Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

The Great Left Hope 

Matt Gonzalez wants to be mayor. And he doesn't mind climbing over fellow progressives to get the gig.

Wednesday, Oct 8 2003
One evening last August, Matt Gonzalez, the mop-haired Green Party president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, sat amid a circle of mad-as-hell gay activists. Among the dozen or so people present were several past presidents of the Harvey Milk Club, a powerful Democratic group that had recently endorsed Gonzalez's political godfather, Supervisor Tom Ammiano, for mayor.

Gonzalez was squarely in the hot seat inside Ammiano's campaign headquarters on Upper Market Street. Earlier that week, just days before the Aug. 8 deadline for getting into the mayor's race, he had quietly informed friends and supporters that he intended to run. To many Milk Club activists, the news came as a surprise -- and as a slap in the face. Why would Gonzalez, a fellow progressive with fewer than three years in office, want to jeopardize Ammiano's campaign?

Ammiano is the local left's elder statesman. For 15 years, first as a school board member, then as a supervisor, he has championed tenants' and gay rights, the environment, and government accountability. In 1999, the gay ex-teacher and stand-up comedian stunned San Francisco's political establishment by forcing Mayor Willie Brown into a runoff election. And though he'd lost, Ammiano's backers viewed 2003 as the Year of Tom, when San Francisco would elect its first gay mayor.

Now, less than 24 hours before the filing deadline, the gay activists battered Gonzalez, the political interloper, with questions.

"What is it that makes you think you're going to win?" one gay activist asked pointedly, according to Deborah Walker, a former Milk Club president who was present. Wasn't Gonzalez worried that his candidacy would cannibalize votes from Ammiano, thereby boosting the chances of their collective archnemesis, front-runner Gavin Newsom? Why did Gonzalez spring his candidacy on everybody at the last minute, with seemingly little concern for the divisive fallout it might have on progressives? The none-too-subtle subtext of their queries was that he should withdraw.

But the 38-year-old Gonzalez didn't apologize, nor did he back down. Instead, he listened quietly as Milk Club members took turns berating him.

According to several participants in the meeting, Gonzalez then described -- a touch defensively -- how he'd build a grass-roots campaign. He said that unlike Ammiano, who had moved steadily toward the center since '99, he'd stick firmly to a progressive platform. And he felt that, as a former college debate champion and ex­defense lawyer, he'd slaughter Newsom in campaign forums, exposing him as an intellectual lightweight. With his tough-love crusade to rein in homelessness and seemingly endless TV appearances, Newsom had surged to the forefront in campaign polls, consistently hovering around 36 percent. Ammiano couldn't seem to break above 20 percent, while the other strong progressive candidate in the race, ex-Supervisor Angela Alioto, ranked in the teens. In all probability, Newsom would face one of the lefty candidates in a Dec. 9 runoff election.

"I feel I'm the only one who can beat Gavin," Gonzalez declared, according to witnesses.

Frustration in the room mounted as the Milk Club members pressed Gonzalez to offer concrete evidence -- poll numbers, something -- of how he could do that. Gonzalez seemed also to be discounting Alioto, who was gaining on Ammiano in the polls.

"I don't believe either Tom's or Angela's campaigns are generating the kind of enthusiasm that could defeat Newsom," Gonzalez stated simply, according to Barry Hermanson, another Ammiano supporter who was present. "I have to disagree," Hermanson shot back. Others concurred.

To Ammiano's acolytes, Gonzalez's entry was an astonishing act of hubris. Granted, he was off to an impressive start as a politician. Gonzalez had won his District 5 seat, which includes the Haight-Ashbury and Hayes Valley, in 2000. At City Hall, he quickly developed a reputation for honesty and hard work; last January, his board colleagues chose him as their president, making him the highest-ranking Green Party member west of the Mississippi. Gonzalez proved a talented administrator, smoothly steering the board through the worst budget crisis in San Francisco history. And despite his lefty ideology, he demonstrated crossover appeal: Supervisor Tony Hall, arguably the most conservative board member, is one of his closest allies. Still, he was a political newbie. And it was Ammiano who'd recruited him to run for supervisor in the first place. Now Gonzalez was repaying that favor by stepping all over Ammiano to make it into the runoff?

