D5 Debate Heats Up

by Lorraine Sanders on September 30, 2004

At certain moments, it was a little like watching the season opener of The Bachelor, only the candidates talked about improving city services, not other people’s sex lives. There were so many of them, and they had precious few minutes to shine. Just like the picky and self-centered meatheads on The Bachelor scrutinize a train of potential love interests, voters inspect candidates, size them up and make their own final decisions.

Obviously, one can take the metaphor only so far. After all, the requisite tropical location was replaced by a non-descript USF conference room, there were seasoned professionals instead of scantily-clad hardbodies and making out with voters was not on anyone’s platform. Despite that, the Human Services Networks’ D5 Candidates Forum offered the kind of drama that only a local race with 22 candidates can bring.

Yes, the unwieldy number of candidates playing the field makes assessing each one’s platform more difficult, but it also makes the political process all the more intriguing. Each of the 13 candidates invited to Wed. night’s forum is serious about making a commitment to the city, and most have impressive records in their fields. Candidates were divided into two panels. Each made an opening and closing statement, and responded to three questions about city revenues, homelessness and non-profit service providers salaries. But on to the sizing up we go..

If you’ve been paying attention to the local media, Bill Barnes, Robert Haaland and Ross Mirkarimi (and that’s alphabetical order) have stood out as perhaps the strongest contenders for the D5 seat. While Barnes was surprisingly absent from the forum, Haaland and Mirkarimi lived up to their reputations. One of seven candidates on the first panel, Mirkirimi was one of the few to go beyond generic promises of streamlining the budget process by suggesting it begin as much as six months earlier than it presently does. When asked to respond to the city’s homelessness crisis, he was the only candidate of the evening to specifically point out that, despite the attention given Care Not Cash, it fails to address the majority of the City’s homeless who are not General Assistance recipients.

Haaland, who was on the second panel, was able to clearly distill complex issues like homelessness and job retention in the non-profit sector into simple, straightforward talking points. Even if you don’t agree with Haaland, you certainly walk away from him knowing what it is you disagree with, which is more than can be said for some other candidates.

Addressing the salary discrepancy between city employees and non-profit service providers, which was one of the key topics at this forum, Haaland spoke about service providers’ high burnout rate and said, “If you really want to keep and retain non-profit workers, you really have to raise their wages every year.” While other candidates quibbled about finding more money for non-profits and forming coalitions, Haaland finished his saying, “It takes political will to do it. It’s not like the money isn’t there. Obviously we need to increase revenue, but we need to make [salary parity] a priority.”

While candidates on both panels no doubt respect and value the City’s non-profits as much as Haaland, he was able to communicate his ideas effectively within the two-minutes he had to do it.

Sure, you may be thinking, but who cares if he got his point across in two minutes? How’s that going to make him an effective supervisor? Negotiating complex topics clearly is key to getting things done in any bureaucracy. In addition to that, there’s just something undeniably refreshing about someone who can lay it on the line without a lot of filler.

Take Joe Blue, for example. With his unabashedly bold comments and fierce originality, he has a little too much personality to win a seat on the Board, but his candid approach to politics makes him stand out as someone city residents should look to for leadership. Blue wants change for Western Addition residents, and he’s not afraid to say it. Gonzalez, Blue said, “left the district in disarray,” and focused too heavily on ideology when pragmatism was needed.

As for the question of salary parity for city and non-profit employees, Blue took a deep breath and told the audience they weren’t going to like his answer, but here it was anyway. Agencies with similar goals and services need to be streamlined and combined, he said, because the money simply isn’t there. In one of his characteristically colorful statements, he did admit that budget cuts might lead some organizations to “raise bloody murder.”

Blue was also quick to say that, if elected, his attention would go to seniors and low-income residents before the homeless. Favoring programs that allow low-income renters to use part of their rent as payment toward property ownership, Blue told audience members, “We have to take care of those people who are out there working every day.”

While Blue is unlikely to win the election this fall, he has shown himself to be unequivocal on the issues he cares about and dedicated to creating change in his community.

