Wednesday, June 28, 2006

What's Going (Even More) Wrong With San Francisco's Political System

By Marvin Destin, Guest Columnist

It's easy to pick on San Francisco in this Era of the Progressives. I'm referring of course to the Political Establishment. It's literally a "target rich environment" as they say at the CENTCOM briefing. From preposterous stunts like the ski jump in Pacific Heights to the misguided and whimsical grandstanding on the hotel workers strike by the mayor, to the tolerance (if not outright support) of anarchy (Critical Mass; homeless vagrants in the Haight; medicalmarijuannawinkwinknudgenudge) in some cases, to the grotesquery that is Chris Daly, with petulant and vengeful Aaron "Payback" Peskin not far behind, to the Mayor's holy act of breaking State law, to an utterly demoralized and borderline incompetent Police Department and pathetically feckless Police Chief pursuing satire video crime, to the OTHER City Approved and Administered extortion racket in the form of vacancy control to... well, you get the idea.

We now are witnessing a new phase of GBS (Governmental Bipolar Syndrome): the tendency of Government behavior to be radical, impetuous, and a threat to those around them. Its called "imposed societal transformation" -- Mandated change that will impact everyones lives, imposed even though it is virtually experimental, by people (Supervisors) who could care less about what voting majorities have clearly and utterly rejected. In their opinion, if they want it, snap, its law. And don't give me no demands for statistical or reasoned justification.

So we have what amounts to an arbitrary meddlesome presence in the form of our Government. And, like Orca in your bathtub, it is swimming around everywhere. You can never get up in the morning assured that some civil right you had yesterday, like smoking legal cigarettes within 50 feet outdoors of an open air bus stop, is still in force, or whether you could get hit with a $474 fine for standing alone only 39 feet away from a busybody communist with a cell phone.

The other shoe is the City's comprehensive attacks upon the infrastructure, if not the lifeblood, of commerce and vital needs of the everyday person: vehicular traffic. Along with the propensity to find fault with virtually any large-scale employer who might think about coming here, San Francisco attacks those that are already here, even mom and pop stores.

When I conjure up an image of the Board of Supervisors having a meeting, in my mind I see immediately Eli Wallach on a horse leading a pack of scoundrel hombres in a cloud of dust they ride into the village to demand whatever their whims of the day compel them to blurt to us, the villagers. I'm referring, metaphorically of course, to the great classic film The Magnificent Seven. Only in our case, we can't simply go find some hired guns to contest their intermittent raids on our village.

The latest campaign, a sort of stealth appropriation of property and rights begun years ago, is to force all City dwellers to either stop using their car or to pay through the nose for doing so. Elimination of passages continues quietly and incrementally but unabated. Every time you turn around there is another pedestrian, bike, skate, or hiking/walking or dog owner group that thinks that some preexisting road or area of the City actually should belong to them or, the people, which is them.

It has been said, that, if you were to put communists or socialists in charge of the Sahara Desert very soon there would be a shortage of sand. In San Francisco we have an increasing shortage of access, egress, transiting and parking. Faced with this raw reality of more people in the state, and more cars, instead of seeking measures that could enhance traffic movement and, or, parking, they have sought to get rid of (or diminish) transit by constricting and or eliminating its flow as well as places to park. The collective voice of the City fiduciaries is, "Hey, let's outlaw or make it difficult to own cars." Vague concepts justify any imaginable societal change they want.

At a time when the number of cars is unlikely to become smaller, when the City policy is encouraging garage-less apartments over garage-owning single family homes, when the City, with its other policies, is killing small business with imposed overhead costs and punishing small business customers with absurd parking ticket fines, thereby kicking everyone into their car to go to the factory outlets down the Peninsula, just when we should be building underground arteries to move the transiting passing through vehicle traffic on a few major roads, from the Golden Gate Bridge to 280 South for instance, we see, instead, movement towards elimination of roads to favor bike riders, which intensifies traffic on what's left.