The acrimonious encounter with the Milk Club leaders underscores the serious obstacles facing Gonzalez in his mayoral bid. The other major candidates -- Newsom, Ammiano, Alioto, and City Treasurer Susan Leal -- have been organizing their campaigns for months. The late-starting Gonzalez lags in name recognition, endorsements, and money. Before deciding to run, he enjoyed strong support in the progressive community. But by competing for votes with Ammiano and Alioto, he's lost some allies and, some say, weakened the left.

With the race in its final month, the stakes are high for Gonzalez. If he comes in third or fourth in the Nov. 4 primary election, and Newsom wins in December, he will forever be viewed as a spoiler. Having publicly opined that Ammiano's and Alioto's campaigns weren't generating sufficient electricity, Gonzalez must now prove that his can.

It may be harder than he thought.

With his Greenie ideas, taste for abstract art, and modishly long sideburns, Matt Gonzalez comes across as the hippest politician in town.

His boho image is reflected in his choice of campaign headquarters: a coffeehouse on lower Haight Street called the Horseshoe Cafe. It's dark and cavelike, with one wall hung with kitschy garage-sale art. In addition to the standard-issue scones and muffins, the Horseshoe sells plastic baggies containing a few generic-looking cookies -- stoner fare. A partition down the center separates the baristas from what used to be a bank of computers where the technologically dispossessed checked their e-mail. The computers were removed and Gonzalez moved into that side of the cafe, where his campaign workers occupy a few metal desks.

On a recent Sunday, Gonzalez sat at the desk farthest toward the back. It was 11 a.m. -- the crack of dawn for many Haight denizens -- and only a few people had roused themselves to come to the Horseshoe for their morning brew. From Gonzalez's side, you could hear the dull murmur of their voices, punctuated by loud guzzling and splurting noises from the espresso machine.

Sipping a coffee, Gonzalez glanced distractedly at his cell phone, which had not rung in more than an hour -- not a good omen for his first week on the campaign trail. The candidate suggested a stroll around the 'hood. It was a hot day and his tall, slightly bulky frame was bundled in a thick, navy blue, pinstriped suit. Asked if he was too warm, he shook his head and frowned, as if irritated by such a mundane question.

"I didn't get into this race to tear Tom Ammiano down," he said, choosing his words carefully in his soft, nasally voice. "You have to be honest. The situation is, it doesn't look like much of a contest, and we're about to have a coronation for Gavin Newsom. The city's going to change dramatically in the next eight years if he's mayor. You can stand by the standard-bearer to the left, but I don't like to do that."

With his slacker-central campaign office and beatnik airs, it's easy to forget that Gonzalez is an extremely driven man who shot up the career ladder with little money and no family connections to pave his way. The middle child of three, Gonzalez grew up in rural McAllen, Texas, a few miles from the Mexican border. His father was a wholesale tobacco salesman, his mom a homemaker. They were a middle-class Mexican-American family, and both Spanish and English were spoken in their house. Cerebral from an early age, Gonzalez ditched a promising high school football career to join the debate team, becoming school champ.

He later attended Columbia University on a partial scholarship. "I think I was a product of affirmative action," he said modestly, explaining that he wrote his application essay in pencil at the post office minutes before mailing it in. In New York City Gonzalez blossomed into a kind of geek supernova, captaining the debate team as a freshman, accumulating twice as many credits as his peers, and graduating with a double major in comparative literature and political theory.

And despite what you might think, given the hemp-friendly circles he runs in, Gonzalez insists he has never smoked dope or experimented with other drugs. Not in college, not anytime afterward. "I think there's a window of opportunity where, if you don't do it then, you never do it," he explained. "Part of it's the company you keep."

Gonzalez went on to Stanford Law School, where he edited the Law Review. He began to align himself with the left as he realized how much politics influence and distort the American justice system.

After passing the bar, he landed a job in the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, immediately distinguishing himself as a trial lawyer. Within a few years, his success rate was such that he went from handling misdemeanors to trying Three Strikes cases -- unusual for someone still in his 20s. According to San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who worked with Gonzalez, younger attorneys were so impressed by Gonzalez that they studied transcripts of his courtroom arguments.

