San Francisco Bay Guardian - September 16, 1998



Mabel Teng is facing Tom Ammiano for the second-most-powerful office in San Francisco. She claims to be a progressive; the facts show the opposite.


By Savannah Blackwell


Long ago, they might have been allies. Supervisor Tom Ammiano cut his political teeth on the streets of the Castro, rising out of the grassroots movement for gay liberation and civil rights led by Harvey Milk. Supervisor Mabel Teng emigrated to the United States from Hong Kong; in Boston and in the Bay Area she fought for the rights of the disenfranchised, especially Asian immigrants and workers.


Now they’re facing off for the second-most-powerful elected office in San Francisco. As the only elected incumbents running for the Board of Supervisors in November, they’re the likely candidates for the board presidency, which goes to the supervisor who receives the most votes.


By making appointments and creating ad hoc committees, the board president can determine the direction of the board. As the most powerful mayor in the past 25 years tries to sew up his reelection a full year early, the board could be an oppositional voice – or it could remain firmly under Willie Brown’s thumb, as it’s been under current president Barbara Kaufman.


And as the campaign heats up, Teng and Ammiano couldn’t represent more distinct interests.


Ammiano’s base remains the same: liberals, progressives, and the gay community. Teng’s allegiance, meanwhile, has swung from Jesse Jackson, for whom she worked as an aide, to the CEOs of San Francisco’s biggest corporations, the pro-status quo Democratic machine, and property owners.


“It would be great to put our backing behind a progressive Asian candidate,” Rand Quinn, an organizer with Asians and Pacific Islanders for Community Empowerment, told the Bay Guardian.“But there aren’t any running. That’s why we’ve endorsed Ammiano.”


Teng’s portraying herself as a liberal in this race, at least in some circles. She described herself to the Harvey Milk Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Democratic Club as “an activist in Democratic politics and social justice struggles.” She’s plastered the liberal east side of the city with flyers and pushed for endorsements from progressive organizations like the San Francisco Tenants Union.


But a study of her voting record gives the real Teng away. From housing issues to public spending to open government, she has consistently sided with big business – and against the interests of communities, working people, and the poor.

As has been her practice, Teng didn’t respond to Bay Guardian phone calls by press time. She also didn’t respond to a list of detailed questions we faxed her for this article.


But her record is clear and leaves little room for debate.


Tenants’ choice?


Teng has portrayed herself as an advocate for tenants, who are demanding stronger regulations to protect them from the city’s brutal housing market. Tenant advocates say that with friends like Teng, they don’t need enemies.


Ted Gullicksen, an organizer with the San Francisco Tenants Union, told the Bay Guardian that Teng has repeatedly undermined tenants rights legislation by introducing watered-down alternatives. It’s a canny strategy – one that allows her to do landlords a favor while taking credit for nominally tenant-supported reforms.


“She recognizes that it’s not politically advantageous to be seen as anti tenant, so she introduces some legislation,” Gullicksen told the Bay Guardian. “But it always undercuts a stronger piece of legislation.”


Last fall Ammiano introduced legislation aimed at restricting “owner move-in” (OMI) evictions, which allow landlords to evict tenants if they or a relative want to move in. The rate of OMIs has increased sharply in recent years. Tenant activists say landlords are using the provision to force tenants out, then renting out the units again at higher prices – thus evading rent control laws.


Ammiano’s proposed ordinance would have protected seniors, the disabled, and the critically ill, including people with AIDS, from being evicted under OMI law.


The day after Ammiano introduced the ordinance, Teng introduced her own OMI legislation. But hers protected only seniors. Ammiano agreed to merge his legislation with hers but had to fight to get Teng to cover sick people. Teng maintained that critically ill people should only be exempt from OMI eviction if they’ve lived in their apartments for at least 10 years. Ammiano and Supervisor Jose Medina got that down to five.


“That was about political concessions to the landlords,” Robert Haaland of the Tenants Union told the Bay Guardian.

Teng used a similar tactic last September, when Supervisor Sue Bierman introduced legislation to address the problem of hotelization. Landlords can increase profits by converting apartment buildings to short-term hotels – taking permanent housing units off the market and filling them with visiting business people. In November, Teng introduced her own hotelization legislation. Unlike Bierman’s, it barred anyone but “permanent residents of the building” from filing complaints against landlords – preventing tenant advocacy groups from filing complaints independently. Tenants often don’t have the resources or time to go after landlords on their own.


“Bierman’s [measure] solved the problem; Teng’s basically protected downtown, big landlord interests and the chamber of commerce,” Haaland told the Bay Guardian. When the measure passed, he said, “Teng declared it a great day for tenants. What nerve.”


