By Erin Sherbert
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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."
"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."
Indeed, there is a crude hasp and a padlock on the door, no curtains in the windows, and an outhouse in front. City building permits suggest the site has been undergoing a complete remodeling since 2004; Chan's putative next-door neighbors on both sides and three across the street say the building's been empty for quite a while.
That Chan has listed this long-empty house as his domicile on his election forms suggests a kind of carpetbagging (when a political candidate pretends to live in an electoral district in order to represent its residents). An anonymous Web site (www.electdougchan.blogspot.com) highlights Chan's living situation. A supporter of Chan opponent Ed Jew directed me to it after I began calling around asking about the elections in District 4.
Chan's campaign manager, Tom Hseih Jr., says there's an honest reason for the discrepancy. The candidate lives in an apartment near the house he owns, which has been undergoing renovations that have taken much longer than Chan expected. This revelation leads me to a triplex with a bunch of strollers in the lobby and, eventually, to Barrueto.
"He's always taking out my laundry and putting it on top of the dryer," she says, once it becomes clear I'm seeking her upstairs neighbor.
"Can I ask you a favor? Can you not, well, be too specific about the conditions in the apartment?" asks Hseih, preparing me for the alarming but, to my mind, charming squalor before us.
Hseih lets me in to an apartment filled to the ceiling with boxes and strewn with papers and other detritus of day-to-day living. Across the living room is a thin man wearing a perfectly pressed shirt, tie, and dress pants, playing the piano "O Amor Em Paz" by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Once we're in the room, he stops playing, gets up, offers me a seat at his cluttered dining room table, and smiles.
"You see," Chan says, gesturing around the room with an expression that suggests he's as bemused at the circumstances of our meeting as I am, "this is really where I live."
Chan took out a permit two years ago to expand the tract house he bought in the 1980s. The mass-produced houses produced by Henry Doelger, however, weren't designed with major homemade additions in mind. So for two years Chan has been in a home-repair nightmare, adding yard after yard of additional cement foundation work, living in a nearby rented apartment, thinking all the while he'd be moving back in soon.
That settled, we move from Chan's home troubles to the supervisor's race and city government.
"I think ideology is killing San Francisco," he says. "People jimmy the facts into a predetermined outcome."
He applies this notion to the city's transit problems, describing a recent "progressive" campaign to halt Muni efforts to speed up bus rides by spreading out stops, and "progressive" campaigns to halt apartment buildings.
Chan says he'd like to help turn Muni into a more customer-friendly enterprise, regardless of how that floats on ideological grounds. A former police commissioner, he describes various measures to improve the performance of the police department. (None of these involve confronting the police department for poor performance, it's worth noting.) Chan cites his decades serving on various commissions and boards as evidence of his ability to consider complex policy questions and to play nicely with other politicos.
In short, Chan comes across as a decent candidate in an average field.
He's facing reformed Republican Ed Jew, a ballot-fodder perennial who four years ago ran against Fiona Ma to represent District 4 on the Board.
Jaynry Mak is the scion of a landlord who gives speeches positioning herself as a champion of the poor and of tenants, which is not altogether credible. But it's also true that while Fiona Ma ran the supervisor's office with the weakest grasp of policy at City Hall, Ma's aide, Mak, could at least hold a conversation about the best course of government action on a given issue.
Another District 4 candidate, Ron Dudum, is an area landlord and eccentric whose income stream has given him sufficient time to telephone or knock on the door of nearly every voter in the Sunset. Dudum has also spent the last few years trying to find a financier and ghostwriter for a book he's drafted describing his personal philosophy about the betterment of mankind.
I'm not sure America needs another L. Ron Hubbard.
Even so, a friend I recommended to Dudum as a ghostwriter said, after reading Dudum's draft, that he came to believe the aspiring supervisor had his heart in the right place. "If I had to criticize him, I'd say he was perhaps too idealistic," my friend said, which isn't a terribly harsh condemnation.
This leaves us with Chan and his laundry feud. Who wants to vote for a rude guy, anyway?
"I think this is an issue of a cross-cultural misunderstanding," Chan explains when I raise Barrueto's concerns. "My Spanish isn't so good. Generally, when it comes to respecting people's privacy, Asians are more reserved. And I will say that we never leave our clothing in the dryer."
Now that Chan's dirty laundry's been aired, I suspect he wouldn't be such a bad supervisor after all.