Poets and yogis: San Francisco politics

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

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.

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.

In other cities, perhaps, these might simply be events on the cultural fringe. Here, they touch the bohemian heart of the city itself, and Gonzalez has struck a chord.

"It's a groovy happening with a purpose," says campaign spokesman Ross Mirkarimi.

Much of Gonzalez's success has come by creating a stark contrast between himself and the high-society Newsom. Gonzalez is the floppy-haired, slump-shouldered champion of the counterculture. He led the charge for the city's new $8.50 minimum wage. He shares an apartment. He used to play bass in a band named after a painter and anti-Nazi activist. And he doesn't own a car.

That's the essence of his campaign: a regular guy trying to take back government for regular people. When he stops by the poetry reading, he tells the standing-room-only crowd in a small college theater, "It's about who gets access and who doesn't. They're scared, not of a Green being elected mayor, but of an honest person being elected mayor."

Back to Democrats' roots?

Indeed, the fact that Gonzalez is a member of the Green Party seems secondary, at best. Part of that is because San Francisco mayoral races are, technically, nonpartisan. But it is also obvious that party affiliation simply doesn't mean much here anymore. No one at the poetry reading denounces Democrats. It's the machine they rage against, and in San Francisco, Democrats happen to be the machine.

It's the sense that "Democrats are too comfortable with power," says Dr. DeLeon. The Greens are casting "the Democratic Party back to its roots. When that happens, the Green Party will have served its purpose."

Yet the race - and party affiliation - does mean something to national Democrats. San Francisco, after all, is the hometown of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and for years has been perhaps the most reliably Democratic major city in the country. More than 80 percent of voters here, for example, voted against the recent recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. If Newsom were to lose the seat, particularly after Gray Davis's debacle, it would be a major embarrassment to the Democrats.

To avoid that, the party last week dispatched former Vice President Al Gore to bolster Mr. Newsom in San Francisco. But this campaign seems to be working on a new political calculus. To some liberals here, Gonzalez represents a choice that the Democrats haven't given them for years.

"I've never had a candidate that I was excited about that had a chance of winning," says Hallie Montoya Tansey, a 23-year-old former public school music teacher who became a Gonzalez volunteer after last month's election. "Newsom represents the kind of Democrat that I've always been forced to vote for."

On a national level, Mr. Dean is riding the same sentiments. By standing up to President Bush on issues from gay rights to the war in Iraq, he has given liberals a strong alternative to the more centrist Democratic Party created by Bill Clinton. By voting for Gonzalez, supporters hope they, too, are making a national statement.

"San Francisco has an opportunity to stand up and stem a tide of neoconservatism," says Taylor. "For a lot of us, it's a symbol of resisting." And through Gonzalez, many of those who would normally turn to civil disobedience to show their resistance are finding an unexpected outlet. Says volunteer Chance Martin: "It's a unique and wonderful thing that instead of taking to the streets and scaring Mom and Pop, all these people are coming together to do something positive."

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