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Losin' It 

Can Wade and O'Donoghue keep up in this brave broke world?

Wednesday, Feb 19 2003
As San Francisco enters a season of political upheaval in which more than $300 million must be cut from the city's budget, just as voters prepare to choose a new mayor, we can expect to find our local political sharpies stepping to the fore. Behind-the-scenes activists will begin wheedling and cajoling to preserve their favored piece of the pie as bureaucrats cut millions from departmental budgets. And as local political relationships are upended with Willie Brown's departure later this year, we'll see the city's players seek to preserve their turf by bullying, conniving, and colluding.

It's during turbulent periods like these that power relationships and priorities are formed, re-formed, and cemented for the future. This is when playahs must be on their game, or lose the game. Judging from the efforts during the past two weeks of a couple of old hands -- longtime parks activist Isabel Wade and perennial political fixer Joe O'Donoghue -- our city's stalwarts may be losing their edge. Perhaps, just perhaps, we're on the cusp of a new day.

Let's peer into the world of playahs and fixers and insider doings to see what the future might hold:

Isabel Wade is executive director of the Neighborhood Parks Council. In 1993, Dr. Wade received one of the first national awards for excellence in the environmental field from Good Housekeeping magazine. She founded California's urban forestry program in 1977 under Gov. Jerry Brown. Two years ago she led the campaign to pass a local $110 million parks bond measure. She is, indeed, a woman who gets things done.

Next on Wade's agenda: Get the Board of Supervisors to support the sale of naming rights to Candlestick Park, with proceeds earmarked for preserving the budget of the city's Department of Recreation and Park. Wade's technique: Get an obscure alternative weekly columnist -- that would be me -- to write an article touting a naming rights sale.

Last year, after 3Com Corp. said it wouldn't renew its 7-year-old naming-rights deal, the Board of Supervisors voted to end the practice of attaching corporate names to the stadium.

"It's sort of a crass thing for the city to do," says Board President Matt Gonzalez, the measure's sponsor.

By Wade's line of thinking, the fact that the city, and its park system, is facing its worst-ever budget crisis should be enough to make the supervisors reconsider.

"They've already been doing it, so I don't see what the harm would be," she says.

After having an assistant phone me, fax me, e-mail me, and phone me again, Wade explained that if everything went according to her plan, I'd write a news story based on the premise that naming rights are once again in play. (See above.) Next, according to Wade's plan, a corporate honcho might read my story, call the 49ers, and make an offer Supervisor Tony Hall, who's undecided on the naming-rights issue, couldn't refuse. The money would fill Rec and Park's coffers. And the agency would be able to stop borrowing resources from the bond-funded Natural Areas Program, which preserves and enhances local open space.

Now, I'm not saying it's always a bad idea to leave one's behind-the-scenes political machinations to alternative weekly writers -- we're people with many positive qualities. But let's just say we sometimes have different priorities than the machinators.

Anyway, if the rest of San Francisco's devastated publicity market is any gauge, stadium naming rights aren't worth near as much as they once were. The market price for such a deal may have come down far enough to put it within the grasp of ordinary people. I mean really, really ordinary people: Raiders fans.

Judging from my small, informal survey of Raiders fan clubs -- one of the largest, best-organized fan networks in football, I'm told -- the tens of thousands of Raiders fans worldwide might get enough glee from forcing the Niners to play in a "Raider Nation Coliseum" that they'd fork over the $10 or so per year each it would cost them to buy the naming rights.

Following the guide of Wade's apparent worldview, where journalists don't just report the news, they make it, I phoned Raiders fan clubs around the country until I found Edward R. Atkins, a Sacramento air conditioner salesman who's also president of the Sacramento Raider Rooters. I asked Ed if he'd be willing to get his members excited about buying Candlestick naming rights. As anyone who watched the recent Super Bowl riots knows, Raiders fans are an excitable bunch.

"It's an idea I'd be willing to promote in our club newsletter," said Atkins, who then took his level of commitment a step further. "We will be more than happy to set aside an account for this."

Interested Raider fans are encouraged to consult, or e-mail Atkins with contributions, insights, or advice at

During several decades of lobbying on behalf of his Residential Builders Association, Joe O'Donoghue has allied himself with politicians of every stripe. Just last week, for instance, leftist Supervisor Chris Daly backed an RBA-supported rezoning measure allowing a large South of Market live-work project to be converted into apartments, to the chagrin of anti-development activists. O'Donoghue has become one of San Francisco's most controversial political figures by spreading the message that people who mix it up with him rarely come out unscathed. His latest such campaign -- which involves stomping on a group of Irish carpenters who had the temerity to picket a job site run by his right-hand man -- begs the question: Has old Joe lost his touch?

