May 13, 2004
By Savannah Blackwell, SF Progressive editor
The city’s progressives thought they knew the story.
Last fall, Supervisor Matt Gonzalez's campaign for mayor inspired a massive army of volunteers to hit the streets and carry the former public defender's populist message to the people - or more specifically, to voters unimpressed with the heavily-moneyed, well-oiled machine behind Gavin Newsom -- the heir apparent of Willie Brown.
Though they were not victorious, Gonzalez and his supporters re-energized a movement that had lost momentum during the three years following the progressive sweep of the Board of Supervisors in November 2000. Gonzalez's calm, thoughtful style and his ability to speak convincingly to common, working-class values turned his candidacy into something of a wishing well for those who did not believe that Newsom could possibly represent their interests.
After the source of their inspiration lost the December run-off with 48 percent of the vote, Gonzalez supporters did not lose hope (many didn’t even take down their house signs). They expected him to remain at the helm of the Board of Supervisors, lead the opposition and serve as the de facto head of a "government in exile," as the San Francisco Chronicle has put it.
They certainly weren’t expecting the next development in the plot.
On March 29 Gonzalez announced in a story by Adriel Hampton, the Examiner’s political editor, that he would not seek a second term as supervisor representing District Five in November. The news sent many supporters reeling. For example, Green Party leader Ross Mirkarimi, who handled press for Gonzalez' mayoral bid, said he was "dismayed" by the decision. The Bay Guardian’s Tim Redmond referred to it as the 'drop[ping] of a thermonuclear bomb.'
Almost immediately, the rumor mill started cranking out some whoppers to account for the seemingly inexplicable move -- including the notion that Gonzalez was ducking out to mount a write-in challenge to State Board of Equalization Chair Carole Migden's effort to succeed John Burton in the state senate.
As for Gonzalez himself, he didn't offer much in the way of explanation. He simply told Hampton he was planning to go back to working as an attorney and would likely set up his own private practice.
Given the mystery around his decision, officials at the Commonwealth Club of California saw fit to invite Gonzalez down to their Market Street headquarters and provide him with a forum where he might explain his motives to the public.
Hampton, who has developed a friendly relationship with the media-shunning Gonzalez, was chosen to handle the May 6 interview.
The three biggest questions on the audience’s collective mind were the following: (1) Why quit the board now? (2) Who should succeed you? and (3) What office will you seek next?
Hampton asked only question number two directly (which Gonzalez ducked). But the Examiner editor’s discussion with the District Five supervisor did shed some light on the answer to the first one: It appears that the reason Gonzalez has bowed out now is the same reason why so many people got excited about his candidacy in the first place.
And that is...
Matt Gonzalez is not a conventional politician.
He doesn’t like to do the things most politicians relish: Cut ribbons, glad-hand and flash a cheesy smile for the cameras.
Unfortunately, he says, a lot of people want that sort of thing from their district representative, and they get put out if he or she doesn't oblige.
"I'm not into making one event after another," Gonzalez explained. "I'm not into handing out a certificate to just about everybody... My life in many ways is more authentic than politics demands. The public complains about politicians, but then they get upset when a politician doesn't [fit the stereotype]. If they want someone who will be out at every ribbon-cutting, then that's the kind of politician they'll get. The ones who revel in that spotlight."
Gonzalez, it seems, would rather spend his time in private catching up on his reading (such as the biography of a surrealist poet who was into participating in sleep studies), or at a café or art gallery where he might relate to others in a more real and meaningful way.
So that was it. He just didn't like the bullshit. Should we be surprised? Didn’t we know that his intolerance of the usual mindless drivel is what made him so appealing?
As for expectations that he would use the event as an opportunity to anoint an heir (i.e. to endorse a candidate in the ridiculously crowded field vying to replace him as District Five's supervisor), forget it. This is all he would say: "It's an exceptional field. There are many who could do the job. It would be a tough race for me to run against these candidates."
As for his future plans, he said he was planning to put together a private law practice that would be a “thorn in the side” to the city.
Ok, folks this is good news and of greater significance than you might think. Here’s something I’ve learned over the years reporting on progressives’ battles: the paucity of smart lawyers willing to work pro bono for good causes is a major problem. Ever wonder why the San Francisco Bay Guardian endorsed Neil Eisenberg (whose stance on social issues was not exactly progressive) for City Attorney in 2001 over planning and land use attorney Steve Williams -- the choice of Supervisors Jake McGoldrick and Aaron Peskin?
Because for years, Eisenberg was the only local attorney who would provide free advice to public power activists as well as those who were fighting the privatization of the Presidio National Park. Since Eisenberg was the only private lawyer who put in the time, he had Publisher Bruce Brugmann’s loyalty (then Eisenberg thumbed his nose at Brugmann and endorsed anti-public power attorney Jim Lazarus in the run-off against Dennis Herrera. Nice).
Hampton’s discussion with Gonzalez elicited some interesting comments on other topics – such as the administration of Mayor Gavin Newsom and the challenges before the Board of Supervisors.
Not too surprisingly, Gonzalez pointed out that Newsom’s pioneering work in sanctioning gay marriages shouldn’t be construed to mean the mayor supports progressive approaches to economic issues. On the two most significant pieces of economic-related legislation before the Board of Supervisors during recent days, Newsom was no help, Gonzalez said. He vetoed Supervisor Chris Daly’s legislation banning demolition of housing. And the only reason he didn’t veto a measure making it more difficult for chain stores to locate in San Francisco neighborhoods was because he knew he was beaten, Gonzalez said. The measure had enough support on the board to overcome Newsom’s thumbs-down. So, according to Gonzalez, we can expect Newsom to behave like his predecessor in that he will be progressive on social issues the big downtown corporations aren’t worried about (like appointing women to high-ranking positions) and will tow the line for corporate interests when it comes to economic issues like housing and protection of small businesses.
As for our local legislators, Gonzalez says they’re out-gunned by the mayor’s office. True enough. Since former state senator Quentin Kopp convinced voters at the June, 1998 ballot to reduce the number of aides serving the supes from three to two, it’s been more difficult for them to deal with constituents and build momentum behind their proposals.
There’s another question many in the progressive community would like to hear Gonzalez answer. And that is, how will the movement fare without his celebrity personality there to galvanize it? Daly, for one, has been bummed out since his most-left leaning ally on the board announced his decision not to seek a second term. He told Randy Shaw’s Beyond Chron in a May 10 interview with local activist Richard Marquez that progressives will find it “really hard to keep [the momentum] going without Matt in there.”
No kidding. What are we going to do without regular events like the monthly art openings in his City Hall suite to bring us together? Perhaps Gonzalez can come up with an answer to that puzzler during his upcoming talk at Grace Cathedral scheduled for Sunday, May 13 at 9:30 a.m. But don’t count on it. Even though he himself has been the focus of a cult-of-personality, he has said many times the movement shouldn’t be about any one individual – much less his or her personal ambition.
To that end, Gonzalez was extra-careful at the May 6 forum not to reveal any hint of which elected office (assuming there even is one) he might seek in the future. When Pat Murphy, the publisher of the San Francisco Sentinel, pressed him on the issue, Gonzalez declined to specify.
"One of the few things I have is the element of surprise on my side," he said.
That, and an aloof quality that only adds to his allure. It may be that the reason we’re so drawn to Gonzalez is that we seem to need him more than he needs us. Isn't that just so... irresistible?