Achtenberg's Third Act

Roberta Achtenberg bristles when anyone dares say that Williw Brown is the one who gets things done. "I have gotten things done my entire life, right?" she says, citing when her accomplishments as a law school dean, her 800-page book on sexual orientatio

"Are you going to put out a position paper on Muni?" Saint Onge asks. "This is just ridiculous!"

Achtenberg sympathizes, telling him she will set standards for every city department, demand that people meet them, and rebuild things from top to bottom -- one of her favorite expressions, along with the words "reform," "reinvent," "responsibility," and "reorganize."

I follow Saint Onge as he trails down Market Street after shaking Achtenberg's hand. Who will he vote for?

"I'm torn between Willie and Roberta," he says. "It's hard, because Willie's been such a friend to the gay community for so many years."

Aug. 16. Under ballroom chandeliers in the ANA hotel on Third Street, Achtenberg is back onstage along with Jordan, Alioto, and, this time, businessman Ben Hom, the Republican who starts nearly every snippet this morning by declaring, "I am not a politician."

Joel Ventresca still hasn't been invited. And once again, Brown is late. He arrives with no apology and a white rose in his lapel.

The candidates are live on the Ronn Owens talk show, and Owens asks them to shorten their answers. "Snap it up," he says during a station break, before pitching a question: "Is the San Francisco Board of Supervisors way too far to the left?"

"Oh, way too left," says Hom.
"I believe," says Achtenberg, "there needs to be more constructive leadership ..."

"Are they too liberal?" Owens cuts her off.
"No," Achtenberg concedes.
Owens nods, karate chops with his hand -- commercial time. And a distinguished-looking, gray-haired woman in front of me quietly fumes.

"Why is he always late, and doing that grand entrance?" asks Elza Burton. "What -- he thinks he's the king or something?" A lot of things about Brown annoy Burton, particularly the fact that since 1980 Brown has reportedly accepted more campaign contributions from the tobacco industry -- $659,492 -- than any other U.S. lawmaker.

What's the solution? I ask.
"Roberta!" Burton says emphatically. Achtenberg always has the most sensible, detailed answers, she says. And she's really improving her speaking style, she adds.

"The first time I saw her," she says, apologetically, "I nearly fell asleep."

Aug. 15. Roberta Achtenberg sits in Peet's coffee store near her 2275 Market office, wearing pink and sipping a latte. We are finally one-on-one, which is anything but sleep-evoking. She will soon be talking about a tragedy. And I am ready to shred napkins.

After a week of watching, I'm still not even close to figuring out who Achtenberg "really is." Is she an inexperienced idealist -- a Jimmy Carter who will find it hard to cut deals and compromise? Is she someone uniquely capable of cleaning house and promoting social justice, free of the constraints of cronyism or conflicts of interest (which critics say will hobble 31-year political veteran Willie Brown)? But more troubling, how can anyone extract the snarled, rich, mysterious singularity of a human being by watching them in the spin cycle of politics: endlessly repeating the same phrases, endlessly answering the same questions; as endlessly forced to smile as Miss America contestants who smear Vaseline on their teeth to keep their lips from snagging.

I silently beg Achtenberg to relax and reveal something. She does and doesn't comply.

"I was born in Inglewood," she begins. She was the third of four children born to Russian Jewish immigrants who had completed the equivalent of eighth grade. Her parents started their own business, a corner grocery store.

They weren't political -- "Absolutely not! They were apolitical as they could be," she says -- but they were "Democrats without question," and they infused their children with concern for social justice. Life at home adhered mostly to the non-eventful -- until Achtenberg turned 14.

Her brother, a Boalt Hall Law School student, suffered a bicycle accident that impaired his mobility. "And then he had a surgery that went badly, and as a result of the surgery, he became a quadriplegic," Achtenberg says, quietly. Things would only get worse.

"After my brother became disabled, my father basically became incredibly distraught and ultimately had a stroke and became paralyzed. He lived three years in a nursing home." He died when she was 18.

"To have my brother in a rehabilitation facility and my father in a nursing home" -- Achtenberg pauses. "I mean, it was a disaster. We had a lot of trouble just taking care of the family, right? Keeping things going. My mother had a business to run by herself and my sister and I had to make sure that my brother and my father were visited every day." Back then, she explains, the way to ensure good nursing care was to let the homes know you were involved. "The family had to stick together and take care of each other."

A "dutiful daughter," a "good Jewish girl," as she has described herself, Achtenberg finished high school -- ignoring the counselor who told her she should be a teacher, "like all smart girls" -- and went to the University of California at Berkeley, planning to become a lawyer. It was the time of civil rights battles and the anti-war movement, and Achtenberg joined in. It was also the time of a burgeoning women's movement, and the nascence of gay rights. But at 21, Achtenberg married a man and went to the University of Utah law school to fulfill her dream of doing good. Four years later, her discovery arrived.

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