Left in the Lurch

In jingoistic times, Steve Williams exhibits precisely the kind of faux progressivism we don't need in a city attorney

As I stepped into the night fog on the way to work last week I felt nervous — very, extremely, dreadfully nervous — but certainly not insane. I lifted the rusty latch and opened the rotting wooden gate of SF Weekly Enterprises Inc. Inside, darker than night itself, was a heaping, bilious mass. Halloween was a week away, Election Day only two; only one worse terror remained: the arrival of another mailbag.

I peered into the rotting canvas, er, electronic sack, filled to the brim with electronic envelopes powder-filled in their way; most of the letters came in the form of e-mails dusted with strong feelings about last week's column, which gave the government advice on hunting down Osama bin Laden, then sharply criticized George Bush. I plunged my hand into the Halloween mailbag fearless just the same: “Criticize the president,” I thought, “that's no big deal. This is America, right?”

Not if you ask the anonymous letter writer “An American.”

Let me ask you this, you pinko north end of a south bound mule, did you serve in the armed forces? If not then who in the hell are you to call someone a coward? Bush a hypocrite? Your pinko column says you are the hypocrite? …

… You, hiding behind misused “freedom of the press,” are the coward, an insult to the “home of the brave.” You and all those pinkos like you make me sick, and I wish you would all get the hell out of America. You are, to say the least, a gutless coward. I will close saying you are cordially invited to attend the theological place of eternal punishment.


An American

Which got me to thinking about how damned horrifying it's becoming to be an American these days. Since mid-September, America has felt like a horror-movie re-creation of the 1950s: It's full of racism and jingoism and closed-mindedness, without the benefit of malted milk or sock hops. Suddenly, the nation's under patrol by flag-festooned, twin-cab pickup trucks, driven, I imagine, by the letter-writing brethren of AA. They fill up my mailbag saying things like, “The people like you glorified communism in Russia until it folded onto itself thanks to those who defended you and your like and everyone else on this side of the Iron Curtain,” and, “I found your article “Osama Was Here' to be of the type that divides people and hurts the country we share.”

This country is becoming divided all right, and that's what's been making me so dreadfully nervous.

Like America has during other times of war, the place has turned into a jingoistic, nativist, prejudiced wasteland. Like no time in recent memory, the values of altruism, inclusion, diversity, charity, and acceptance of dissent are under assault. In the best possible world, San Francisco would be a bulwark — in the words of Geoff Amidei, who writes from all the way over in Bologna, Italy, for Chrissakes, “You are in San Francisco, across the bay from Berkeley, and it's [sic] now internationally famous mass of false-pacifists.” This is where the left has historically innovated and flourished, advocating peace, trade unionism, environmentalism, civil rights, and free speech. Yet the question arises: Has the San Francisco left become so flaccid, weak, and compromised that it is ill-prepared to confront these troubled times?

It is with this fear in my heart that I am devoting a column to an unlikely cause: opposing the candidacy of a city attorney hopeful whom a recent poll shows to be already struggling. According to a survey published last week, Steve Williams is running in a close fourth place in the four-candidate race, with 18 percent favoring former Dianne Feinstein aide Jim Lazarus, 5 percent choosing Police Commissioner Dennis Herrera and attorney Neil Eisenberg, and 4 percent going for Williams.

“Things are heading in the right direction,” Williams says. “Lazarus is slipping.”

Which very well may be. And empty-suit leftist Eisenberg just may fall completely by the wayside. Williams' charges that his opponents are slaves to campaign finance just may stick; he may sneak into a runoff, where anything could happen. And that would be more awful than the mere idea of a race for city attorney might suggest, because Steve Williams is the official candidate of San Francisco's leftist malaise. He's gained the support of much of last year's “progressive revolution” with five left-wing supervisors on board for Williams, including the iconic Tom Ammiano.

