Not Beholden to the Machine

root - Posted on 20 March 2004

an interview with mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez

by Janak Ramachandran/PNN

Walking into the Matt Gonzalez for Mayor campaign headquarters, I can feel the hairs on my neck tickling my shirt—I feel as though an enormous adrenaline rush is coursing through this campaign organization. With his second place upset in the November 4th mayoral race, the momentum behind Gonzalez on the streets of San Francisco seems palpable. His campaign headquarters, located at 13th and Mission where the old Fell Street off-ramp has been razed, seems to match the ‘down with old and in with the new’ energy of the place. Excited campaign volunteers, smelling the victory that would put Matt Gonzalez in the mayor’s chair, work feverishly to compensate for the business money machine that Gavin Newsom, Gonzalez’ opponent in the December 9th run-off election, has marshaled to his side.

As I prepared to meet Matt, the current President of the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco, I am afforded the opportunity to tour the location. Gonzalez’ meetings are behind schedule and so my interview with him has been delayed. If a campaign headquarters can say something about the person for whom it exists, this location wears itself on its sleeve. The buzz about the place is honest and hardworking and the atmosphere is neighborly and unpretentious. Interestingly, these are the very qualities that shine through in my conversation with Matt Gonzalez. Soft-spoken but confident, he speaks with a passion fueled by intelligent deliberation.

In response to an opening question on being a progressive candidate, Matt identifies one worldview from which he wants to govern. "I fundamentally look at the world as a place where there are wide economic disparities and…if we’re trying to make it a better society…we ought to be working to protect the most vulnerable people in that society. (S)ometimes progressive values intersect with neighborhood values (and) populist values—sometimes they’re conservative economic values. We (progressives) want good, clean, efficient government as well." Matt explains further that the money he saves from instituting clean and efficient practices would be earmarked for important societal priorities while a more conservative candidate might want simply to put the money into their pocketbook or the pocketbooks of their friends.

One of the priorities that Matt Gonzalez championed in the recent election, Proposition L, now enables the minimum wage in San Francisco to be raised to $8.50/hour. I ask Matt to expound upon living wage law and the notion of economic justice. "I’m supportive of efforts to try to pay people the value of their labor…a municipality, a state, or federal government has an obligation to make sure that wages don’t fall beneath a certain level…(people) just can’t make a living—can’t even eke out a living." And, though Matt explains that he is proud of fighting the business community and the wealthier elite to help fifty thousand workers, he wants to do more. "(A)t the end of the day, it’s like we captured a hill—we didn’t take the mountain."

Now that he’s mentioned the business community and the wealthier classes, I decide to challenge Matt regarding his ability to occupy the mayor’s office without towing the line of the elite and powerful. And so, I ask, "Do you acknowledge that you will be pressured by wealthier interests to put them first? How will you react to that pressure?" Though he acknowledges that the pressure will exist, he confidently asserts that he will not be swayed. "The business community is accustomed to being able to tell the mayor what to do—I fear that my opponent (Gavin Newsom) is not strong enough to stand up to that community. And so, that’s more than anything why I’m in the race and why I think it’s important that people vote for me—that they vote for somebody who has the intelligence and courage to say no to some of the people that are accustomed to driving policy in this city." In a later follow-up question, I inquire about Matt’s thoughts regarding a recent Bayview editorial’s assertion that a climate of corruption has existed for the last eight years under Mayor Willie Brown’s administration; where the ‘people accustomed to driving policy’ have been and are feeding at the hands of Willie Brown. I ask pointedly if, as mayor, he would investigate prior corruption and seek a legal remedy. "I think corruption in government is something that ought to be rooted out—I would certainly be a mayor that had that as a priority…I don’t think there should be an excuse for crimes, if they’ve been committed, simply because you’re not in office anymore."

Transitioning from the possible crimes of the mayor to the crimes of the SFPD, I mention that it has been recently suggested by an SF Weekly article that Proposition H, the police oversight measure, will do little to stop police brutality. He responds, "the biggest problem with most commissions is that they’re all mayoral appointments…the mayor appoints the department head and you have no checks and balances. All the power is in the mayor’s lap…Placing different kinds of people on a commission from different appointing authorities (Proposition H strips the mayor’s office of some of its appointing authority and grants appointments to the SF Board of Supervisors) will insure that there are different points of view…" Gonzalez believes Proposition H will provide the balance required to give the OCC (Office of Citizen Complaints) the teeth needed to effectively pursue police crimes.

