Mark of Effectiveness

Why Mark Leno ought to serve in the Assembly, and Harry Britt should go back to New College

I think it's precious that George Deukmejian's legacy — the one now being claimed by Republican gubernatorial candidates — would, if it were based on real life, consist mostly of a Sacramento that required a governor to be impotent, and to kowtow to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. I delight in the memory of Phil Burton's 1981 reapportionment gerrymanders, with their 385-sided congressional districts and subsequent Democratic stranglehold on the California congressional delegation. I love it when Republicans bristle at the amount of budgetary treasure that state Senate President John Burton is able to route to San Francisco. And I feel warm inside knowing that right-wing Southern California legislators must bow before Assembly Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Carole Migden whenever they need state-budget goodies sent back home.

The outsize legislative power of politicians from San Francisco, a place with fewer inhabitants than the county of Fresno, is often cited in local conversation as if it were a source of shame. The language of resentment — the accusations of omnipotence and arrogance and impunity that other places use against our home team — has seeped into our local political vernacular. Like those outer Californians, we twist legitimate criticism of the abuses of S.F. power brokers into embarrassment at the mere fact that they're powerful. And along with every other Californian, we lose when we do so. As California speeds toward a future of soul-destroying freeway sprawl, racial intolerance, growing poverty, and widespread environmental degradation, the state's only salvation lies in the urbane, liberal values of San Francisco. We need more powerful San Francisco politicians if we're going to make those values law.

That's why I find it untoward that the folks who back Harry Britt for the state's 13th Assembly District (1) in Tuesday's Democratic primary cite his likely ineffectiveness as legislator as the best reason to vote for him. He's an ideologically pure progressive, they say; he's way, way out there, just like you and me. He doesn't play politics the old way like the rest of those guys; he's different, you'll see.

These claims (specious as they are; Britt's bid follows a feeble version of the machine-politics template) actually form a recipe for irrelevance. That's why I'm putting my money on Britt's opponent, Mark Leno, a politician who in just four years on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has demonstrated a verve for the give, take, and compromise of successful policy-making. He's become the front-runner in the race for the 13th Assembly seat at the moment he's found himself for the first time not beholden to any particular local political faction.

This Assembly campaign has been mostly obscured by political white noise — “Gasp! A pissing match in the Castro,” and, “Who's the genuine gay progressive” — when the real issue at hand is which candidate will actually do a more vigorous, effective job of making policy in Sacramento. If his verve in using his politician's toolbox to solve San Francisco's most pressing problems is any indication, Leno's the man for the job.

Not long before he died, Herb Caen wrote that Willie Brown had “no hobbies. No golf, no tennis, no exercise, no real vacations, no family life in the traditional sense.” Instead, Caen wrote, politics was Brown's entire reason for living. It's been said that Phil Burton, the father of modern California liberalism, ate, breathed, and slept politics, and nothing more.

I recalled these reputed instances of single-mindedness last week as Mark Leno spoke with me, using the same careful, politico-speak phrases he's increasingly known for. In the manner of a person who'd recently become fluent in a foreign tongue, Leno seemed to savor the shape and texture of his exotic, politics- and policy-laden sentences as they brushed past his lips. He seemed to like talking this way, just as he relishes the rest of the tasks involved in being a politician. “I think my adversaries to the left have tried to dress me up as a corporate tool, as an agent of the mayor,” Leno said. “If progressive means having very few ideas to benefit the electorate in different ways, then yes, you'll find them more rigid than I am.”

Leno, in fact, seems to relish his current political position. Four years after Willie Brown appointed him to the Board of Supervisors, he's gained an unusual degree of political independence — the sort that can sometimes count as political capital in Sacramento. He has, in short, triangulated, holding himself just about equidistant from the city's “progressive” and “machine” camps.

Leno infuriated Mayor Brown two years ago by supporting the anti-growth Proposition L, which would have put severe limits on the amount and location of office space that could be built in the city; he then worsened matters last year by opposing Brown on several other issues and denouncing a lucrative waterfront contract awarded to a Brown-allied developer. By fall, Brown and his erstwhile protégé seemed to have separated for good. Brown even convinced former S.F. Board of Education Commissioner Steve Phillips to run as a spoiler candidate in the 13th District Assembly race.

A Noe Valley sign shop owner, Leno goes at his politico day job with such gusto he's widely considered the hardest-working member of the Board of Supervisors, never missing a meeting while working on a plethora of causes. He possesses an odd talent for picking up as many useful enemies as friends — the Ammiano-Migden left dismisses him, largely because he was appointed to the Board of Supervisors by that faction's sworn enemy, Willie Brown, even as Brown tries to terminate Leno's political career.

Leno seems both pleased and bemused that his characterization by his opponents as a friend of right-wing corporate interests coincides with growing national fame as a backer of quirky, left-wing, only-in-San-Francisco legislation. Leno, for example, sponsored a bill that gave health coverage to city employees who are transsexuals and wish to undergo sex-change surgery, and was behind a law that turned San Francisco into an official medical marijuana sanctuary.


If those two laws are among the most famous coming out of San Francisco last year, a better example of Leno's facility with the give-and-take legwork of politics can be found in a legislative package he will introduce during the next few weeks to address San Francisco's most pressing civic issue: our housing shortage.

