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Pedal Power 

Two politicians put their interests before a world-class event and a world of possibilities

Wednesday, Nov 23 2005
All cultural spectacles contain a social lesson. Watching baseball, youngsters learn it's possible to hit a small leather sack over and over again. Observing football, youths ascertain that, if one really wants to, one can run into other people on purpose. People walking through the northern part of San Francisco this past Labor Day, however, encountered a more useful bit of schooling. The hundred or so wiry-legged bike racers making their way up Fillmore Street in the San Francisco Grand Prix showed how anyone can go anywhere under his own power, really fast, with nothing but a bicycle underneath. For kids especially, that's an amazing idea.

Tragically, a couple of San Francisco politicians employed the race as a vehicle for enhancing their own status at the city's expense, and just finished a grandstanding sprint that killed the race.

Monday the race's organizers issued a statement saying the event was canceled, thanks to jockeying over the amount they would pay for the cadre of S.F. police who provide traffic and crowd control for the Grand Prix, an issue that had become a cause célèbre for Supervisors Chris Daly and Aaron Peskin.

The race was canceled in part due to "periodic, emotionally charged Board of Supervisors meetings over the value of the event that make potential sponsors very nervous. Few companies will sponsor a politically charged event," organizers said in a statement.

In their final attack, Supervisors Daly and Peskin created a loud media flap over their contention that the race owed San Francisco $90,000 to cover pay for traffic cops, and therefore should be shut down.

Daly said he had "serious doubts" about the race, which was launched in 2001 with the help of S.F. banker Thom Weisel. The banker is, in Daly's eyes, a "multi-millionaire Republican politico," according to Daly's personal Web log.

Peskin, for his part, claimed the alleged $90,000 debt "is a problem, a very serious problem. I am outraged!" according to a press report.

Were these watchdog public officials savagely guarding the public trough? These two politicians would certainly like casual observers to think so.

But there are two other, quite different messages emanating from this affair, ones heard loud and clear by groups dear to these politicians.

Peskin is a master at playing San Francisco's version of the politics of picayune special interests. Since the Grand Prix's first edition in 2001, people living in the North Beach supervisor's district where the race takes place have complained mightily that it can be hard to park their cars on race day. I'm sure they'll cheer Peskin now that he's helped ruin what was one of the best things about San Francisco and has therefore cured their one-day-per-year parking difficulties.

Daly, meanwhile, is a crackerjack at San Francisco's progressive politics of extortion. Now that he's succeeded in canceling the San Francisco Grand Prix, it will be hard to misunderstand the reverberating message: Nobody does anything in this town without passing through Daly or his people.

In 2001 Mayor Willie Brown, who thought the idea of a world-class bike race was good for the city, allowed race organizers to incur a $350,000 debt for traffic and crowd control, and then ordered city bureaucrats to forgive that debt.

At this time Peskin was in a pitched personal battle with Brown. The fight over the cost of police redirecting traffic around the race became an extension of their feud.

Peskin sponsored a resolution, tailored specifically to fetter the race and its supportive mayor, that said that no event is allowed city permits if organizers owe the government money.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, like his predecessor, argued that the race provided cultural, social, and economic benefit to San Francisco, and sought to accommodate it by helping pay for traffic cops. Loath to back down from the position he had adopted during his feud with Brown, Peskin worked out a "compromise."

It's this compromise -- between the mayor's posture of encouraging the bike race and Peskin's "progressive" allies' position of nickel-and-diming it to death -- that formed the backdrop of a flap that was absurdly contrived into a matter of rich-versus-poor class warfare, involving a relatively small debt for traffic and crowd-control cops.

Small or not, the debt matter received a smothering amount of bureaucratic attention.

Under Peskin's negotiated deal, the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau paid private consultants to conduct an economic impact study, to determine how many sales tax dollars the event brought in.

The city would then forgive the event organizers part of the bill for traffic and crowd control, based on the amount of tax revenue the event supposedly generated.

The 2004 version of this study cost $38,000, with another $18,000 for a 2005 update.

Another private consultant, the Harvey Rose Accountancy Corp., conducted additional analysis of the race's economic and financial effects on the city, at supervisors' request. The firm issued a report that, in addition to its analysis of the race, also critiqued the earlier economic impact study. This report did not require an additional fee, but rather was included in the $2,543,296 the city will pay this fiscal year for various budget analysis work.