"Matt had a way of presenting a case in a real folksy, down-to-earth manner," says Adachi. "The jurors liked him, and wanted to follow him."

Among the deputy district attorneys he tried cases against, Gonzalez had a reputation for integrity and keeping his word. But he was also seen as something of a masochist who didn't hesitate to challenge all-powerful judges. On one occasion, Gonzalez was found in contempt of court for calling a judge's ruling "disingenuous." His boss, then­Chief Assistant Public Defender Peter Keane, tried to pull Gonzalez's fat out of the fire.

"I've been in that situation with PDs hundreds of times," says Keane, now dean of Golden Gate University Law School. "There was one unfailing method I'd use to get them out of it: schmoozing or groveling with the judge. I came in with my usual schmooze act, do a little song and dance, make them laugh, make them forget all about it, and Matt immediately cut me off. He said, 'This is about integrity, and we're not going to engage in any baloney compromising, Keane.' I was like, 'I'm your boss! I can fire you!' But he could care less."

Gonzalez was found in contempt and temporarily jailed on two other occasions. But the citations all were eventually dismissed.

He made his first foray into politics in 1999, running for San Francisco district attorney against incumbent Terence Hallinan. He did it, he says, because he felt Hallinan's office was pursuing unduly harsh sentences for marijuana convictions. Though family members were surprised that such a "normal guy who, you know, hangs out in the Mission," according to his younger brother, Chuck, would go into politics, others who knew him well understood.

"Matt gets really involved in something, and then he gets bored," says a former girlfriend, attorney Tamara Ribas. "He's got to always be intellectually engaged. I think he wanted a new challenge. And he loves a good fight."

Though he came in a distant third in the race, the ex­Ivy League orator impressed many, especially when they saw him debate other candidates.

The following year, voters approved Tom Ammiano's ballot initiative to reintroduce district elections to San Francisco, and Ammiano approached Gonzalez about running for supervisor. Gonzalez agreed -- though by his own admission he'd never been to a Board of Supervisors meeting or even watched one on TV.

"I had no idea what I was getting into," he says.

Gonzalez was among several progressives who beat opponents backed by Mayor Brown, who was still suffering from voter backlash toward his pay-to-play administration. Gonzalez's victory was particularly dramatic, considering that he raised only $40,000 for his campaign (his Brown-endorsed opponent raised six times as much) and switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Green right before the runoff. He made this rather unstrategic move in a fit of pique after Medea Benjamin, a Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate, was barred from participating in televised debates.

"I didn't want to be a member of a party that was urging the exclusion of a candidate solely on the grounds that the candidate didn't have enough support, when it's precisely television coverage that could win that candidate public acceptance," Gonzalez wrote in a newspaper op-ed piece at the time.

The new supervisors were elected partly in response to sweeping changes wrought by the dot-com boom, which resulted in many artists and nonprofit agencies being pushed out of longtime homes to accommodate new high-tech businesses. Gonzalez soon became a reliable pro-tenant, anti-gentrification vote.

He also didn't mind political heat. When Gonzalez left the Public Defender's Office, he was making about $90,000 a year; as a supervisor, his pay plunged to $37,585. With the exception of Gavin Newsom, who has significant outside business income, all the other supervisors favored a pay raise. But nobody wanted to ask voters for more money, especially since many of them were still feeling the economic pain of the dot-com collapse. Nonetheless, Gonzalez agreed to spearhead a pay-boosting ballot measure -- Proposition J -- which passed last November. The Civil Service Commission this year approved tripling supervisors' salaries to $112,320 annually.

Just five months after he was elected board president, Gonzalez faced an even bigger crisis: a $347 million city budget deficit. He responded by appointing far-left Supervisor Chris Daly, a close ally, as budget committee chairman. Despite its seemingly counterintuitive nature, the appointment proved a good one. With Daly at the helm, the committee opened up the budgeting process to an unprecedented 100 hours of public comment. Armed with that feedback, the committee restored $29.3 million worth of health and social services that had been on the chopping block. The budget was eventually balanced through a variety of layoffs, pay cuts, and increases in city user fees and fines.

