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What I Saw at the Mayoral Debate (9/3)

Dear Friends,

The mayoral wannabes met and debated tonight at a cavernous lecture hall at UC Medical Center on Parnassus Street.

There were 500 or so seats in the auditorium, and most were filled. The event was sponsored by SF 5Together, a coalition of five neighborhood groups in the Haight.

All the major players showed except for Gavin Newsom. “I believe he’s doing time with Arnold Schwarzenneger,” announced Jay Bagi, speaking for 5Together. “You gotta show up to win.” The huge audience howled.

Before the meeting, an organizer told me that all candidates had confirmed by April 3. However, Newsom pulled at the last minute, apparently to attend the gala opening of the symphony.

Newsom’s last-minute pull-out, after an apparent earlier confirmation, is inexcusable. The symphony is important, but so are the ordinary folks in the city who care enough to show up for debates.

Newsom is getting a reputation as someone who’s afraid to face the music - unless the audience is dressed in tuxes and gowns. He’ll have to do better than that if he wants to be mayor.

Tom Ammiano was absent at first but arrived about a half hour after the starting bell. Jim Reid was not invited but ended up on the panel anyway.

Afterwards, Reid told me that he just took a seat at the table. When the guard came over and told him to leave, he told the guard they would have to arrest him and drag him out, clinging to the table. The guard backed down. “I know how to look after myself,” Reid said to me.

The cast that showed sat at a long table. From left to right were Matt Gonzalez (Green), Tony Ribera (Republican), Michael Denny (Libertarian), Jim Reid (Independent), and three Democrats - Angela Alioto, Susan Leal, and Tom Ammiano.

Susan Leal looked the best of the lot. She was wearing a vibrant red jacket, with a beautiful gold necklace and matching gold earrings. She had the perfect hairdo, slightly flowing but well shaped, with a perfect strand of white, tastefully streaking the front. Jackie Kennedy’s hairdresser couldn’t have done it better.

Leal stood up when she spoke and was vigorous, convincing, and even charismatic. Although everyone was an effective speaker, Leal outdid them all in her delivery. A stellar performance by any standard.

By chance, Angela Alioto sat next to Susan Leal, also dressed in a bright red jacket. The two must consult the same focus groups on sartorial issues.

Alioto was vigorous in her presentation, too, but lacked Leal’s gravitas. Her hair looked like she had just put her finger into a live electric socket. She also obviously has troubled restraining herself with the eye-liner pencil. Her glasses looked like a prop from a Dame Edna skit.

Tom Ammiano looked the best I have ever seen him. He wore a beige suit, with stylish wide lapels, and a luminous gold tie. In the front jacket pocket he had either a pink handkerchief or a pink card. The combo worked beautifully. His delivery was forceful and mature. He conveyed a distinguished mayoral presence.

Matt Gonzalez and Tom Ammiano sat at opposite ends of the table. There were some subtle sparks between them. When Gonzalez spoke, Ammiano usually lowered his head, looking a bid distant and sad.

The two quibbled over the question of how HUD defines affordable housing standards for the city. Also, when Gonzalez said he can walk into the office of Chris Daly or Tony Hall, and have a congenial talk with either, Ammiano interjected, “Matt, you’re always welcome in my office.” The audience laughed, but Ammiano had a serious look in his eyes.

The crew put on a good show to an appreciative audience. Michael Krazny of KQED moderated a fast-paced repartee that lasted an hour and a half. Below are the highlights of each candidate’s shtick, going along the table.

Matt Gonzalez

He opposes the new hike in Muni fares. Muni slipped the increase in, under the radar, without approval from the supes. That’s legal but should be challenged. He and Chris Daly will sponsor a ballot iniative in March to rescind the increase.

Rent control provides stability to both owners and tenants. Owners are wrong to view housing as a form of profit-making. “Real estate is not the best way to invest your money.”

Each neighborhood should have the final say over whether chain stores can come into their areas. Neighbors should have been given better notice about the incoming Walgreen’s on Haight Street, in the Upper Haight.

Some city parks are getting better care than others because of favoritism by the Rec and Parks Dept, which is influenced by “economics and social standing.” More gardeners should be sent to parks that are not now favored. It’s “an equity issue.”

The supes should have cut the mayor’s special assistants from the budget. “Too much money goes into salaries.”

The mayor must be free of compromising entanglements. “I will be independent.”

Tony Ribera

The city must make “significant cuts” in its budget. There is “a tremendous amount of fat at the top.” That should be lobbed off, but not funds for city workers who deal directly with the public.

The public has lost faith in the cops because of disciplinary problems within the department. “Strong leadership” is needed to correct the problem. The situation in the police department is now typical of city government. “There is poor management across the board.”

Michael Burns has turned Muni around. “He’s one of Willie’s better appointments.” If elected, he’ll reappoint Burns.