In a city government riddled with public-private partnerships involving billions of dollars over the years, this allegedly past-due police bill of $90,000 seemed an odd issue to stake a social struggle upon.

Just as odd were the economic impact study, the audit, and ensuing calls for more analyses still.

In matters that haven't been artificially infused with bogus political ideology, San Francisco rarely spends money to conduct up-to-date, thoroughly vetted economic impact studies.

Last month's professional World Golf Championship at Harding Park sucked up millions of public dollars in the name of economic development. No economic impact study was needed.

As the flap unfolded last week, supervisors asserted that race organizers left just under $90,000 unpaid for last year's police patrols. Race organizers said that they'd received a bill for $63,000, which they paid, and that they'd received the additional, $90,000 bill only days ago.

Whatever the case, Peskin says this all means that the race fell afoul of the 2002 law he championed specifically in order to stymie the S.F. Grand Prix.

"This is a joke. It's a sham. It's not worth the paper it's printed on. We gave them an inch. They've taken a mile. This is preposterous," Peskin was quoted as saying.

To emphasize Daly's contrived take on this "struggle" -- between whether the race should pay a little more, or a little less, for police patrols -- a few months ago he held a protest rally at City Hall in the form of a pretend bicycle race, denouncing the mayor's desire to accommodate the S.F. Grand Prix as "corporate welfare," which, he and the other protesters he recruited somehow argued, was given at the expense of tsunami victims.

Chris Daly's anti-fat cat rhetoric begs the question: Should San Francisco analyze all privately financed public amenities, such as the de Young Museum, the opera, the symphony, universities, churches, free concerts, sporting events? If any rich people or Republicans turn up among the backers, should we shut them down?

Given the lengths Daly is willing to go to harm the city in the service of bogus rhetoric and power-enhancing grandstanding, I'm not sure he would disagree with such a policy, no matter how badly it impoverished the rest of us.

Peskin, in defense of his personal contribution to the cancellation of the S.F. Grand Prix, suggested the loss of the race was no big deal because an unrelated race, the Tour of California, will hold a leg of its event in San Francisco in February.

"The net is that San Francisco will be just as well off," he was quoted as saying.

Peskin's tortured logic is as stunning as Daly's: It's fine to ruin good things about San Francisco, as long as there are still other good things left.

Like works of art hanging in a museum, tree- and vine-covered parklands, or beautiful urban architecture, downtown bicycle races have the power to awaken inside the people who watch the idea that the world is grand and within one's grasp.

When I was a grammar-school kid in Colfax, a Placer County town halfway between Sacramento and Reno, our family would bring a picnic every Father's Day to the nearby town of Nevada City, spread it out on the grass next to a municipal building, and watch what used to be, prior to the S.F. Grand Prix, the biggest bike race in California.

I remember the whizzing sound and gust of breeze that came from the 200 or so spinning, spoked wheels when they rushed by, as riders completed 50 hilly, one-mile laps of Nevada City's tiny downtown.

All this created in my mind a sense of possibilities, which for a chubby Colfax fourth-grader was different than anything I'd felt before.

This may have been a sui generis experience in its details, but not in its general thrust. It used to be quite ordinary in America for grade-school children to grasp their role as protagonists in this world when they pedaled their first five miles from home.

Now, San Francisco even discourages schoolkids, citing a misguided safety rationale, from riding bikes to class. I believe, however, that if fans still crowded into bike racing tracks that used to be everywhere in San Francisco -- at Mechanics Pavilion Velodrome, the Polo Fields Velodrome, Dreamland Auditorium, Civic Auditorium, or the banked track promoters set up for a while on Treasure Island -- youngsters' drive to assert themselves in this way might be impossible to resist.

Failing that, having the greatest one-day bike race in the Americas take place in San Francisco, as it has for the past four years in the form of the San Francisco Grand Prix, is a wonderful second choice.

Somehow, however, some narrow-minded politicians have gotten it into their heads that it's a bad idea to reopen San Francisco to this possibility. They, rather than the race, should have been stopped.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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