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A month or so ago I found myself in a North Beach eatery sharing drinks with charming and talented Chroniclefood columnist GraceAnn Walden and able and affable Supervisor Aaron Peskin when in lurched John Burton, out for dinner with daughter Kimiko.
Few people besides Burton can pull off perpetual grumpiness as a form of charm, and he was in fine form that evening, whipping toward us with a devil's glare then grunting two lines about what he believes to be the inhumane nature of mayoral candidate Gavin Newsom's homelessness crackdown. "You know those veterans who sell flowers on Market Street? Under Newsom's panhandling law, they could be arrested," Burton said, and strode off.
Burton's comment, referring to an anti-panhandling measure sponsored by Newsom, pointed up a gaping, if silent, divide in San Francisco's Burton-Brown political machine. Gavin Newsom is the machine candidate, but machine boss Burton despises him, and word on the street is that the state Senate leader is quietly lending muscle to Newsom opponent Angela Alioto. And whispers downtown say that the city's myriad private, secret polls -- conducted by the Committee on Jobs, the Chamber of Commerce, other mayoral candidates, and assorted consultants -- posit a runoff between Newsom and Alioto.
"With them," Peskin said, referring to Burton and his fellow travelers, "it's in their blood: You just don't scapegoat the poor. Newsom's crossed the line. Burton's furious about 'Care Not Cash.'"
"Care Not Cash" is the Newsom-backed ballot initiative that was approved by voters last fall, and nullified by a Superior Court judge soon after; it would have shifted the small portion of the city's social services budget from cash payments for poor people to "in kind" aid to those people, in the form of housing and other amenities. The measure did not specify how this policy change would be enacted. Critics said that as written, the measure would have cost millions of extra dollars to implement. More to the point, while Newsom continues to emphasize the measure's purported goal of combating illegal drug use, supporters tout the measure as a way to help rid the city of poor and homeless people.
I feel Burton's disgust at Newsom's anti-poor-and-homeless bandwagon. If bashing the poor for professional gain were a type of bad dining manners, I'd liken it to shitting on the table. It's as craven a route to success as exists. And the front-running candidate in the race for mayor of San Francisco reveals no shame in taking it: Newsom preceded "Care Not Cash" with an effort to punish the homeless people who push shopping carts. And he followed it with an anti-panhandling measure.
But there's an aspect to the mayor's race more depressing still: Other candidates with a whisper's chance of winning seem to be in a frenzied contest to prove themselves completely unqualified for the job.
I've devoted columns to opposing the governor's recall. But there are quiet, secret moments when I bless it, because it's allowed me to avert my glance from the disheartening spectacle that is San Francisco mayoral politics.
A few weeks after my encounter with Burton I found myself, in defiance of all desire, squeezed into a chair at the Victoria Theatre, watching a mayoral debate. I asked my companions, a political organizer and a couple of local musicians, "What's at stake here?" My question provoked blank stares until one of the musicians wisely noted, "The mayor gets to pick all the official San Francisco days: Vidal Sassoon Day, San Francisco Giants Day, Robin Williams Day."
It's actually not true that nothing's at stake in San Francisco politics, though public discussion might lead one to believe so.
When attending San Francisco political events I sometimes imagine myself at a fashionable cocktail party in Argentina, where patter turns from polo ponies to Spanish architecture without once touching on the fact the country's falling apart. San Francisco is a rich, complex city, at the heart of a region hit extremely hard by the Bush recession. We desperately need a mayor and a Board of Supervisors seriously engaged in creating jobs, mastering fiscal issues, and providing housing, transportation, and education. Instead we have a political tribe consumed with games of trivia and either ignorant of, or uninterested in, what's really happening to the city.
The dot-com crash, the post-9/11 tourism drought, and a housing shortage two decades in the making have impoverished San Franciscans to the point where only one-fifth of the population can afford a median-priced home. Officials from other U.S. cities routinely troll the Bay Area, hoping to lure companies eastward with the bait of more plentiful, and thus cheaper, worker housing. And they're succeeding. Rent for a two-bedroom apartment is still in the $2,000 range here, and house prices hover around $700,000.
Unsurprisingly, homelessness remains acute; downtown sidewalks are carpeted with sleeping bags. Our tourism and restaurant industry is limping along after having laid off thousands of workers. After a 100-year run during which city fathers have repeatedly reinvented the San Francisco economy -- shifting the business critical mass from mining to shipping to warehouse/industrial to tourism to financial services to dot-com -- it's unclear whether San Francisco will pull another economic rabbit out of the hat.