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A visitor to the Civic Center Hotel needs only a few minutes to experience the sort of events that distinguish an SRO from The Fairmont. On a recent afternoon, a skeletal middle-aged man, pale as the white bathrobe that swaddles him, pads toward the fifth-floor shower room. As his leather slippers shush-shush across the worn red carpet, a bull mastiff trots by going the opposite way, jowls rippling, a crisply folded McDonald's bag in its mouth. Neither man nor mutt breaks stride.
Farther down the mold-scented corridor, past the elevator that spasms between floors as if plagued by hiccups, expletives detonate behind a room's closed door. A man is either arguing on the phone or shouting down the voices inside his head. Christopher Dahl nods toward the noise and offers an apologetic smile. "That's what happens," he says, "when someone gets off their meds."
Unhinged rants and unleashed dogs make for another typical day at the Civic Center. The red-brick hotel, built in 1915, squats at the corner of Market and 12th streets, providing its tenants refuge from harsher environs. Some of the 115 residents once slept under viaducts, others arrived on parole from prison. Most struggle to pay the $120 to $150 weekly rent. And come November, one of them hopes to evict Dianne Feinstein from her Beltway roost.
"If you don't say it's crazy, you have to say it's optimistic," Dahl says of his write-in bid for U.S. Senator. Clad in a blue denim jacket and jeans, he looks, quite literally, unsuited for the part of elected official; with an ash-white mustache that matches his sideburns and shoulder-length mane, he could pass for an Allman brother in large-frame glasses. Yet Dahl, who vows to never wear a tie on the Senate floor if elected, believes his casual appearance will aid his cause.
"At the very least, I have the hair recognition factor," he says. "This country needs to have someone in office who looks like he doesn't belong on K Street."
That rare candidate who will admit he inhaled and still does on occasion, the 59-year-old Dahl begs off a request to show his room, owing to its cluttered state. He describes his campaign headquarters as 12 feet long by 10 feet wide, with one electrical outlet and a single ceiling bulb, a microwave, and a small refrigerator. The power cuts out almost daily, the building's circuits seizing up when too many of his neighbors run appliances at the same time.
The outages slow Dahl's crusade, given that it chiefly consists of him tapping away at his computer to update his Web site, www.americasbalance.org. The online address hints at ambitions even grander than ousting Feinstein: Dahl seeks to create the Balance Party, a third option to the Democrats and Republicans. Or a second option to what he regards as the broadest influence on elections.
"The apathy party controls politics," he says. "The American people can't continue to delegate everything and say, 'It's not my problem.'"
Fringe candidates tend to lack political credentials beyond their ability to parrot Bill O'Reilly or the Daily Kos. But Dahl boasts grass-roots bona fides, thanks to his work on a campaign that hit perilously close to home: rescuing the Civic Center from the wrecking ball.
He moved into the hotel in 1999, 11 years after leaving the Bay Area to follow computer analyst jobs that took him to Long Beach, Seattle, and Chicago, among a half-dozen cities. But returning to San Francisco hobbled his career fortunes. Unable to find full-time work in his field, he subsists on a telemarketer's modest salary. Only the Civic Center's cheap rent, which costs about half that of most SROs, allows him to afford a place in the city.
The hotel belongs to the pension fund run by Plumbers Union Local 38, one of San Francisco's strongest labor groups. In 2003, after a decade of ignoring demands to begin a city-mandated seismic retrofit of the aging building, union officials applied for a demolition permit. Tenants speculated the union would cash in by building condos or an office tower after the Civic Center fell.
The prospect of losing the roof over his head roused Dahl's activist within. He built a Web site to promote the tenants' cause. Working with housing advocates, he organized rallies in front of the union's offices and gathered signatures for petitions to preserve the hotel. He lobbied city building officials and members of the Board of Supervisors, haunting their waiting rooms for hours to land a 10-minute meeting.
Three years and one lawsuit later the city sued Local 38 in April for failing to perform the $2 million upgrade the Civic Center endures. Whether it stays standing or ends up as rubble depends on how union honchos react to last month's discovery that the building has a steel frame. The presence of metal beams beneath the bricks and mortar averts the need for a retrofit, yet complicates the potential razing.
Either way, Dahl believes he and his fellow tenants prolonged the hotel's lifespan by pestering the union. The dispute also revived his political impulses, dormant since his late 20s, when he served on a health advisory board in San Diego. (A few years earlier, he had presided over the Young Democrats club at his high school.) The Civic Center struggle, coupled with his outrage at the morass in Iraq and the bumbling federal response to Hurricane Katrina, fired a resolve to enter the Senate race.