Matt Gonzalez Runs, but Not Too Far
Despite resignation, former supervisor still a hit with students
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Matt Gonzalez is a politician and a lawyer, but unlike many of his high-profile peers, he doesn’t seem motivated by money or power, which makes him unpredictable. He’s a maverick or a rebel, maybe both, depending on whom you ask. His mere presence in San Francisco government has, for the past four years, shaken up many notions of what politics is supposed to be about. One thing is clear about the man and his politics– Matt Gonzalez makes things interesting.

A case in point – during Gonzalez’s last meeting with the Board of Supervisors in early January, a friend showed up at the public speaker’s podium dressed in a red cape, scarlet horns, a plastic tail and a matching pitchfork.

“Matt,” said James Beckett, playing the Devil’s Advocate, “for the last four years you’ve stymied my agenda. What have you to say for yourself?”

Gonzalez smiled, but said nothing.

Later on in the meeting, fellow supervisor Jake McGoldrick read a farewell poem for Gonzalez, comparing him to a vegetable.

“Onion, luminous flask, your beauty formed petal by petal… in the secrecy underground, your belly grew round with dew… so did the Earth make you,” said McGoldrick.

Gonzalez took it in stride.

In many ways, McGoldrick is right – Gonzalez clearly has many layers. He’s a complex person, an activist and an attorney, a man of conscience and conviction. But as you peal away his layers, you quickly realize that Gonzalez isn’t spending much time weeping over his recent departure as president of the Board of Supervisors. He may have left City Hall, but Gonzalez hasn’t yet left the political scene.

“I’m not out of politics,” said Gonzalez during a recent interview in a back room of the house he rents near the Western Addition. “Many of the most politically important people in San Francisco do not hold an elected office. I’ve merely joined their ranks.”

Yet it’s hard to believe that Gonzalez really means what he says. Six years ago, he entered politics mainly to tweak his then current boss in the Public Defender’s office, former San Francisco District Attorney Terrance Hallinan.

“I had a kid who was convicted for selling marijuana. The prosecutor wanted to recommend a six-month sentence, which I thought was stupid. I ran for district attorney to bother the incumbent [Hallinan], and to really call him on his wild claims of being extremely progressive. I was trying to hold his feet to the fire,” said Gonzalez.

Although Gonzalez lost his initial bid for elected office, his next attempt at gaining a seat in City Hall fared much better. During his run for the Board of Supervisors spot in district 5, he stunned political insiders by leaving the large and well-financed Democratic Party, opting instead to join the tiny Green Party. Politically, it wasn’t an easy decision, but for Gonzalez it all hinged on trust.

“Do you know the number of times I’ve had people say to me, ‘Matt, you’re going to join the Democrats and run for the state assembly and try to go to Congress as a Democrat, aren’t you?’ It says to me that that’s the conventional wisdom. I was able to get a lot of people to trust me as a political figure, in terms of ‘trust me on the political issues’, at the outset,” said Gonzalez.

Yet trust isn’t something that Gonzalez easily gives. He said he’s been burned by both fellow politicians and local media, which he chalks up to what he calls a style of machine politics that he said he often sees in government.

“Mayor Brown and I used to have these breakfasts,” Gonzalez said. “At every breakfast, we were joined by two African-American attorneys who were Greens, one of them in his 50s and one of them my age. Willie liked their company. He was impressed by the radicalism of the Greens and he identified with it as the radicalism that he had when he started.

“But then, a month later, he’s calling me a racist,” said Gonzalez. “That’s the machine.

“The machine says, ‘We need your help crushing this threat.’ I understand it. I get it. I get along with him [former mayor Brown] fine. I know what he was doing. He knows that I know what he was doing. He tries to make it up to me. He talks about what a great lawyer I am. It’s his way of saying, ‘Matt, I had to fuck you while you we’re running for mayor, and I had to say bad shit about you, but now it’s all good. I want to make up for it.’”

But even if the establishment isn’t impressed with Gonzalez, it doesn’t seem to faze him. He is, at heart, a misfit, and Gonzalez appears to thrive on playing the role of the perpetual underdog, rejecting powerful allies to side with other misfits, typically those with the least amount of clout in local politics.

