up The Plaza campaign, occurred yesterday outside the LGBT Center where they and three other campaign workers (who refused to speak to us) were promoting their cause and collecting signatures on petitions calling for crackdowns on the plaza before the debate inside between Assembly District 17 candidates David Chiu and David Campos.

Clean Up The Plaza has been refusing to return calls from the Guardian or other local journalists for months, and the group hasn’t filed any paperwork with the San Francisco Ethics Commission in association with its political fundraising or lobbying efforts.

Asked about the group’s relationship with the project developers, Chavez told us, “They’re in communication with us and we’re in communication with them, but they haven’t funded us.” Asked who paid for the group’s website, mailers, window signs, and other expenses, Chavez said it was him and other donors that he wouldn’t identify.

Davis has been the go-to political consultant on big campaigns backed by real estate interests in San Francisco, working on the successful mayoral campaigns of Frank Jordan, Willie Brown, and Gavin Newsom, as well as a number of high-profile development projects, including the 1996 ballot measure approving construction of AT&T Park.

He and Chavez say they live together in the neighborhood and their only motivation in running the group is improving public safety. “I’m happy to to talk about what Clean Up The Plaza is,” Davis told us. “I live at 17th and Mission and I’ve been mugged.”

But housing activist Sara Shortt of the Housing Rights Committee isn’t buying it, calling the group “a fake grassroots campaign that is misleading this community.”

“If you didn’t know Jack Davis’ history in politics in San Francisco, you might be able to take that at face value,” Shortt said of Davis’ claims to be simply a concerned citizen. “Given his ties to big developers, it’s not very believable.”

Willie Brown even heralded Davis’ return to political work two years ago in his San Francisco Chronicle column, entitled “Political consultant Jack Davis back on S.F. scene,” writing that he has returned to local political circles following a hiatus in Wales the previous few years.

“You political types, be warned. Jack Davis is back in town,” the column began, ending with, “I think that after watching from the sidelines for a while, he’s ready to return. Can’t wait to see whom he decides to work for. Stay tuned.”

Is Davis working on fake grassroots campaign designed to smooth the way for a massive gentrifying housing projects in one of the city’s last remaining neighborhoods that still welcomes poor people? Stay tuned.

San Francisco Ethics Commission Director John St. Croix told the Guardian that the group should be registered if it has raised more than $1,000 or if it is lobbying at City Hall — indeed, the group has boasted on its website of efforts to influence Campos and other city officials to increase police patrols and cleansing of the plaza — particularly if it is being paid by a third party to do so.

“If they’re lobbying, obviously we want to know,” St. Croix told us, saying that he planned to personally follow-up with the group on its activities.

Davis denies that the group is in violation of any disclosure laws, claiming it is simply a small neighborhood group, and he referred our inquiries to the group’s attorney, James Perrinello, a partner at the high-powered and politically connected law firm of Nielson Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leoni, who hasn’t yet returned our calls.

For more on Clean Up The Plaza and other campaigns to “clean up” poor neighborhoods as a precursor to gentrification and market rate housing development — including the ongoing efforts to do so in the Tenderloin and Mid-Market areas — read next week’s Bay Guardian. 

[UPDATE 3/18: Former Guardian Editor/Publisher Tim Redmond’s 48 Hills site just posted a long report by reporter Julia Carrie Wong that includes an admission by Davis that he is indeed a paid consultant for Maximus, as well as interesting conflicting statements from Maximus and Chavez about a meeting they held. Check it out.] 

A personal goodbye to Bush Man 2, RIP

7

San Francisco has lost one of its own. Gregory Jacobs, KTVU confirmed today, passed away of heart failure last Sunday. 

He’s less known by his full name, but better known by his moniker, “The Bush Man.”

No, he’s not the original Bush Man. That would be David Johnson, who’d been there for 36 years, compared to Jacobs’ 30. 

Little matter. Jacobs was a San Franciscan through and through. Like many San Franciscans, he came here from somewhere else, in his case the “somewhere else” was Arkansas. But Jacobs was known and loved here in The City. 

The man was dedicated to his work: sitting along Jefferson street and spooking tourists by shouting “boo!” from behind two large and bushy tree branches. 

