April 25, 2004
By Savannah Blackwell
Early in April, members of San Francisco's Green Party gathered in a Mission cafe to discuss their plans and goals for the upcoming November election.
They threw out an assortment of ideas - from lifting restrictions on non-citizens' voting rights to establishing a progressive city tax on local businesses. It was a long list, and they agreed they would have to discuss further which proposals should be given top priority.
But when asked for their thoughts on the supervisors' races, specifically -- how much it matters whether the District Five seat (soon to be vacated by Matt Gonzalez) remain in Green hands -- they said the answer should be obvious.
"It would be a disaster to lose that (seat)," member Rob Arnow said. "It would be a huge step backward."
Arnow is right, of course -- but for more reasons that he might imagine.
Gonzalez is one of the highest-ranking Greens in the country. His political success (and particularly his near toppling of a favorite son of the Democratic Party in last year's race for mayor) served to put the national Democratic Party on notice. The progressive tenets of the country's third largest political party are viable and should be embraced -- not marginalized.
For those of us who are not Green Party members and want to see the national Democratic Party rediscover its working class roots, it's critical -- at least symbolically -- that the Greens retain their local status.
On the local level, the impact of Gonzalez and the Greens' success can be felt tangibly. There's no question it played a large role in Mayor Gavin Newsom's decision to at least, in some important cases, put the city's most progressive leaders -- like the Coalition on Homelessness leader Paul Boden -- at the decision-making table.
The names of three Green Party members have surfaced in connection to the race to join the Board of Supervisors representing District Five, the city's second most progressive district encompassing parts of the Haight, Hayes Valley, the Western Addition and Cole Valley neighborhoods.
One, Lisa Feldstein, just resigned from her seat on the San Francisco Planning Commission. She is an organizer with Local 21 -- the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers and an expert on affordable housing issues. Feldstein has confirmed that she is running.
Another, Susan King, is a development director for a nonprofit and has been active in the local Green Party's leadership since 1999. She is weighing whether to enter the race.
The other, Ross Mirkarimi, served as a strategist and the spokesman for Gonzalez' bid for mayor and works as an investigator in the office of District Attorney Kamala Harris. He, too, is considering a bid.
As a journalist who has reported on the political aspirations of the city's progressive community for the past eight years and a resident of District Five, I'd like to personally encourage Mirkarimi to throw his hat in the ring.
Feldstein appears to be a solid progressive. She has a fine, nearly two-year record serving as one of Supervisor TomAmmiano's picks on the planning commission. For example, she cast the lone vote last summer against signing off on the environmental impact report for the underground parking garage slated for construction in Golden Gate Park.
King has a five-year record working on progressive causes ranging from 1999's sunshine initiative to the 2002 campaign to elect Jeff Adachi public defender. A major player in the local Green Party, she has frequently worked to generate interest in these efforts among her fellow Greens as well as marshal available resources. Most recently, she helped raise funds for Gonzalez' mayoral campaign.
But given how much is politically at stake in the city - in the fight between those of lesser socioeconomic means and the wealthy interests behind Newsom -- there's a strong argument that the new District Five supervisor should be a warrior with as much hand-to-hand combat experience as possible. It would be ideal for that person to have fought for many, many years in San Francisco's age-old battle between the haves and the have-nots.
Mirkarimi has served at the forefront of the city's progressive causes -- from re-establishing district elections to improving the environment in the city's poorest neighborhoods -- for nearly 20 years. During that time, he also played a key role in the early history and more recent development of the Green Party in the United States.
In 1987, he served as a volunteer in the campaign to elect Art Agnos mayor. At roughly the same time, he got involved with a nascent group in the U.S. called the Greens-Committee of Correspondence. In 1989, he initiated the first formal relationship between the U.S. group and the European Congress of Greens and volunteered with Petra Kelly, co-founder of the German Green Party. One year later, he helped launch the campaign to establish the California Green Party. And from 1991 to 1992, he co-directed the successful ballot drive to qualify the Green Party as an official state party.
