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Tail of Two Races 

Matt Gonzalez should be backed in District 5 runoff; George W. Bush should be ashamed for considering a coup

Wednesday, Dec 6 2000
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I spent an hour or so the other day over at Matt Gonzalez's campaign office just off the Panhandle, and came away with about the impression I expected. He was as charming and intelligent and low-key funny as the accounts I'd read made him out to be. When discussing his strong showing in the first round of the District 5 supervisor's race -- he finished first, handily and unexpectedly outdistancing second-place finisher Juanita Owens, a former school board member who has the backing of Mayor Brown and all the money said backing brings -- Gonzalez was appropriately self-effacing, in a third-person sort of way. He noted that the district, which includes the Haight, the Inner Sunset, and the Western Addition, is young, transient, and left-leaning. "It's less that Matt Gonzalez is some great liberal politician," he said. "He happens to fit the district."

This is not to say Gonzalez, a senior public defender, is not a good politician. Amid the grad-student clutter of his storefront headquarters, I was handled from A to Z, probed for political leanings that were quickly catered to, and generally stroked and soothed. He needn't have bothered. Matt Gonzalez could be a Charlie Manson follower, and I'd support him over Juanita Owens, who a) as a school board member, was a nauseating apologist for Billy Rojas while he damn near bankrupted the San Francisco school district, and b) as a supervisor candidate, has run one of the more misleading campaigns I've come across in 20 years in journalism. (In campaign literature, she's portrayed herself, among many silly things, as an independent who would fight City Hall corruption, when she is actually a Willie Brown marionette showered with campaign money generated by those desperate to keep Brown in control of the Board of Supervisors. Also, Owens has tried to make a big deal out of Gonzalez's recent decision to become a member of the Green Party, a change of allegiances that is both understandable, given the powermongering, Godfather-esque nature of our local Democratic leadership, and utterly irrelevant to the upcoming supervisorial runoff election, which is, as a matter of fact and law, nonpartisan. And oh, here's a question for the fools on the county's Democratic Central Committee who withdrew their endorsements of Gonzalez because he went Green: Do you really want to advertise the notion that the local Democratic Party is backing a hack like Owens against a rising star of Gonzalez's magnitude?)

Although someone not named Owens was going to get my nod in the District 5 race, it still felt good to learn, firsthand, that Gonzalez has a live brain to go with his distinguished educational background (J.D., Stanford law; B.A., Columbia University), and that he can intelligently discuss (if not, to my mind, successfully defend) some of the less earthbound, Bay Guardian-esque positions he has taken during the campaign. Yes, Matt Gonzalez is so far left the words "public power" trip off his tongue as if a personal mantra. He's also courageous (as proven by his decision to take on incompetent liberal favorite Terry Hallinan in the last district attorney's race), stoically independent, and, consequently, the only choice next Tuesday for people in District 5 who want a Board of Supervisors not entirely peopled with hey-boys (of both sexes) for Willie Brown and his paymasters.


I do not usually opine in these pages on national matters, and I am acutely aware that by writing on the swiftly moving target of our unresolved presidential election, I could be creating prose that is outdated milliseconds after SF Weekly's press deadline. Even so, because I was a reporter in Houston for seven years, and have Texas friends and relatives who report goings-on there to me, I feel a special appreciation for George W. Bush and the people around him, and, therefore, a special duty to explain the sources of my esteem. It is this simple: I just cannot overstate the admiration I have for the fineness to which Bush and his associates have honed the art of the wide-eyed, injured, disingenuous denial.

In 1990, when I was still in Houston, I watched Harken Energy, a tiny, not particularly successful firm of which Bush was a director and substantial stockholder, flick aside industry giant Amoco to win an exclusive, 35-year contract to explore for oil off the Middle Eastern island nation of Bahrain. "It was a surprise," one analyst said in titanic understatement. "Harken is not traditionally a company that explores internationally." Roughly five months later, on the eve of the Persian Gulf War, Bush sold two-thirds of his Harken holdings for, according to Time magazine, a 200 percent profit, pulling in some $850,000 and raising questions about whether Securities and Exchange Commission reporting requirements had been violated.

About a month thereafter, Iraqi tanks cruised into Kuwait City, and Bush's father ordered some 500,000 U.S. troops into the desert. Several months after that, I had to absolutely marvel when Bush fils was quoted as saying, "No, I don't feel American troops in Saudi Arabia are preserving George Jr.'s drilling prospects. I think that's a little far-fetched."