From the KTVU story:

Jacobs’ cousin says he was a father and brother and a man who always wanted to be in that spot down on the Wharf. And even in his final days he took every opportunity he could to come back.

“Yeah every time he got out of the hospital he would come straight out and sit down (at the Wharf) with his hospital ban (still on his wrist),” Jacob’s cousin Chris Tolbert told KTVU. “He got in his spot as if nothing was wrong with him.”

His family says they just hope people remember him and that what he loved to do was to make people laugh.

Many will share their favorite “I got spooked so bad!” memory, but I want to share a more personal story about Gregory Jacobs from my time working on the streets of the wharf. 

At age 17, I was living with a friend after irreconcilable differences with my mother led to too many shouting matches. The day I turned 18 I tried to go back home, but my father’s death years ago put too many strains on my relationship with my mother. At the time, we couldn’t coexist.

So I set out to live with my friend Morgan, who stayed in an in-law apartment in her family’s home in the Marina. Three kids, two parents, a grandmother living upstairs and a golden retriever named Indy welcomed me with open arms (and paws). The house was in the family for generations but the Blackburns were not Marina wealthy, and this wasn’t charity. I needed to pay rent, and I needed to do it fast. 

I went to the Wharf. 

Where better to earn rent money in a hurry, in summertime? On my own and a little confused about what life beyond high school should be about, I found the Wharf a somewhat daunting place. Beneath the facade of smiling tourists and the scent of tasty clam chowder lies a cutthroat network of businessmen, fleecers and street traders — all looking to make a buck. 

Bush Man was there of course, but also many more: Kenny the Clown, a mute magician with “mystery” rings, the Latino graffiti artists, caricature painters, a homeless man begging from inside a trash can (ala Oscar the Grouch), Mary the juggler, and even a fire-eating local comedian who walked barefoot on glass. They, the weird, the bastard stepchildren of Emperor Norton. 

Desperate for money, I joined their noble ranks. 

A friend set me up selling tickets for the nearby Blue and Gold fleet. Wear some slacks, he said. Clean yourself up, he said. I did both, and with a Gavin Newsom style hair slick and ferry tickets in my back pocket I stood on the sidewalk across Ripley’s Believe it or Not to ply my trade.

I couldn’t have screwed up more. There are rules to the sidewalks, invisible rules you learn only by pissing off the wrong people. I was a newbie, a fresh fish with no claims. 

The Wharf buskers let me know that right away. 

A jazz musician with an electric keyboard tore me a new one. “This is my spot, damnit!” is the effect of what he said over the course of five minutes, through the haze of a decade-ago memory. It was akin to a dressing down from Kenny G, and just as surreal. I moved 20 feet East to the front of Boudin’s, only to be slapped back by a homeless man in a cowboy hat named William. “Get your own damn spot!” he said. The look on his face went from genial-change-collector to “I’ll kick your ass, kid” in under a second, his fists cocked for a brawl. 

This, if you haven’t guessed, is where Jacobs the Bush Man comes in. Intimidated and confused, I wandered to his spot near the Anchorage Mall. He sat perched on a crate, jumping up and shaking his branches like a madman to scare the folks walking by. 

I always preferred his style of showmanship to the “original” Bush Man’s — Jacobs had attitude.

“Bet YOU never made her scream like that sir!” he’d say to the husband of a shrieking blonde. “Welcome to America!” he’d say to an Asian family he made jump (who could easily have been from Arkansas themselves). “If you’re havin’ fun, put a tip in the can!” he’d say to the crowd nearby, who applauded approvingly of his spook and scare routine.  

And his laugh, god his laugh. You could hear his cackle halfway down the block, and you knew his salt and pepper eyebrows were arched up as he laughed it up at his own jokes. 

Gregory Jacobs asked people to call him “G,” at least when I knew him. G showed me the ropes, told me when I could occupy certain spots, and how to get on the other buskers’ good sides. I even took cues from his showy style. 

“YOU sir, you look like you could use a bay cruise,” I’d say to a passing tourist with inflections reminiscent of my favorite Bush Man, and at a vocal volume that was similar too. “Don’t you think you ought to take your gorgeous girlfriend on a cruise around the bay?” 

Bush Man’s sales tips helped. I was rakin’ in the cash, at least, for an 18 year old. G made much more, pulling in hundreds of dollars a day during peak time in the summer. 

