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They Might Be Mayors: Michael Denny

Oct
7
2003

Libertarian Candidate Michael Denny runs American Wine Distributors, a company he started in 1987. And he may be the only candidate who is happy — no, proud — to be boo’d at the forums and debates where he’s managed to get a seat on stage.
In a city of people who believe government has a right to engage in most aspects of its citizens’ lives, Denny is clearly a fish out of water. As a Libertarian, he believes in as little government involvement as possible and counts the city’s schools, its zoning and planning efforts and the county-run hospital system as examples of things that government shouldn’t do.
That means he’s probably not going to win this election. But the ‘free markets, free minds’ philosophy that Denny embraces is one that’s increasingly popular among the area’s tech rich. And that makes him someone worth hearing. He was interviewed in his office on Pier 23.
What’s this race about for you as a mayoral candidate?
This race, for me, is about restoring the influence of the citizens and tax payers in City Hall. I don’t believe that currently we have a representative City Hall. We have a City Hall that is beholden heavily to special interests who control the political direction. All the other major candidates are beholden to some aspect of the power infrastructure.


“Special interests” is a nice word…A big tent.
Yes. Define ‘em?
They’re different, based on who the candidate is, of course. Supervisor Newsom has the downtown developers and that constituency. Angela [Alioto]‘s got the unions. [Supervisor] Tom Ammiano’s got the teachers — they sort of split the unions. [City Treasurer] Susan Leal doesn’t actually have really broad support out there. She’s running basically as a sort of practical government campaign. [Board of Supervisors President] Matt [Gonzalez], I believe, is running only for the purpose of increasing his personal identity with the voters because he has something bigger in mind, maybe Assembly or Senate or something like that.
Tom Ammiano and Angela are looking to get the support of the non-profit sector and the public services/employee sector, the progressives. What it really is, is just another aspect of a City Hall that is involved economically in so many things. They can’t even fix potholes and yet they’re going to manage our public health. They’re going to solve our housing problem for the elderly — all these things. They’re going to solve our homeless problem. They’re going to do all this stuff but they can’t fix potholes.

His priorities:

1)Jobs/Economic Recovery
2)City Government Reform
I would say that all these others can basically be lumped, I think, into government reform, to be honest with you.
So it’s only one and two with subsections?
All of these are sub-sections of city government reform:
Schools… Muni/Public Transit…Police Department Oversight…Neighborhood Preservation/Development Issues
[Denny believes city government has no role to play in Housing/Home ownership or Homelessness/Quality of Life issues or in the schools.]
Are you a native San Franciscan? When did you come here?
1975.
Everybody has this San Francisco memory; it’s the reason many people stay here. What’s yours?
San Francisco at that time was a hustle, bustle economy. The tech business was starting up. We had so much new stuff, development. It was a very free-wheeling kind of economy.
I spent a lot of time in the Midwest growing up. There, people were more interested in having money in the bank than opportunity. People there, they wouldn’t invest in anything, they didn’t care about new ideas.
I came to San Francisco and I had these ideas about things and people were always saying, “Oh, that’s great and you should do these things.” It was just this general environment of optimism and tolerance. Everybody was open. People weren’t wagging their fingers at each other. What happened was San Francisco turned from that into, what I’ve seen in the last 10 years, this kind of stern nanny — “You can’t do this! You can’t do that! And no smoking! And no drinking! And no this! And no that! And stay out of my neighborhood!”
My next question was going to be “What do you miss about that San Francisco?” but I think you’ve already answered that.
Yeah. It’s gotten to the point where it’s just unpleasant. The people have gotten rude. My wife is a diplomat and we have a place in Taipei right now. Here’s a city of 17 million people and it is crowded. Very crowded. You know what? I hear more horn honking here in San Francisco, which is a sleepy little village, than I hear in Taipei.
The thing is, people here, you just inconvenience them a teeny tiny bit and they’re leaning on the horn. The attitude has become so cranky.
Have you ever held public office before?
No, I haven’t. I think that’s a good thing.
As a candidate, as someone who is obviously politically minded, what’s the thing you’re most proud of?
First of all, I’m getting the subject of economic freedom and property rights into the discussion. Everybody’s afraid of talking about it. People don’t want to admit that it is, in fact, the source of so many of our problems here in San Francisco.
You’re talking about rent control, obviously.
I’m talking about rent control, I’m talking about regulatory environment. San Francisco has a $600,000 per buildable acre regulatory expense that’s double New York, that’s double Chicago, which are numbers two and three. It’s that. It’s also the very, very strict influence of zoning and neighborhood influence. Also the fact that City Hall inserts itself in virtually everything that goes on.

What’s the thing you wish you’d never done?

Probably this coming election [laughs].
This campaign is not about politics for me. At all. I tell people, “I say look, politicians never lead a parade. They march in front of one. If the parade turns, the politician just go right with it.” This campaign is not about politics, it’s about turning the parade.
What motivated me to do this was I ran for the Assembly last year against [12th District Assemblyman] Leland Yee and I got nearly 8 percent of the vote. The other thing is that a Republican ran and he got 16 percent. It showed to me that there’s a lot of dissatisfaction with the establishment because I was a nobody that ran a $2,000 campaign.

What’s the most important change you’d like to see in San Francisco?

The number one thing, the most important change, I would stop trying to convince the citizens of San Francisco that City Hall, and me as mayor, is going to make them more beautiful and take the weeds out of their lawn and fix every problem they’ve got. The fact is I’m just going to get City Hall out of the way so they can in fact fix their own problems and solve their own problems which is what City Hall is supposed to be doing.
What’s the thing you don’t want to change about San Francisco?
I’m having a hard time thinking about that but the fact is that San Francisco is always going to have a certain character. San Francisco, if you take it less seriously, is always going to be a fun place.
That’s the goal of this web site is to not take San Francisco politics too seriously.
I think that’s actually a very important thing for San Franciscans to get into their heads. If properly represented, the truth well told I think is a really important motto. You have to be able to say these things in the way that gets people to say, “You know what, he’s not like a jerk or anything…I see what he’s saying.”
Some people have compared this mayoral election to the reality show, Survivor. You’re on the island, who would you like to vote off?
I couldn’t say one person. There are things that I like about every one of the candidates and there are things I don’t like about every one of the candidates. I appreciate the question — I’m not answering it.
What I would like to do is use the other candidacies to highlight certain things that I think are good about what certain people are running for and supposedly represent. I’ll tell you the one thing that pisses me off the most on the campaign about one candidate. That is Susan Leal going up there and actually saying “I actually make money for San Francisco.”
Why is that?
Because she doesn’t make money for San Francisco. She’s a tax collector. She makes money for City Hall. That’s not us. I’m sorry, Susan. She also talks about how she’s going to go after greedy business. Susan, you know what, I hate to say it but I’d be looking an awful lot at City Hall before I start bad-mouthing our business community. I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done right there.

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