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A Step Forward 

Whether it's Agnos or Gonzalez, one of them needs to jump into the race

Wednesday, Apr 18 2007
Judging from the hale, serene demeanor of the co-lead barrister in the small-business and civil-rights litigation firm at Two Shaw Alley, there's something to be said for ducking out, if only briefly, from life as savior of the progressive world.

I find the same Matt Gonzalez as we all got to know during his minute-messiah campaign for mayor four years ago, only far less sweaty and stressed out. He still combines the qualities of seeming both attentive and absent into a sort of contemplative charm. And his studied lack of dogmaticism still seems vaguely heretical coming from a member of the Green Party — until one recognizes that intellectual eclecticism can also be a type of creed.

Now Gonzalez is embroiled in every politician's most deeply vexing personal crisis, the moment when he or she really has to make a decision on whether or not to run for office.

The quandary has made his enigmatic nature even more acute.

"When I ran for mayor in 2003, I was very earnest about it, and it was a serious effort. But I'm doing something else now," said Gonzalez, in reference to the law firm Gonzalez & Leigh, which he founded in 2005.

But just six months before this November's mayoral election, Gavin Newsom is running virtually unopposed on a record as a near-absentee mayor who's governed via press release. Doesn't he think someone should do something?

"Just the fact that I've met with people to see if it can be done is nodding to the issues and points you just made," Gonzalez said.

Indeed, during the previous months Gonzalez has met with power brokers such as Joe O'Donoghue and Jack Davis. And last Friday he was scheduled to have lunch with Art Agnos, the former San Francisco mayor who Gonzalez believes has the best shot at beating Gavin Newsom.

Agnos, for his part, says he's undecided as to whether he'll enter the race. He won't make such a decision, he says, before summer, when his role as court-appointed receiver for the San Francisco Housing Authority is completed. He's assigned with compelling the department to pay some $15 million in judgments from a fatal fire and two sexual harassment cases, an appointment the Housing Authority has appealed.

These two are the most viable among the potential candidates with a likelihood of opposing Newsom. The current mayor has a public approval rating that now hovers in the 60 percent range. But I believe that could change quickly. I think Newsom can be beaten.

For the good of the city, one of these two old cronies needs to get off the fence and jump into the race. The last thing this city needs is a cakewalk win for an incumbent mayor who has failed to attend to his job.

I'll grant that staring down the barrel of pre-election polls saying around two-thirds of the electorate like the incumbent is a scary prospect for a potential opponent. And that's where I'm told private polls say the mayor's approval ratings stand.

So potential candidates have all but bowed out.

Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin isn't running — unless the current mayor somehow leaves office early. Peskin, as the mayor's titular next-in-command could stand for office as an incumbent.

District Attorney Dennis Herrera has said publicly he has no plans to run, a sentiment repeated by people close to him. Charismatic Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, while not denying ambitions to someday run for mayor, believes his time has not yet come.

But current polling, to cite former Newsom campaign adviser Jim Ross, "is a snapshot of the current situation; it's not predictive. People want to say, here's where he is now. Here's where he will end up. No. It merely says where he is now," Ross said.

Newsom has remained popular by spending three years divorcing himself from all aspects of city management while manicuring his own image in the media. So far, it's worked: Local newspapers and television stations characterize Gavin Newsom as the regent of a modern Camelot with a charmingly decadent rutting and boozing habit — rather than what he really is, an absentee landlord who's let the property decay.

When it comes to issues such as transportation, development, health, the environment, poverty, housing, efficiency, public safety, or any other policy issue, city bureaucrats are pretty much left on their own.

"He absolutely doesn't give a shit about anything we work on," said a city lobbyist who works on housing, transportation, and development issues. "With Willie Brown, it seemed like he was everywhere. You felt like the bathrooms were bugged. It was scary. Then with Newsom you went to the complete opposite, where department heads never hear from" the mayor.

The risky nature of Newsom's do-nothing strategy played itself out last week, as the city's Municipal Railway froze up, keeping thousands of people from getting to work. Newsom has been all over the transit issue — at least political-strategy and patronage-wise. To hire a transportation czar, Newsom recently bent city rules to pay $213,980 to a former political consultant who'd worked in the firms of Democratic rainmakers Darius Anderson and Jack Davis. For all his skills as a political tactician, the richly paid Stuart Sunshine is considered by transit experts to be a disaster of a bureaucrat, policy-wise.

For two years now analysts have said Muni is in a funding and maintenance "death spiral." These warnings have been ignored by the Mayor's Office. After the Wednesday and Thursday meltdown, Newsom proposed to study the issue "top down."

In politics, it's possible to get away with that kind of hogwash for a while. And the mayor may remain lucky during the next six months. Another Muni meltdown may not occur. Alarming catastrophes may very well not arise in the areas of the economy, the city's crumbling ports, its money-pit water delivery and sewage systems, its worst-in-America police performance, its substandard schools, bankrupt parks system, still-overwhelming housing shortage, and charnel-house city-funded homeless shelters. The city's massive unfunded pension obligations may also remain an open secret. There probably won't be an earthquake. So it probably won't make a difference that Newsom put a patronage hack in charge of disaster preparedness. And bastion-of-incompetence-and-corruption bureaucracies such as the S.F. Airport and the Housing Authority may refrain from producing one of their periodic scandals.

If no viable candidate steps forward to oppose him, the mayor's failure in all areas of city policy might continue bubbling below the public's consciousness.

It's during campaign season, after all, that charges and counter-charges get raised. It's when newspapers send their reporters to political debates. And sometimes, news organizations actually evaluate the policy records of politicians at around election time.

Such a process might not be friendly to Newsom.

It would be kinder to Gonzalez or Agnos.

During his time as a member of the Board of Supervisors, Gonzalez was a doer. While he was president of the Board of Supervisors, he fought during city budget negotiations to make government more efficient. He attempted to root corruption out of the Housing Authority, improved protections for city whistleblowers, and broadened city oversight of campaign spending. Now that Gonzalez has spent three years representing a client list that's included small businesses, he's developed a sensibility friendly to their interests, too.

Left-wing politicians should focus their efforts on reducing government waste, rather than increasing taxes, he said during our two-hour lunch last week.

Art Agnos, meanwhile, is the former San Francisco assemblyman who became the first statewide politician in the U.S. during the 1980s to confront the new AIDS epidemic. As mayor, after the Embarcadero Freeway was compromised during the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, Agnos endured rebellion from his Chinatown political constituents as he led the effort to get the blight-inducing eyesore torn down.

Both of these men need to hurry up with their soul searching, and give San Francisco a real race for mayor.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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