Imagine the most bitchin' personal ad in the history of self-promotion. It would conjure a man both wealthy and sensitive, possessing ambition and clout, with madly idealistic goals made to seem almost credible thanks to his position in life. It would run on the front page of a major metropolitan daily. To ice the (beef)cake, the ad would be composed by a woman, herself attractive.
Astonishingly, something along these lines actually occurred last week when the San Francisco Chronicle's Cecilia Vega wrote a front-page article about a tall, slim, tanned, and newly rich bureaucrat named Wade Crowfoot.
"Mayor Gavin Newsom recently created a $160,000-a-year job for a senior aide and gave him the ambitious-sounding title of director of climate change protection initiatives," Vega began. She continued, "One might expect someone with such an exalted handle to solve global warming and save the rain forest all in a day's work."
The day the ad/article appeared, I attended a downtown event where Crowfoot had been scheduled to publicly explain his new job. The audience was salted with winsome women, some carefully jotting down his words on lined paper, others gazing at him with faces cupped in hands, some glancing around the room as if to survey the competition. Newspapers, I contentedly imagined, remained an effective advertising medium.
I had you there until that last sentence, didn't I? Allow me to bring us back to reality by calling bullshit — on myself.
While these observations and details about the Feb. 20 Chronicle article, its writer, its subject, and the event I attended are real, I can't imagine Vega meant to pen a personal ad. She appears merely to be doing her job as a news reporter, provoking the latest convulsion of an ongoing pseudoscandal called Aidegate, in which the mayor tapped the budget of transportation bureaucracies to fund positions that at first glance seemed only tangentially related to transit.
Vega has been fulfilling, in other words, a seemingly voracious appetite these days among S.F. news consumers for bullshit, defined as communication that only pretends to inform.
Exhibit A is the fact that my nonsense about Crowfoot's supposed personal ad has lured you this far.
Exhibit B is the bullshit-stained yet wildly popular Aidegate story itself, which has remained alive on television, blogs, and newspapers despite the fact it conveys a misleading message that the mayor is being underhanded and incompetent when, in fact, it may be rare evidence of an attempt at effectiveness from Newsom.
Crowfoot's new job, with its squishy "change protection initiatives" title, stands out as a central culprit in Aidegate. The study was requested by Jake McGoldrick, a member of the "progressive" faction on the Board of Supervisors. It noted that money for Crowfoot's new position came from the city transit system's Safety and Training Unit. But the fact is that Crowfoot's new job seems designed to improve transit in the city far more effectively than adding another random bureaucrat in the transportation safety department would do.
As someone who has spent the past four years pointing out and then denouncing the myriad instances where Gavin Newsom only pretends to accomplish things, I'm obligated to praise him when he actually attempts to get things done. And during the past month the mayor has hired qualified staff members and briefed them with instructions to break bureaucratic logjams, chaperone controversial or complicated programs into fruition, and otherwise actually — gasp! — make the city a better place. Crowfoot's new job, while perhaps excessively lucrative, seems to fit this bill. For this the mayor should receive credit, not media-generated buncombe.
During his talk last Wednesday, Crowfoot explained that he sees his anti-global-warming task as coinciding with that of the Municipal Transportation Agency, which runs a bus and rail system that has been declining steadily, despite oceans of political rhetoric about how it needs to be saved.
"My job is focused on getting people out of their cars and reducing the 51 percent of pollution that comes from people driving to and from, and within the city," Crowfoot said. That, he added, requires "reprioritizing speed and efficiency within Muni."
What could be more innocuous? Who doesn't want the buses to run on time?
A lot of people, it turns out.
Taking the kind of controversial steps needed to promote this transit "mode shift" requires entering a political war zone with the skills of a diplomatic envoy. As the mayor's former liaison to the Board of Supervisors, Crowfoot is up to the task.
Streamlining bus movement can require turning some car-parking spaces into bus lanes; no privilege is more fiercely defended in San Francisco than parking. It also can mean redirecting favorite-yet-underused routes. And in this change-hating city, eliminating a single bus stop can mean facing a hearing filled with angry protesters. To further speed transit, Crowfoot said he'll chaperone a proposal called "congestion pricing" that relieves traffic, while making things easier for buses and pedestrians, by imposing a toll on drivers in the city's downtown core.
This has been a rousing success in cities such as London. But San Francisco's troglodyte Chamber of Commerce pooh-bahs have vowed to fight such a toll proposal until their steering wheels are pried from their cold, dead hands.
Crowfoot will also ensure that the city planning, transportation, and parking and traffic departments complete a series of detailed plans and environmental studies required to counter an anti-environmentalist lawsuit that attempted to stop the city from creating bike lanes. Officials have been laggard so far.
"The city is [currently] prohibited legally from making improvements on our citywide bike lane network, because of the California Environmental Quality Act, which, I would argue, is perverted," Crowfoot said. "This has not been moving along quickly enough. This requires an unprecedentedly complex coordination between departments. So I'm having a working group to see how people are moving ahead on that project."
To hear Crowfoot describe his agenda is to ask why the city's "progressive" supervisors, supposedly the most environmentally friendly cats in town, chose to raise a weeks-long public stink about his appointment. Why not rejoice that the mayor has appointed someone who can bust bureaucratic heads to establish bike lanes, improve bus service, and get people out of their cars?