Gonzalez's rapid political ascent began to give him some buzz. Suddenly, his name was being bandied about as a possible mayoral contender. But he told people who asked that he wouldn't run in 2003. In an article in the now-defunct Bernal Heights newspaper SF Call, Gonzalez impishly interviewed his pal, freelance political writer h. brown, who urged Gonzalez to run. "I told you, h., I got other plans," answered Gonzalez. "Besides, you can't assess an Ammiano mayoral effort based on what you saw last time." He went on to predict that Ammiano would win the election -- a notion brown scoffed at.

Behind the scenes, Gonzalez offered to help Ammiano and Alioto hone their debating skills. Ammiano didn't respond to the proposal, and Gonzalez held only one mock debate with Alioto. "Matt played Newsom, and he destroyed her," says a source who demanded anonymity. After that, says the source, Alioto "found other things to do." (Alioto says she discontinued the coaching because of "a scheduling conflict.")

Gonzalez began to have his doubts about both Alioto and Ammiano. As the deadline to enter the mayor's race neared, it was becoming apparent that the city's instant runoff voting system wasn't going to be assembled in time for the Nov. 4 election. If nobody got more than 50 percent in that election, there would be a December runoff. Newsom was widely expected to clinch one of the two berths in that election. And Gonzalez didn't believe that either Ammiano or Alioto would survive against the far better financed Newsom.

"I wasn't running into people who were interested in volunteering on either [Ammiano's or Alioto's] campaigns," he says. "People were kind of just resolved to the idea of, 'Well, one of these two will make it into the runoff, and then they'll lose, and that's just the way it is.'"

Gonzalez echoes what some others have been saying for months -- that Ammiano is unelectable. He lost by a 20 percent margin in his 1999 write-in campaign against Brown -- despite the incumbent's decline in popularity. Ammiano suffered another blow at the polls last November, when voters overwhelmingly chose Newsom's "Care Not Cash" homelessness initiative over Ammiano's competing Proposition O. The perception began to grow that Ammiano had lost his mojo.

"In 1999, when Tom Ammiano was addressing a packed room, there was a buzz," says Chris Daly, who is endorsing Gonzalez for mayor. "Now, I don't know how many packed rooms he's been in. More people were at his [campaign kickoff party] seeming to look and see who was there, and if the buzz was in the room."

Some question Alioto's ability to win, too. Since serving as president of the Board of Supervisors nine years ago, she's been out of politics, working as a civil rights attorney. "We have to reintroduce people to Angela," admits her campaign manager, Larry Tramutola. Those who do remember her may recall her unsuccessful bid in the divisive 1991 mayor's race. After then-Mayor Art Agnos defeated Alioto and ex­police chief and sheriff Richard Hongisto in the primary election, both failed to endorse the incumbent in the runoff against former police chief Frank Jordan, who subsequently won. "If you ran and lost, that's one strike against you," says San Francisco State University political science professor Rich DeLeon. "And she was seen by some as instituting friction and factionalism that helped Jordan win."

Unhappy with the left's 2003 lineup, Gonzalez shopped around for what he regarded as better candidates this summer. He tried to convince his old boss, Peter Keane, to run, but Keane's wife put her foot down. Then he asked Supervisor Aaron Peskin of North Beach. According to Gonzalez, Peskin commissioned a poll to see how he'd fare. (Peskin agrees a poll was done, flatly denies commissioning it, and refuses to say precisely who did.) In any case, the mystery poll asked voters, somewhat vaguely, whether they "would consider voting for" a number of left-leaning political figures, including Peskin, Daly, Adachi, state Board of Equalization Chairwoman Carole Migden, state Senate President John Burton -- and Matt Gonzalez. The results surprised Gonzalez: Burton and Migden polled the highest, but Gonzalez came out better than any other potential candidate at 36 percent.

Because of the mushy wording of its questions, the poll's conclusions were open to serious doubt. But Gonzalez chose to interpret them as placing him on a popularity par with Newsom. He decided that he was the only left candidate who'd be able to beat the Marina District supervisor, a moderate Democrat who'd been campaigning and raising money for more than a year.

Alioto, for one, found that decision egotistical and arrogant.

"Matt's a bright guy. He does and did have a great political future ahead of him. But I don't understand someone with those qualities thinking they are superior at such a young age," she says. "And [that] they can do it, while a woman and a gay guy can't."

