Doublespeak With Forked Tongue

When dealing with Chris Daly and his political objectives, it's best to leave reality behind

Rarely does testimony at official City Hall gatherings meet high literary standards of eloquence and pith.

But then few forums want so badly for such qualities as a Board of Supervisors committee hearing, such as the one last week where politicians spent the better part of an hour engaging in surreal doublespeak in order to bad-mouth the nonprofit builder Mission Housing Development Corp.

"Supervisor, you can put that forked tongue back in your mouth," said Mission Housing's director of resident services Damon Harris, after Supervisor Chris Daly interrupted him during a public comment. In keeping with the truth-avoidance tenor of the proceedings, Harris' microphone was immediately turned off.

Harris was referring to a two-year-old political dispute, in which Daly has sought payback against a nonprofit housing developer for being more interested in housing than Daly's personal brand of politics.

Daly has worked to punish Mission Housing directors ever since they acted four years ago to stop what they saw as improper diversion of tax money away from building and managing low-income apartments, and toward supporting Daly's favorite partisan political causes.

Daly has absurdly characterized this crusade as a case of sound public stewardship. That's no surprise. Daly speaks from a private semantic universe when characterizing his own actions.

Yet outrageously, the mayor, the city controller, and other supervisors have aided Daly in this whitewash.

The controller issued an audit report in December that didn't bother to address the political fund-diversion issue at the heart of the Mission Housing dispute, in which former employees of Mission Housing were alleged to have used company time to campaign and lobby for political causes of interest to Daly. It's legal for nonprofits to spend a minor part of their budgets on lobbying that serves their organizational interest. But, Mission Housing directors came to believe, that policy had morphed into a full-fledged, government-funded political operation.

The Mission Housing Board of Directors eventually sought to end this practice and fired their executive director when he resisted this change. The board thus earned the ire of Daly, who's ever since attempted to hobble the organization's housing development work however he can.

Controller's audits should aim at rooting out waste or misuse of tax dollars. Yet the recent audit of Mission Housing, requested by Daly and his allies, did not delve into the most pressing issue, that of diverting government funds into partisan politics. The audit instead quibbled about accounting and management issues that arose after the group's previous executive director/political organizer was fired.

The mayor's housing director joined in last week when his aide in charge of housing issues said he'd permanently deny Mission Housing some $360,000 in government funds that two years ago had been earmarked for the organization, yet had been frozen at Daly's urging. Supervisors on the city's Budget and Finance Committee requested the move as punishment for the "mismanagement" that has been the rhetorical theme behind Daly's misleading anti-Mission Housing campaign.

It's as if city leadership had agreed to adopt as our official language George Orwell's 1984 concept of Newspeak, where government officials replace unpleasant terms and concepts with new ones, which describe the same things without seeming to.

In the case of Daly's Mission Housing vendetta, the result has been all good at City Hall, as adoption of Newspeak has enabled the mayor to get along with his political opponents. It helps Controller Ed Harrington to stay below everyone's political radar. It allows supervisors with competing interests to pose as a happy family. And it permits Daly to behave outrageously without people taking much notice anymore.

Yet city government as a whole loses when what should be an inquiry into allegations of the diversion of public funds toward political aims turns into a personal vendetta driven by an alleged beneficiary of that same supposed political impropriety.

In what's now a distant memory, a half-decade or so ago, all political divisions in San Francisco in some way revolved around what was called the "dot-com backlash," an anti-development movement spurred by resentment of tech businesses moving into once-run-down neighborhoods. Chris Daly was part of a millennial crop of new supervisors elevated to power by this movement. Then, where one stood on his issue of "dot-commies" and "displacement" was promoted for a brief period as shorthand for an entire worldview.

At the vanguard of this movement was the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition, run by Mission Housing staff, with executive director Carlos Romero and programs director Eric Quezada at the helm of both groups. Phone numbers publicized as belonging to the Anti-Displacement Coalition, meanwhile, rang at Mission Housing headquarters.

"There were a number of people who were supporting various organizing activities in support of certain public policy issues, ballot measures, candidates, and so on," said current Mission Housing executive director Larry Del Carlo. "There was a very blurred line between their own time and company time, and that's when we got concerned, when we saw people showing up at various events during work time."

Mission Housing received around $2 million in public money during the five years surrounding the dot-com boom-and-bust period. A tax-exempt nonprofit is allowed by law to spend a minor percentage of its budget on political advocacy that's in line with the group's goals. The sort of wholesale politicking del Carlo describes, however, is not appropriate. Former Mission Housing staff have since denied having done political activity on staff time.

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