Farther down the mold-scented corridor, past the elevator that spasms between floors as if plagued by hiccups, expletives detonate behind a room's closed door. A man is either arguing on the phone or shouting down the voices inside his head. Christopher Dahl nods toward the noise and offers an apologetic smile. "That's what happens," he says, "when someone gets off their meds."
Unhinged rants and unleashed dogs make for another typical day at the Civic Center. The red-brick hotel, built in 1915, squats at the corner of Market and 12th streets, providing its tenants refuge from harsher environs. Some of the 115 residents once slept under viaducts, others arrived on parole from prison. Most struggle to pay the $120 to $150 weekly rent. And come November, one of them hopes to evict Dianne Feinstein from her Beltway roost.
"If you don't say it's crazy, you have to say it's optimistic," Dahl says of his write-in bid for U.S. Senator. Clad in a blue denim jacket and jeans, he looks, quite literally, unsuited for the part of elected official; with an ash-white mustache that matches his sideburns and shoulder-length mane, he could pass for an Allman brother in large-frame glasses. Yet Dahl, who vows to never wear a tie on the Senate floor if elected, believes his casual appearance will aid his cause.
"At the very least, I have the hair recognition factor," he says. "This country needs to have someone in office who looks like he doesn't belong on K Street."
That rare candidate who will admit he inhaled and still does on occasion, the 59-year-old Dahl begs off a request to show his room, owing to its cluttered state. He describes his campaign headquarters as 12 feet long by 10 feet wide, with one electrical outlet and a single ceiling bulb, a microwave, and a small refrigerator. The power cuts out almost daily, the building's circuits seizing up when too many of his neighbors run appliances at the same time.
The outages slow Dahl's crusade, given that it chiefly consists of him tapping away at his computer to update his Web site, www.americasbalance.org. The online address hints at ambitions even grander than ousting Feinstein: Dahl seeks to create the Balance Party, a third option to the Democrats and Republicans. Or a second option to what he regards as the broadest influence on elections.
"The apathy party controls politics," he says. "The American people can't continue to delegate everything and say, 'It's not my problem.'"
Fringe candidates tend to lack political credentials beyond their ability to parrot Bill O'Reilly or the Daily Kos. But Dahl boasts grass-roots bona fides, thanks to his work on a campaign that hit perilously close to home: rescuing the Civic Center from the wrecking ball.
He moved into the hotel in 1999, 11 years after leaving the Bay Area to follow computer analyst jobs that took him to Long Beach, Seattle, and Chicago, among a half-dozen cities. But returning to San Francisco hobbled his career fortunes. Unable to find full-time work in his field, he subsists on a telemarketer's modest salary. Only the Civic Center's cheap rent, which costs about half that of most SROs, allows him to afford a place in the city.
The hotel belongs to the pension fund run by Plumbers Union Local 38, one of San Francisco's strongest labor groups. In 2003, after a decade of ignoring demands to begin a city-mandated seismic retrofit of the aging building, union officials applied for a demolition permit. Tenants speculated the union would cash in by building condos or an office tower after the Civic Center fell.
The prospect of losing the roof over his head roused Dahl's activist within. He built a Web site to promote the tenants' cause. Working with housing advocates, he organized rallies in front of the union's offices and gathered signatures for petitions to preserve the hotel. He lobbied city building officials and members of the Board of Supervisors, haunting their waiting rooms for hours to land a 10-minute meeting.
Three years and one lawsuit later the city sued Local 38 in April for failing to perform the $2 million upgrade the Civic Center endures. Whether it stays standing or ends up as rubble depends on how union honchos react to last month's discovery that the building has a steel frame. The presence of metal beams beneath the bricks and mortar averts the need for a retrofit, yet complicates the potential razing.
Either way, Dahl believes he and his fellow tenants prolonged the hotel's lifespan by pestering the union. The dispute also revived his political impulses, dormant since his late 20s, when he served on a health advisory board in San Diego. (A few years earlier, he had presided over the Young Democrats club at his high school.) The Civic Center struggle, coupled with his outrage at the morass in Iraq and the bumbling federal response to Hurricane Katrina, fired a resolve to enter the Senate race.
"I'm sick of watching all this shit happen when I can see how to fix it," he says. His hands flutter like hummingbirds as he discusses his platform, and his erudite references, from Joshua's conquest of Jericho to the Taoist musings of Lao Tzu, reveal a hungry mind. "I want to change the debate."
Dahl's worldview defies simple labeling, hovering somewhere between Libertarian and technocratic, and leavened by a wry wit. He favors pruning the government, reasoning that "the way you motivate bureaucrats is to get rid of some of them." He advocates greater reliance on desalinated sea water and alternative energy sources, along with loosening pot laws and raising the legal drinking age to 25. "Alcohol kills brain cells, and society needs people with as many brain cells as possible."
Meanwhile, he regards an increase in aerial drone surveillance as the best solution to curbing global terrorism, illegal immigration, and street crime. He further suggests implanting microchips in mid- and high-level federal employees to reduce the chances of another Katrina-style debacle.
"That sounds Orwellian, but we live in an Orwellian era," he says. "You should be able to watch the government at least as closely as the government watches you. I want to be able to find [Michael] Chertoff" director of homeland security "any moment of the day."
Dahl's desire to address national affairs in general and grill Donald Rumsfeld in particular about Iraq explains why, instead of pursuing a city or state seat, he wants Feinstein's job. (Her criticism of the push for gay marriage in 2004 as "too much, too fast, too soon" also rankled Dahl, who's gay.) To those who doubt his fitness for federal office, he politely replies, "I got a bootstrap in one hand and a shoelace in the other. If I run on my own and get elected, that's all the qualification I need."
He concedes that defeating a monied incumbent poses a Herculean task the two cats he inherited from a tenant who died last year make up his entire campaign staff. Yet pulling off an electoral miracle would give an instant boost to his third-party dreams. Before registering his group with the state, Dahl must collect the signatures of 80,000 California residents, an effort he promotes through his Web site. So far, the Balance Party's membership remains at one, and the next donation received will be its first.
Life as a senator would carry new burdens, of course. Dahl dreads speaking to large groups, and he dislikes the prospect of traveling to every corner of the state. "I'm sure Fresno is a real nice city," he says. "It's just way too hot." At the same time, if suffering such adversity is the price of shifting the nation's course, he declares himself ready to pay.
"Something has to be done because the country's in trouble," Dahl says. Then he smiles. "And I need a good health plan."