“Our streets were designed for horses and buggies.” He supports “transit first” and opposes the fare increase. There should be more comprehensive planning for the city’s transportation needs.

More money is needed for the public schools. “Public schools should be a higher priority than the prison system.”

Two principles should be followed for school reform: “Support the classroom teacher” and “support neighborhood schools.” Kids are being over-bused now. They should stay closer to home.

Nonetheless, the schools must face up to the budgetary crunch. The current budget is based on “smoke and mirrors.”

Although he’s a Republican, “I will reach out to everybody.”

Michael Denny

City Hall is overstretched in dealing with issues that don’t concern it and has overlooked its basic responsibilities, such as keeping the streets clean and fixing potholes.

“It is not City Hall’s job to educate our children. Giving more money to the current [school] system is like giving money to an addict in denial. Parents have lost control over the education system. Turn the schools over to the neighborhoods.”

“It is not City Hall’s job to take care of our health.” Better health care can be provided by making it easier for philanthropic groups to operate in the city, such as Volunteers in Medicine.

Taxes should be reduced on businesses. City Hall should be run more efficiently. “Get good basic management principles and focus on fundamental services.”

The key to solving our problems is to expand personal and economic freedoms. “If we had more economic freedoms in San Francisco, a lot of our problems would go away.”

Jim Reid

“Where do we go with the cops? That’s not the best question for me.” However, he once took a class at the Police Academy. If elected mayor, he will appoint a woman as police chief.

“Police solutions don’t work in regard to homelessness.” The answer to homelessness is to build “small houses.” In general, we should stop talking about “affordable housing” and instead build lots of “simple, smaller houses.”

No new laws are needed to deal with aggressive panhandling. Existing laws are adequate. People wouldn’t panhandle if they had sufficient food and housing.

They get enough food now, but not housing. When he spent some time living as a homeless person, he actually gained weight. However, panhandling is a career. It’s not the same as homelessness.

The key to solving homelessness is housing. “We’re going to prevent people from becoming homeless.”

“I am not a one-issue candidate.” He has a program of 27 points to deal with the city’s problems.

Angela Alioto

San Francisco should provide universal health care. All we have now is “a piecemeal approach.”

Children currently get health care by paying $4 a month. The city should do the same for adults, by having them pay $15 a month. “I will fight to the death to get health care for people.”

Much could be done by bringing “common sense” to city problems. She recently spent some time cleaning up debris along Haight Street. She realized that the bars should be required to have ashtrays fixed to the sidewalk in front of the entrances. That would solve a lot of the problem with dirty streets in the Haight.

She opposes the Muni fair increase. “It’s a regressive tax.” Elderly and youth should be able to ride for five cents. The answer is “to cut the fat” out of Muni contracts.

Gavin Newsom’s panhandling measure is unconstitutional. He’s pushing it to further his political career. “It’s just a way for Mr. Newsom to make money.”

She is “an outsider” to the city’s political system. She will appoint people to office who are capable and responsible. They won’t be chosen “because they are friends and contributors.”

Susan Leal

There must be “a restoration of faith in the budget. Get it back on track.” All city departments should be run in “a performance-based” manner, as she how runs the treasurer’s office.

The city’s parks must be made safe and accessible, especially for children. She remembers a time when they were.

“We deserve clean streets.” The answer is better coordination of various city agencies, orchestrated by the mayor’s office. “We need an executive in Room 200.”

The city must give more attention to earthquake preparedness. The mayor has ignored practical suggestions from a civil grand jury on the matter. If elected, she will implement them.

“I want this city to be a city of opportunity again.” That requires practical, hands-on leadership from City Hall, which is lacking now.

Tom Ammiano

Holding up his fast pass: “Forty-five dollars for this. It better get better.” Part of the answer is to look at transportation with a regional perspective.

“I always support rent control.” However, we must appreciate the difference between small landlords and large landlords. There should be more subsidies for the elderly and the disabled for housing. Slum lords should be subjected to bigger fines for violations of the law.

The placement of Home Depot is not a fait accompli, as many think. “That battle is not over yet.”

“San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods, as Harvey Milk said.”

His rich background in government and in the schools will enable him to lead the city to economic recovery. “Good schools mean a good economy.”

If elected, he will create “a clean, honest government.”

Gonzalez, Alioto, Leal, and Ammiano got the biggest hands of the night, as is to be expected. The most applause of all occurred when they attacked Newsom.

He better start showing up.

Arthur Evans

Out of the box with Mike Denny

Mike Denny, Libertarian for mayor, on Pier 23.

Mayoral candidate Michael Denny could be Jesse Ventura's Mini-Me. Like Ventura, Denny sees both Republicans and Democrats as part of the problem. 