Of course, becoming supervisor is not solely about having an outspoken personality or perfect diction. Lisa Feldstein, for example, showed herself to be knowledgeable about non-profits and realistic in her approach to addressing the City’s problems with revenue, services and homelessness. Like several other candidates, Feldstein said streamlining city services would certainly help increase funding available for non-profits. But she was the only candidate to emphasize San Francisco’s need for outside monetary help. She described numerous opportunities for federal and state funds that “really are our due.”

Additionally, Feldstein showed her realistic approach to politics by calling for phased-in increases in cost of living wage percentage hikes for non-profit sector service providers instead of immediately matching their wage increases with those of city employees.

Tys Sniffen, Julian Davis, Susan King, and Michael O’Connor made knowledgeable comments and sensible contributions to the forum during the evening’s first panel. Sniffen said more revenue for city coffers lies in reevaluating the City’s election process and its Parks and Recreation Department, a sentiment many of the evening’s candidates agreed with.

“There is money all over the place and it is being misspent,” he said.

Davis called for more centralization in city services. To address the homeless problem, Davis suggested creating a central intake center that would receive homeless people and direct them out to services based on individual needs. He also said creating umbrella organizations within the city to distribute funds to non-profit organizations would streamline and better sustain social services.

King, a Green Party candidate, identified herself with transportation issues. In addition to raising downtown parking taxes, she advocated lifting Muni credits for Pac Bell Park and redirecting those funds into city service programs and non-profits. King also spoke out in favor of on-demand mental health services for the city’s homeless.

O’Connor, a small business owner and creator of multiple youth projects, made his most memorable statement of the night in response to the salary parity issue. City employees make too much money and non-profit employees too little, but the real question, he said, is, “how are we ever going to address this when we keep electing supervisors who are in the pockets of one group or another?” O’Connor said his independence as a small business owner and political outsider would make him able to address local issues fairly.

Dan Kalb, Nick Waugh, Emmet Gilman, Phoenix Streets and Brett Wheeler also appeared at the forum. Kalb and Waugh made strong cases for their commitment to improving the city by frequently citing their past records and non-profit experiences.

Kalb favors finding additional city revenue from carefully auditing Muni and the Parks and Recreation Dept. He also adamantly supports equal pay for city employees and non-profit sector employees who perform equally important services for the city. Waugh, who has been endorsed by Howard Dean, focused many of his comments on improved mental health services for city residents and the homeless population. In a departure from other candidates, Waugh said he supports economic development projects in the city, including biotech companies.

During the forum, Gilman was perhaps the stiffest candidate of the bunch. He relied heavily on statistics and glanced frequently at his notes. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be good supervisor if elected, but his ideas were lost behind his nervous appearance.

Streets spoke quite clearly, and made a good point about homeless people not enjoying shelter stays, but he made several comments that relied too much on rhetoric and not enough on substance. At one point, Streets said giving more money to non-profits would require them to agree to open their books to scrutiny by city officials, but, as many non-profit sector workers in attendance were already well aware, non-profits already complete mounds of paperwork to comply with existing city requirements regarding open accounting practices. As Streets was making this erroneous point, an audience member whispered, “I don’t think he’s got a clue.”

Last but not least, we arrive at Brett Wheeler. From the outset, it was obvious that Wheeler understands local government and public policy issues. The problem with his appearance at the forum was, perhaps, the result of too much knowledge. Whenever he answered a question, Wheeler spoke rapidly and threw out so much information that it was difficult to discern his point. He sounded like he’d be much better at explaining his ideas in essay format than extemporaneously in front of a live audience.

So there you have it. An evening with 13 of D5’s best and brightest candidates for supervisor. Remember that this forum addressed issues of interest to the Health and Human Services community and, consequently, offered just one slice of each candidate’s complete platform. You can find for information about each candidate in Beyond Chron’s archives and on their personal web sites.

You can reach Lorraine Sanders at lorraine@lorrainesanders.com.

Filed under: Bay Area / California