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Badlands Confidential 

Is there a race problem at a Castro gay bar -- or a propriety problem in a city supervisor's office?

Wednesday, Jun 29 2005
It's late afternoon, and a rumpled Bevan Dufty is mixing an energy drink in an old paper cup while trying to explain his role in an investigation by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission into allegedly racist practices at a gay bar in the city's Castro District. In his view, the role was limited to doing what a city supervisor is supposed to do -- watch over his district. "I didn't want to make this just about me as the focal point, you know," the first-term supervisor says. "I'm Solomon who split the baby."

The "baby" in question is SF Badlands, a Castro club owned by Les Natali. In April, the Human Rights Commission issued a report contending that the bar's employees had engaged in racist business practices, including referring to African-American patrons as "non-Badlands customers" and often requiring African-Americans to produce extra forms of ID at the door. The investigation was sparked by complaints from an interest group, And Castro for All, against Natali and the club.

The commission report has garnered broad news coverage, much of it as reports that took the HRC's findings at face value. In the wake of its release, Dufty, whose district includes SF Badlands, has repeatedly spoken out against the bar, urging that city and state regulators use the HRC findings to shut it down. In his public statements, Dufty has stressed the alleged lack of inclusiveness and diversity at SF Badlands.

But there's an underside to the SF Badlands situation that Dufty has not publicly stressed: his relationship with Greg Bronstein, a Castro restaurant and bar owner who is a direct competitor against Natali. Bronstein is Dufty's acknowledged "best friend" and was an asset in Dufty's campaign for the District 8 supervisor seat. Dufty rented his campaign headquarters on Market Street from Bronstein, who donated funds to the Dufty campaign and provided the soon-to-be supervisor with, as Bronstein puts it, "emotional support."

Bronstein has aided Dufty, and Dufty has seemed to use his public persona to assist Bronstein -- or, at least, to attempt to badger Bronstein's foe out of business.

Before And Castro for All had brought complaints of discrimination at SF Badlands to the HRC, Dufty injected himself into Natali's 2004 attempts to purchase another bar, the Pendulum, the only club in the Castro that caters to an African-American clientele. "I heard rumors a year ago that Les was purchasing the Pendulum," Dufty says. "So I called [prominent black gay activist] Calvin Gipson and said, 'Hey Calvin, I hear Les is buying the Pendulum, and I kind of think that's a problem.'" Since then, Dufty has taken it upon himself to gather local black leaders who object to Natali owning the club, and who may even want to buy it -- even though Natali has never indicated that he has the intention of selling.

Dufty claims that SF Badlands has long had a reputation of being racist. "I said, 'You know that your bar has a reputation; no one has ever come forward and said this is something that they allege, so it's a perception that exists, but I think it's really going to cloud you owning this bar,'" Dufty says he told Natali at a meeting the two had on Memorial Day of last year.

As Dufty was working against Natali's efforts to buy the Pendulum, the supervisor's best friend, Bronstein, was also vying to purchase it. Bronstein, who owns the Lime and Red Grill establishments, says he thought he was a shoo-in to acquire the Pendulum, but in December Natali purchased the club from Rod Kobila. "I had a verbal agreement with the seller [of the Pendulum]," Bronstein says, adding that he does not know why the club was sold to Natali. "I can only assume," Bronstein says, without elaboration.

Natali's attorneys would not discuss the details of the sale.

Shortly after the sale of the Pendulum to Natali, a citizens' group that subsequently morphed into And Castro for All began making complaints about alleged racism at Natali's SF Badlands. Since that time, Dufty has put an enormous amount of political weight and credibility into supporting the And Castro for All campaign against Natali.

In the wake of the Human Rights Commission report, Dufty has written letters to the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission and appeared before the San Francisco Entertainment Commission, urging them to take away Natali's licenses to do business. Dufty acknowledges that he has even spoken to police, asking what they can do in the way of punishing Natali. Two weeks ago, Dufty introduced a resolution to the Board of Supervisors applauding the Human Rights Commission's report on SF Badlands and urging other city and state agencies to punish Natali. Dufty had help in drafting the resolution -- from members of the group And Castro for All who had been campaigning against Natali and his club for months.

In light of his best friend's business rivalry with Natali, Dufty's actions raise complex ethical questions.

It seems clear that, if Natali's bars were shut down, Bronstein could benefit. In addition to the two men's bidding war over the Pendulum, Natali also outbid Bronstein for the Detour bar on Market Street several years ago. According to Bronstein, when Natali's lease expires in October, Bronstein, who now holds the master lease to the building that the Detour is in, will likely take over the bar. If Natali loses his license at SF Badlands and the Pendulum, Bronstein may be interested in acquiring those bars, too.

Bronstein's connection with Dufty is also clear. "Greg is a good friend of mine; I socialize with him, I care about him. And I understand why Les would make certain assumptions," Dufty says. But he denies that any of his involvement in the case against SF Badlands and Natali was motivated by Bronstein.

"I'm responsible for dealing with issues in my district, and this is an issue. I don't know how I remove myself from that because I am a friend of Greg Bronstein," Dufty says.

But Dufty hasn't just dealt with the SF Badlands issue; he has vigorously pushed city and state agencies to shut Natali's business down based on the Human Rights Commission's report -- even though there are significant questions about the conduct of the HRC investigation, the reliability of the report, and the legality of its use by other governmental agencies.

On April 27, when the commission released its report, Dufty immediately urged other agencies to, essentially, put Natali out of business. Two weeks ago, on the steps of City Hall, just before Dufty introduced his resolution to the board, which passed unanimously, he again encouraged all responsible agencies to use the "full extent of the law" in dealing with Natali.

But according to Matt Dorsey, a spokesman in the City Attorney's Office, which represents the HRC, the commission's report is "not a legal determination and has no binding authority over any other agency." Beyond that, the commission's report is not even final.

Larry Brinkin, who supervised the Human Rights Commission investigation, notes that "the case remains open while we consider the request for reconsideration." The commission has yet to respond to Natali's letter of appeal, which charged that the commission exceeded its authority under the city charter, denied Natali due process, and violated its own statute of limitations in considering some evidence. Brinkin says that the commission plans to release its response to Natali soon.

Paul Melbostad, one of Natali's attorneys, is hopeful that his client and the complainants in the matter can enter into mediation processes with the HRC. He is, however, critical of Dufty's role in presenting the Board of Supervisors resolution supporting the Human Rights Commission report. "It is apparent that somebody pushed him [Dufty] to rush through the resolution because they knew that other agencies were about to make decisions," he says.

Indeed, they seem to be.

A source at the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission, who requested anonymity because his agency's inquiry into the SF Badlands situation is not officially complete, says it is highly unlikely the agency will suspend the liquor license for SF Badlands as a result of the Human Rights Commission report, because there is no legal authority attached to the report. The City Attorney's Office's Dorsey, meanwhile, says that under city law, the Entertainment Commission cannot deal with claims more than six months old. All of the cases of alleged discrimination brought to the Human Rights Commission happened more than a year ago.

Robert Davis, the executive director of the Entertainment Commission, says it is not investigating Natali, and he is unsure how the commission will proceed. "We are asking our attorney to what extent the HRC findings are binding on us," he says.

While it seems that city and state agencies may not support Dufty's requests to take action against Natali, Mayor Gavin Newsom is now faced with a request from Natali to veto Dufty's recent resolution. According to the mayor's spokeswoman, Jennifer Petrucione, the resolution is on Newsom's desk and under review. "At this time he is not leaning either way. The mayor respects that the HRC has a process under way," Petrucione says.

About The Author

Cristi Hegranes


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