And Teng has consistently taken conservative positions on homelessness. She strongly supported the Brown-ordered police sweeps that cleared homeless people from Golden Gate Park last fall. “There will be no more homeless encampments in the park,” she said at a November 1997 hearing. “We have to maintain it as a beautiful, safe park.”


“I would definitely not characterize [Teng’s] attitude for the homeless as progressive. I think she’s been very reactionary,” Paul Boden, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, told the Bay Guardian. “She seems to be pushing the agenda of ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ which would fit with Willie Brown’s agenda. Aside from Ammiano, that’s been characteristic of this board.”


In response to a Milk Club questionnaire that asked what she had done and would do for runaway and homeless youths, she wrote that, as finance chair, she had “ensured budget funding in the amount of $200,000 for a youth homeless shelter.”


“The city must fund prevention and outreach programs that address the problems leading to runaway and homeless youth,” she added, but she’s rarely put her money where her mouth is.


She had an opportunity to do so this summer, when, as chair of the Finance Committee, she played a key role in allocating the city’s $100 million budget surplus. Along with fellow committee members Kaufman and Gavin Newsom, she refused to put some of that money into “the People’s Budget” – a proposal by a broad-based coalition of activists to spend some $30 million on programs helping women and the poor.


Populist fronting


The People’s Budget would have made it possible for legal immigrants in the city who arrived after federal welfare reform took effect to get food stamps. It would have increased the monthly stipend of people waiting for SSI benefits and provided substance-abuse treatment on demand. Teng rejected it outright.


Instead she chose to leave $25 million in reserve, and she pointed to a $3 million allocation for children’s programs as she called the budget “a safety net for those less fortunate.”


“Adding a few dollars to what was originally budgeted does not adequately address the problem,” Riva Enteen, program director of the National Lawyers Guild, told the Bay Guardian. “A true progressive looks at how resources are allocated in the city and shifts those resources from downtown interests to those economically disadvantaged. She does not do that in any significant way.”


Quinn, of Asians and Pacific Islanders for Community Empowerment, agrees.


“Though Teng has been supportive of immigrants rights, she had the opportunity to do something really good for the city and especially newly arrived immigrants,” he told us. “To watch her not do that was heartbreaking.”


“The People’s Budget was proposed at the last minute, after the budget process was complete,” Ten wrote in the Milk Club questionnaire. “It did not go through any sunshine or public process, nor was it debated.”


People’s Budget advocates say that’s because Teng wouldn’t open the floor for them.


Last fall Teng introduced an ordinance that modified Mayor Willie Brown’s welfare-to-work plan. The ordinance required employable people receiving General Assistance benefits – who are already required to do menial work in the city’s workfare program – to participate in job-training programs. Recipients who can’t make their way through the program’s bureaucracy, or can’t find someone to look after their kids while they’re at the trainings, or otherwise don’t complete the program, now have their meager $345-a-month benefits docked $66. Workfare workers already receive substantially less pay than union members doing the same work – in some cases below the minimum wage.


“Though [Teng’s legislation] was billed as helping welfare recipients get work, it was really about making people work for less,” Steve Williams, director of People Organized to Win Employment Rights, said. “This fall, when 13,000 people have their General Assistance cut and become homeless, they will have Mabel Teng to thank for that.”


Pulling the strings


Throughout her career, Teng has been notoriously close to professional lobbyists – most notably John Whitehurst, who is currently her campaign manager. And when those lobbyists’ interests come before the board, she’s always defended them.


She was actively involved in Whitehurst’s and Robert Barnes’s efforts to undermine Ammiano’s Proposition G in November 1997, which aimed to help the public track the influence of consultants on policy makers. Prop. G, which passed, requires campaign consultants to register with the Ethics Commission.


Teng even lent her name to nasty attacks on Ammiano over the issue. One flyer read, “Proposition G is opposed by … Supervisor Mabel Teng and thousands of San Franciscans tired of paying for Ammiano’s expensive ideas.”


Some of Whitehurst’s former and current clients have donated to her campaign, including the Yellow Cab Cooperative (Teng supported the Yellow Cab-backed Proposition J in 1996), which donated $600, and Norcal Waste Systems, which gave $250.


As finance chair, Teng refused a request from Ammiano, supported by Supervisor Leland Yee, to allot the Ethics Commission $40,000 to help make consultant, lobbyist, and campaign finance reports available online. The commission had requested $50,000; the mayor and the Finance Committee allotted $10,000.


Charlie Marsteller of good-government group Common Cause told the Bay Guardian that the loss of that funding will prevent the commission from getting reports online by July 1999, as it had planned.