He's worked for the campaign interests of a variety of Green Party leaders - the pinnacle of which was his role in 2000 as the California campaign director of Ralph Nader's bid for U.S. President. (There's some concern that his part in Nader's 2000 efforts will backfire against him as well as other Greens running for local office - especially in a presidential election year.)
On the local front, Mirkarimi's lengthy experience in progressive politics is unmatched among the District Five candidates.
In 1991, he advised mayoral candidate Richard Hongisto in formulating his environmental policy. Though Hongisto'sefforts were unsuccessful, his advisor's work led to the creation of San Francisco's sustainable city program, the Department of Environment and an environmental response team aimed at dealing with the pollution in Bay View Hunters Point.
In 1994, a year after then-Supervisor Terence Hallinan appointed him to the citizens' environmental commission,Mirkarimi joined Hallinan's office -- where he helped create the city's first commission dealing with transgender issues and the task forces that eventually led to the re-establishment of district elections and the demolition of the Central Freeway.
One year later, he directed Hallinan's successful bid for District Attorney as well as the campaign for Proposition M, the initiative that established spending limits in local races. (Ironically, that's the very law that Harris, his current boss, broke in order to spend the necessary funds to catapult herself into a run-off against Hallinan.)
After that, Mirkarimi got a job as an investigator in the D.A.'s office once he completed the required training in the San Francisco Police Academy. As investigator, his accomplishments include doing the legwork that led to his former boss' successful 1998 case against the Old Republic Title Company for defrauding California consumers.
In 1999, he directed Hallinan's re-election effort as well as the campaign for the sunshine ballot initiative, which established one of the strongest local government access laws in the country. In 2000, he decided not to run for District Five supervisor out of deference to Gonzalez.
One year later, he directed the two initiatives aimed at establishing public power. After both measures failed (one just narrowly), he convinced the proposals' supporters to cast their lot with Dennis Herrera in the latter's successful effort to win the runoff and become City Attorney.
In 2002, Mirkarimi volunteered with Harry Britt's unsuccessful campaign for state assembly, helped ranked choice voting win at the ballot and assisted in Supervisor Chris Daly's re-election effort. In addition to working on Gonzalez's mayoral bid last year, he helped with the campaign to pass Proposition H - the police reform initiative.
There's some rather unusual work in Mirkarimi's background that has taken him beyond San Francisco's borders. In the early 1990s, he traveled to Iraq to study the environmental impacts of the Persian Gulf War as part of Harvard University's study team. His reports were published in the New England Journal of Medicine and other outlets.
In 1995, he journeyed to Ekaterinburg, Russia to advise political leaders there on putting together the city's first parliamentarian election.
At roughly the same time and after experiencing the devastation of war firsthand, he decided to join the U.S. Naval reserves. The idea was to enter the belly of the beast and learn as much as he could about the U.S. military's operations first hand or -- as he puts it, "to demystify an impenetrable institution." He ended his involvement in the late 1990s.
Should Mirkarimi decide to run, he will face a crowded field. The non-Green contenders with the best chances likely will include Bill Barnes, a member of the local Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) and a legislative aide to Daly, Robert Haaland, a fellow member of the DCCC and a former president of the Harvey Milk Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Democratic Club and former Assistant District Attorney Jim Hammer.
All of these individuals are worthy candidates. Barnes played key roles in both of Daly's successful runs for supervisor. Whip-smart, he is probably the most astute at working legislation at City Hall. A valued friend to many including myself, Barnes joined the progressive movement in 2000 after leaving his job working for Mayor Willie Brown as an (openly HIV positive) advisor on AIDS policy with special focus on needle exchange and medical marijuana issues. The youthful Barnes' most powerful political mentor is Carole Migden, currently the chair of the State Board of Equalization and a candidate for the California senate.