Last week O'Donoghue told me he was starting up a charitable group patterned after the Jewish organization B'nai B'rith. To hear him describe it, O'Donoghue's latest bid for the status of biggest kid on the block will be based on the notion of preserving Irish pride. He said he's thinking of forming a coalition of prominent lawyers modeled after B'nai B'rith that would make life difficult for people O'Donoghue deems to have sullied the idea of Irishness.

"There's no reason to reinvent the wheel," O'Donoghue said when asked for further details about his plans for his Irish B'nai B'rith. "We need a group or a body that can monitor when someone has been wrongfully defamed, especially from our culture. We need someone to step up to bat."

O'Donoghue's not talking about America's unhappy tradition of cracking Irish jokes, nor of the brutal conflict in Northern Ireland. Instead, he's consumed with protecting honest, hard-working people of Irish descent from the shame of Irish carpenters who use swear words. I'm not kidding.

To back up a bit: Last month members of Northern California Carpenters Union Local 22 picketed an excavation job conducted by Granite Excavation & Demolition Inc., a company owned by Joe Cassidy, who is treasurer of O'Donoghue's Residential Builders Association. Rather than hiring carpenters for the job, which consisted of removing earth and building wooden supports to keep the basement of a local Catholic church from caving in, Cassidy had hired members of Laborer's International Union Local 261.

At some point during the picket, the carpenters are said to have shouted some unpleasant words to passers-by -- a teacher, perhaps some kids, a parishioner or two. They also may have slashed a teacher's tires; the facts are in dispute. The Rev. Michael Healy, pastor of St. Philip the Apostle Church in Noe Valley, where Cassidy is a parishioner, wrote a letter to his congregation criticizing the carpenters. And that's when O'Donoghue -- who's recently backed Cassidy in a couple of high-profile feuds, including the aforementioned live-work apartment permit dispute, and in an effort to sic building inspectors on RBA critic Michael Hannon -- extended the fray.

O'Donoghue, who among his many activities is chairman of the city's St. Patrick's Day Parade, said he left "a real piss message" for carpenters' union leaders. "I was outraged," he said, "that they would try to block Father Healy, to block his access to his own church next to a convent where there were 80-year-old nuns."

O'Donoghue then moved to have the United Irish Societies of San Francisco, which sponsors the March 16 parade, ban the carpenters from the event. This could have created a sticky situation for his ally, Mayor Willie Brown, had other unions decided to boycott the parade in sympathy with the carpenters, but O'Donoghue was prepared. He said he'd contacted various union leaders around town and secured an agreement that there would be no sympathy boycott.

"We wouldn't want Willie not to be able to march," O'Donoghue said.

Next he lined up a group of Irish RBA members and their allies, along with Father Healy, to speak at a Feb. 11 meeting of Irish Societies members. For good measure, O'Donoghue told me, his friend Warren Hinckle wrote two columns mentioning the dispute.

But the night of the meeting came, and Father Healy failed to show up. Worse, Irish Societies members were in no mood to allow their organization to become a battleground between Irish developers and Irish carpenters. O'Donoghue said he'd withdraw his organization's support from the parade unless they banned the carpenters, to no avail; Societies members voted overwhelmingly to allow the carpenters to march. And O'Donoghue marched out of the meeting, saying he and the RBA would no longer support the parade.

"I think that if Joe O'Donoghue's claim was legit, he wouldn't have had to come in and try to threaten the Irish community," says Seamus Collins, an Irish Northern Aid member who moved to reject O'Donoghue's request. "He'd said, "If you don't support me, I'm going to withdraw my guys, my money, and my support.' This put the Irish Societies in a difficult position. If we'd supported Joe O'Donoghue's position, we would have had a parade that excluded unions. Other unions would have walked out of our parade, and we would have looked like a bunch of hypocrites."

John Moylan, a retired plasterer who also supported the motion not to exclude the carpenters, says backing O'Donoghue's stance would have put the Irish Societies in an awkward position.

"I was business manager in the plasterers' union for 25 years," he says. "Things happen when you're on the picket line you have no control over sometimes. I'm not saying the carpenters are right. But whatever happened out there didn't belong in the Irish Societies. It's nothing personal against anybody. The thing should have been settled at the labor council, or [in] negotiations between the parties, or in the courts."

Or, if O'Donoghue's latest plan pans out, a soon-to-be-launched Irish B'nai B'rith. O'Donoghue says his relentless offensive against the carpenters' union may provide a template for how the anti-defamation group will proceed.

"I didn't lose face. I rose two feet higher because I had the dignity and the courage to stand up in opposition to a huge power which was the [carpenters' union] and take the fight the full way. I lost the battle, but it's a battle in a campaign. And when it comes to honor, I'm the one who won."

No doubt.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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