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The People, United…

Feb
13
2004

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been mulling over that old saw about people “getting the government they deserve,” in terms of the Bush presidency. When only about half of registered voters actually turn up at the polls, it seems somehow fitting that we get a government that has contempt – that isn’t too strong a word – for its citizens. If half of us don’t care about them, why should they care about us?
Arrogant? Hell yes. But in the past few months, it’s started to feel like more people are paying attention to what’s going on politically than they were a few years ago. Total Recall has energized California, bringing newcomers into politics. Howard Dean has done the same for younger people and tech Geeks. But are they hanging around?
A plaintive email yesterday and a civic association meeting last night – hors d’oeuvres and white wine so you know we were in San Francisco – got me thinking a little more about this and about how people enter politics. I don’t mean enter in the “run for office sense.” I mean get involved in the “go to meetings, get involved” sense.
The email came from a SoMA resident upset by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ decision to ban the demolition of buildings with more than rental 20 units. “This project is the absolute linchpin to the revitalization of Market Street from Van Ness to the waterfront,” the SoMA resident wrote. “This is not just about the rent controlled apartments, this is about the health of a major artery in SF that has been inextricable intertwined with the homeless, drug, and crime problems that have become intractable along one of our urban lifelines.”
He’s right. But the ban was a smart, grand-standing political move on the part of Supervisor Chris Daly. It neatly put board members in the position of having to vote in favor of evicting tenants and to support a landlord with a record of treating residents poorly. That’s why it passed. But it also passed because no one’s really paying attention to the politics that are involved here. And the reporting that’s been done on the demolition ban has been sloppy and superficial. The SOMA resident who’d like to see his neighborhood improved seemed to think the board’s vote was the final word on the development. You can’t blame him. That’s what The Chron implied in its brief write-up – that’s after the paper wrote a story predicting weaker support for Daly’s measure. The SoMA guy just figured he’d been sold down the river by his supervisor and was almost – not quite but almost – ready to bring down a pox on all their houses.
But, as the civic association folks were told Thursday night, it remains to be seen if Daly’s measure will stand up to what’s certain to be a mayoral veto. It’s also unclear if the law will withstand court challenges. Oh, and the actual construction of the project, some 1,400 apartments at the now forlorn corner of 8th and Market, is years away. The thing hasn’t even finished its full planning review. Meaning there’s lots of time and plenty of maneuvering in the weeks and months ahead. Daly really was showboating and The Chron played along. He’ll have plenty of time to negotiate on tenants’ behalf — as he and the board should do — as the approval process ground on.
Ah, yes, but to counter Daly moderates on the board are going to have to start maneuvering. Deal making. Compromising, engaging in the dirty work of politics. Listen to supervisors who felt compelled to support Daly’s measure because of the tenants’ rights issues and you hear them say one thing: politics ain’t a pretty business. You want a better city, a country run the way you want it run, well you might actually have to spend a little time thinking about what’s going on. And you might have to organize. And roll with the punches. And come back for more. Again.
This is what’s so disappointing about the Geek chorus that’s following Joe Trippi as he preaches the power of the net. Geeks – political newcomers like that SOMA resident – are upset about nominee Howard Dean’s replacing campaign manager Joe Trippi with Washington insider Roy Neel. It’s corrupt. It’s politics as usual, they grouse, and politics – as opposed to policy – is a nasty business. There’s some truth to this; Roy Neel is indeed everything the Geeks hate about politics and politicians. But like all broad generalizations, it’s not entirely accurate. These political newcomers are using Neel as a way to cover their embarrassment — or their frustration — with the messy business of having to deal with other people, in this case voters who don’t like Dean.
It’s not a massive retreat, of course. But people once in love with Dean, folks upset to find that politics doesn’t mean you get your way – exactly what you want all the time, every time – are pulling back. This sort of disengagement is how grandstanders like Chris Daly get their more moderate colleagues on the defensive. There’s no one around to say “yes, but…” so the simple easy argument is the one that gets play.
It doesn’t help that the press, from Big Media on down to The Chron, are so involved in what they’re doing that they can’t see its effect. Or, more importantly, how things look to outsiders. They reach for the cliché – the Dean campaign was about lonely young people looking for love – or the simple explanation – the Daly maneuvers have killed the San Francisco project – when something a bit more nuanced would do. A smart Dean campaign reporter might have talked to those outside the campaign process about the causes for their disillusionment (actually, I think Steven Levy over at Newsweek is doing just this). A smart Chron reporter might use the recent vote to look at ahead at Prop J – the “workforce housing” initiative here in San Francisco to talk about how the city’s moderates are – or, as the case is right now are not – mobilizing on planning and other important issues.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 8:35 PM | Permalink

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