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Left in the Lurch 

In jingoistic times, Steve Williams exhibits precisely the kind of faux progressivism we don't need in a city attorney

Wednesday, Oct 24 2001
As I stepped into the night fog on the way to work last week I felt nervous -- very, extremely, dreadfully nervous -- but certainly not insane. I lifted the rusty latch and opened the rotting wooden gate of SF Weekly Enterprises Inc. Inside, darker than night itself, was a heaping, bilious mass. Halloween was a week away, Election Day only two; only one worse terror remained: the arrival of another mailbag.

I peered into the rotting canvas, er, electronic sack, filled to the brim with electronic envelopes powder-filled in their way; most of the letters came in the form of e-mails dusted with strong feelings about last week's column, which gave the government advice on hunting down Osama bin Laden, then sharply criticized George Bush. I plunged my hand into the Halloween mailbag fearless just the same: "Criticize the president," I thought, "that's no big deal. This is America, right?"

Not if you ask the anonymous letter writer "An American."

Let me ask you this, you pinko north end of a south bound mule, did you serve in the armed forces? If not then who in the hell are you to call someone a coward? Bush a hypocrite? Your pinko column says you are the hypocrite? ...

... You, hiding behind misused "freedom of the press," are the coward, an insult to the "home of the brave." You and all those pinkos like you make me sick, and I wish you would all get the hell out of America. You are, to say the least, a gutless coward. I will close saying you are cordially invited to attend the theological place of eternal punishment.


An American

Which got me to thinking about how damned horrifying it's becoming to be an American these days. Since mid-September, America has felt like a horror-movie re-creation of the 1950s: It's full of racism and jingoism and closed-mindedness, without the benefit of malted milk or sock hops. Suddenly, the nation's under patrol by flag-festooned, twin-cab pickup trucks, driven, I imagine, by the letter-writing brethren of AA. They fill up my mailbag saying things like, "The people like you glorified communism in Russia until it folded onto itself thanks to those who defended you and your like and everyone else on this side of the Iron Curtain," and, "I found your article "Osama Was Here' to be of the type that divides people and hurts the country we share."

This country is becoming divided all right, and that's what's been making me so dreadfully nervous.

Like America has during other times of war, the place has turned into a jingoistic, nativist, prejudiced wasteland. Like no time in recent memory, the values of altruism, inclusion, diversity, charity, and acceptance of dissent are under assault. In the best possible world, San Francisco would be a bulwark -- in the words of Geoff Amidei, who writes from all the way over in Bologna, Italy, for Chrissakes, "You are in San Francisco, across the bay from Berkeley, and it's [sic] now internationally famous mass of false-pacifists." This is where the left has historically innovated and flourished, advocating peace, trade unionism, environmentalism, civil rights, and free speech. Yet the question arises: Has the San Francisco left become so flaccid, weak, and compromised that it is ill-prepared to confront these troubled times?

It is with this fear in my heart that I am devoting a column to an unlikely cause: opposing the candidacy of a city attorney hopeful whom a recent poll shows to be already struggling. According to a survey published last week, Steve Williams is running in a close fourth place in the four-candidate race, with 18 percent favoring former Dianne Feinstein aide Jim Lazarus, 5 percent choosing Police Commissioner Dennis Herrera and attorney Neil Eisenberg, and 4 percent going for Williams.

"Things are heading in the right direction," Williams says. "Lazarus is slipping."

Which very well may be. And empty-suit leftist Eisenberg just may fall completely by the wayside. Williams' charges that his opponents are slaves to campaign finance just may stick; he may sneak into a runoff, where anything could happen. And that would be more awful than the mere idea of a race for city attorney might suggest, because Steve Williams is the official candidate of San Francisco's leftist malaise. He's gained the support of much of last year's "progressive revolution" with five left-wing supervisors on board for Williams, including the iconic Tom Ammiano.

But Williams hasn't improved the working conditions of low-paid seamstresses, halted toxic-waste dumping, battled racial injustice -- or anything of the sort. His rise to prominence has been due entirely to his predilection for joining rich people's battles to preserve their suburban-style neighborhoods. In that kind of world, one where the left-wing champions in a famously left-wing city earn their stripes by stumping for the rich, there exists no higher ground.

Right-wing zealots can send bilious missives such as the one David Zincavage, a Newtown, Conn., European genealogy buff, sent minutes ago, and suffer no moral disadvantage whatsoever.

"I call you a scum-sucking, communist faggot, and if you would care to do anything about it," he wrote, "as a presumptive non-coward, non-fraud, I'll be delighted to meet you."

Steve Williams, an attorney with the Oakland law firm Fitzgerald, Abbott & Beardsley LLP, gained mild prominence a half-decade ago when he successfully fought off the construction of a fourplex that had been slated for the lot next to his San Francisco home. A pair of Irish brothers had bought the dilapidated cottage next-door to Williams' house and obtained permits to demolish it and build a small apartment building. Williams protested the permit before the Board of Appeals, lost, then sued the city.

A judge remanded the appeal to the Board of Appeals, which decided that the permit had been improperly granted. Further review caused the project to be rejected. Williams then sued the city to pay his attorney's fees, a case that made it all the way to the state appellate court. Williams asserted that he had pursued his case to the city's benefit, and should be repaid. The court said he was acting in his personal interest, and rejected his appeal. He next joined a lawsuit to remove from office the one member of the Board of Appeals who voted against reversing the decision that would have allowed the Sutter Street fourplex, charging that the board member suffered a conflict of interest. Williams lost that action as well.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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