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

Given all those problems, I want to ask, isn't it even more important to be a good cheerleader: to throw such sparks and work so hard it makes people want to stand up and do the wave? In a previous interview, I'd left out the sparks part and asked instead about the work.

"Why do you think people are saying, 'It's Willie who gets things done?' " I'd asked.

"My question is, 'What exactly has he gotten done?' " she'd bristled with anger. "I have gotten things done my entire life, right? I was the youngest law school dean in America and I got my institution accredited by the state bar of California and that school has educated thousands of public interest lawyers. And if that's not getting things done, I don't know what is. I wrote a book, an 800-page book," she said. "That was getting things done." She ticked off her legal advocacy and director's jobs, her celebrated victory in a landmark court battle in which a gay man dying of AIDS won custody of the 9-year-old son who wanted to be with him.

"How is that not getting things done?" she demanded. "Who is saying that Willie gets things done?"

"People on the street," I said. "Some of them are probably echoing soundbites from the Brown campaign," I offered.

"Well, let's not contribute to some soundbite perception," she said. "Because my entire history is hard work in the public interest realm. I would ask those people on the street, 'What in his life has Willie Brown done?' And I bet they don't know. People who want an effective, principled progressive to run this city -- that's me. I'm the candidate who comes from the neighborhoods, who works with the grass roots, who comes from the public interest."

"Do you enjoy fighting?" I'd asked her shortly afterward.
"I don't like to fight. Absolutely not," she'd said. "Will I do it? Absolutely."

The fight, political analysts say, might be treacherous.
Shaking hands and ringing doorbells and courting political clubs aside, the progressives' race, as Karl Marx might put it, could hold within it the seeds of its own destruction.

"One of the tests for Roberta's campaign and Willie Brown's campaign and to a certain extent Angela Alioto's campaign," says former Mayor Art Agnos, currently a HUD housing secretary representative, "is that they not destroy each other in this primary election and allow to happen what did happen in 1991."

In that race, Agnos provides a blow-by-blow, "I got chewed up on the left by Alioto and Dick Hongisto. And then I had [Supervisor] Tom Hsieh and Frank Jordan" -- the former police chief -- "attacking from the right. And there was nothing left by the time the runoff came because I was bleeding to death."

Why did it happen? Agnos reserves his harshest words for political consultants, not naming Brown's current consultant (the ubiquitous Jack Davis, who engineered Jordan's victory), or Achtenberg's current consultant (the earnest Eric Jaye), or Jordan's current consultant (bad boy Clint Reilly, who has summed up the race by saying, "Willie's going to get the shit kicked out of him, OK?").

"Political consultants," Agnos says, "are the political equivalent of hired assassins. It's 'have gun, will travel.' So it's important that the candidates keep control of their hired guns and not allow them to destroy the overall objective, which is to elect a progressive and unseat Frank Jordan." Contenders can help each other, he adds, by agreeing not to mudsling -- "which leads the electorate to become so disillusioned, so depressed, they don't vote for the progressive candidate or they stay at home and don't vote at all, in which case the conservative wins." They can also do it by vowing to support one another in the December runoff, no matter who wins in November, he says.

But who will win in November? What does San Francisco want?
On the latter question, at least, almost all agree.
"People are starved for leadership, starved for dynamism," says a longtime lesbian activist, who jokes that the Brown vs. Achtenberg decision has been so torturous, her friends should start a support group, "Lesbians in Agony."

"There are a lot of people I've heard who have publicly supported Roberta and who in the privacy of the voting booth will really vote for Willie Brown," says the woman, who asks to remain anonymous in order to protect her job. "Personally, I love Roberta and respect Roberta, but she is not a dynamic person. You don't get the sense of passion from her that you do with Brown. People think she's very smart. They love her ideas. But I don't think people see the leadership in her, the passion that they want."

And voters tend to choose a candidate who sports the leadership style they prefer (or wish they themselves had), says San Francisco State political science professor David Tabb. The less that voters know about specific issues, Tabb adds, the more likely they are to vote on style -- media-fed, simplistic perceptions of humanity. First impressions.

Achtenberg's "cerebral style," as Agnos puts it -- he likens her to the thoughtful New Jersey Democrat Bill Bradley -- easily appeals to voters tired of flash and old-boy networks.

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