Gonzalez refuses to reply. "What's the point?" he says. "Angela's basically saying I'm a fraud ...." He leaves his sentence hanging in the air. Normally, Gonzalez's face is a placid, almost sphinxlike mask of inscrutability. But at this moment, the corners of his lips tighten into the smirk of somebody who's envisioning a beautiful revenge.

As any American Idol fan will tell you, it takes more than just talent to make a star; it takes sex appeal. And Matt Gonzalez -- with his shy smile, long, almost girlish eyelashes, and dark good looks -- has it.

He exudes a distracted aloofness reminiscent of a young but brilliant professor whose students are all in love with him. When supporters, both male and female, speak of him, they often frame their admiration in sexual terms. At a recent Green Party meeting, for example, a young man with a bushy red beard stood up. "I got involved with the Green Party because of Matt," he said. "Matt turned me on."

After SF Weekly printed a column noting Gonzalez's devastating effect on straight women, the paper received angry letters from female supporters protesting that it was his political views, not his hunkiness, that attracted them. However, some had a hard time sticking to their argument. "Is this love of the goo-goo teenage kind? Maybe a little, I confess," wrote Elizabeth Grant, a Haight-Ashbury resident. "But mostly it is because Matt is the kind of man you never thought could exist in the world ...."

It's a delicious twist that the man Gonzalez aches to duke it out with in the mayor's race also has the X factor. Handsome, suave, and a favorite of the super-rich Getty clan, Gavin Newsom attracts twenty- and thirtysomething women to his campaign by the trainload. He's married to Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, a lingerie model turned prosecutor and TV legal affairs commentator, and together they've become San Francisco's most dazzling power couple. But Newsom's charm is entirely different from Gonzalez's. If Newsom is San Francisco's answer to Ben Affleck, Gonzalez is its Adrien Brody -- the hipper, poetic-looking leading man of Roman Polanski's The Pianist.

In many ways Gonzalez is the Anti-Gavin. While Newsom lives in a Pacific Heights home he owns, the unmarried Gonzalez lives with roommates in an art-filled, Hayes Valley rental. He has no car and no bed. (He sleeps on the uncushioned slats of a futon frame because it's "more comfortable.") He hangs out with painters, poets, and political activists, some of whom he met in used bookstores. Among his buddies are City Lights bookshop owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Beat poet Diane di Prima, and novelist Jonathan Lethem.

Gonzalez until recently played bass in a rock band that, he says, "tried to sound like a cross between the Clash and Joy Division." Now he contents himself by dragging his friends to hear his brother Chuck's band, Lessick. He drinks beer in dives like Murio's Trophy Room on Haight Street (where he once interviewed the Clash's Joe Strummer for a local zine), and Doc Martens protrude from the cuffs of his pinstriped pants.

Until he got into the mayor's race, Gonzalez had his own cable-access TV show, interviewing local artists and showing experimental films. He holds monthly art openings in his City Hall office. He spent his own money to publish the works of an elderly Beat poet, Jack Micheline, whom he'd met at a bookstore and let crash on his couch. He's got an artistic bent himself, once sculpting a toaster with books popping out of the slots.

In his public defender days, Gonzalez and his best friend, attorney Whitney Leigh, were known for throwing spirited parties at their Inner Mission house. The guests included Superior Court judges, homeless artists, and even ex-criminals Gonzalez had represented. Chuck Gonzalez manned the barbecue, somebody else played records, and pot smoke wafted through the air.

If Gonzalez finds you interesting, he'll go to some lengths to add you to his collection of acquaintances. Felix Macnee, a 33-year-old painter, met Gonzalez while clerking at an Inner Mission bookstore, Adobe Books, which Gonzalez frequented. The two chatted about chess, Macnee's art, and exotic writers like Spanish experimental novelist/poet Felipe Alfau. "In San Francisco, you just have to wonder what people's motivation is if you're a straight guy, and I was wondering, 'Why is this guy so interested in talking to me?'" recalls Macnee, now a close friend. "'Why does he keep asking me if he can come over to my house to play chess?'"

Although Gonzalez loves conversation, he keeps his inner life -- and especially his romantic life -- strictly to himself. He'll speak in depth about old court cases, but he won't get personal.

