Chronicle Pushes to Make Muni Service Worse

by Randy Shaw on October 16, 2007

On Sunday, October 14, the San Francisco Chronicle urged voters to reject Prop A, which would inject $26 million annually into San Francisco’s cash-starved Municipal Railway (MUNI). The editorial coincided with a No on A mailer funded by close Chronicle ally and GAP founder, Donald Fisher. Fisher helped bankroll a rival ballot measure, Prop H, whose plan for new parking garages has met broad opposition. Fisher allegedly reached agreement with Board President Aaron Peskin not to oppose Prop A and to abandon Prop H in exchange for parking concessions, but now is joining with his friends at the Chronicle to worsen public transit for city residents. With an expected low voter turnout, the combination of Chronicle disinformation and Fisher’s well-funded mail campaign could doom the measure, ensuring San Franciscans poor public transit for years to come.

The San Francisco Chronicle has devoted substantial coverage to problems with San Francisco’s Muni transit system. But with voters now having a chance to address the financial shortfalls plaguing Muni, the Chronicle has reversed course and opposes Prop A, which adds desperately needed money to MUNI.

The Chronicle often writes editorials that conflict with the facts in its own news stories. For example, stories on rising rents and evictions have never brought editorial support for ballot measures addressing such problems.

But Prop A is such a “mom and apple pie” measure that it gave the Chronicle an easy opportunity to appear “progressive” by endorsing it. And the paper likely would have, had its close ally Donald Fisher not decided to lead a campaign against improved Muni service.

Fisher is a remarkable figure in San Francisco politics. The multi-millionaire Republican has pretty much gotten whatever he has wanted from San Francisco’s Democratic establishment. Fisher is a close ally of many Democrats, including State Senator Carole Migden, who gave an effusive speech on the State Senate floor in 2006 supporting Fisher’s reappointment to the State Board of Education (Fisher is among Migden’s donors).

One Democrat Fisher does not like is Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin. Fisher has battled Peskin on a number of issues and campaigns since 2000, with Peskin typically winning.

Peskin is the driving force behind Prop A, and was also highly critical of Fisher’s parking garage measure, Prop H. But Peskin thought he had worked out a deal with Fisher and the SF Committee on Jobs whereby they would drop opposition to Prop A and abandon Prop H in exchange for some parking concessions.

All was apparently well until Livable Cities Director Tom Radulovich and Prop A forces filed a lawsuit to remove Prop H from the ballot. Although the suit would have helped Fisher by removing his abandoned initiative from the ballot, the Yes on H campaign vigorously fought the lawsuit and prevailed.

Although a lawsuit to strike an initiative lacking a campaign would not appear a big deal, the Prop H lawsuit led Fisher and his Committee on Jobs colleagues to claim that Peskin had acted in bad faith, and that all deals were off. Peskin had gotten the better of Fisher for years, and now Prop A was caught up in a fundamental principle: rich people do not like to lose.

So Fisher became the major backer of a hit-piece against Prop A that included blatantly false statements like “the Board of Supervisors controls the MTA Board,” although the Mayor appoints all seven MTA Commissioners. And Fisher has gotten his good friends at the San Francisco Chronicle to get behind his anti-Peskin agenda by opposing the initiative.

Fisher’s links to the Hearst Corporation go back for years. The GAP clothing chain he founded is a major newspaper advertiser, and Fisher’s political agenda mirrors the Chronicle’s. Fisher has been among the largest financial donors toward implementing the paper’s conservative agenda, through contributions to initiatives and candidates.

The Chronicle has frequently operated as a quasi-public relations service for Fisher. For example, when Fisher recently sought a permanent space for his art holdings, and chose an allegedly public space at the Presidio, the Chronicle provided massive coverage

The Chronicle praised Fisher to the heavens, and ignored journalistically valid questions such as why San Francisco needed another museum dedicated to the art of the same white male artists—such as Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder, Ellsworth Kelly, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Chuck Close and Claes Oldenburg, and Roy Lichtenstein—whose works can be found both locally and in cities across the nation.

But what Fisher wants he usually gets. And he will get his 100,000-square-foot museum with 55,000 square feet of gallery space — 5,000 more square feet than at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art — to house his collection of more than 1,000 works.

But Peskin outsmarted Fisher on the Prop A deal. Fisher had gone to the trouble to collect signatures for a ballot measure to expand parking, and then Peskin inserted a provision in Prop A essentially voiding Fisher’s measure.

Many saw Peskin’s action as brilliant. But a corollary to the rule that rich people do not like to lose is this: rich people really do not like to be outsmarted.

It is not hard to imagine Don Fisher gritting his teeth over Peskin’s actions, and plotting his revenge. John F. Kennedy used to say that he was taught by his father “not to get mad, but to get even,” and Donald Fisher appears to follow this advice.

So while many praised Peskin’s legislative move, the Chronicle now claims Peskin’s provision was “jammed into Proposition A at the last minute” and should instead have been “vetted through a public process.” A legislative hearing is a “public process,” but settling scores cannot be restricted by facts.

The Chronicle’s No on A editorial also erroneously claims that SEIU is the only Muni labor union that has not endorsed the initiative. In truth, SEIU is leading the Yes on A campaign

The Fisher-funded mailer relies on the tried and true Republican strategy of charging a measure with hitting voters in their pocketbooks even when it does not. In this case, it tries to scare voters that an evil MTA Board will raise Muni fares and parking fines.

Of course, a public vote is not required under current law before fares are raised and fines increased. But arguing that a ballot measure grants a “blank check” for fee hikes is often effective, and Fisher and his allies hope it defeats Prop A and that San Francisco’s public transit system grinds to a halt.

Why would anyone want to hurt San Francisco’s public transit system? Well, if you can’t get a bus, you decide to drive, and that means you need a place to park. And that invariably leads to increasing public demands for more parking garages.

Fisher did not build a billion-dollar business by being dumb.

In the meantime, Peskin believes that “the more the Mayor and Board champion the importance of Prop A, the more likely it is to pass.”

Prop A is shaping up as a classic fight between people power vs. big money, with the fate of San Francisco’s public transit system up for grabs.

Send feedback to rshaw@beyondchron.org

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