But Williams hasn't improved the working conditions of low-paid seamstresses, halted toxic-waste dumping, battled racial injustice — or anything of the sort. His rise to prominence has been due entirely to his predilection for joining rich people's battles to preserve their suburban-style neighborhoods. In that kind of world, one where the left-wing champions in a famously left-wing city earn their stripes by stumping for the rich, there exists no higher ground.

Right-wing zealots can send bilious missives such as the one David Zincavage, a Newtown, Conn., European genealogy buff, sent minutes ago, and suffer no moral disadvantage whatsoever.

“I call you a scum-sucking, communist faggot, and if you would care to do anything about it,” he wrote, “as a presumptive non-coward, non-fraud, I'll be delighted to meet you.”

Steve Williams, an attorney with the Oakland law firm Fitzgerald, Abbott & Beardsley LLP, gained mild prominence a half-decade ago when he successfully fought off the construction of a fourplex that had been slated for the lot next to his San Francisco home. A pair of Irish brothers had bought the dilapidated cottage next-door to Williams' house and obtained permits to demolish it and build a small apartment building. Williams protested the permit before the Board of Appeals, lost, then sued the city.

A judge remanded the appeal to the Board of Appeals, which decided that the permit had been improperly granted. Further review caused the project to be rejected. Williams then sued the city to pay his attorney's fees, a case that made it all the way to the state appellate court. Williams asserted that he had pursued his case to the city's benefit, and should be repaid. The court said he was acting in his personal interest, and rejected his appeal. He next joined a lawsuit to remove from office the one member of the Board of Appeals who voted against reversing the decision that would have allowed the Sutter Street fourplex, charging that the board member suffered a conflict of interest. Williams lost that action as well. [page]

Just the same, word of Williams' victory over the fourplex spread swiftly through San Francisco's anti-development neighborhood associations, and they asked him to represent them as they fought buildings and building alterations slated for their environs. There was a group of millionaire Russian Hill homeowners who wanted to keep a building from going up on an empty lot. There was Steve Currier, the homeowner who created a new neighborhood association to oppose a small old-folks home, because the neighborhood groups that already existed supported it. There was the Sunset District hairdresser who wanted to expand her home into a two-unit building, so she could rent out the second one; Williams, with now-Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, fought her tooth and nail, and lost. And there was Tom Ginella, a middle-aged man who owned a sprawling house in the Excelsior District around which he parked 25 vehicles. Williams represented Ginella and his neighbors as they sought to beat back a nearby apartment complex — one that had gained the support of the local neighborhood association as much-needed, transit-friendly housing — in part by claiming the complex would create parking problems in the neighborhood.

There was nothing particularly unusual about Williams' burgeoning practice. “All of his representations involve someone who is trying to prevent someone from building next to them or across from them,” says John Sanger, an attorney who opposed Williams several times. It was the way Williams conducted his campaigns that drew attention: He presented himself as a justice crusader.

People who met Williams during this time recall that he indeed behaved more as a man on a crusade than a cold-minded lawyer. For many, he was the most fervent, and furious, lawyer they had ever seen.

“I consider Mr. Williams to be the most political lawyer I've ever faced,” Sanger says. “He likes to make a lot of broad statements and accusations. He thinks it's all a matter of ideological warfare.”

Though he never again achieved a success as dramatic as he did with the Sutter Street fourplex, Williams made a splash with Board of Appeals members just the same.

“I think he's a hack,” says Arnold Chin, president of the Board of Appeals. “One time I had to gavel him down. I don't mind anybody advocating their views. But if you get to the point where you're disruptive, or abusive, that's wrong. If you believe that the process is wrong, and you believe that the codes to permit things are wrong, you change the law. You don't threaten people and bring out neighborhood outrage when the law clearly states that a project meets the code.”

Williams' fervor won him an admiring following among San Francisco homeowners and other development opponents. And in 1999, according to a fax Williams sent me, the Board of Supervisors gave him a certificate of honor “which specifically stated that my case on Sutter Street was in the public interest and served all of San Francisco.”