G wasn’t a saint for sure. More than once I saw him fist fight with the “original” Bush Man, David Johnson, who told me once that he taught Jacobs everything he knew. They used to split the proceeds, only Johnson claimed he was double crossed later on when Jacobs went off on his own as “Bush 2.” 

I don’t know much about all that. All I know is, G was kind, and I liked him. 

The Wharf liked him too (for the most part), and he was considered a local luminary. A year after I was selling cruise tickets, I started selling video games at a shop right by the In and Out Burger. One day walking out of my store I was startled, but not surprised, to see G judging a wet T-shirt contest starring the nearby Hooter’s girls.

He paced up and down, taking a good gander, pondering like a man with grave concerns on his mind. He took his job very, very seriously. Everyone watching smiled wide. 

Yeah he was ornery, cranky, and loud. But Jacobs had heart, and he looked out for his fellow Wharf folk. G once protected me from the wackier buskers out there on the sidewalk. 

One day as I strode down Jefferson street, Kenny the Clown (who ran for mayor at least once, and somehow obtained Steve Jobs’ stolen iPad) decided he thought I needed a hug (and more). If clowns aren’t frightening enough, Kenny is at least 6’5” — he’s a large man. Maybe he was harmless, but I didn’t want to find out. 

As Kenny chased me down the street, G took me by the shoulders and said “Run! I got this, I got this!” Swirling around on one foot he raised his palms up to Kenny’s sky high shoulders. “Kenny Kenny Kenny Kenny,” he said, “slow down man! Let’s talk.”

Sometime shortly after that, I sleepily walked to work to inventory the stock of Nintendo games. The sun was still rising. Keys in hand, my mind drifted to the stillness of the street, how early morning Fisherman’s Wharf belongs to the buskers, fishermen and shop owners getting ready for the day. Most of all, I loved how the scent of sea air is easier to detect when you’re not distracted by hundreds of loud tourists. 

I breathed in the air absentmindedly, enjoyably, as I reached out with my keys to unlock the gate to the store. 

“BOO!” shouted G from just behind my ear, and I jumped halfway off of my skeleton. 

“Holy crap G what’d you do that for?! I work here man, I’ve lived here my whole life, I thought you only did that shit to tourists,” I said, a little startled. 

I still remember what he said. “Hey man, everyone’s got their time.”

That they do G. I will miss you, and so will San Francisco.  

Is Newsom on the wrong side of high-speed rail history?

38

As California struggles to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and meet the long-term transportation needs of a growing population, officials from Gov. Jerry Brown to Mayor Ed Lee have steadfastly supported the embattled California High-Speed Rail Project, which Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently withdrew his support from. California now has until July 1 to find funds to match the federal grants.

It’s not exactly surprised that this calculating and politically ambitious centrist would cave in to conservatives like this, particularly as Newsom tries to set himself up to succeed Brown in four years. But it’s a sharp contrast to more principled politicians like Brown, and to those trying to create the transportation system future generations will need, as President Barack Obama took a step toward doing today by announcing new federal transportation funding.

US Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox is also taking part in the three-day High Speed Rail Summit, sponsored by the United State High-Speed Rail Association, that began yesterday in Washington DC. Its theme is Full Speed Ahead.

“Secretary Foxx’s experience at the local level as mayor of Charlotte is extremely valuable for shaping national transportation policy. We look forward to working with the Secretary to advance high speed rail in America across party lines,” USHSRA President and CEO Andy Kunz said in a press release. 

While Newsom’s new tact may play well with myopic, penny-pinching, car-dependent moderate and conservative voters, many of his allies and constituents were furious with his about-face on a project that promises to get riders from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles in less than three hours. 

Among those unhappy is San Francisco resident Peter Nasatir, who forwarded the Guardian a well-written letter that he has sent to Newsom’s office:

Dear Lt. Gov. Newsom,

I am a long time San Francisco resident, and although I have criticized many of your policies, I’ve always respected your commitment to be at the forefront of controversial issues.  Even if the issue could have wrecked your political career, you still had the guts to take the lumps for a righteous cause.

That is why I’m so shocked you would publically decry the High-Speed Rail project.  Yes there are cost overruns.  Yes the public is sour to it today, but what would you propose as an alternative:  more freeways, more runways?  Every expert in the field has already signed off that runways and freeways have expanded as far as they can.  Are you not a leading voice in demanding technical innovation in all levels of government? 