Normally the media is a watchdog for the public. In this town picture the watchdog in that position where the dog lays on its back with its legs spread, tail wagging, whimpering, and waiting for aggressive petting and a Milk-Bone.

The bottom line is that, in reality, we do not have a government in San Francisco. Yes, we have elections and we have this traditional infrastructure with titles like Mayor and positions like Supervisor. But the Government here does not do what governments are supposed to do -- which is to address the present and future needs of the majority of the people. It is as if what has actually occurred here is that some loosely affiliated group of brigands kidnapped the mayor's office and real supervisors and have them stuffed in an abandoned vault at the Old Mint. They moved into the Civic Center digs and, like in some sick sitcom plot, became the de facto leaders and since then have been imposing wish list items unrelated to the general public welfare on the City.

Of course, you may beg to differ. In that case here's a very simple question for anyone who lives here and is familiar with the place: How many things have the Supervisors enacted, in the form of laws or ordinances that are NOT degrading, hindering, or terminating rights in some way? How many of their measures deprive, outlaw, or obstruct something? We have become the City of No, You Can't. Policies are no longer designed to build, enhance, create or complement. They are designed to take away. To prohibit. To stop. To forcibly change. Can't park here, here, or here, there, there, or there either. This road is closed. This park is closed. This area is off limits. This building is closed. X, Y and Z is No Longer allowed. Q, R, S, T, U, and V are being scheduled for closure. Fees for C thru P will be doubling as soon as the Board can hold hearings. Even certain coffee cups, sandwich containers, and grocery bags are evil and must be rid of and thereby worthy of Supervisor time and effort.

Of course my initial statement isn't totally true. Some things have been created enhanced and augmented. Fines, fees, costs, penalties, and punishments. THEY have all grown. And grown a lot. Fines, fees, costs, penalties, and punishments are the single focus of Supervisor creativity and expeditious action. They get watered every day. Fed protein supplements and injected with growth hormones ongoing. The regime of fines, fees, penalties, permits and punishments have become a self-regenerating, self-officious Frankenstein Monster. And while 2% profit margins for a business are declared greed (see gasoline); City permits to allow you to replace your windows are as high as 7%.

Think about it. What fine, fee, permit or penalty hasn't gone up - dramatically? And the encroachment on access, egress, and pathways via street or area closure seemingly grows with every month. Sometimes in fell swoops but more often insidiously. Sure, each deprivation act was heralded by some arcane hearing held appropriately at such time as no one to be impacted could realistically object with any meaningful impact. That's the way this particular City works. Practice Government technically but not in a real way. A way in which what is best for the common good (as opposed to limited group reward) is arrived at by weighing all evidence with objectivity is utterly alien to this regime.

Traffic is a mess. What new streets, for instance, have been opened or improved in San Francisco in terms of specifically improving traffic flow? Octavia Boulevard? That simply replaced another road. Better looking, but no net increase in pathway over its predecessor, the ugly freeway. To top it off, the stretch of road that was created has come to look like some giant Legoland or erector set replication, or abandoned film set for one of the Terminator movies, loaded with metal beams and Orwellian lights. This is an improvement? This is what Government accomplishes for a couple hundred million dollars? The replacement of a raised roadway that kept traffic out of the neighborhood with a perpetually gridlocked road right outside your home and a couple hundred bright traffic control light panels always on and blinking into your bedroom.

In any event, and by any rationalization, the brigands have significantly changed the role of the City leadership from shepherd, conservator, forward looking visionary, preparing the City for the future (Recall Dianne Feinstein rehabbing the Cable Car tracks) to a small but potent roving band of plunderers. Constantly taking and or taking away, pillaging something established, and demanding tribute. That's pretty much all they have been doing.