Denny and Ventura also share a tell-it-like-it-is attitude that appeals to very frustrated voters and those who have given up and don't vote at all. 

A tour of Denny's wine distribution company at Piers 19-23 reveals a small business candidate who's fed up with what he calls the same failed City Hall policies, "reshuffled and repackaged year after year."

Denny started American Wine Distributors in 1987 with a few thousand dollars and a loan from his mother. The company employs 16. 

The second-floor offices are a well organized maze of desks and filing cabinets. One wall is completely lined with fax machines and copiers. A half-dozen employees are coming in and out as I arrive. Some are smiling, none appear stressed or unhappy. 

Denny has managed to stay in the top tier - albeit at the bottom of the top tier - of candidates for mayor by campaigning on unconventional ideas. Some might say he thinks outside the box, if that particular cliché weren't so inside the box.

Throughout our often startling conversation, I ask Libertarian Denny, a 52 year-old husband and father of four, if he's aware that he's on the record with views that are certain to upset many San Franciscans. Denny is resolute. 

"Libertarian principals are built on old time economic concepts," he says, "The only authority the federal government is supposed to have is over currency, courts, and defense. Government should be the arbiter of last resort for quarreling parties."

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Denny says, is an "egregious example" of federal government exceeding its authority at the expense of small businesses in San Francisco. 

"Here's an old town with an infrastructure that's been here for a hundred years," says Denny, "and suddenly the federal government says every place has to be wheelchair accessible - no tax credit to help you do that, nothing."

If elected to Room 200 in November, Denny says economic freedom, the principal Libertarian tenet, would also be the cornerstone of his administration. 

"City Hall has become a big, self-serving institution where privileges are now rights," says Denny, "A really good example is City Hall funding public housing for poor people. It's not right for people who cannot afford to live in San Francisco to take money by force from the City, through lobbyists, jeopardizing our economy and scaring our businesses out of town."

"It's not right that we should have to fund all of these things for people who can't afford them and then tax people. Does that mean we should ignore poor people and ignore their plight? No."

Denny believes San Franciscans should support organizations that provide charitable services, and that many municipal institutions, which are historically vulnerable to fraud and waste, should be eliminated.

He sites the Little Sisters of the Poor, Rafael House, and Boys Hope Girls Hope as examples of organizations that serve society more economically because they're not hamstrung by the politics that plague the public sector.

Denny, who ran for the assembly in 2001, would like to hand over the public school system - the works, from pencils and books to the school buildings themselves - to educators. 

He imagines pay-as-you-go devices for public amenities, such as turnstiles at Golden Gate Park. Oh, and no minimum wage laws, no rent control. 

Midway through our conversation I begin to realize some of these ideas are not entirely scary. Basically, Denny wants to know why we continue to hand our tax dollars over to Republicans and Democrats who squander much of it and leave us worse off and deeper in the hole financially.

"The city simply won't have the budgets to continue funding social services at the level it currently does," says Denny, "and then it will be up to people who give and volunteer."

So, let's get real, I ask, will we care? If it were no longer the responsibility of the mayor and the Board of Supervisors to relieve the suffering of homeless people, would we care enough to do so ourselves in the city of St. Francis?

Denny says, "When you insulate people from their responsibility for so long it's going to take a while to get people back into a mindset of authentic care. But City Hall has to take the heat for creating that situation. They've been taking that responsibility out of the hands of people for too long and they've failed."

The dockside warehouse of Denny's business retains glimmers of the City's history as a bustling port. Remnants of obsolete tracks and pulleys remain among the rows of boxes, pallets and barrels.

As we continue our tour, a flock of noisy sea gulls gathers overhead. With the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island in the distance, it's a timeless scene of San Francisco's waterfront. 

The screeching gulls threaten to drown out Denny's outrage as he talks about the exclusion of a local food company from the new Ferry Building due to politics. Denny, nearly out shouted by the birds but not quite, leads the strange harmony. 

If he is elevated to the mayor's office, a fate he concedes is a long shot, the shouting in the halls of power would surely make the call of these hungry birds seem like a whisper.


San Francisco Chronicle
They would be mayor
Campaign filing period opens for crowded field of contenders

Rachel Gordon, John Wildermuth, Chronicle Staff Writers
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The opening bell rings today in the San Francisco mayor's race, as candidates can start taking out papers to run for a job that some call thankless and others call one of the most exciting political gigs in America.

With Mayor Willie Brown reaching his two-term limit in office Jan. 8 after eight years on the job, the campaign to succeed him is in full swing.

Polls put Supervisor Gavin Newsom, a Brown protege who gained citywide attention last year during the "Care Not Cash" welfare reform measure, as the front-runner.

But he faces several more seasoned opponents, including Supervisor Tom Ammiano, City Treasurer Susan Leal and former supervisor Angela Alioto. The three are running to the left of the centrist Newsom, aiming for San Francisco's traditionally progressive voters.

