Can Matt Gonzalez Reunify San Francisco’s Left?

by Randy Shaw on June 19, 2007

At San Francisco’s June 2 Progressive Convention, there were only smiles and applause as over a dozen elected officials claimed unity behind a progressive agenda. But it soon became clear that the supervisors attending the Convention were not on the same page. Supervisor Chris Daly, who called for the Convention, soon announced a budget plan that he saw as a progressive alternative to Mayor Newsom’s. But Daly acted before securing approval of his proposal from some of his progressive colleagues, including fellow Budget Committee member Ross Mirkarimi. When Mirkarimi challenged some of Daly’s budget cuts, the District 6 Supervisor took offense, storming into his onetime ally’s office to denounce Mirkarimi for betraying the progressive cause. Lacking the Committee votes to advance his plan, Daly cancelled the June 13 Budget hearing. The progressive split over the budget then became public when Board President Peskin removed Daly as Chair of the Budget Committee. Last night, Matt Gonzalez met with core supporters about the mayor’s race. Can a Gonzalez mayoral campaign unify San Francisco’s fractured political left?

It did not take long after the June 2 Progressive Convention for the event’s strategic limitations to become clear. It is easy to take the stage and announce support for “progressive” principles or a “progressive” agenda, but what these terms actually mean in the real world of politics is a different story.

From Chris Daly’s perspective, the Board’s 8-3 vote in favor of millions of dollars for affordable housing put Mayor Newsom on the defensive. Daly saw the Mayor’s rejection of affordable housing spending as offering a great opportunity to expose Newsom as a “phony” progressive, and he seized on the Mayor’s budget to draw a line in the sand between Newsom and the progressive Board.

Using his position as Budget Chair, Daly quickly moved to amend Newsom’s budget. But in his eagerness to offer a “progressive” alternative to the Mayor, Daly took for granted that his fellow progressives—particularly fellow Budget Committee member Ross Mirkarimi—would back his agenda.

But Daly either did not realize, or care, that Mayor Newsom’s budget included items strongly backed by Mirkarimi. Daly’s budget proposal also included cuts for street and pothole repairs that were supported by his colleagues, as well as progressive constituencies like the San Francisco Bike Coalition.

Since Daly identified his budget as The Progressive Budget, he did not want it changed. Since his goal was to sharpen the distinction between Newsom and the progressive Board, Daly saw accepting some of the Mayor’s budget priorities as serving the opposite result.

Daly’s chief problem was that he advanced a budget whose central feature—the $33million affordable housing package—lacked a mobilized anti-Newsom constituency. While housing activists were not joining Daly’s condemnation of the Mayor’s budget, constituencies angry at Daly’s cuts were rallying to Newsom’s side.

Board President Aaron Peskin recognized how Daly’s budget plan had split progressives and boosted the Mayor’s base, and pulled the plug on Daly’s chairmanship. Those criticizing Peskin for the move seem entirely unaware of how Daly’s stance was expanding, rather than hurting, Newsom’s political base.

So now what? We have some Daly backers furious at Mirkarimi and Peskin, claiming that both have “sold out” progressive interests. Can progressive unity be restored in such an environment?

The answer may come soon from Matt Gonzalez. Gonzalez met with close supporters last night to help finalize his decision to launch a mayoral run.

From the perspective of repairing a fractured left, Gonzalez’ timing could not be better. Should Gonzalez run, Daly and Mirkarimi will be working together to elect him rather than fighting with each other.

The recent budget fracas again showed what an uphill battle Gonzalez faces in seeking to defeat San Francisco’s incumbent mayor. Editorial pages went ballistic over Daly’s attempt to amend the Mayor’s budget, ignoring that Newsom was refusing to accept the housing expenditure approved by eight supervisors.

Rather than depict Newsom as flaunting the will of a veto-proof Board majority, the media depicted Daly as a lone ranger who was violating every principle of fair budgeting in San Francisco.

This media coverage is a preview of what Gonzalez should expect once he announces his candidacy. All of the misleading stereotypes about Gonzalez that the San Francisco Chronicle promoted in 2003 will be back with a vengeance, with the only difference being the paper’s declining impact due to its reduced circulation

Can Matt win? I’m already on record saying that Newsom is unbeatable, and he has become stronger in the past month as his mayoralty entered full-campaign mode.

But the question for progressives may have changed from “can Matt win” to, can he be the vehicle for creating real and lasting political unity around a progressive agenda?

It has because clear that the June 2 Convention failed to achieve this, and one can only wonder as we recall all of the speeches why Daly and Mirkarimi never discussed their specific budget priorities that day—or why the attendees were not asked to approve a progressive budget right then.

If Matt Gonzalez ran on a campaign that included his own budget plan for the city, then the public could assess whether his “progressive” budget differed from Mayor Newsom’s. This could repair relations between the Daly and Mirkarimi camps, and leave the city’s progressive forces in a better position than they are in today.

If Matt does not run, expect the in-fighting among San Francisco’s progressive activists to continue. And for some to blame this on Gonzalez, rather than looking inside themselves.

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