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Poets and yogis: San Francisco politics

Green Party mayoral candidate taps the city's distinctive culture.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 9, 2003


David Taylor makes a clear distinction: working as a volunteer on Matt Gonzalez's campaign for mayor is the first time he has ever been involved in electoral politics. Street politics, however, are a different matter.

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Leaning back in his chair at Gonzalez headquarters, the spiky-haired webmaster by day, insurgent by night ticks off his impressive résumé of revolt - the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, the marches against the World Bank in Washington, and the antiwar demonstrations here that shut down the city.

In the Gonzalez campaign, though, Mr. Taylor for the first time sees a way to express his disgust with the political machine and the corrupting influence of money, not through disturbance, but through the political system itself. "We're seeing an opportunity when many people can overcome their cynicism," he says.

It is a notion that has fueled the improbable success of Mr. Gonzalez's bid to become the first Green Party mayor of a major American city. Yet it also echoes far beyond California's "left coast."

To be sure, Gonzalez's rise from a distant second place behind Democrat Gavin Newsom in last month's mayoral election, to a virtual dead heat in Tuesday's runoff, could easily be dismissed as pure San Francisco. In this most eclectic of campaigns, where poetry readings double as political rallies and get-out-the-vote drives involve fire trucks converted into mobile dance floors, Gonzalez has cast himself as the shepherd of the disillusioned and disenfranchised who define this city.

But there are deeper forces at work here, too, experts say - forces that echo some of the ones reshaping national politics. There are as many differences between Gonzalez and presidential candidate Howard Dean as there are similarities. But like Dr. Dean, Gonzalez has positioned himself as the anti-Bush in an increasingly polarized political landscape - the true liberal at a time when, to him, the Democratic Party has strayed from its working-class ideals into moderation. And like California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, he has wrapped himself in the mantle of the outsider beholden more to principle than to campaign pocketbook.

"There are forces at work finding voices in all these different campaigns," says Richard DeLeon, a historian at San Francisco State University. "It has a real populist streak to it ... and locally, it translates into a fight against a political machinery run by elites."

The word "machinery" has taken on such a universally evil undertone here, that the concrete-floored headquarters of the Gonzalez campaign could be mistaken for a set of "The Matrix." To the true believers here, the "machinery" controls political life. It eliminates dissent, and feeds off the least fortunate to survive.

Governor Schwarzenegger used similar rhetoric to take down Gray Davis in the recall. Now, Gonzalez is finding success in San Francisco. The political machine here is seen as the work of outgoing Mayor Willie Brown, the Democratic former head of the state Assembly who many feel set up a system built on cronyism, patronage, and corruption.

For his part, Newsom has plenty of his own people, too - and the two sides even clashed this weekend when rallies for each candidate crossed paths downtown, starting a shouting match. To Newsom's supporters, Newsom is no new-age oligarch. He is a realist who is at least confronting the homeless problem, and realizes that San Francisco cannot wholly alienate its business community by saddling them with taxes for costly social programs.

That doesn't make for terribly good poetry, though, and San Francisco's grass-roots democracy can take some peculiar forms. Over the past week, various San Franciscans have held "Get Lit [as in literary] for Matt" events with local authors, yoga classes where proceeds go to the Gonzalez campaign, and a city motorcycle ride to support him. At a "Poets for Matt" event, beat poets break into the staccato rhythms of antiwar invectives while new-age hippies strum folk ballads on beat-up guitars.