"It seems that right now the whole field is organized around the Newsom candidacy as the center of gravity," said San Francisco State political scientist Rich DeLeon, an expert on city politics. "The other candidates are trying to define their agendas and develop their own strategy."

The city's left -- tenants, organized labor, civil rights leaders -- has yet to unify behind one candidate.

Former Police Chief Anthony Ribera, who served in Frank Jordan's mayoral administration, is in the race, putting up a fight from the right.

In all, 24 people have told the Department of Elections they're interested in the mayor's job, which pays $167,192 a year. But

are expected to drop off that list, with serious contenders required to pay a $3,344 filing fee or collect supporters' signatures instead and fill out additional paperwork.

The deadline to declare as a formal candidate is 5 p.m. Aug. 8.

Perhaps the biggest unknown in shaping the mayoral field is whether the voter-approved "instant runoff" or ranked-choice voting system will be in place in time for the election.

It would wipe out the traditional runoff system that occurred if no single candidate won at least 50 percent of the vote. In those cases, the top two vote-getters would face each other in a runoff election in early December.

Instead, with the instant runoff system, voters will list their top three choices for mayor, and the lowest-ranking candidates will be eliminated one by one until someone has a majority of the votes.

But it isn't certain whether state and federal elections officials will approve the new system for the Nov. 4 election. What is certain is that such a change would create a whole new set of strategies for running a mayor's race.

"I think a lot depends on whether people think instant runoff voting is going to be used in November," Charlie Marsteller, former head of Common Cause in San Francisco, said of whether new candidates emerge. "It would expand the number of people on the ballot with hopes that their minority candidacy can transfer into a majority win."

DeLeon agreed that the prospect of ranked-choice voting had injected uncertainty into the race.

"A lot of people are stuck in neutral right now," he said. "It's a real state of limbo,"

There has been much speculation that state Sen. John Burton, who will be termed out of his job in 2004, would jump in and pick up the torch for liberals. With high name recognition, electoral staying power and fund-raising prowess, supporters believe he would have the best shot at waging a formidable challenge to Newsom, an old family friend.

Burton insisted Friday that's not going to happen.

"I just don't want to do it," he said in a telephone interview. "I like the job I have."

He said people were talking to him about the race as recently as Friday. "But I can do more for poor people and the other issues that are important to me in the job I have than as mayor of San Francisco," he said.

Others, however, are leaving the door open for a mayoral bid. First-term Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Tony Hall, who won office 2 1/2 years ago in an election that signaled the end of Brown's iron grip on City Hall, both said last week they might enter the race.

Hall, the board's most conservative member, would bill himself as an independent not afraid to take on the status quo. Peskin, who got his start as a neighborhood activist, has built a reputation as a policy wonk with a penchant for politics.

Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez, a Green Party activist whose name also had been mentioned as a potential candidate, has said he will not run. When asked why, Gonzalez referred to his failed citywide race for district attorney in 1999. He now represents one of the city's most liberal districts, which includes the Haight-Ashbury.

Peter Keane, dean of Golden Gate University School of Law, was set to get in the race but finally decided against it.

"I wasn't able to convince my wife to get comfortable with the idea," he said. "What do you do, risk a 35-year marriage for a possible four-year job? It's no contest."

Former San Francisco supervisor and assemblywoman Carole Migden, who is now a member of the state Board of Equalization, said she'd be surprised "if a last-minute spoiler" entered the race because it's already so late in the game to put together such a major campaign.

Perhaps a celebrity could make a run, "or a regular mortal who's enormously rich. It takes a hell of a lot for voters to know your name," said Migden, who also considered running for mayor at one time but is now considering a run for Burton's Senate seat.

But Joe O'Donoghue, head of the Residential Builders Association, wouldn't be surprised to see someone make a late jump into the race, noting that "people wish there would be some other candidate in the field."

As for the candidates most likely to run, "there's nothing inspirational coming out," he said.


Here are the declared candidates, noncandidates and possible candidates for San Francisco mayor -- today marks the first day to take out candidacy papers. Potential candidates have until 5 p.m. Aug. 8 to become official entrants

Who's in:

-- Attorney Angela Alioto

-- Supervisor Tom Ammiano

-- Libertarian Michael Denny

-- City Treasurer Susan Leal

-- Supervisor Gavin Newsom

-- Building contractor Jim Reid

-- Ex-police chief Anthony Ribera

Who's out:

-- Giants executive Larry Baer

-- State Sen. John Burton

-- Supervisor Matt Gonzalez

-- Board of Equalization member Carole Migden

-- Law school dean Peter Keane

On the fence:

-- Supervisor Tony Hall

-- Supervisor Aaron Peskin

E-mail the writers at and