Rich Conspiracy

Unless there's been a Newsom/Getty/bin Laden/Bush plot of some kind, how could voters support Care Not Cash?

By his own admission, David Hagberg is an "original computer nerd" who spends much of his time at home; it was never his ambition to become a CIA mastermind who would orchestrate international intelligence operations, befriend fugitive terrorists, or predict the 9/11 attacks.

Though Hagberg asked for none of these roles, he can't seem to shake people wishing to bestow them. He's a thriller author who in August 2000 released Joshua's Hammer, in which Osama bin Laden bungles an attempt to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge. Now, Hagberg's pursued by a type of reader who believes his books are road maps to a real-life international conspiracy.

I first spoke with Hagberg about a year ago, days after the attacks of Sept. 11 had created an eerie facsimile of the plots of Joshua's Hammer and Hagberg's previous thriller, High Flight, in which terrorists simultaneously hijack airliners in different American cities, then use the planes to kill 2,600 civilians. Hagberg's following had previously consisted of a narrow group of spy-thriller fanatics. Following 9/11, Joshua's Hammer shot to No. 2 on the best-seller list. Some readers apparently thought they'd bought a postmodern version of the Pentagon Papers.

"There's one woman who claims to be a Shakespeare scholar," Hagberg says of a reader he's seen numerous times at book shows and writers' events. "She'll always ask one or two confrontational questions -- things like, 'Do you know bin Laden personally?'

"There's another named Jim, a mild-mannered guy in his early 60s. He'll be standing nearby for a long time, staring out the side of his eye. He's got this 'I know where you're coming from' look. Whatever book I come out with, he tells me that he's working on something that proves it's true."

And then there's Aptos realtor Bruce Adamson, author of 13 unpublished volumes on the JFK killing. He now has a Web page devoted to a theory about Hagberg, 9/11, Bayer AG, and Princess Di.

"Is CIA speaker & author David Hagberg The Prophet?" Adamson's Web site asks.

"I was on a Denver radio talk show," Hagberg recalls. "And after we were done, the talk show host asked me, 'Are you worried about the Arabs coming over and doing a hit on you and wiping you out?'

"What do these folks hope to gain from asking me these things? Maybe they want me to say, 'It's OK buddy; I'm working on it. Everything's going to be OK.'"

I can certainly understand what it's like to be pursued by conspiracy theories; take, for instance, the one that's been coursing around my brain. I first began to believe something suspicious -- nefariously, ominously, globally suspicious -- was going on in San Francisco politics when I started learning of voter support for Supervisor Gavin Newsom's proposal to slash welfare checks for street-dwellers.

Newsom has spent the past year or so positioning himself as the "homelessness" candidate in advance of next year's mayoral elections. He's showered the government with homelessness-oriented measures, most prominently his "Care Not Cash" ballot initiative that reduces welfare checks while offering vague language about replacing that aid with social services such as housing.

None of this is unusual. San Francisco mayors traditionally position themselves as homelessness candidates sooner or later, before easing away from the issue as their administrations wear on. Despite the touchy-feely rhetoric that generally accompanies the h-word, the rich loathe beggars the world over, whether in Calcutta, Mexico City, or San Francisco. So a ballot initiative claiming to solve homelessness by taking money from the poor would seem a natural, coming from someone like Newsom, who represents the city's wealthy northwestern section and owes much of his stature in life to the Getty oil fortune.

But the part of the Care Not Cash campaign that perplexes me -- the part that positively smacks of global conspiracy -- is the apparent popularity of Newsom's proposal. Polls say it's favored overwhelmingly, even though it's based on speciousness, demagoguery, and political ambition both facile and bold. In a city such as ours, which has been fighting-proud of its concern for the poor, support for something this mean couldn't possibly be organic to San Francisco. It can only be the work of darker forces.

I first suspected an international conspiracy might be afoot when I began noticing an odd shiftiness among Newsom's Marina District Care Not Cash supporters.

Proposition N will replace most of the monthly welfare check paid to homeless people with "guaranteed services," such as housing. Prop. N on the Nov. 5 ballot would cut the $320-395 monthly check given to 2,895 homeless people to $59.

Though the sloganeering accompanying Newsom's measure suggests that homeless people now receiving cash payments will instead get food and shelter, the measure's odd lack of specificity on how the homeless would actually obtain those services suggests a more complicated scenario. Newsom's measure states that, instead of their current monthly cash stipends, homeless people would instead be eligible for food and housing benefits worth an equivalent amount of money. If the benefits weren't available, a homeless person could then apply for an emergency check.

It's well documented that the city doesn't have near enough housing for the 9,500 residents the San Francisco grand jury this spring said don't have permanent homes. So the Newsom measure's language seems like nonsense, unless one imagines the following gritty scenario: A broke street-dweller trudges to each of the city's crowded homeless shelters looking for a bed, to verify that services are indeed unavailable. By the time his audit is complete, city offices have closed, so our poor sod spends the night outside. The next morning he walks to a city Social Services office to request an emergency check, before heading into the streets in search once again of "evidence" of a fact already beyond doubt: The city doesn't house its poor. Current law requires city welfare applicants to apply for 20 jobs a month, so they'd presumably need to conduct their daily housing audits in their spare time. Clearly, this "Care" initiative stands to condemn San Francisco down-and-outers to a living version of hell.

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