“About three years ago I started asking myself, “If we're having a housing crisis, why aren't we building more housing?'” Leno says, putting words to San Francisco's most vexing political enigma. The first of Leno's housing bills would require that builders devote a fixed percentage of apartment buildings to subsidized, low-income units. The law currently gives the Planning Commission the option of making builders include subsidized units in buildings that require conditional-use permits; under new rules proposed by Leno, buildings requiring a conditional-use permit would automatically have to dedicate 12 percent of a project's apartments to subsidized low-income housing. Developers who'd rather build their required low-income housing off-site would have to devote an additional 5 percent of their projects to subsidized units.

One might imagine that such onerous affordable-housing requirements would be distasteful to developers. But the entitlement process for residential construction in San Francisco has been fraught with such uncertainty that the mere existence of a consistent standard — even one requiring as much as 17 percent of new residential buildings be devoted to low-income units — has gained the support of key for-profit developers, such as the Emerald Fund. Leno also helped recruit low-income housing advocates to his cause.

“When Calvin Welch is on board, I can go to his other colleagues, and with those voices behind me, I can get sponsors,” Leno says, summarizing a two-year process that may have created San Francisco's first across-the-spectrum consensus on a housing issue.

The second bill in Leno's package — changes in zoning rules designed to increase the amount of housing downtown — has created a similarly unique confluence of interests.

Leno is proposing downtown zoning revisions that could allow as many as 9,000 new high-rise apartments to be built in the area surrounding the new Transbay Terminal. The rezoning bill looked sunk earlier this month, when Planning Director Gerald Green failed to pay for a state-mandated environmental review required to build more high-density housing downtown.

Enter Chris Daly, a supervisor I've criticized in the past as anti-housing. When it came to helping facilitate Leno's downtown zoning change, Daly became a housing white knight. He examined Green's budget and found $263,000 in unspent money, originally earmarked for computers, and ordered the Planning Department to use the money for Leno's environmental review.

“I'm familiar with being in a position where the Planning Department is trying to screw me around — that's commonplace. But when they're extending that to more moderate members of the board like Mark Leno, I thought it appropriate to step in,” Daly says. “Being me, I can go through the budget and take the red pen, and I don't care what they have to say about it.

“Mark might not have picked up the red pen so quickly.”

San Francisco may benefit from thousands of new apartments, many of them low-income, thanks, in good part, to Mark Leno's talent for compromise and coalition building, and thanks, not one bit, to left ideological purity.

Last week I watched Harry Britt talk and answer questions at a candidate's forum on housing sponsored by the San Francisco Tenants' Union, and I can understand the ex-supervisor's appeal. A former Methodist minister from Texas, Britt opened with an eloquent soliloquy on the soul-killing effects of California sprawl. He possesses a warm, offhand way of speaking that's immediately ingratiating.

As a candidate, Britt seems to have changed for the better since last fall, when Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano plucked him from his job as professor at New College to run for Migden's Assembly seat. At that time Britt openly volunteered that he hadn't been following local issues terribly closely, and was amid a learning process. He hadn't been a terribly engaged supervisor during the 1980s, either; in his 14 years as a supervisor, he missed more than one-fifth of board votes.

By February 2002, though, Britt had the current San Francisco Progressive Rap nailed cold. “Housing is a fundamental human need, and building housing based on laissez-faire economics — which nobody believes in anymore — doesn't work,” he said at the forum.

But not long after Britt passionately emphasized his opposition to urban sprawl, he noted that he was also against dense urban development — a bit of hypocrisy that fits cozily in the current progressive ideological canon.

Yet Britt's a chimera, really. He's made his supposed opposition to political access by the wealthy a central campaign theme, repeatedly characterizing Leno as a pawn of rich donors. But Britt has so far reported $3,000 in donations from Clear Channel Outdoor, the sign company that would suffer the brunt of Proposition G, an anti-billboard initiative supported by Leno. And according to Britt's filings, Britt has not reimbursed Clear Channel for $18,750 in “campaign paraphernalia/misc.”

Not that Leno hasn't also received campaign contributions; he's received nearly as much in corporate campaign contributions as Britt has — well, a lot less, when you consider Britt's unpaid bills — but the point still holds. Britt has used the phony corporate-money-ties issue to obscure his own record as a halfhearted, machine-picked candidate without much prospect of making effective policy in Sacramento.

I doubt Mark Leno will carve a political legacy as profound as Willie Brown's or Phil Burton's. But Leno's industry and independence would go a long way toward helping this city maintain its influence in Sacramento, to the benefit of all of us, and all lesser Californians.

1 I know, I know: We have a District 12 Assembly race, too. But Leland Yee formally disqualified himself for public office three years ago when he advocated Car Critical Mass, a minor automobile traffic jam created to protest bicycles and buses. Yee's opponent, Dan Kelly, allowed our city's schools to go to pot during 11 years as an S.F. school board member, and should be excused from public life. My advice to voters: With the rental market loosening up this year, readers who've been postponing a move to the eastern part of San Francisco, and out of District 12, might consider doing so now. [page]

Also, be sure to vote “yes” on the “Stop Housing Immediately: Today!” initiative, also known as “Proposition D,” which would put the Planning Commission under control of the Board of Supervisors. Everybody knows San Francisco has way too much housing right now, so your vote is very important.

Oh, yeah, and I'm sure Carole Migden would make a great Board of Equalization member (whatever that is), and we definitely need to vote “yes” on Prop 44 to amend the Chiropractic Act (you've heard about that one, right?), and Johan Klehs should be our next state controller (Klehs?), and don't forget John Garamendi for insurance commissioner (I met his wife once. She was nice). Most important of all, we should pillory whoever it was that decided to have obscure, minor-office elections every three goddamned months. And we should desecrate the graves of the geniuses who founded California's ridiculous, policy-deforming ballot initiative system.

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