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Dumping Sophie 

On the heels of Gov. Davis' recall, angry constituents are trying to oust Supervisor Sophie Maxwell

Wednesday, Oct 22 2003
Recall fever has hit southeastern San Francisco, where some constituents of Supervisor Sophie Maxwell are collecting signatures for her ouster. The District 10 Alliance, a newly formed group of citizens from Bayview and Potrero Hill, charges that Maxwell has ignored residents and they want her out.

"They [politicians] don't listen," says Bayview activist Lynne Brown, one of a handful of people behind the recall effort. "[Gov. Gray Davis] didn't listen to the constituents who put him in office, and neither does Sophie."

Maxwell, a former electrician, was first elected in 2000 and re-elected after running unopposed in 2002. Her District 10 has been plagued by gang crime, high unemployment, and environmental health problems, as well as controversy over developing the former Hunters Point Shipyard and rezoning old industrial areas to make way for housing.

Under city law, recall supporters must collect signatures of at least 10 percent of the registered voters in District 10, or about 4,000 signatures. A recall election can then be held within 120 days.

San Francisco has never successfully recalled an elected official. Ex-Mayor Dianne Feinstein beat back an attempt to unseat her in 1983 and Mayor Roger Lapham held onto his job in 1946. But those who want to give Maxwell the boot are clearly drawing encouragement from the startlingly successful campaign to dump a sitting governor that recently gave us the Terminator as California's chief executive.

Maxwell seemed surprised and angered when the Weekly questioned her about the effort to oust her.

"If these people wanted to do something, why didn't they do it when I was running? I just ran a whole campaign in November and nobody ran against me," she said. "If they had a problem, they certainly could have talked about it then. I think it's because they have their own agenda and they're trying to destabilize our community and they're just on a negative trip. "

The recall is spearheaded by an unlikely coalition of residents of the Bayview-Hunters Point and Potrero Hill neighborhoods, dramatically different areas that have often stood apart on district issues. The Bayview is a primarily low-income, minority community where residents worry about joblessness, environmental illness, and gang crime. Potrero Hill is populated mostly by white, upper-middle-class professionals, many of whom feel threatened by the increased development of loft-style housing. And while each neighborhood has its own unique beefs with the supervisor, they share a common complaint: Sophie Maxwell is ignoring them.

Angry Potrero Hill residents say they assumed Maxwell was focusing her attention on the Bayview because the area was more needy. Meanwhile, the Bayview contingent thought Maxwell spent all her resources on Potrero Hill, where the majority of her votes came from. The recall was born when activists from both parts of the district met recently while fighting pollution from PG&E's Hunters Point Power Plant. By then, Maxwell had already been re-elected.

"It's like realizing that your mother has not just been abusing you, but the rest of your siblings as well," says Kepa Askenasy, a Potrero Hill architect who joined the recall effort.

Her Bayview counterparts agree.

"We get so involved in what's going on around us. ... A lot of people just don't know about what's going on," says Lynne Brown. "They don't know what's happening to this area. Unemployment is 14 percent out here. We're busy trying to make ends meet."

Proponents this week planned to take the first official step in getting a recall on the ballot, mailing in a legally required notice to city elections officials that includes a list of grievances. The notice claims Maxwell failed to actively address health hazards, did not assist District 10 residents in getting a fair share of jobs on Muni's Third Street light-rail project, hasn't done enough to help resolve clashes between police and youths in Bayview-Hunters Point, and failed to give adequate consideration to possible health consequences of the city Public Utilities Commission's power plans for the district. Moreover, the petition states, Maxwell doesn't show up for key community meetings and isn't accessible to constituents, forcing them to go to other supervisors to air their concerns.

Maxwell denies recall organizers' charge that she's hard to get ahold of.

"They're absolutely wrong," she says. "I'm probably the most available supervisor. Most of the time people like that don't try and talk. I've invited them to talk, and it's just about their own agenda and what they want."

She says that she helped secure $50 million for job training in Bayview-Hunters Point and met with Muni representatives and Third Street light-rail protesters the day before they marched on City Hall. Maxwell also says she is putting together public hearings on the police and gang-violence issues.

"When they say I'm not anywhere, where are they? I can't just be in Bayview," she says. "I have the largest geographical area in the city. I'm a county representative. I have to go to Washington to look at [federal mass transit] funds. I have to go to Sacramento to do other things. I have to meet with the neighborhoods. I'm on the [Board of Supervisors] budget committee that meets regularly. I have to meet with people. I don't know what they're talking about other than they may not understand what a supervisor does. I am a policy-maker. I have to work through a legislative process. I have to work with people."

Potrero Hill recall proponents are angry over development issues, particularly the rezoning of light industrial areas to make way for more live-work housing. Maxwell, they allege, has supported developers over the wishes of constituents in rezoning and in allowing "monster homes" to spring up around Rhode Island, De Haro, and 18th streets.

Maxwell seems stunned by the criticism, saying she has sought to inject community input into the planning process, and that the city Planning Department is now reviewing plans for the entire southeast side of San Francisco.

"People don't understand what happens and the process and how you have to go through it," she says. "Nothing has gone up. Nothing has happened with any of the developers. I am the one making sure that we have planning and a process and ... hearings on things.

"These people are very selfish and self-centered -- that's what they are and who they are."

A District 10 native, Maxwell swept into office with support from Potrero Hill, beating out Linda Richardson, who was supported by Mayor Willie Brown. The supervisor is often backed by Potrero Hill Boosters, the area's most politically powerful neighborhood group. And since her election, Maxwell also has been supported by Brown, to the chagrin of recall advocates who believe the mayor is too friendly with developers. Maxwell's failed run at the presidency of the Board of Supervisors earlier this year was backed by Brown-friendly Supervisors Gavin Newsom and Bevan Dufty.

But Maxwell has suffered some serious personal losses since she took office as well.

"My son died. My mother [well-known local activist Enola Maxwell] died. I'm raising a grandchild. I have family issues like everybody else," she says. "This community has been my first priority. I [won the election] and I believed I could deal with this because the environment and issues were important to me."

And she acknowledges that getting around her large, diverse district -- which also includes Visitacion Valley and some smaller, adjacent neighborhoods -- can be difficult.

"On one side of [Potrero] Hill I have a power plant and on the other side they're talking about rebuilding S.F. General and people losing their homes, and I have to be both places on the hill," Maxwell says with exasperation. "I have to deal with city departments who are not my departments. I don't own them. I can suggest to them what to do, but I can't hire and fire them. There is a process that you have to go through.

"I say to those people [the recall supporters] that they really don't understand the process and they're not looking at the whole; they're looking at their interests and what they want. I work day and night to be available to people. I had to run immediately when I got in here. I've been running ever since."

If Maxwell's political enemies can gather enough valid voter signatures in time, they hope to place the recall on next March's state primary election ballot. If not, a special election would have to be held later.

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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