Two examples of the symptoms of both the narcissistic and naive mindset of the current board and mayor and sheer hope emerging from the storm are found in last Sunday's Chronicle: In one article, the Mayor has announced he has seen the future of what San Francisco needs desperately and it is (surprise!) a bike path and hiking trail across the last place a significant revenue generating industrial or commercial zone could possibly be constructed for the benefit of San Francisco City and county. Jobs, particularly good pay good benefits middle class jobs. I hasten to add, jobs that would definitely use the light rail metro extension down Third street to get to. Most other cities would look at this resource as a way to insure long-term fiscal health and insure greater economic diversity among the population. But no. Our leaders see this area of the city only as a place that provides the opportunity to parrot a Barbara Streisand sound-bite about wetlands preservation and expand the lands devoted not to revenue generation but to non vital self-indulgent pursuits that instead will COST someone money to upkeep.

In another article, hope comes in the form of a judge's grinding to a halt the San Francisco Kudzu Bike Plan of constantly eliminating car road space and transferring usage to bicycle users at everyone elses expense. Perhaps the Gypsies will blink now. Nah, they only respect courts that give them what they want. Whether its valuable city streets or a more remote area of the city our leaders opt consistently for the self indulgent. Maybe that ski jump stunt was a more serious symptom of group narcissism than we initially suspected. This judge has thrown, for now at least, a monkey wrench into the brigands' plan. He has said, gasp, that all these plans to take roads away from cars and the people who desperately need them have been, and are being, imposed without due process in the form of studied impacts. Imagine that. The great game of forcing anyone with a revenue producing idea to succumb to years and years of costly impact reports prior to obtaining a CHANCE to have a project go forward is now thrown back in the Supes face. So they must halt any further pac man-like pursuits. And he has stipulated that they need to do this before any more roads are taken from cars and dedicated to the religion of Critical Mass.

How this will turn out ultimately is anyone's guess. But perhaps we have reached the tipping point. The point
in which someone goes into the Mayor's office and Supervisor meeting and tells them they have to take their feet off the desk, clean up the whiskey bottles and trash from their pizzas and fast food meals strewn about their offices, and start acting like leaders doing meaningful things instead of wish listing mandates on the populace. The kinds of people who to work with the system, not dictate to it. The kinds of people who shoot for meaningful results as opposed to pie-in-the-sky social experimentation. The kinds of people who care about doing what's really best, as opposed to what's the politically favored flavor of the month.

If Only.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Can Money Finally Buy Love?

Left: Assembly Candidate Janet Reilly, in a campaign photograph staged at St. Mary's Hospital. Her husband Clint Reilly is a director at Catholic Charities.

Voters on the west side of San Francisco are faced with possibly the most vicious Assembly race in recent memory, between city District 4 Supervisor Fiona Ma and Golden Gate Bridge Commissioner Janet Reilly. Much like the Westly/Angelides match, there is a temptation to regard the candidates as similar to each other - both women and both professing political stances well within the liberal spectrum of San Francisco - but there are important differences. One candidate has worked hard within San Francisco's political establishment - as a legislative aide, commissioner, and Supervisor - to push issues important to her base while maintaining loyalty to her political mentors - always a difficult task. The other, a relative newcomer, is a former television reporter who has made up for lost time by relying on her perceived charm, her husband's legacy of political largesse, and an brazen willingness to outright deceive the electorate.

California's 12th Assembly District has up until now been the enclave of centrist San Francisco and the northern Peninsula, with past office holders - from Leo McCarthy to Kevin Shelley - carefully balancing (some better than others) the interests of labor, homeowners and neighborhoods. That changed to an extent when former city District 4 Supervisor Leland Yee was elected to that office in 2002. Yee won re-election to the Board, despite the transition to district elections, by abruptly reinventing himself from a moderate pro-education technocrat to a Quentin Kopp model: unscrupulously pandering to both ideologues on the far left and the more base, anti-tax, anti-growth, and anti-infrastructure instincts of conservatives and NIMBY groups on the right. His term in the Assembly has been benign if unremarkable, apart from a quixotic attempt to force ratings on video games. Yee now has his sights set on the State Senate, and that race is a whole other can of worms. Unfortunately, the political environment has left another can in Yee's wake.

