Stick around local politics long enough and you'll learn to recognize it. I call it the test-pattern speech. A candidate's mouth opens. Lots of words come out. But nothing is actually said.
The nearest metaphor to this type of speech is the test-pattern noise you hear from your TV when you wake up with the lights on at 4 a.m. after dozing off to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. The political parallel happens something like this: You stare at the candidate. You squint and listen closely, searching with muscular effort to find an idea, or a shard of one at least. As you do so, a few slogans and phrases break through the background noise, just enough idea fragments -- uncomplicated by personality or passion -- to prevent dogs from circling around, heads cocked to one side and ears pricked in canine wonder:
Beeeeeeeeeeeeeconomicdevelopmenteeeeeeeeeeeediversityeeeeeeeeeeeethe poorest among useeeeeeeeeeeeincrease the tax baseeeeeeeeeeeeeconsensuseeeeeeeeeeeep!
The test-pattern speech is, I am sorry to report, Supervisor Mabel Teng's preferred form of public communication. And I have to admit that while I listened intently to the Teng-pattern last week, I quickly ceased any note-taking. I am sure her campaign manager will take issue with this failure in reportorial technique. But I take issue with the fact that Supervisor Teng had nothing to say. Not a single interesting, novel, heartfelt thing.
Really, I was amazed. Usually, even the most prepackaged and insincere candidate will drop his or her guard and say something slightly new every once in a while. Not Mabel. Much of the time, she read from a prepared script. Much of the time, she repeated nostrums and quotes she'd served up to the press months ago. They weren't interesting then, either.
"We gave Muni a no-excuses budget. ... We need child care to move people from welfare to work. ... We passed a compassionate budget."
What a tremendous bore.
As a proximate consequence of her blandness, Teng is expected to be among the top vote-getters in the November Board of Supervisors race and, therefore, could end up as president of the board. If that happens, she will control who is assigned to what committee and when and where legislation is heard (or killed).
Polls show she has one main challenger for the honor of controlling the fate and flow of local law: Supervisor Tom Ammiano.
Tom spoke at the same event Mabel used to assault my senses. But he didn't go beep.
Ammiano was all heart and, to risk offending the sensitive children of San Francisco, balls. Watching Ammiano was both exhilarating and refreshing. (And I don't even agree with his policies half the time.)
Unlike other candidates at this Chamber of Commerce forum -- Teng, Mark Leno, and Victor Marquez -- Ammiano did not use notes. His answers and ideas seemed to come from a coherent reservoir of belief he didn't need to be reminded of. (Teng read her three-minute opening presentation off a notebook.)
Ammiano's presentation was more remarkable because he was playing Daniel in the lion's den to Teng's homecoming queen. Teng has already received tens of thousands of dollars from business and is clearly corporate San Francisco's chosen candidate for board president.
The business community sees Ammiano as a Bolshevik. He has attacked bank double-dipping on ATM fees. He has tried to tax every paper clip business uses. He has harassed business lobbyists with regulatory measures. At the chamber forum, Ammiano was facing a group of people whose only decision vis-a-vis his candidacy is how hard to try to unseat him.
In this posture, Ammiano could have been forgiven for a little waffling.
Instead, he introduced himself with a threat. It was a nice, polite, oblique threat. It followed all the rules of protocol that are in force when you're sitting at the head of a fine wood table in a fine wood-paneled room on the ninth floor of a downtown office building that is filled with folks who would throw you out the window, and take bets on which car you might hit, if they could get away with it.
But it was a threat all the same. And he just didn't make it once. He said it two, three, five or more times.
"We are beginning the transition to district elections, which will change how we deliver goods and services."
Seems a bland reminder of the obvious doesn't it?
It wasn't. What Ammiano was saying, and what I am sure the suits gathered around the boardroom heard, was this: Hey, you corporate clowns, all that money you pour into campaigns that buy you supervisors and allow you to control the debate over fiscal policy isn't going to matter nearly as much after we switch to district elections, where retail politics will trump big money.
At every turn, Ammiano looked his enemies in the eye and told them exactly what they didn't want to hear.
Asked about Muni, he said the system needed a reliable source of revenue to keep the trains running on time. He said this dedicated source of money might be raised by taxing downtown property owners for the disproportionate amount of Muni service they utilize.