In your book, Citizenville, did you not put forth the clarion call for citizens to embrace technological change?  Did you not say that San Francisco was behind the likes of Estonia and South Korea in terms of digital governance?  Is it not fair to say that California is behind Europe and Asia when it comes to high speed rail?

Could you have said something along the lines that the trajectory the project is going is troubling, but Californians for generations to come will benefit from it.  This project must be saved, because to do otherwise will send California back 60 years.

You are a political maverick who had put his career on the line many times with such controversial positions as same-sex marriage, and walking the picket line with hotel workers on Union Square.  High-speed rail is coming.  The economy demands it, the environment demands it, and Central Valley population growth demands it.  You may get some votes from moderates in the short run, but in the long run, you have positioned yourself as the most prominent person in the state to be on the wrong side of history.

 

Peter Nasatir

 

 

 

The price of growth

20

joe@sfbg.com

San Francisco is booming, but will its infrastructure be able to keep up with its population growth?

The problem is acutely illustrated in the southeast part of San Francisco, where long-stalled development plans were finally greenlit by the adoption of the Eastern Neighborhoods Community Plan a few years ago.

The Mission, Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, and Mission Bay districts have attracted more attention from developers than any other sector of San Francisco, according to the Planning Department. Bayview and Hunters Point are also now attracting lots of investment and building by developers.

But when development projects don’t pay the full cost of the infrastructure needed to serve those new residents — which is often the case in San Francisco and throughout California, with its Prop. 13 cap on property tax increases — then that burden gets passed on the rest of us.

Mayor Ed Lee’s recent call to build 30,000 new housing units by 2020 and the dollar sign lures of waterfront development have pressed the gas pedal on construction, while giving short shrift to corresponding questions about how the serve that growth.

growthimage

Infrastructure needs — such as roads, public transit, parks, and the water and sewer systems — aren’t as sexy as other issues. But infrastructure is vital to creating a functional city.

That kind of planning (or lack thereof) impacts traffic congestion, public safety, and the overall livability of the city. And right now, the eastern neighborhoods alone face a funding gap as high as $274 million, according to city estimates highlighted by area Sup. Malia Cohen.

That’s why Cohen went looking for help, though that’s not exactly what she found.

 

MEETING DEMAND

Cohen has asked Mayor Lee about the lack of adequate investment in critical infrastructure again and again. She asked his staffers, she asked his aides. At the Feb. 11 Board of Supervisors meeting, during the mayor’s question time, she was determined to ask one more time.

Cohen asked the mayor about how to fund infrastructure needs in the eastern neighborhoods and whether the city should use a new, rarely used fundraising option called an Infrastructure Financing District, or IFD.

“When the city adopted the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, we were aware of a significant funding gap that existed for infrastructure improvement,” she said to the mayor. She asked if he would slow down development while the city caught up with infrastructure improvements, or commit more funding.

Cohen asked pointedly, “Would you support an IFD for the eastern neighborhoods?”

The mayor’s answer was in the foreign language known as bureaucratese, offering a firm “only if we have to.”

“Strategically planning for growth means making long-term investments in infrastructure,” he said. “And the most important thing that we can do right now is to work together to place and pass two new revenue generating bonds measures on the November 2014 ballot.”

But his proposed $500 million general obligation bond and $1 billion local vehicle license fee increase would just go to citywide transportation projects, where the city faces $6 billion in capital needs over the next 15 years, according to a task force formed by the mayor.

That’s small comfort for the people of the eastern neighborhoods, who are already ill-served by Muni and will have other needs as well. It’s a situation likely to get worse as the population there increases, unless the city finds a way to make serious new investments.

 

CITY VS. NEIGHBORHOOD

Development impact fees go to the city’s General Fund, paying for the planning work, building inspections, and a share of citywide infrastructure improvements. The problem with that strategy, opponents say, is that there are then no promises that the money will make its way back to the neighborhood that generated the funding in the first place.

Neighborhood advocates see a need to address the problems created by new development by capturing fees before they get to the General Fund. IFDs do just that. Though the nuts and bolts of how an IFD works are complex, the gist is this: Once implemented, an IFD sets up a special area in a neighborhood where a portion of developer impact fees are captured to exclusively fund infrastructure where the development is.