Then there is Robert Haaland. Haaland has been a major player in local progressive causes since 1997, when he joined the San Francisco Tenants Union as an affordable housing advocate. Haaland, too, is very bright -- and extremely passionate. In the summer of 1999, he repeatedly begged Ammiano to join the race for mayor and started the "Run, Tom Run" campaign with Milk Club co-founder Hank Wilson. At the last moment, Ammiano tossed his hat into the ring, and the landmark success of the supervisor's 1999 write-in bid was in no small part due to the extraordinary organizing efforts of Haaland. Like Mirkarimi, he worked on
Britt's 2002 campaign and efforts to establish instant run-off voting (IRV).
But the successful effort Haaland made in 2003 as Milk Club President to forge a political alliance with Assembly Member Mark Leno and the members of the moderate, mostly pro-landlord Alice B. Toklas Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Democratic Club raised some eyebrows. So did his decision to endorse Harris, even though a majority of the rank and file preferred Hallinan. Currently, Haaland's backers include both Britt and Leno. The latter undoubtedly will be able to marshal some serious resources toward Haaland's effort and likely will succeed in securing him the endorsement of the Alice Club.
Although some Milk Clubbers had trouble last year with Haaland's leadership, he overwhelmingly won the group's support for re-election to the DCCC. Most members undoubtedly will see fit to award him their organization's support for supervisor as well. He would be the city's first elected transgender official.
The esteemed Jim Hammer, who has gained fame for prosecuting the dog-mauling case and his subsequent work as a media pundit on legal issues, would serve as something of a wild card in this race. Though he is being recruited by District Eight Supervisor and Bevan Dufty (one of Mayor Newsom's closest allies at City Hall) who, like Newsom's spouse, Kimberley Guilfoyle Newsom, is a personal friend of the native San Franciscan -- his own politics are much more progressive. For example, he strongly supports rent control and public power. But the fact that he has no track record that voters can scrutinize likely will pose a problem.
The impact of a potentially ugly political battle on Hammer causes some concern. The former Jesuit priest is a devout and remarkably decent man -- as well as a newcomer to San Francisco's political scene. I consider myself fortunate to count him among my friends. Whatever he decides to do, it will be the result of his private consultation with forces much greater than ourselves. (It's worth noting that if Hammer and Mirkarimi both decline to run, the race could turn into a battle between Leno and Migden.)
If -- as advocates and local elections officials assure us -- IRV is implemented in time for the November election, the chances of a mean-spirited battle to succeed Gonzalez will greatly diminish. But if not, (and like many, I'll believe it when I see it) this race could get really nasty really quickly. Stupid rumors about various candidates have already wended their way through City Hall.
The absence of IRV would greatly increase the chance that a moderate, possibly Newsom-backed (or not) stealth horse comes out ahead as the left fights among itself. The results of the race for seats on the DCCC representing the 13th assembly district serve as a warning. When the Milk Club, the Tenants Union and the San Francisco Bay Guardian don't agree (and there's a chance of that happening in the race for District Five supervisor) - the results can go scattershot.
Case in point, this year marked the first time since the reform of the DCCC in 2000 that the three's lists of
names varied. Political analysts say that helped a few moderates win seats representing the city's more progressive, east side. Though it probably wasn't the deciding factor (the votes of the representatives of
the Bay Area's elected officials are mostly to blame), the presence of newly elected, pro-Newsom members in District 13 seats helped former supervisor and longtime machine stalwart Leslie Katz win the coveted chair position.
Contemplating the new, non-progressive leadership of the ruling body of the local Democratic Party takes us back to the argument supporting a bid by Mirkarimi in the race to succeed Gonzalez. Now, more than ever - the party needs the threat of the continuance of strong local Green Party leadership. And it sure would help for it to come from a weathered, well-rounded soldier in the progressive army.
Savannah Blackwell is a distinguished journalist who recently
joined the SF Progressive as our editor. Email her at email@example.com