Asked by SF Weekly if he'd like to get married, he replies simply, "Sure." A subsequent question about whether he's currently dating anyone is met with stony silence.

"Why do you keep asking me these questions?" he finally says testily. "I've sat down with you and talked with you for hours. I've gotten tons of e-mails from friends of mine telling me you're looking for stuff. I thought you had questions about my campaign you needed answered."

When the dating question is repeated, Gonzalez answers icily, "I don't want to talk to you about this -- or anything else -- anymore."

In his new campaign office on a dingy stretch of Mission near Fifth Street, Tom Ammiano, too, is getting upset as he answers the Weekly's questions about his reaction to Gonzalez's entry into the race.

Ammiano learned of Gonzalez's plans from Chris Daly. On the day Gonzalez announced his intention to run, Ammiano repeatedly tried to reach him by phone to talk him out of it.

"This could be damaging," Ammiano said in one message he left on Gonzalez's phone machine. "I'd like to have a talk."

Asked exactly what he would have said to Gonzalez if he'd been able to reach him that day, Ammiano finally boils over.

"Where are you going with this? You want me to say bad things about Matt and freak out?" exclaims Ammiano, right before he jumps up and huffs out of the room. (He returns a few minutes later, a soothing soda in hand and his campaign media consultant in tow.)

Though it may not have been Gonzalez's intention, his last-minute campaign launch screwed over a guy to whom he arguably owes his political career. "I think there's a feeling, relative to Gonzalez, [of] 'Are you biting the hand that fed you?'" says Supervisor Aaron Peskin, an ally of both men. "'Are you jumping your place in line?'"

Before Gonzalez, Ammiano was the clear-cut mayoral choice for many progressives. Enter Gonzalez, and now he's not. For instance, though Jeff Adachi had officially endorsed Ammiano, when Gonzalez entered the race, the public defender decided to "co-endorse" Gonzalez. Many Green Party members who had initially supported Ammiano also shifted their allegiance. After two contentious meetings in which members debated whether to co-endorse, the party gave its official nod exclusively to Gonzalez.

Now Gonzalez must demonstrate that he screwed over Ammiano for a good reason -- that he really is the strongest left candidate and the only one who can stop Newsom. So far, he hasn't proved any such thing.

Though no independent polls had been published by press time, various candidates' tracking polls -- including Gonzalez's -- consistently show him in fourth place, trailing Newsom, Ammiano, and Alioto.

A Newsom poll leaked to the San Francisco Examiner in late August showed Gonzalez with 8 percent of the vote, ahead of only Susan Leal and ex­police chief Tony Ribera. In late September, a poll commissioned by Alioto and leaked to the Chronicle gave Gonzalez only 6 percent.

"What are they smoking to believe that he was anything over that?" exclaims Alioto. "Do you realize that Newsom has spent millions of dollars and has been on TV for three years? Name recognition doesn't happen overnight."

Gonzalez fared better in his own poll, conducted with 401 registered voters during the last week of September. He scored 11 percent, but still lagged behind Newsom (32 percent), Ammiano (16 percent), and Alioto (15 percent). One bright spot for Gonzalez was that in a runoff with Newsom, the race was a dead heat (42 percent for Newsom versus 41 percent for Gonzalez). But to get a head-to-head shot at Newsom, Gonzalez must first beat out his two major progressive rivals in the November primary election.

Gonzalez is behind in the money race, too. Although he raised more in campaign contributions ($82,319) than either Ammiano ($57,478) or Alioto ($63,785) in the most recent reporting period, Gonzalez is far behind both of them in total cash, especially the affluent Alioto, a successful trial attorney who has loaned her campaign $700,000 so far. But none of the lefties even comes close to the Newsom fund-raising machine, which has generated $2 million to date (including $450,000 in the July 1 to Sept. 20 reporting period).

Gonzalez points to his successful campaign for supervisor, in which he was outspent 6-to-1, as evidence that you don't need a lot of money to win if you have strong grass-roots support. But a citywide campaign is a much bigger organizational challenge than one in a compact supervisorial district, and other campaigns have veteran political managers at the helm. By contrast, Gonzalez's chief strategist is Enrique Pierce, a former City Hall aide who got his feet wet running Gonzalez's supervisorial campaign three years ago. Pierce says he's in his late 20s, but refuses to give his exact age.

