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The Looking-Glass Campaign 

For Gavin Newsom and Matt Gonzalez, ideological labels may be misleading, or even drawkcab

Wednesday, Nov 12 2003
News reports were correct: On Nov. 4, 2003, 111 Minna was the heppest, grooviest, raddest spot this side of Amsterdam.

There were so many youngsters at Matt Gonzalez's celebration for making the mayoral runoff -- shout-chatting, smiling, and flirting inside the spacious gallery-cum-bar -- that much of the action spilled onto the street. One woman enthusiastically hugged me and exclaimed, "Congratulations," as though I'd just fathered quintuplets. Others in the crowd were so rapt in the moment they even seemed to have pocketed their cell phones; I saw nary an antenna. It was quite a contrast from the morgue-full of political hangers-on attending Gavin Newsom's fete.

Liking what I was seeing, and having long wished to attach myself to a hep, bohemian scene, I donned a purposeful expression, pushed through knots of people to the opposite side of the room, then pushed back. Switching my expression to distracted, I paused to eat corn-chip crumbs. I crossed the room again, and fixed my attention on a hepcat in a knit sweater, slacks, and bushy hair. I extended my hand in greeting, and after a moment of conversation, I felt like I'd arrived.

The hepcat recited a line of Irish poetry. He inveighed against the Chamber of Commerce, which backs Gonzalez's opponent, Gavin Newsom. He denounced Newsom's centerpiece platform plank, the Workforce Housing Initiative. He said he and his pals would work as hard as they could for Gonzalez's campaign, then swept his gaze around the room, Joe Cool-style, and added, "We need young people's ideas."

As it happened, the man I'd chatted up is no ordinary hepcat: He's Joe O'Donoghue, the sixtysomething president of the Residential Builders Association, a trade group of Irish carpenters that during the 1990s was considered Public Enemy No. 1 of San Francisco's progressive movement. During the last eight years, O'Donoghue developed a reputation as the tough political fixer-ally of Mayor Willie Brown. Brown, in turn, helped facilitate the construction of some 20,000 live-work loft units, contained in buildings that became the most potent antagonizing symbol of the dot-com backlash. The anti-live-work-loft rallying cry energized the progressive electoral revolt of 1999. It was the very revolt that launched, nurtured, and still informs the political career of Matt Gonzalez.

And as of Election Night, hepcat O'Donoghue was the most storied political warrior backing Gonzalez for mayor.

Welcome to left-is-right, right-is-left, progressive-and-conservative-mean-anything-you-want-them-to San Francisco. Much has been made of the idea that S.F. is the only place a contest between a socialistic Green Party member and a liberal Democrat could be billed as a battle between left and right.

But when it comes to local policy issues, the terms left, right, progressive, and conservative, as they're understood elsewhere, are essentially meaningless here. Rather, local political dogma is often the end product of ages-old interest-group battles, shifting political alliances, and left-veneered defenses of competing economic interests. In San Francisco, political groupings are really alliances of interest groups and individuals, to which populist overtones have been attached.

In this spirit, both S.F. candidates for mayor are thin, confusing reads: Newsom has a wrist-thick stack of policy papers that contrasts with a political career unusually light on policy achievement. Gonzalez, meanwhile, has posited himself as a Marxist-minded flake. But during this year's red-ink budget negotiations Gonzalez behaved like a good- government skinflint. He's been so shy about pandering to municipal workers unions that they've been chary about endorsing him. And though Gonzalez is billed as the ideological-minded candidate, he's stuck his finger into the public opinion winds less often than Newsom.

Newsom's touchstone "Care Not Cash" initiative, for example, accomplished so little, policywise, and so much, vote-getting-wise, it may as well have been crafted on Madison Avenue. And Newsom's other major, pioneering policy stance -- the decision to back Muni reform seven years ago -- garnered its support largely from the left, rather than the right.

O'Donoghue, supposedly a political tea-leaf-reader by profession, is fooling himself if he thinks Gonzalez is his best bet for maintaining the Byzantine, politicized permitting system that has so benefited his Irish builders over the years.

And voters who go to their polling places armed with these campaigns' respective ideological messages -- if you're progressive, vote for Gonzalez; if you're to the right of Mao, vote for Newsom -- will likewise find themselves ill-equipped to cast a sensible vote.

A journey through San Francisco housing policy -- Joe O'Donoghue's bailiwick and San Francisco's most ideologically contentious terrain -- shows how meaningless left-right labels may prove in predicting each candidate's approach to shaping policy.

Voters wishing for a San Francisco future consistent with their own values -- whatever those values may be -- should take a look at Gavin Newsom and Matt Gonzalez, stripped of clichéd political labels. They may be surprised at what they see.

A month ago I was sitting in the ninth-floor condominium of former Vancouver, B.C., Councilman Gordon Price when he began to wax eloquent about the state of the world.

We'd already spent several hours chatting and touring the city's parks, community centers, child-care facilities, neighborhood stores, and apartment towers. As an influential Vancouver politician during the 1980s and '90s, Price helped create the dense, high-rise, condo-based neighborhoods that are characteristic of Vancouver and famous in left-wing planning circles as a possible enviro-friendly future for cities.

"I often ask myself, 'What is their Plan B?'" mused Price, as we were winding up our time together. "North America has built an economy based on cheap oil from the Arabian peninsula. That's a region that's extremely unstable politically. What do they have planned if something goes wrong?"

This question, and Price's answer -- Vancouver-style sustainable urbanism -- are frequent items of conversation among left-wing policy wonks. It's conservation that's considered communist utopian blather by Bush Republicans, of course. And, as it happens, a version of the same conversation is a central campaign plank of the mayoral campaign of Gavin Newsom, the supposed conservative in the race.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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