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It was a perfect roost for the ultimate grass-roots candidate for mayor: Squeezed next to the entryway in a Fort Mason pavilion, Joel Ventresca was handing out his campaign flier (a low-glitz affair photocopied on green paper) as the crowd shuffled in for the League of Conservation Voters' Aug. 24 mayoral forum on San Francisco's environment.
"Here, sir," Ventresca greeted a reporter he knew. "Take one."
"No, I'm covered," the reporter replied, flashing a double take after the shock of recognition. "Oh, Joel. Sorry, I didn't recognize you."
The reporter wasn't alone: Few that evening would have instantly identified the clean-cut, 43-year-old Ventresca as a mayoral hopeful. In this hype-heavy race, he rarely makes the daily newspapers or TV news. A July survey by pollster David Binder showed that among the mayoral candidates, the longtime community activist/city environmental commissioner had just 20 percent name recognition. By late August, a Chronicle poll reported that Ventresca could count on less than 1 percent of the vote. With a self-imposed $100 contribution limit, he has collected only $10,000 to finance his climb-every-mountain campaign; fellow candidates Willie Brown and Frank Jordan easily blow that sum in less than a week.
Ignoring the odds, Ventresca (who by day works as a budget analyst for San Francisco International Airport) forges on, basing his campaign on the nitty-gritty of tightening zoning controls in neighborhoods, preserving open space, checking downtown real-estate development, and curbing City Hall's appetite for contributions from corporations and political action committees -- issues he has bird-dogged in his 25-year career as a volunteer reformer. He has slung stones at such giants as PG&E (he advocates public power); The Gap (he aims to thwart its waterfront high-rise); and the forces behind the Presidio conversion plan (he opposes any big-business involvement).
"City Hall is a captive of special interests, and campaign consultants and lobbyists are corrupting our local democracy," he declares, taking pains to emphasize that influence-peddling in high places has stalled change. "San Francisco is anxious to see reform, and reform is linked to empowerment. Individuals, groups, and neighborhoods should be empowered by the political process ... so people look forward to participating in solutions." Hearing such bromides, some call Ventresca an anomaly; others an idealist; and others still a dream-on optimist.
In fact, he's all three.
Insiders consider Ventresca an anomaly for his dogged perseverance. Neil Eisenberg, ex-president of the Board of Permit Appeals and unsuccessful candidate for city attorney in 1993, endorsed Ventresca for mayor soon after he declared early in June. "I wanted to help promote his platform," Eisenberg says, acknowledging that Ventresca's aversion to major fund-raising puts him at a disadvantage. Though Eisenberg predicts a runoff between Jordan and Brown, he can't help rooting for the underdog: "Frankly, I think Joel would make an excellent mayor."
Veteran Teamster activist Manuel F. Neves Jr. supports Ventresca on ideological grounds. "Joel is a very honest person, to a degree that's absurd," Neves relates. Having worked for years with Ventresca on neighborhood concerns, Neves admires his appeal "to someone who's common-sensical" -- even though money and special interests will shape this race, Neves believes. "Power brokers pick the candidates. There's no way that you can win unless you can shake hands with the devil, and Joel won't do that."
David Binder, whose polls often determine the media coverage of top-ranking candidates, marvels at Ventresca's optimism: "At this point, you've got to have money, momentum, and an aggressive door-to-door operation" -- all of which Ventresca lacks. "Primarily, it's money," Binder surmises. "Sad -- but it's the case these days."
So why is Ventresca pursuing this against-all-odds goal? According to the candidate himself, the answer starts with his youth. As the middle child in a family of 11 kids, Ventresca grew up in the hard-work/can-do ethos of Evansville, Ind., where the progressive, populist politics of the late '60s made a strong impression. "I remember being inspired when Robert Kennedy campaigned in Indiana," Ventresca recalls. "He was a model progressive who believed that government could make social change, quickly and fairly."
Ventresca headed west for college (he was drawn to San Francisco, he explains, because his great-grandfather was a Gold Rush pioneer); working himself through UCSF, he earned a bachelor's degree in government, and later a master's in public administration. In the early '70s he hooked up with George McGovern's presidential campaign, then dove into local activism, first as a growth-control proponent for the Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council; then as a supporter of public power over PG&E; then, starting in 1985, as a board member of the environmental group San Francisco Tomorrow (on which he still sits, notably as a watchdog of the Port Commission and its plans for developing the city's waterfront). Since 1994, he has served as one of 15 city environmental commissioners.
When Ventresca ran unsuccessfully for supervisor in 1990, he emerged from the race with a strong antipathy for the lobbyists and campaign contributors who often determine the outcome of an election -- and demand patronage afterward. The experience, he says, proved instructive in an era when then-Mayor Art Agnos was touted as a progressive: "On issue after issue, I kept fighting special interests," he says, citing in particular the perennial push for a downtown stadium.