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Wednesday, Oct 14 1998
For years now, I've enjoyed reading an intelligent little politics and policy magazine called The Washington Monthly, founded and run by a happy curmudgeon named Charles Peters. Peters is something of a legend in the magazine business, hiring tyros at extremely low wages, training them into magazine journalists, and then sending them off to win national renown. He's also something of a target for knee-jerk lefties and pompous media types, mostly because he has proven himself capable of independent thought.

The best way to summarize Peters' thinking is probably to quote from one of his seminal pieces, "A Neoliberal's Manifesto":

If neoconservatives are liberals who took a critical look at liberalism and decided to become conservatives, we are liberals who took the same look and decided to retain our goals but abandon some of our prejudices. We still believe in liberty and justice and a fair chance for all, in mercy for the afflicted and help for the down and out. But we no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business. Indeed, in our search for solutions that work, we have come to distrust all automatic responses, liberal or conservative. (Emphasis mine.)

Now, I don't play well enough with others to be considered a member of any -ism, and I don't buy all of Peters' line. But his focus on results over theory, and his distrust of the knee-jerk response, seems, to me, to constitute a reasonable approach to local government. My affinity for those ideas may also explain my continuous disgust at the stupid obsession with ideological purity that overwhelms San Francisco politics and the journalists who cover it, especially around election time.

The mainstream dailies display this left-good/right-bad/intentions-are-everything mind-set almost unconsciously; it shows itself most obviously in story choice and play. A blatant example of the brain-dead ideology-worship I'm talking about has been seen recently in the pages of a couple of so-called alternative papers.

If someone were actually to read and believe these newspapers, he or she might think that the most important facet of our coming city elections involved the protection of some vague thing called "progressivism." The Bay Guardian, for example, recently spent several thousand column inches "proving" that Supervisor Tom Ammiano was the "real progressive" in the race for Board of Supervisors president, and Supervisor Mabel Teng was not. Frontlines, meanwhile, is supporting a "progressive" slate of candidates who advocate, among other things, the creation of a city-owned bank. (Perhaps we'll exhume Leonid Brezhnev to run it.)

These publications contend that if we were just to put more "real progressives" into public office, the administration of our civic affairs would greatly improve, even though most all of the politicians who have run San Francisco for the last 20 years would describe themselves as liberal or progressive or both, and even though the definition of "progressive" these publications use seems as changeable as fog. (As near as I can tell, the definition comes down to this: Our friends, no matter how unqualified, are progressive; everyone else is not.)

I don't particularly care which candidate for this or that local office is the "true progressive," whatever the hell that means. I do care which candidates recognize the substantive problems of the city, and can articulate and enact solutions to those problems that might actually work.

Over the last couple of years, the writers here at the Weekly have done a pretty good job of examining the workings of city government in a way that is unfamiliar to San Francisco. They've looked, in depth, at what actually has been done, as shown in public records and other forms of solid documentation, rather than what was intended, or hoped, or believed.

What the writers found is not entirely of a piece. Because the stories were conceived separately and reflect reality, they do not weave into some grand conspiracy. The stories do, however, create a detailed record of wasted resources, squandered opportunities, and incompetent administration. More often than not, a close look at hard evidence has shown an astounding disconnect, here in the Best Place on Earth, between City Hall's professed intentions (caring, professional, liberal, open) and its grim reality (apathetic, incompetent, authoritarian, covert).

The stories seemed to coalesce fairly naturally into the financial, environmental, development, and public housing areas. So I asked the Weekly's online editor, Steve Boland, to gather our major stories on those subjects, along with some of the staff's better coverage of the mayor and Board of Supervisors, into one corner of our Web publication, Because I don't think you have to be boring to be serious, the resulting site-within-a-site has an arch title -- The Best City in the Worst Shape on Earth -- and some commentary I hope can be described as witty.

Immediately before elections, politics in San Francisco goes retail. Over the next few weeks, anyone with much interest can find most any candidate for local office at some neighborhood meeting or another. If you've come to distrust the automatic responses of city government and most of the press here -- if you prefer reality to feel-good blather -- you might want to dial us up and do a little low-ideology reading before you question the candidates and go to the polls.

John Mecklin ( can be reached at SF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco,

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John Mecklin


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