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In 1846, hard-drinking, red-eyed wildman Ezekiel "Stuttering Zeke" Merritt helped roust a few neighbors from their settlements in the upper Sacramento River Valley. They marched to the Bay Area and declared themselves leaders of a California independent republic. The Bear Flag Revolt may have seemed to be the work of grandiose-minded scofflaws, but it challenged the territorial claims of Mexico, paving the way for the United States to seize the Pacific Coast and forever shift the balance of America's cultural, economic, and political might thousands of miles west.
In Jan. 1967, a group of barefoot college-age kids, some of them smelly, cemented their rejection of everything selfish and commercial at a 20,000-person Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park. Local wags dismissed them as irrelevant and worse. Decades later, however, conversations about American political culture in the second half of the 20th century pivot on whether the Diggers and affiliated groups were prescient or foolish.
And so it was, that no sooner did political maverick Matt Gonzalez declare himself Ralph Nader's running mate for president, than the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board's Opinion Shop blog declared him a self-promoter along for the ride in a "self-defeating and backwards campaign."
Nader's newest accomplice was a "brooding, far-left running mate who couldn't get elected mayor of San Francisco," the Chronicle said the next day on its editorial page.
A local left-wing political pamphlet jumped aboard, describing the Nader-Gonzalez ticket as ego-driven and Gonzalez' criticism of Barack Obama as "bullshit." On Monday, I received a political spam e-mail titled "Run Amok Matt Gonzalez." A few minutes later I received another one, "Matt's Checkerboard History with African American Politicos," that suggested, preposterously, that Gonzalez is racist for having criticized some of Obama's Senate votes in advance of the Nader announcement.
While I enjoy a squirmy dogpile as much as the next columnist, I've no yen to join the mound of hysterical people exercised about Gonzalez' new role. The former supervisor has merely committed to spending a few months attending events at college campuses, promoting his pet cause of electoral reform as a warm-up act to Nader's longtime stage shtick about the untoward power of corporations.
At root of the outsize outrage over what amounts to a minor speaking tour is the umbrage Democrats took in 2000 over those who voted for Ralph Nader. I indulged in this worthy scapegoating, too, because it was easier and more satisfying to denounce Nader-voting friends and family than to engage the actual Republicans who elected George W. Bush.
That anger is misplaced in 2008. The likelihood that Nader-Gonzalez could undermine the Democrats is doubtful: Florida 2000 was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and Nader enjoys far less currency now. What's more, like the stunts pulled by Merritt and the Diggers, Gonzalez' futile-seeming move has a real upside. He says he'd like to use his new platform to prevent independent candidates from ever again undermining Democratic chances at victory. I figured SF Weekly readers ought to hear what he had in mind before we blow our collective tops.
Last Sunday, I met with Gonzalez at a Lower Haight coffee shop. His hair has grayed since he nearly won the mayor's race in 2003. The supposed brooding described by his detractors seems merely to consist of longer-than-usual pauses for listening and thinking during conversation. Unlike the supposed loony depicted in last week's local news coverage, Gonzalez proffered no illusions that he was likely to become vice president. He said he sees his candidacy as a chance to speak around the country about how election laws might be changed to eliminate the very concept of spoiler candidates.
Though Gonzalez ran for mayor as a Green Party candidate, Nader and Gonzalez are running as independents; the Green Party will choose a presidential candidate this summer. Gonzalez said he accepted Nader's invitation to run as a way to help advance the consumer advocate's message about the excessive power of corporations. Nader wants to aggressively prosecute corporate crime, limit subsidies to corporations, stop corporations from lobbying and from contributing to political campaigns, strengthen citizens' abilities to sue corporations, and otherwise limit the constitutional rights granted to companies.
"We know he's right," Gonzalez said of Nader. "And if we don't run, the major candidates are going to proceed as if there are no major problems to fix in this country. I felt that if I joined Nader, at least I could bring credibility by talking about work I've done on electoral reform."
While Gonzalez was president of the Board of Supervisors during the early 2000s, he backed the system of so-called instant-runoff voting, now used in San Francisco, whereby voters rank their second- and third-choice candidates. If no candidate receives a majority vote, the candidate with the least number of first-place votes is out of the running. Second-place choices are then redistributed among the remaining candidates; more are eliminated until one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. In this way, independents can run for office without being shouted down as egotistical party poopers. And voters needn't fret about "wasting" a ballot on a long-shot candidate, because their votes won't cancel out a more practical-seeming, second-choice alternative.
Gonzalez was portrayed in the local press last week as a dreamy extremist, but he's no flake: He's a political pro who in 2003 won 47 percent of the vote, though he was outspent five to one. Despite being courted by political insiders last year, he decided not to run again because a cool examination of polling data and shifts in the electorate didn't portend a win.
Other critics of Gonzalez' candidacy have denounced what they depict as his head-in-the-clouds act of symbolism. What's needed, they say, is hardheaded activism to make sure our next president is not like George W. Bush. Still others have been outraged at a widely distributed essay Gonzalez recently wrote, "The Obama Craze," in which he criticized the Democratic frontrunner for supporting tort reform and for his less-than-wholehearted opposition to the war in Iraq.
If Gonzalez has joined a futile attempt to distract from a presidential run, he has also captured a national cultural moment of fascination with gestural rather than practical politics. This dichotomy is at the root of the debate over Hillary Clinton's practical "deeds" versus the presumed emotional significance of Barack Obama's "words." It's amusing to hear Obama supporters now say they're opposed to distracting stunts.
Case in point: the now-famous video produced by the singer Will.i.am, in which celebrities pantomimed an Obama speech delivered after the New Hampshire primary with the refrain, "Yes we can." The black-and-white video was a beautiful pastiche of swaying movie, sports, and rock stars, produced by Bob Dylan's video-grapher son, Jesse.
The actual Jan. 8 speech the video was edited from, however, was a banal mélange of pandering messages that included an impassioned hat-tip to recipients of ethanol subsidies, one of the most wasteful and destructive bits of pork-barrel spending in all of government.
In that context, Gonzalez is no wild-eyed irrelevancy. Rather, he's a clever politician who has also pulled off a neat trick: He has hitched himself to the coattails of a famous spoiler to preach a type of electoral reform designed to make his breed less irksome.
"If I were striving to make myself more popular in San Francisco, I wouldn't do this," Gonzalez acknowledged. "But if it's to see electoral reform discussed on a national level, I'm happy to do it."