Teng’s record is no better on First Amendment issues. She supported a recent ordinance banning most free-standing news racks in San Francisco and replacing them with large pedestal-mounted racks (ped  mounts). Newspaper publishers and advocates for freedom of the press opposed the ordinance, saying it would limit the ability of smaller, neighborhood-based papers to circulate.


When the ordinance was introduced in March, neither Teng nor Kaufman responded to press inquiries about when the hearing on the matter would be scheduled to go before the Finance Committee. In late May, Teng voted in favor of ped mounts, while Supervisors Ammiano, Bierman, and Jose Medina voted against the measure.


“There is no justification to limit the actual number of newspapers, contrary to a long line of First Amendment cases bolstering numerous voices in the marketplace for free expression,” Senny Boone, government relations director of the National Newspaper Association, told the Bay Guardian in April.


Ain’t no sunshine


Last winter AIDS activists who suspected that the S.F. AIDS Foundation was abusing its public funds launched a drive to make nonprofits with city contracts more accountable. In late spring Ammiano sponsored legislation that would have required those groups to hold public hearings and to make available their annual budgets and other financial documents. According to activists who worked on the measure, Teng refused to schedule a hearing on the issue – until AIDS activists picketed the Finance Committee.


“We had the legislation out for four weeks and hadn’t gotten any return calls,” ACT UP-Golden Gate member Jeff Getty told us. “We heard through the grapevine that they weren’t going to schedule it, then the budget was going to come up, so the Finance Committee would be too busy.”


Along with Kaufman and Newsom, Teng amended the legislation, substantially weakening it. She and the other committee members were heavily lobbied by the AIDS Foundation and other big nonprofits. Though she claimed in the Milk Club questionnaire that she supported Ammiano’s ordinance, the activists disagree.


“Teng has done two bad things to people with AIDS: she became the biggest obstruction to the nonprofit accountability ordinance, and she lengthened the amount of time somebody with a catastrophic illness has to live in an apartment before being protected from eviction,” Getty said. “She is for big business and real estate development. She couldn’t care less about the little guy.”


Labor in vain


“I have worked with the labor community to help create and guarantee healthy work environments and keep good jobs in San Francisco,” Teng wrote in her Milk Club questionnaire. And she’s scored endorsements from the city’s labor council and the powerful public-employee and health care unions Service Employees International Union locals 790 and 250.

Labor advocates question the financial support Teng receives from the garment industry. Teng collected at least $8,400 from clothing manufacturers – including at least seven that have been investigated by the Department of Labor for employee rights abuse.


WIN Fashion has been under investigation for several years and is being investigated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Internal Revenue Service, and the state and U.S. attorney, according to Harry Hu, who works in the Department of Labor’s wage and hour office.


“They’re the biggest contractor for garment making in San Francisco,” Hu told the Bay Guardian. He identified Boldstitch Garment Company, East Oakland Sewing Inc., Leeda Sewing Manufacturing Inc., Tai Sang Garment Factory Inc., Wallis Fashion, and B&Z Garment Manufacturing Inc. as other companies from Teng’s contribution list that have been “hit” by the department at some point during the 1990s.


“Typically what you see is problems with overtime and overworking,” Hu said.


In 1996 Teng proposed legislation that would have expanded the city’s manufacturing zones to enable more garment shops to open up in the city and be eligible for federal loans.


Teng’s treasurer is Democratic machine operative and union foe Natalie Berg, whose dubious election as chair of the Democratic County Central Committee was recently blocked by a judge. Berg recently took on organized labor over contract disputes at City College.


Most offensive of all to SEIU members, Teng voted against permanently canceling Sutter Health’s contract with the city when Visiting Nurses and Hospice (VNH), a division of Sutter, refused to recognize the union.


Sal Roselli, head of Local 250, told the Bay Guardian that the endorsement “was a hard decision.”


“She signed an endorsement of rebuilding Laguna Honda Hospital, which included opposing any bond issue until Laguna was taken care of,” Roselli said. “On the VNH issue, she apologized in front of 200 labor members. She said she made a mistake and that she would support workers rights.”


Roselli said Teng was guaranteed the endorsement from the San Francisco Labor Council, which is dominated by the building trades, and from SEIU Local 790, which represents city workers. The two SEIU locals and the council decided to maintain a united front, he said, and the council had agreed that labor’s campaign workers and funding chiefs would give Ammiano’s campaign top priority. Ammiano’s campaign contribution list shows strong support from the unions.


“With the labor council votes, this is the best compromise we could get for Tom and for our workers,” Roselli said.


