Forever the rebel with a cause, Gonzalez’s exits left at City HallSan Francisco Chronicle
January 03, 2005
The public will see less of Matt Gonzalez after Tuesday, when he presides over his final meeting as president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. But he leaves his fingerprints throughout the city, from the soon- to-be elephant-free zoo to the scores of businesses that now must pay their workers the highest minimum wage in California.
And, he promises to continue fighting for his Green Party ideals as an attorney in a new law firm, where he expects to be joined by three or four other attorneys handling criminal and civil litigation -- some of it likely to involve the city.
That job, Gonzalez says, will be just as important as his role on the Board of Supervisors.
"I really am disappointed when I run into people who are angry I’m leaving office," he said between sips of coffee with soy milk at a Civic Center cafe. "This idea that once you get into politics ... you are now signed up for lifelong duty being in elective office, makes a fundamental error -- and that is believing that the only way you can hold progressive views and implement them is in elective office."
That doesn’t mean Gonzalez -- whose enigmatic charisma and moody good looks helped galvanize young, liberal voters behind his strong bid for mayor in 2003 -- has ruled out the idea of running for office in the future.
"I don’t have any plan to run for any office right now. There’s no ’lying in wait.’ This really is a genuine ’let’s go do something else,’ " said Gonzalez, 39, who surprised many last March by announcing he wouldn’t run for re-election. "But it would be misleading to say that we’re not thinking of a race in the future."
When the time comes, he said, he’ll run as a Green.
In his four years on the city’s legislative board, Gonzalez defied conventional politics, beginning with his switch from Democrat to Green between the 2000 primary and runoff in which he was elected to represent District 5, which includes Haight-Ashbury and surrounding neighborhoods. Two years later, he was elected board president by his colleagues, making him one of the highest ranking Green officeholders in the country.
During his first two years in office, he wouldn’t meet with then-Mayor Willie Brown -- a move Gonzalez’s supporters saw as the supervisor remaining true to his values, but which Brown backers interpreted as insolence.
"I think he considered himself a kind of a symbol of the anti-Willie Brown forces," Brown said in a recent telephone interview.
As for Gonzalez’s impact on local government, Brown said, "He was able to help elect a number of people who had views similar to his. He certainly did it against candidates I supported."
No media suitor
Throughout his term, Gonzalez avoided the larger media outlets, which are often used by his colleagues, and instead shared his announcements with smaller shops, including City Hall-focused Web sites.
"I think a lot of politicians, rightfully so, understand that their political futures are tied to how many times people see their names in print. The press is so accustomed to politicians wanting those things, it’s a surprise when somebody’s like, whatever, I’m not really worried about those things," Gonzalez said. "I don’t have a TV, anyway."
One of his closest friends on the board also was its most conservative member, former Supervisor Tony Hall, with whom Gonzalez shared cigars -- but not opinions on policy.
"His friendship with Tony Hall was telling," said fellow Green Christine Olague, whom Gonzalez appointed to the Planning Commission last summer. "Whether you agreed with (Gonzalez) or not, he was reasonable. That’s going to be something that the left is going to have to fill. Sometimes the left can be very alienating."
While Gonzalez pushed for curbs on big commercial development, he managed to gain the support of Joe O’Donoghue, president of the Residential Builders Association, and Walter Wong, a politically powerful building permit expediter who offered Gonzalez space in his building for a mayoral campaign office.
Said political consultant Alex Clemens: "Matt was very good at not cultivating enemies. He was really good at focusing on issues rather than personality politics."
Meanwhile, Gonzalez brought bohemian cool to City Hall by opening his office to the public on the first Friday evening of the month to display his latest art installation.
Gonzalez’s parting exhibit was typically irreverent -- he invited graffiti artist Barry McGee to tag an office wall with the slogan, "SMASH THE STATE."
To be sure, his style and penchant for making friends across political divides didn’t always translate into victory. Several causes turned out to be losers -- including trying to double the transfer tax on the sale of real estate valued at $1 million or more, attempting to close JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park to cars on Saturday and working to give noncitizens the ability to vote in school board elections.
"If you’re going to be fearful of how you’re perceived, or fearful of losing, what ends up happening is you get a lot of politicians who pass little pieces of legislation and throw big press conferences, but the real effect of the legislation is pretty meaningless," Gonzalez said. "You try to do certain things based on the natural inequities in society between the rich and the poor, and to the extent you’re focused on trying to make the condition of the people on the bottom better, I think that’s the important thing."
Even failures successes
Rich DeLeon, a political science professor at San Francisco State University, said that even where Gonzalez failed, he made progress by serving as a catalyst.
"I think he did push the envelope in key areas," DeLeon said. "Even in areas where people were not prepared to go that far, like noncitizen voting, it’s in the political space now, where it wasn’t before."
But what Gonzalez will be remembered for most, DeLeon said, is jumping into the mayor’s race at the last minute and getting into the runoff, where he won 47 percent of the vote.
"His candidacy for mayor -- the incredible race he made of the runoff and challenging Newsom despite being outspent 10 to 1 -- that was a significant political event," DeLeon said. "If there’s any single thing that came out of the last four years, it’s raising the banner of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party." Even if it took a Green to do it.
As supervisor, Gonzalez also championed winning measures -- among them, making the supervisors’ jobs full time with commensurate salary, holding the line on chain stores in the city, implementing ranked-choice voting in local elections and increasing the minimum wage in San Francisco to $8.50 per hour from the state minimum of $6.75 through a ballot measure.
"If you think about what it is to change a method of voting in a major American city, that’s pretty miraculous," Gonzalez said. "If that was the only thing we accomplished ... but then you add the minimum wage to it. ... It’s nice to get some victories."
Still, he says he has no second thoughts about leaving City Hall -- a decision he says predates the mayor’s race, though some still maintain he was just a sore loser.
"I think there are a couple of things that are accomplished by my leaving, and one is that people see the (Green) party has a bench, so to speak. There are people who can fill these seats," said Gonzalez, who endorsed the winning candidate, Green Party member Ross Mirkarimi, as his successor on the 11- member, nonpartisan board. Mirkarimi also was spokesman and strategist on Gonzalez’s mayoral campaign. "And, in a way, it keeps the party from being overly identified with just one person."
Gonzalez declined to comment on how he thinks the dynamic of the board will change without him but predicted that Mirkarimi and Supervisor Chris Daly will be the main anchors of the city’s political left. And he pointed to elected Board of Education member and fellow Green Sarah Lipson as an up-and- coming leader.
Advice for his successor
Gonzalez also had a piece of advice for his anticipated successor as board president, District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who has floated the idea of procedural change that would give him greater legislative power. The advice: Don’t do it.
Currently, any supervisor has the authority to pull an item out of a legislative committee and have it heard by the full board.
Peskin has proposed allowing committees, which are formed by the president, to kill proposed ordinances and spending measures without allowing them to come up for a vote before the full board. Peskin says it would make the legislative process more efficient. Gonzalez says it would vest too much power in one person’s hands.
"That’s the kind of change that you can sell to the public on this idea that, oh, you’re going to keep things from reaching the board and getting on the ballot that’s a waste of everybody’s time," he said. "But the truth is, you’re making a move that would be setting all of the power with the board president. That doesn’t seem like a very good idea."
Adios rubber chicken circuit
As his term has wound down, Gonzalez said he has enjoyed having more time to do the things he likes, including visiting art studios, reading and hanging out with his poet friends.
"When you’re in politics, those opportunities seem to be less often," he said. "You’re going to a lot of chicken dinners. And when you don’t eat meat, it’s even worse. I’m not going to miss those dinners."
See this article in the San Francisco Chronicle