I wonder to myself if this balance will also help prevent the criminalization of poor people—where police brutality and Propositions like Prop N and Prop M have become the norm (Prop N is the ‘Care Not Cash’ initiative sponsored by Gavin Newsom that drew increasing criticism for stripping cash subsidies from homeless and under-housed citizens of San Francisco while failing to deliver on the promised services and housing; Prop M is the recently passed anti-panhandling measure—again sponsored by Gavin Newsom—to criminalize asking for help). Knowing that Matt Gonzalez opposed both Proposition M and N, I invite his comments on the initiatives sponsored by his mayoral opponent. "I think it’s just a waste of time to run a campaign…to speak in favor of an anti-panhandling measure when there’s already one on the books that the voters approved in 1992. I never heard the sponsor, my opponent in the mayor’s race, explain why we needed yet another panhandling law and, I suppose, if I were a better politician, I would just draft my own and take it to the ballot next year…(its passage) proves a certain degree of frustration with our society (and) the inability to right some of the inequities. So I…take a vote like that—a 60-40 vote—and look at it that way…it’s people voicing their frustration with government rather than wanting to attack the poor." If Gonzalez is right, then another backlash (like the one that stymied Proposition N) from San Francisco citizens, some of who may have approved Propositions M and N, can be expected. And Newsom may be forced to backpedal on Proposition M much the way he did on Proposition N.

Another ‘criminalization of the poor’ issue receiving greater scrutiny involves the long standing practice of CPS (Child Protective Services), in conjunction with DSS (Department of Social Services), to remove children from their parents for frivolous reasons (e.g. based solely on income considerations, temporary personal crisis, or hearsay evidence) and to deny the reinstatement of parental rights when the requirements dictated by CPS have been met. When I inform Matt Gonzalez that POOR Magazine, through the investigative journalism of its subsidiaries Courtwatch and Poor News Network, has determined that an incentive system—where funding for CPS is directly tied to the number of children the agency finds reasons to remove—motivates and encourages CPS workers to separate children from their families, he concurs that such a system strikes him as problematic. "I think, as a general matter, you want kids with their parents or with their families and so, I think that kind of removal action is a very serious matter and should not be taken…lightly."

When I mention to Gonzalez the concerns of POOR Magazine writers and other economic justice advocates regarding not only the criminalization of poor people that Newsom seems to be pursuing (by sponsoring measures like M and N) but the direct police harassment and brutality toward people living in cars and on the streets, he nods his head in understanding. "We’ve had a number of people come to city hall and testify about the manner of harassment that the police have engaged in…if you’ve got a crisis in your city where you don’t have a sufficient number of shelter beds or places to put people, you cannot attack somebody’s effort at taking care of themselves…(I’ve) met a number of people who went through periods where they lived in a car and eventually…are able to get back on their feet. It (living in a car) might be the last step before you’re right on the street. And so, I think it’s a very serious matter—I think it’s counterproductive…to allow law enforcement to engage in something that is, in effect, mandating homelessness." 

Matt Gonzalez believes that providing real services that prevent desperate measures like panhandling is the fiscally healthy and truly caring solution. "(Panhandling) is fundamentally a societal problem about the inability to care for people who have problems or (to whom we’re) not giving decent wages…" Gonzales claims that, as long as money for services is spent responsibly, more fortunate San Franciscans have a desire to see some of their taxes used to address issues of poverty and homelessness. "(W)e’re trying to get people back on their feet—and, in cases where that’s not possible, put them in good living arrangements with supportive services so that their lives are meaningful…"