Indeed, during the early days of his campaign for city attorney Williams cited the Sutter Street battle in describing the roots of his political awareness. “We didn't realize, we didn't know what was going on. We didn't realize there were all these political and money things going on behind the scenes. Not really knowing what I was taking on, I agreed to fight the thing on behalf — it sort of was shocking — and I said I will fight this on behalf of the neighborhood,” Williams told me. “It turned out to be a tremendous fight.”

The first time I met Steve Williams I was standing with a glass of wine at a cocktail party thrown by real estate speculator Clint Reilly celebrating the victory of left-wing candidates whose supervisorial campaigns Reilly had financed.

Williams asked me why I had become so conservative.

I asked him what he meant. It turned out he was referring to a column I had written about Tom Ginella, the man who at one time parked 25 cars near his Excelsior District home and wanted to stop apartment construction because it would interfere with his access to vacant parking spots. I had written that anti-housing battles such as Ginella's were making San Francisco a less affordable, equitable, and eclectic city. Williams seemed to think that failing to oppose an apartment project that would provide the city with desperately needed housing somehow constituted right-wingism.

Months later, Williams announced his candidacy for city attorney. And not long ago Williams received the endorsement of several of the supervisors who helped lead San Francisco's progressive revolution of 2000.

And that's when my distress began, and when I began haunting Williams' campaign appearances. And I now know that Williams believes his opponents are corrupted by campaign contributions. He says he will take the politics out of the office of city attorney, and has told audiences that he has a particular interest in the issue of affordable housing.

After a couple of months of listening to this patter, I decided to track down the builders who had attempted to construct a fourplex next to Williams' home. I met Tom McInerny, an athletic 40-year-old from Limerick, on the second floor of a small apartment building he is constructing along Ocean Boulevard, in the Sunset District. After the fourplex proposal was defeated, McInerny, his brother, and his partner, Rory Moore, attempted to sell the Sutter Street cottage they had purchased for the project. But they couldn't attract a buyer who would cover their costs. So they spent months refurbishing the cottage, which, McInerny says, was a “classic tear-down.” They finished in 1998 and sold the house that August, just as the market began picking up, for a profit, after three years, of $11,000 for each partner. [page]

McInerny recalls being impressed with Williams' verve during the battle before the Board of Appeals, and in court.

McInerny had offered to promise Williams that he would not obstruct the growth of some trees that extended from Williams' yard into the property next door. He offered to build Williams a skylight. And, toward the end, he offered him $15,000 not to oppose the project, then upped the ante to $20,000. Williams had wanted $90,000, a demand he ultimately dropped to $45,000. McInerny told me he'd saved an answering machine tape that contained a message from Williams summarizing the attorney's side of the negotiations. I asked McInerny to share it with me.

“Hi Tom, it's Steve Williams,” a voice on the tape said. “I wanted to get back to you today, which is Wednesday about 2:30 or so. And, uh, I realize after our conversation last night we're headed to court on this thing, but, um, um, because your offer was sort of “take it or leave it,' I never got to give my counterdemand, which is something I intended to do. I didn't want you guys to think I was stuck on, uh, 90 or being unreasonable in the thing, so my counterdemand was, I was going to drop it down; I was going to cut it in half. You guys came up five, I was going to come down 45 and, and make a demand for 45, plus an easement for the, the trees, which we could agree to later. So there it is. I guess I'll talk to you later.”

Later, I played the tape for Williams.

“I'm sure those guys are bitter with me; they felt like they got a raw deal. The fact that he saved the tape for you shows you something, doesn't it?” Williams said. “The thrust is going to be that I was out for myself. But the fact is, I ended up enforcing the law.”

Which is nothing remarkable. Wasn't it V.I. Lenin who said bourgeois revolutionaries have often mistaken the conditions of their own liberation as the universal demands of mankind? But in an epoch when the country is threatened by ubiquitous wartime jingoism, San Francisco should be able to muster people better than that to fill its important public positions.

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