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

Brown, meanwhile, tends to spark a "bi-polar approach," says Tabb. "People either think of him as a savior or a sleaze. But his overall image is one that attracts people looking for a leader," Tabb says.

A reason the leadership longing is so sharp, adds political veteran Hadley Roff, currently director of special programs at the San Francisco State University Urban Institute, is that the city faces such perilous budget cuts at the hands of Washington Republicans. "With the profound federal cuts that are coming in welfare and health care, the city is going to have to undergo tremendous self-examination in order to sustain even the most rudimentary of public services."

Another hunger factor: "The incumbent has very little leadership flair," says longtime gay political strategist Dick Pabich, now retired. "And he has let everything slide for almost four years.

"People are looking for someone who can stop the city from falling apart in everything it does, and that, to me, is not a function of having a brain" -- the Achtenberg image -- "but of having an incredible leadership style," Pabich says. "And Willie Brown certainly has a leg up on everybody in that respect. Nobody doubts that he can do the job. They may have other doubts about him, but people know he can take the reins."

Achtenberg's strategy to win recognition and a competitive edge has been to issue position papers and stress her commitment to reform (the word appears eight times in her campaign door-hangers). At public forums she reminds people of her successes at HUD: of streamlining government, "tackling a hidebound bureaucracy," making work more efficient by updating technology, and empowering workers.

She stresses her work to eradicate housing discrimination: She tells how she helped integrate an all-white housing project in Vidor, Texas, in defiance of the Ku Klux Klan; and how she developed fair lending agreements with banks that have routinely redlined in poor communities. ("She hired extremely competent people, she revamped and centralized the HUD fair housing enforcement centers -- she was definitely a quick study," confirms Shanna Smith, executive director of the National Fair Housing Alliance.)

In the four position papers that Achtenberg has released to date (16 more have been promised but haven't yet appeared), she's proposed creation of an "Office of Environmental Management" to keep the city environmentally friendly; she's vowed to create and publish "standards of service" for everyone in her administration; she's called for a "Mayor's Council of Neighborhoods" so that hand-picked neighborhood "ambassadors" can consult with her monthly. Most controversially, she's vowed to revamp the city's financial system -- particularly in light of recent revelations that $30 million in uncollected taxes is being lost each year. She wants to update computer technology (already in the works), and eliminate the treasurer and assessor's offices, combining their duties with those of the tax collector and auditor. The office would be streamlined (read: old bosses would get booted and fewer new bosses would get brought in). And a professional chief financial officer would be hired to run things (if, of course, voters approved a charter amendment allowing it).

Political observers say they find the ideas interesting, but don't know that they've exactly captured the public imagination.

"It may be futile to do this in bits and pieces that dribble out in a campaign," says Professor Rich DeLeon, chair of the San Francisco State political science department. The papers should have a clear sequence and fit together so they have a cumulative impact. "If they're just cranked out like so many links in a sausage, then I don't know how much that helps."

Pabich puts it this way: "What you really have to demonstrate in this race is the ability to move mountains. And that is certainly not a function of position papers."

Lurking in the backdrop, meanwhile, are the twin monsters, racism and homophobia.

How much will they affect the November outcome?
Putting statistics to prejudice is enormously difficult, since very few people, aside from right-wing Republicans, will volunteer their bigotry publicly. But according to a national pollster -- who asked that his name not be used, honoring a private client -- 800 San Franciscans in a random survey last year were read a list of names from various "power" groups -- business people, the media, the neighborhoods, African-Americans, whites, gays, Asians, Latinos, and so on.

"Which of these groups has too much power?" respondents were asked. The results: About 30 percent of those polled -- the highest percentage of any of the groups -- said gays had too much power. No other group won more than single-digit percentages. "It was startling," the pollster said.

An oft-used San Francisco pollster, David Binder, however, says he believes that "only a small number of people here will immediately dismiss a candidate for being a lesbian -- there are other things that they weigh," he says.

"It is still possible for Roberta Achtenberg to win the mayor's race," Binder predicts. "People are saying that Frank Jordan hasn't done anything, and that Willie Brown is a sleaze, and that Roberta Achtenberg is at least making an effort and it sounds like she has good ideas."

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