Fiona Ma is the current District 4 city Supervisor, having been appointed by Willie Brown when Yee departed for the Assembly. Later that year, she handily won election to that office in her own right, conspicuously without Yee's support. Ma ran a broad-based, inclusive campaign based on improving neighborhood and children's services and infrastructure, creating affordable homeownership opportunities, and fiscal responsibility. All are boring but necessary municipal policy issues, and she was for the most part successful in promoting that agenda. She also attempted to push the envelope for her constituents by strengthening regulation of massage establishments, whose abuse as a cover for prostitution activity exploded in the 90's and early 2000's, and increasing fiscal scrutiny of non-profit service providers. That, and her votes in support of legislation sponsored by Mayors Brown and his successor, Gavin Newsom, has often gotten her in trouble with those who dictate the unreasonable and overradicalized agenda of the Board of Supervisors.

That trouble has come back to her this election season, as she runs for Assembly. Ma's opponent is Janet Reilly, a Golden Gate Bridge District Board Commissioner, former campaign aide to Republican Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, and corporate PR executive. Reilly, who with her husband owns houses in SF's rarefied Seacliff enclave and in Napa, has never stood for public election before. Despite this, she's won the endorsement of Assemblymember Yee, whom she hopes to succeed, and many of Ma's colleagues on the Board of Supervisors.

So how, in a loyally Democratic district, does an inexperienced, ostentatiously rich person with suspect Progressive credentials and comparatively shallow roots in the community get this sort of support? Simple. Be Clint Reilly's wife.

And it is Clinton Reilly, former political hatchet man, ostensible real estate magnate, and would-be City Father, which has become Janet Reilly's unspoken qualification for office, and as such, the unspoken issue of this campaign.

"Clint (Reilly) is one of the sickest people I've ever come across. He's always had a craving for power as the ultimate aphrodisiac... Like sucking a crack pipe for an addict - the ultimate hit. I'm probably as sick as Clint in many ways, but I'm not running for public office. I'm running for cover."

...Political consultant Jack Davis

Clint Reilly is the son of a San Leandro milkman who grew up to be one of the most effective - and vicious - political strategists in the state's history. Much of his work has changed the political landscape of California, some say for the worse. It didn't start that way. Reilly's first successful effort at campaigns was after leaving the seminary in 1971, when he helped elect progressive former cop Dick Hongisto to the Sheriff's office. This was followed by a number of Democratic-base-appeal campaigns, such as the one to defeat the anti-labor Proposition 22 (not to be confused with the more recent anti-gay Prop 22) the following year. After getting Robert Matsui elected to Congress in 1978, Reilly became a national political star and started his own firm in earnest.

It is here that things start to unravel.

On his way to becoming another Bob Shrum, he routinely got patronage campaign work from the Democratic establishment. Much of this was unchallenging work for politically safe incumbents, yet he gained a reputation as a real piece of work to work for, increasingly abusive to colleagues and co-workers to the point of psychosis. It was during this period that he became so enraged (and reportedly, inebriated) in the course of a statewide campaign that he severely beat his then girlfriend and colleague, reportedly bad enough to put her in the hospital. The accounts of this behavior are many and indeed legion, ranging in venues from parking lots to a Noe Valley pizza parlor. Most are unverified and there are no police reports, but many feel the sting of Reilly's behavior to this day.

Dissatisfied with being a political functionary, he endeavored to change the political landscape of San Francisco by marshalling former clients to support local Proposition M, an ordinance that limits the rate of commercial office development. In doing so, he built the political coalition of right-wing NIMBYs and left-wing anti-growth ideologues which continues to dominate San Francisco politics, and allowed Walter Shorenstein, the commercial real estate developer who was the primary sponsor of the initiative, to make a killing by dominating the market.

