Dirty Laundry

Why Doug Chan may be the best candidate for District 4

Livia Barrueto, an 11-year Sunset District resident who runs a child-care business out of the bottom floor of a faded 20th Avenue plywood triplex, has great hopes for her upstairs neighbor, an athletic business attorney seeking to represent Barreuto's neighborhood on the Board of Supervisors.

"Hopefully, if he gets elected, he'll be able to implement policies requiring people to be more polite," Barrueto says, in Mexican-accented Spanish.


"Yeah. This guy isn't capable of so much as saying hello. Maybe he doesn't speak English. But I think you can acknowledge someone in any language. He won't even look at me," Barrueto explains, discussing her neighbor of two years, Doug Chan. "And then there's his precious laundry game."

Laundry game?

"We share a coin dryer in the basement garage. He'll come downstairs with his clothes, take my clothes out of the dryer, put in eight or 10 quarters to make sure the dryer's his for three hours. This means I can't finish drying until the next day, and he knows it," Barrueto says. "I really hope these things change once he's a successful politician."

Welcome to electoral District 4, a two-miles-square hillside grid of mostly one-story houses and sleepy, Chinese-storefront business districts separating southern San Francisco from the sea. Here is the city's backyard, a vast 1940s suburb built largely by developer Henry Doelger, whose creations became famous when Pete Seeger recorded the song "Little Boxes."

Voters here will decide the winner in the fall's most important local political contest, an up-in-the-air race for what has been an occasional swing seat on the Board of Supervisors. Fiona Ma, who will be leaving her District 4 Supervisor post for a new job as state assemblywoman, had previously voted in support of legislation favored by the mayor most of the time. The mayor's backers fear that Ma's former aide and now District 4 candidate Jaynry Mak would be a more independent thinker than her boss, and hope that Doug Chan might be more supportive than Mak of business.

Despite unflattering first impressions I had of Chan — which include Barrueto's washing-machine rant and insinuations by Chan opponents that he's an illegal carpetbagger — I believe voters wouldn't fare badly if they sent this laundry-dueling barrister to represent them at City Hall.

When cooking up news, especially using a column-writing recipe, the best plots are like water with cornstarch: They thicken when agitated.

This column began last week with what seemed like such a plot. Supporters of Chan handed me a dossier of what's called opposition research on the candidate's opponent, left-allied millionaire lawyer Mak, who'd already been in papers such as the Chronicle for receiving many large campaign contributions from cashiers, maids, students, and other unlikely stiffs. (Mak's campaign manager, Jim Stearns, says the story is unfounded: "When I went over the list with her, she knew every person by name. Most appeared to be old friends of the family and family members.") She has failed to vote in about half the elections she might have cast ballots in. She's been late occasionally on her property taxes. Her dad, Dick Mak, is a big landlord who sometimes has disputes with tenants. She owns $6 million in S.F. property she failed to report properly in her previous job as aide to Supervisor Ma. Stearns says that the reporting discrepancy was minor — that Mak fixed the error when she discovered it, long before it became news.)

Sensing cornstarch, I briefcased my Mak dossier and went about looking into Chan, a lawyer and former police commissioner who is Mayor Gavin Newsom's man in the District 4 race. I followed up on a tip that Chan wasn't living in the house he claimed as his residence in his election filings, interviewing his supposed neighbors and visiting his two campaign headquarters. I checked out the apartment building occupied by Barrueto and Chan. And, in the name of investigative muckraking, I ended up listening to a piano solo inside the squalid, moving box-filled 20th Avenue apartment in which candidate Chan actually lives.

Sadly, some stories are custard, not cornstarch, and liquefy with aggressive stirring. Chan's no carpetbagger — he lives in the Sunset District he wishes to represent. Just as pertinent, he's a quality candidate in a field of aspirants that's better than one might expect from the quiet suburban "U" surrounding Downtown to the south, west, and north. Here, people appear to care more about their homes, their jobs, and their families than about Downtown politics — and they sometimes seem to expect little of their politicians.

Chan is an articulate striver with a long career in public service who shares my opinion that San Francisco has been a victim of its residents' tendency to see every policy issue through the lens of preconceived ideology, then push ahead no matter what the facts are on the ground.

In politics that's a useful point of view, because in this town, as elsewhere, situations involving government are often more complex than they seem.

"We keep wondering what is happening with that house," says real estate broker Abigail Glynn, emerging from her mother-in-law's house across the street from the officially declared 1766 32nd Ave. residence of Doug Chan. "We've been watching it for a couple years, and nobody's living there."

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