Gonzalez is also interested in "empowering tenants of public housing." When I ask if he would support tenant ownership of public housing, he responds enthusiastically, "I think it’s great—I’ve always been a supporter of land trust type models and limited equity models." When I indicate the recent efforts of developers to create more higher rent facilities, Matt continues with quiet passion regarding the trend toward gentrification in San Francisco. "(W)hen you allow a bunch of developers to come in and ignore housing needs and just build office space that’s going to attract more people to compete for existing housing…you’re going to end up with such fierce competition for the housing (that) people making money on the lower end of the spectrum just can’t…survive. To build low-income housing really requires a commitment by the city." Gonzalez’ plan would make property available to non-profit developers or other developers that want to build low-income housing. "You can do it at thirty, forty, fifty percent of the median area income. That’s a lot better than Newsom’s promise of a work force housing initiative (at) eighty, one hundred, one hundred and twenty percent of median income. That doesn’t (reach)…the lower ends of the median income spectrum."

Given Mayor Willie Brown’s current attempts to create a sweet developer deal for his corporate allies with the Bayview/Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard (see ‘Land Grabs’ Bayview editorial dated November 5, 2003), I ask Gonzalez’ opinion of this specific development issue. "I think that the primary problem with the whole navy shipyard turns on the fact that there’s…uncertainty about whether or not that property is in a sufficiently clean state to start developing. (T)hese developers don’t have the best interests in mind of the future occupants of that property." Regarding the efforts of the Redevelopment Agency and the Housing Authority to control the Bayview area, Matt comments that "there was a proposal…that the Bayview be its own kind of redevelopment site in and of itself with (its) own commissioners—and not be subject to the powers of the redevelopment agency—that it be a different Bayview/Hunters Point redevelopment agency." Gonzalez believes that, if such a plan was configured to create direct neighborhood empowerment, it may be useful.

Since empowering lower income neighborhoods is a priority for Matt Gonzalez, I ask his views concerning the light rail project and whether he would fight to keep those jobs within the Bayview/Hunter’s Point community. "Despite the promises of (community based hiring practices), we so often (end up) with just commuter jobs that we’re creating. I’ve always thought that…it (the light rail project) was an opportunity to hire people in the community to do those jobs. So I’m very supportive of the first source hiring program."

As we conclude the interview, I turn to a national issue that affects San Franciscans and ask Matt how far he would be willing to go to protect San Francisco residents from the intrusions of the federal government and the increased powers it has appropriated to itself via laws like the PATRIOT act. Gonzalez says he will support the measure on the March ballot that fellow Supervisor Jake McGoldrick has sponsored that would give the Board of Supervisors the power to oppose possible invasions of privacy and the like by federal authorities. "(W)e would take the political and legal onus on ourselves…I’m very opposed to an act that purports to be about patriotism (but) has so little to do about it—it’s sort of like ‘Care Not Cash’ (Gavin Newsom’s Proposition N) having so little to do with really addressing the true problems of homelessness. (T)he PATRIOT act is an assault on civil liberties that I think future generations will look upon to say, ‘how was it possible that these people…didn’t see what a terrible travesty and undermining of their values that it was.’"

Finally, I invite Matt Gonzalez to tell San Francisco voters (and particularly San Francisco democrats) why they should vote for him over Gavin Newsom. He notes that he already has the support of many democrats (Gonzalez is a member of the Green Party) including members of the Democratic County Central Committee "because, as one of them said, ‘I’m the best democrat in the race.’" Noting some differences between him and a more traditional democratic candidate, he asserts, "I’ve certainly worked with many progressive democrats but…the democrats (as a party) have never fielded a presidential candidate that was opposed to the death penalty or supportive of gay marriage (as is Matt Gonzalez). For me, it’s really about charting a different course—perhaps (a) more independent one locally—(that’s) not beholden to the machine."

When I hear the word ‘machine’, I am reminded of a conversation during which a San Francisco resident explained to me why he had shifted his allegiance from Gavin Newsom to Matt Gonzalez. "The more I listen to Gavin Newsom," he said, "the more I realize he’s just part of the political and corporate machine." And Matt Gonzalez, especially after hearing him in debate with Newsom, strikes him as a far more sincere and competent man. People say there is a clear choice in the December 9th election—perhaps the choice is as clear as man versus machine.

As of press time PNN has contacted Gavin Newsom several times for an interview and he has not responded to our requests. 


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