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The Matt Gonzalez Insurgency

James Tracy
Date Published: 
March 01, 2004

On December 9, 2003, centrist Democrat Gavin Newsom beat Green Party candidate (and member of the Board of Supervisors) Matt Gonzalez in a closely contested run-off election for Mayor of San Francisco. The election held implications for urban electoral politics across the nation. San Francisco’s liberal political establishment – an assortment of labor unions, community groups and Democratic clubs were openly split at the prospect of a Green Party upset.

For progressives, the choice was transparent. Gonzalez brought to the ballot box not just his candidacy, but also a ballot measure which successfully established a municipal minimum wage of $8.50, which equals a two to three thousand dollars annual raise for low-wage workers. In contrast, Newsom pandered to a downtown agenda that included successful efforts to cut welfare payments and outlaw panhandling.

The mobilization to support Gonzalez was incredible – with many hundreds of campaign volunteers organizing in almost every precinct. It was a true David vs. Goliath fight with David just narrowly missing Goliath this time around.

The mainstream media portrayed Gonzalez as a candidate from the far left. In reality he is not. His campaign exuded a New Deal optimism filtered through New Age sensibilities. Newsom represents the game played by former President Bill Clinton and outgoing SF Mayor Willie Brown: fake left but bolt to the right.

As a Supervisor, Newsom has taken many anti-worker positions. He weakened collective bargaining powers for transportation workers through legislation he championed at the ballot box. He frequently scapegoats municipal labor unions at public speaking engagements. A wealthy restaurant owner, he recused himself from a vote that returned thousands of dollars of business taxes to corporations-gutting funds available for human services.

Many San Francisco Democrats put party above politics and rallied behind Newsom. Teamster locals and the Transport Workers Union (the same Transport Workers Union screwed by Newsom) endorsed Newsom. Many labor activists have closed ranks behind Gonzalez. Newsom’s campaign resorted to Green-baiting at every step of the way. Some have suggested that Democratic Clubs that went Green may have their charters threatened.

Closing ranks

With Presidential elections on the horizon, Newsom channeled anti-Green anxiety for his advantage. His campaign flew both former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore to San Francisco to fundraise and rally the troops. Historically, Democrats have closed ranks to prevent the growth of third party insurgencies, even if it means electing someone completely against the interest of their working-class electoral base.

In 1934, against the backdrop of labor unrest that shut San Francisco down during the General Strike, author Upton Sinclair ran his second campaign for Governor on a left ticket through the End Poverty In California (EPIC) organization. His best-known novel was The Jungle, which was an expose of the appalling and unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking industry. The Democratic machine directly interfered with Sinclair’s campaign through behind-the-scenes maneuvers and by announcing that it would push through pieces of Sinclair’s poverty program on a federal level.

As a result, Republican Governor Frank Merriam was elected who went down in history as the man who called out the National Guard on San Francisco’s Longshoremen during the General Strike.

Flash to the present: Fear of an independent body politic pushed San Francisco’s usual suspects into an alliance with a candidate who reflects much more Merriam than Sinclair. Then to the future: can urban social justice activists form the alliances required to beat the right on its own turf – the ballot box?

For future progressive campaigns, winning means not only going into hand-to hand combat over “vision,” but energizing everyday people for whom terms like “progressive” and “centrist” mean little or nothing; but to whom terms like housing, healthcare and jobs mean everything. In a city, like many others, where the largely immigrant and African-American population are represented in greatest percentages in the city’s homeless shelters, any progressive challenge must have a clear understanding of race and class dynamics. The center understands this and provides its surface with many faces of color. The left must provide real substance to this debate and avoid race and class blind analysis – a pit fall of many Green Party efforts.

Promises & pitfalls

Gonzalez captured 46% of the vote. The fact that a Green Party candidate could accomplish this in a major metropolitan city would have seemed impossible just a few years ago. The Greens only account for 3% of San Francisco’s registered electorate. Clearly, discontent with the two-party system is spreading in the city – to a point where it is conceivable that a time will come where the Democratic Party won’t be able to save itself with the help of Clintons and Gores.

The Gonzalez campaign will undoubtedly have the effect of encouraging independents across the nation to take a shot at winning important elections. For progressive independents, this is both the best time and the worst time to do this. Democrats have failed to differentiate themselves from Republicans on most economic and foreign policy issues. Yet, with the Bush Administration’s continued right-wing rampage, many liberal voters will have a knee-jerk reaction to anyone running outside of the Democratic box.

Another danger is that oppositional politics will find its only expression at the ballot box. History has consistently shown that Left organizing finds success when there are multiple threats: direct action, mass mobilization, strikes and popular education. Progressive candidates are often reluctant to admit this in their attempt to look “electable.” Yet if all of a movement’s energies are reserved for Election Day, then the Left looses any chance of making meaningful change.

For example, Gonzalez became a City and County Supervisor three years ago, as part of a highly successful progressive push to unseat representatives installed by the Democratic machine. Gonzalez and the others represented an electoral expression of the anti-displacement movement characterized by intense community organizing and much direct action.

While their victory yielded many positive results at City Hall, it also served to demobilize a movement that could no longer take to the streets in the same numbers. Many people expected the elected officials to simply “do the right thing” in office and stopped mobilizing around evictions and other urban issues. Only strong community organizing outside of the electoral system gives progressive reformers inside that system any chance of survival and success.

Uneasy alliances

The simple mathematics of winning an election means building support beyond a candidate’s natural base. The Gonzalez campaign struggled with this and many neighborhood activists were extremely concerned with alliances built between the campaign and some decidedly non-progressive forces. Gonzalez counted as his active supporters Developer Joe O’Donoghue, who had played a substantial role in the gentrification of San Francisco during the bubble years; former Mayor Art Agnos, who initiated a police crackdown of homeless people during the early 1990s; and the Deputy Sheriffs Association, currently being sued for improper strip searches during last year’s war protests.

It seemed to many that campaign leaders quickly dismissed questions about these alliances as divisive. True enough, Gonzalez routinely voted against O’Donoghue projects when they came before the Board Of Supervisors. He has indeed maintained independence from most of the “usual suspects,” even those on the Left. The split between Old Money and New Money is likely to scramble municipal politics as “self-made” contractors such as O’Donoghue flip their support between machine and insurgent candidates as political fortunes shift.

The question remains for future campaigns: If it is necessary to broker deals for an independent progressive to get elected, then is it possible to preserve a progressive program if elected? Unfortunately, with Gonzalez’s defeat, San Franciscans will have to wait for another time to find out the answer to that question.

In the end, Matt Gonzalez and his campaign deserve credit for making a space for new political possibilities in a city and nation so desperately in need of more possibilities.