Downtown’s darling


Teng reports she has raised about $173,000 for the current campaign. (Ammiano has raised roughly $86,000.) As flyers circulated at the September endorsement meeting of SEIU locals 790 and 250 pointed out, her campaign contribution list “reads like a who’s who list of the Committee on Jobs,” the lobbying group for the city’s largest and most powerful downtown corporations.


She has taken at least $7,500 from Committee on Jobs members and organizations, including donations from some of the city’s richest and most powerful figures, among them real estate mogul Walter Shorenstein and Gap chair Don Fisher. Warren Hellman, heir to the Wells Fargo fortune, is her finance chair.


Hellman, who snared headlines earlier this year when he offered to raise $150 million for an underground parking garage and other “enhancements” in Golden Gate Park, told us Teng was a favorite of the city’s biggest companies.

“I can’t think of any calls from the Committee on Jobs complaining about her,” Hellman told the Bay Guardian. “She hasn’t done anything on the Finance Committee to offend downtown.”


She certainly hasn’t moved to oppose committee heavyweight Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Last July City Attorney Louise Renne rushed to settle a potentially groundbreaking Superior Court case against PG&E. The settlement let PG&E off the hook instead of charging it a higher annual fee to run its cables and wires across city property. It also granted PG&E the right to deliver power to the Presidio National Park and Treasure Island. Teng supported the settlement; Ammiano, along with Bierman and Supervisors Medina and Yee, voted against.


Also, in February 1997 Teng went along with a majority of supervisors who voted to give right-wing cable operator TCI monopoly control of the San Francisco cable system and let its predecessor, Viacom, off the hook for millions of dollars in fees and undelivered services it owes the city. Ammiano voted against the deal, as did Supervisors Medina and Yee.


Machine operator


As a staunch supporter of downtown interests, Teng has been welcomed with open arms by the city’s Democratic machine. Willie Brown has hinted that Teng is in line for a promotion; he once playfully spoke of “when Mabel is mayor” at a press conference.


His support for her has changed the look of the board. Brown had announced that he planned to appoint a Latina lesbian to replace Susan Leal when Leal was elected treasurer; instead he chose Mark Leno, a Jewish gay man. According to a source at the Latino Democratic Committee, Brown told the committee that he chose Leno in the hope that Leno would take support away from Ammiano and to make sure that Teng was the only woman incumbent in the race.


In January newly elected board president Kaufman made Teng finance chair, considered to be the most powerful committee position. Kaufman has gone on to shower praise and support on Teng since that time.


Teng has offered her support to a host of machine favorites. She campaigned for the mayor’s seemingly doomed 49ers football stadium, and she has supported his efforts to avoid implementing Proposition K, approved by voters in June, which would reduce the mayor’s control over Treasure Island.


Most notably, she dropped her support of district elections, which allow neighborhoods to elect their own candidates to the Board of Supervisors, increasing the diversity of the board and decreasing the amount of money needed to get elected. District elections brought Harvey Milk to the Board of Supervisors before they were repealed by a downtown-funded campaign in 1980. Shortly before voters approved them again in November 1996, Mayor Brown publicly opposed the move. Teng soon followed suit.


The Milk Club questionnaire asked for her position on district elections; Teng responded, “I believe citywide elections provide San Francisco with more balanced and diverse representation, as is currently the case at the Board of Supervisors.”


“She doesn’t understand the need for changing the electoral system so people from grassroots and neighborhood groups have a stronger voice,” Eric Mar of the northern California chapter of the Coalition for Immigrant Rights told us. “Citywide elections advantages people who have name recognition, downtown money backing, and the political machine behind them.”


The record suggests that Teng has only one item on her agenda: getting the support it takes to get elected. And by trying to play both sides of the fence, she’s alienated both conservatives and progressives.


According to political consultant David Spero and Robert Haaland of the Tenants Union, Teng told tenants in a recent endorsement interview that she couldn’t oppose last June’s Proposition E (which would have repealed rent control for buildings with four or fewer units) because she was getting death threats from the radical right forces in the Chinese community.


“She made a really emotional but unbelievable plea,” Haaland told us.

Chinatown radio host and supervisorial candidate Rose Tsai, of the conservative San Francisco Neighbors Association, denied that she was involved in any such threats.


“That is absolutely outrageous and totally untrue,” Tsai told us. “I can’t believe that Mabel.”


Teng has won the ire of advocates on both sides of that issue. Teng told conservative property rights activist Julie Lee that she wouldn’t appeal a Superior Court decision declaring her OMI law unconstitutional – then signed on to the appeal. She openly pledged to the downtown investment community that she would never raise business taxes, but Spero says she recently told him “she was against the Committee on Jobs.”


“She will say anything to advance her career,” Spero told the Bay Guardian. “She has no real progressive feathers.” ■




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