More recently, my admiration of W. soared to new heights, after friends (and subsequently a masterful article in Harper's magazine) explained to me how Bush assisted, and was assisted by, a fundamental change in the way the University of Texas system handled billions of dollars of investments.

To realize how major the change was, you have to understand something about the Permanent University Fund, an entity that holds millions of acres of West Texas land in trust for the UT system. The income from oil leases on that land must be invested in securities; only the income from those securities can be spent, and it can be spent only on university system construction. The Permanent University Fund had been the lockbox of all lockboxes, the bunker where the financial future of the University of Texas was secured. If there was anything sacred, inviolable, and transparent in Texas government finance, it was the Permanent University Fund.

Until, that is, George W. Bush became governor. One of the first things he did upon taking office was to support and later sign legislation that "privatized" the Permanent University Fund, allowing billions of dollars of university assets to be transferred to a secretive nonprofit corporation created by UT regents, who then placed large sums of university money in private investments, as opposed to the public stocks, bonds, and other instruments that had been the university's standard investment vehicles. As it happened, these private investments did nothing particularly advantageous for the University of Texas, but they did benefit a university regent and other Bush associates, many of whom were -- surprise, surprise -- large campaign contributors to the governor.

In 1998, after Bush had been in office for four years, and after his circle had been able to reap years of benefits from the UT privatization, Tom Hicks, one of the wealthiest men in Texas and the university regent who had been a prime mover in the UT privatization plan, decided to buy the Texas Rangers, a professional baseball franchise in which Bush held a minority interest. The $250 million sale gave Bush a $15 million profit (on an original investment of about $600,000).

Two months after the sale, Bush told the Houston Chronicle, "I swear I didn't get into politics to feather my nest or feather my friends' nest. Any insinuation that I have used my office to help my friends is simply not true."

Again, I swooned at Bush's ability to project, even in print, such wounded pride, such utter dismay that anyone -- anyone -- could come to such an untoward and obviously justified conclusion.

And for the last week or so, I have been in complete, gaping awe, watching while Bush, his family, his friends, and his supporters stand in front of microphones, bemoaning the outrages they have suffered from Al Gore's contest of Florida election results -- as they engage in planning for a dark power grab that probably qualifies as the greatest domestic threat to the idea of America since the Nixon administration. With all the wide-eyed innocence they can muster, these ruthless graspers have carefully planned to have the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature snatch the state's electoral votes, and give them and the presidency to George W. Bush, regardless of the outcome of legal contests of the Florida popular vote.

This legislative move, based on legal reasoning from centuries past -- when women, blacks, and even non-property-owning white men did not have the right to vote, and legislatures were viewed as august deliberative bodies, rather than the political brothels they often are today -- might or might not stand up to present-day constitutional review. Regardless of whether it is lawful in the hypertechnical sense, such a legislative putsch would be an undisguised assault on the American precepts that public officials serve the citizenry (and not the other way around), and that legal disputes are resolved in courts of law.

Because Gore lost a couple of key legal battles on Monday (and because polling shows Americans don't much like Brownshirt behavior), at deadline Republican leaders of the Florida Legislature were backing an inch or so away from calling a special session to allocate the state's electors to Bush. The candidate, meanwhile, continued to pretend he had nothing -- nuuuu-think! -- to do with the plans of those leaders (even though his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has openly supported the call for a special session).

Although I believe George W. Bush's bluff bonhomie provides only the thinnest of coverings for a Nixonian interior, I understand why many Americans prefer him to Al Gore of the migrating belief systems. Still, Republicans and Democrats really ought not differ much on the question of whether a group of ruthless power-seekers should be allowed to illegitimately seize the presidency, simply because they can step up to microphones and give professional imitations of injured probity. Partisanship really ought to stop at the usurpation's edge.

Al Gore's legal position seemed dire early this week; if the Florida Supreme Court rules against his requests for recounts, the presidency will belong to Bush, and the Legislature will have no reason to act. But should the Florida court buck expectations and allow a recount, there seems to be nothing aside from the power of public opinion -- the power to shame -- that can stop the Florida Legislature from taking action that would be closer to a coup than anything in recent U.S. history.

San Franciscans are extremely good at making a public racket. Right now, noise -- creative noise, noise in multiple media, noise that can be heard from here to Tallahassee -- seems in order, as a reminder to Florida Republicans (and a potential denier in chief) that wide-eyed disingenuousness can mask many things, but genuinely un-American activity is not one of them.

About The Author

John Mecklin

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