In short, according to some observers, Gonzalez has overestimated his ability to ignite -- and unite -- the left.

"He's trying to do what Ammiano did in '99," says political consultant Jim Stearns, who's not working for any of the mayoral contenders. "But I don't think there's the same kind of anger [among voters] today about their choices. I think in '99, people were actually pissed that they had to choose between Willie Brown, Clint Reilly, and Frank Jordan. Pissed! And when Ammiano went in, it was like a match that struck a flame or whatever, and he rode that.

"Matt isn't going over with a thud, but he's not all of a sudden floating all the way up to the top on some sort of super-charged energy, like 'Oh, this was the missing ingredient we needed.'"

On a recent Thursday night, while their hero was busy at a debate, seven young volunteers sporting "Matt Gonzalez for Mayor" buttons strode purposefully through Union Square.

The little troupe -- its members ranging in age from late teens to early 30s -- was participating in what Gonzalez campaign headquarters had billed as a "pub crawl," a sort of Gen-X glad-handing operation in which volunteers would drop into bars, hang up campaign signs, and talk up their candidate over beers. The first crawl -- in the Mission the week before -- had been a lot of fun. Many bartenders there knew and loved Gonzalez, a former Mission resident.

"You could feel the groundswell of support," said volunteer Richard Marquez, a thin, intense Latino activist who looked to be in his early 30s.

This time, they'd hit Tenderloin bars. But first, they'd try to connect with the young art-lover crowd in Union Square.

The volunteers stopped at Geary and Stockton and huddled around a computer printout of local art galleries that were open late that night, some offering wine and cheese to patrons. After getting their bearings, they headed toward the first gallery on their list. But on the sidewalk outside it, they were stopped by a young man in funky glasses and two women in ballet flats and tight jeans.

"It's over," one of the women said. "The gallery's closed."

Undeterred, the volunteers continued on to the next gallery, down the street. But they found that this party, too, had ended. Adding insult to injury, somebody had taped a "Susan Leal for Mayor" sign on the gallery's locked door.

Fatigue began to show on the volunteers' faces as they trudged down Geary toward the Tenderloin. It had been more than an hour since they'd left the Horseshoe Cafe, but so far no pubs had been crawled, no stickers stuck. Several volunteers looked like they could use a drink.

They swept past dives like the Ha-Ra and walked into Edinburgh Castle, a Scottish pub that caters to a younger, professional-yet-arty crowd and recently hosted Litquake. Skinny men in ironic thrift-store T-shirts ate fish and chips at the bar or played pool in the back. A girl in motorcycle boots fed quarters into the jukebox. The Gonzalez volunteers approached the bar with their signs and stickers. One asked the young Asian bartender if he'd put up a sign in his window.

"Sorry," said the bartender. "I like Matt Gonzalez. But I don't want to alienate anybody."

Grim-faced, the volunteers ordered beers and slumped into chairs circling a table, seemingly weighed down by all the bright yellow Gonzalez paraphernalia they carried. They gazed mournfully at the bar's chic patrons, who ignored them. One volunteer propped a Gonzalez sign against the base of the jukebox, and they all left.

The group trekked a few more blocks to a spare, blond-wood eatery that looked as if it belonged on upper Fillmore Street instead of in the Tenderloin. But rather than try to convert any patrons, half of the group decided to call it quits and tuck into some California cuisine.

Afterward, their ranks thinned to four, the group marched over to a black-walled rocker hangout called the Hemlock, where the Edinburgh scenario repeated itself. Their Gonzalez sign was refused, and the volunteers quickly ducked out.

The group had walked for miles. They still had a long list of bars on their computer printout, but -- without anybody saying a word -- it was clear that they didn't have the energy to crawl them. Out on the sidewalk, it was reassessment time.

"It's still early," pointed out a guy in his late 20s with a mangy beard who gave his name only as Cosmo. "Who goes out at 9 p.m. in this neighborhood?"

A good point, but it was met with gloomy silence from the others. Marquez squinted into the night, as if trying to sense any Gonzalez electricity that might be floating in the air.

"It's just not happening here in the Tenderloin," he said. "I'm just not feeling it tonight."


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"