“So the idea that growth should pay for growth was the notion,” Tom Radulovich, executive director of the nonprofit group Livable City, told us. But with money flowing into the General Fund rather than being earmarked for specific neighborhoods, Radulovich said,the infrastructure is going to come much later than the development. (The city) delivers projects slowly, if at all.”

IFDs are largely untested in California, and have only one recent use in San Francisco, on Rincon Hill, where a deal with developers cut by then-Sup. Chris Daly has morphed into an IFD created by his successor, Sup. Jane Kim. The neighborhood will now see new funding, and a new park, as a result of development there.

“This is a HUGE step towards getting the public infrastructure improvements needed to correct livability deficiencies in Rincon Hill,” read a newsletter from the Rincon Hill Neighborhood Association in 2011. “What does this mean for those of us living (here)? It means the Caltrans property at 333 Harrison Street has a short future as a commuter parking lot, because the front portion will become our first neighborhood park.”

The benefits are tangible, but putting an IFD into action is onerous. California Senate documents describe the hurdles involved: The county (or city) needs an infrastructure plan, it must hold public hearings, every local agency that will contribute property tax revenue must approve the plan, and the IFD needs to go to ballot and obtain two-thirds voter approval, a high mountain to climb.

Gov. Jerry Brown has called for lowering the voter threshold for IFDs to 55 percent in his newest budget. The mayor used the governor’s rationale as reason to avoid an IFD for the eastern neighborhoods when speaking on the topic last week. But that may not be his only reason.

“Even if we get the changes that we seek, it’s important to point out that IFDs don’t create more money for our city, they fund specific capital improvements by earmarking money in the General Fund for a particular purpose,” Lee said.

In other words, IFDs take money from a city that is already wrestling with underfunded citywide infrastructure needs. “Earmarking general funds isn’t something that we do lightly,” Lee told Cohen.

But Peter Cohen, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, put it this way to us: “Should the eastern neighborhoods be the cash cow for the General Fund?”

 

BOOMTOWN

With more than 10,000 housing entitlements, the eastern neighborhoods are where San Francisco will experience its biggest growing pangs.

“The eastern neighborhoods are ground zero for development in San Francisco,” Keith Goldstein, a long time member of the Eastern Neighborhoods Citizens Advisory Committee, told a Nov. 14 Board of Supervisors Government Oversight Committee hearing on the issue.

Sups. Cohen and David Campos spent the majority of the meeting trying to find solutions, but none were forthcoming. Instead they were met with presentations on the neighborhood’s myriad needs, but few on how they would be funded.

Muni is also starved for resources in the area, where the T-line is notorious for its “switchbacks” that leave riders stranded before completing its run.

“This is a topic I’ve advocated a lot,” Sup. Scott Wiener told us. “When you have a growing population, these folks absolutely have to have service.”

At the meeting, Planning Director John Rahaim put the problem simply: “There’s a lack of development fee funding.” The officials that day from the SFMTA, Planning Department, and the Department of Public Works presented plans that relied heavily on state and federal funding to meet the new construction and infrastructure needs, a funding gap of $274 million.

“We’re really struggling to maintain the infrastructure the city has,” Brian Strong, director of capital planning, said at the meeting. “For the General Fund itself, we’re deferring $3.9 billion in capital projects the city deemed high priority. We just don’t have the funds.”

The Mayor’s Office didn’t respond to our questions about how to solve the problem, but Sup. Cohen said she’s hopeful he’ll support an IFD in her district.

“When we introduced the plan five years ago, we knew there was a gap in terms of what we expected to collect. In terms of development impact fees, we’re still in that place,” she told us. “I just want to get shit done.”

One report seems to agree with Cohen on the importance of IFDs. In 2009, a major report on development in the eastern neighborhoods was filed to then-Mayor Gavin Newsom. It recommended the city “commission a consultant study to inform the formation of an IFD,” saying it was the best tool available to fund infrastructure in the eastern districts.

The top signature on the report belonged to then-City Administrator Ed Lee. Now that he’s mayor, a mayor calling for rapid growth, can he find a way to pay for the infrastructure to serve those new residents?