Forgive me for having helped you understand
You’re not made of words alone.
— Roque Dalton, Poemas Clandestinos.
For over a century and a half of San Francisco’s history, people of color were for the most part slaughtered, enslaved, dispossessed, or altogether ‘disappeared’ from the City’s internal struggle for political power and popular democracy. Today, the tide is turning, and never again will the struggles of a “majority-minority” City be forgotten. Nothing is as it once was, or so it seems.
During the nineteeth century, however, sociologist and San Francisco State Ethnic Studies scholar, Tomas Almaguer, aptly reminds us in his seminal work, “Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California” , that the City’s elite governed by a willful desire to colonize and disenfranchise, both economically and politically, a subordinate labor force of people of color and thoroughly institutionalized their unequal status in San Francisco’s civil society. Almaguer documents that:
“In 1876 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance which levied a quarterly tax of $2 on horse-drawn laundry delivermen (who were mostly white) and a $15 tax on those who delivered their laundry without a vehicle (mostly Chinese).” . ” [Moreover], Manuel Dominguez, who served as an elected delegate to the California Constitutional Convention of 1849 and as a member of the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, traveled to a San Francisco courtroom to enter testimony, however, the Anglo lawyer for the plaintiff objected to his taking the witness stand, arguing that Dominguez was an Indian and therefore ineligible to testify. The judge upheld the objection and dismissed Dominguez.”
White economic and political ascendancy prevailed, Almaguer argued, and “Anglo entitlement to California’s bounty could only be actualized when the symbolic and material threat these minority populations posed was effectively neutralized.”
San Francisco, in the 21st century, has always been mired, at one historical juncture or another, like other big-time cities in the US, in race and class politics; neutralizing the threats from a working-class in a battle to wrest control in the hands of political elites, machine bosses, and corporate entrepreneurs. In August of 2003, Matt Gonzalez, the enigmatic and artsy President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and a Green Party candidate for Mayor; the philosopher-poet-politician of the City’s progressive movement — sought to re-write the City’s history; to rebel and represent — against everything that old and the newly enriched San Francisco stood for: capital, conformity and corporate candidates. It was “poetic justice”, with no pause or punctuation. It was everything progressives and independent-minded people had hoped for; and it became something for almost everybody to remember.
With his Mayoral run, Matt Gonzalez’s rise to fame marked a watershed in the City’s progressive electoral movement. Gonzalez’s campaign injected “motion into the movement” and during those final weeks of electrifying fever, he became widely know as “Matt” to ordinary, white progressive San Franciscans, and “Gonzalez” to prideful Latino immigrants. For some critically conscious liberal and moderate San Franciscans on the Westside, Matt Gonzalez wasn’t Gavin Newsom, who reeked of silver-spoon, patrician privilege, and was downtown’s “Golden Boy” and Mayor Brown’s anointed, heir apparent — that in itself — were reasons enough to vote for Gonzalez because some Westside voters instinctively knew that Newsom had been groomed, literally, since kindergarten, to rule the world that the rest of us labored in.
Gonzalez was the first Mexican-American, non-Democratic Party candidate in the City’s history to actually campaign, unabashedly, as a leftist and anti-corporate politician. He turned San Francisco’s sordid and sold-out political history upside down, invoking an inspired and conscious resistance from the City’s previous generations’ experiences of exclusion, exploitation, disenfranchisement and dot.com displacement.
Unlike Mayor Willie Brown, progressives and working people knew that Matt Gonzalez would never become that type of minority politician, donning tuxedo tails at Symphony balls, courting developers and realtors, and cutting the ultimate deal. There’d be no bronze bust of Mayor Matt in City Hall at the end of his term.
Gonzalez’s amazing trajectory and political growth, over a handful of years, started in 1999 when as a Deputy Public Defender he challenged long-time liberal, Supervisor Terrence Hallinan, for District Attorney from the left. Gonzalez seemed poised and unfazed by it all, while breaking an age-old political taboo in San Francisco, of not running against liberal allies. One year later in November 2000, Matt did the impossible: he switched parties in mid-stream (during the December run-off against Mayor Brown’s handpicked machine candidate, Juanita Owens); broke with the Democrats and joined the Green Party. Gonzalez won the District 5 Supervisor’s seat without breaking a sweat. Lost in the analysis, though, was Gonzalez’s brilliant sense of political timing; a kind of sixth-sense intuition – two or three steps ahead of a potentially motionless and mainstream, progressive movement.
A gifted trial lawyer who doesn’t crack under pressure, was the media’s spin on Gonzalez; the “exceptional one” who came from the Lower Rio Grande Valley; and with his Tejano roots, rose to unexpected prominence. Gonzalez, it was almost always noted, was a graduate of an Ivy League college, Columbia and Stanford Law School. The spin changed cycles, from rinse to wash, and yet nobody understood, including his Board colleagues, why Matt decides to do what he does. Old school, progressive veterans from the Moscone, Feinstein, Agnos or Brown years had never dared to plot what Matt did. It didn’t make sense (their heads bobbing), because you couldn’t turn “chump change into cash”, by taking on the Democrats and empowering a Third Party in San Francisco, a century-old Democratic stronghold? This unpolished neophyte was straight-up trippin! But the aging hippies of the Haight, welcomed him and gave him a home.
In retrospect, now, months after the sting of defeat, Gonzalez’s campaign boldly captured new political ground for a growing generation of people of color and progressive activists. Many activists and voters of color, both liberal and progressive, charged that Gonzalez couldn’t politically “relate” to communities of color and thus, would never be able to mount a campaign that included all San Francisco and win.
In the long run, however, Gonzalez’s campaign did fail on this front, as consolidating and building a united, multi-ethnic electoral coalition in a short time, proved nearly impossible and never quite materialized. But out-of-the-gate, Matt ran a sprint, Seabiscuit-style, and the marathon of running in politics continues. Despite the overwhelming odds, the Getty-up money for Gavin, and Gonzalez’s sudden departure, I send out a shout of mad “props” to Gonzalez, in hip-hop vernacular, and hold my heart in a high, hard-fist because Matt will always remain my homeboy.
Richard Marquez, MSW, MPH is a native San Franciscan. Marquez is a progressive Chicano activist and has been active in grassroots activism and anti-poverty, social services work for over two decades. Marquez is an organizer and co-founder of the Progressive Voter Project, Mission Agenda and the Sixth Street Agenda, in the South of Market; the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition; and a co-founder of Housing Not Borders, a project of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness. Marquez was Field Coordinator for Supervisor Chris Daly’s District 6 Electoral Campaigns in 2000 & 2002; and a Field Coordinator for the Matt Gonzalez Mayoral Campaign of 2003.
He can be contacted at: email@example.com. A recommended organizational website of interest is: progressivevoterproject.com