Blood money may be an acquired taste, but it is also addictive. By the late 80's Reilly had turned into a high-dollar political hack on behalf of regulated industries, running campaigns against two major insurance industry reform initiatives. He made millions on the campaigns, allowing him to enter the Monopoly world of San Francisco real estate himself. Clinton Reilly Campaigns became a pioneering powerhouse, combining strategy, print and air campaign material, and fundraising into one firm. Reilly was also a pioneer in effective and ubiquitous negative campaigning, the bugaboo of today's national politics.

The resulting wealth continued to feed Reilly's unmitigated arrogance. He got into a physical scuffle with Phil Bronstein, then editor of the Hearst-owned Examiner inside the newspaper's offices, which earned him the hostility of California's press. He drove Kathleen Brown's campaign for Governor and Mayor Frank Jordan's re-election campaign into the ground. While it was enough to make Reilly retire from political consulting, he retained his more plutocratic ambitions.

San Franciscans live with the result of those ambitions today.

In 2000, when San Francisco put voter-enacted district elections into effect, Clint Reilly took advantage of the situation by bankrolling a majority of the left-leaning "reform" candidates, who then got elected in each district by a few thousand votes each, throwing citywide policy and planning into the toilet. Among those who benefited from Reilly largesse include Jake "Anti-Homeownership" McGoldrick; Aaron "Anti-Fun" Peskin; Leland Yee (surprise!); and most famously, Gerardo "Anti-Keeping-One's-Mouth-Shut" Sandoval. Sandoval deserves extra notice here as the recurring liberal goat on Fox News shows: you see, the Reillys are major stockholders in Fox's parent company.

Reilly also has significant stock in the abortive administration-on-abdicated-autopilot of San Francisco's flake-in-the-baking-pan mayor, Gavin Newsom: not only are the crazies on the Board supporting his wife, but Newsom has refused to endorse in the race, despite Ma's legislative loyalty to him, and it has he who gave Janet Reilly the coveted Bridge board seat in the first place. Indeed if it weren't for Al Gore, Janet Reilly would probably be on the Board of Supes now.

Which brings us to the conduct of the Reilly campaign, which has become unfortunately reminiscent of the tired and clumsy final campaigns of Clint Reilly, such as his attempt to re-elect Frank Jordan with odd subliminal street signs or his own bizarre vanity campaign for Mayor in 1999, where he spent more than a hundred dollars per vote and didn't even garner 25,000.

While Janet Reilly seems like a talented and articulate individual, virtually none of her experience before meeting Clint Reilly is mentioned in her campaign material: virtually all of the qualifications mentioned come from positions which were acquired primarily through her husband's influence, mainly with the local Archdiocese. The self-reported resume has become a Clint Reilly staple.

Right: See any resemblance yet?

Then there are the wacky campaign tactics: at the recent state party convention, Reilly operatives tried to pack the 4th district caucus and block an endorsement of Fiona Ma by literally dragging people out of the halls and handing them proxies (the strategy failed). When a clerical error by the IRS linked Ma to campaign of an anti-choice Republican governor in the Midwest, Reilly operatives ran with it straight into the showers. Then Reilly's healthcare platform was revealed to have been cribbed from a bill already introduced by another serving legislator. When critics pointed out that Reilly sent her children to an expensive private school out of the district, her campaign responded by calling Fiona Ma anti-Catholic. And the netroots stuff gets worse.

There are all indications that if Janet Reilly were somebody else, she would be an admirable public figure of some kind, somewhere. But as a vessel for the vicarious ambitions of Clint Reilly, a man who already has his fingers all over a nonresponsive Board of Supervisors and a brain-dead Mayor's office, and who even now is mortgaging himself so that he can become either a one-man star chamber or a modern-day Abe Reuf, she is at once both frightening and repulsive. Given that the election is coming up this Tuesday, one can only hope that, even in the age of Marshall McLuhan, one can still be prevented from fooling all of the people all of the time.