“I have a long history with disenfranchised groups, like artists and musicians and what have you; people that are more likely not going to get involved in politics,” said Gonzalez. “You get a candidate that you like, one that knows something about what you do, and you get excited about that.”
During his run for mayor in 2003, Gonzalez certainly excited many SF State students, including 23-year-old SF State environmental studies student Grant Donnelly, the co-founder of the school’s Campus Greens party and a former Gonzalez aide.

“We were quite excited by the Matt Gonzalez campaign for mayor,” said Donnelly. “I was energized, not only by his politics, but by the kind of person he is.”

Even if Gonzalez lost the mayor’s seat to Democrat Gavin Newsom, it was a tight race right to the end. By the time the votes were tallied, Gonzalez had come within three percentage points of beating Newsom, a stunning finish for a third party candidate and a man most voters had never even heard of just four years before.

Gonzalez claims he’s not bitter about the defeat to Newsom, yet it’s clear he hoped that he’d beat the odds just one more time.

“After the election, we weren’t disappointed,” said Gonzalez. “We understood the historic nature of this possible victory for the Green Party. What was disappointing was that we got so close. It’s really more like a missed opportunity than anything else.”

Shortly after the mayor’s race, Gonzalez met with John Halle, another elected Green Party official from New Haven, CT. According to Gonzalez, the two discussed their political futures and both agreed not to run for second terms.

“It was funny – I was trying to talk him out of it and he tried to talk me out of it. I think there’s a real lesson there. We did our work, we enjoyed our time, we fought as hard as we could. We’re OK walking away,” said Gonzalez.

Although Gonzalez said he intends to spend his next few years starting a new law firm, crusading against big business and working on the occasional criminal defense case, it’s hard to believe that he can avoid getting involved in politics again. Gonzalez won’t rule out another run for elected office, and his friends and advisors agree he’s unlikely to abandon the political arena.

In any case, Gonzalez’s fellow supervisors in City Hall already admit that they feel his absence.
“I’m going to miss the guy,” said Aaron Peskin, the newly elected Board of Supervisors president. “I adore him. When Matt gets on an issue, he will not compromise. We have very different styles, but he has been an incredible person and an example to the city. He’s fundamentally changed the way we do politics.”


Transcript of Interview with Matt Gonzalez—Friday, January 7, 2005

Q: So, how does it feel to be out of politics for a while?

A: Well, I’m not out yet.

Q: Well, almost - about a day to go, right?

A: Yeah - I’m not out of politics. I’ll be out of holding an elected office. I think it’s important that people understand that you can be politically engaged in your life without holding elective office. In fact, many of the most politically important people in San Francisco do not hold an elected office. I’ve merely joined their ranks. Look at Kevin Danaher and Medea Benjamin from Global Exchange. I consider folks like Peter Camejo, in Contra Costa County - he’s never won an elective office in the 30 years he’s been running. What I mean is, for the Greens, it’s good that we have some people on the outside and some on the inside.

Q: Let me ask you this - I’ve been doing some research on you, and on the Green Party as well - one of the things that really astonishes me is that only about 3 percent of registered voters in San Francisco are registered in the Green Party.

A: Right.

Q: And yet, in the elections, you seem to do very well, much better, obviously than 3 percent. Who’s voting for you?

A: Well, I think it speaks to what happens if you don’t have a spoiler phenomenon at work. If you’ve got more than two candidates in a race, everybody always says, “The Green is going to spoil the election, ‘cause he or she is taking votes from somebody.” In a two-person race, right - once I’m in a runoff, it’s two-person, they can’t say - what are the typical arguments against the Greens? “You’re going to spoil the outcome,” or that you’re not experienced enough to hold office. “We like you, but you’ve got no experience.”

Well, in this case, in a two-person race, I became president of the Board of Supervisors. So those arguments don’t work and they have to listen to what you’re talking about. The people that listen say, “Hey, I’ll vote for you.” In this city, in San Francisco, I’d say many of the independents are probably closet Greens, people who are independents so they can vote in the Democratic primaries.

Q: How do you think the political process is going to change now that the supervisors, and the mayor, are going to be chosen through ranked-choice voting?

A: Well, I think it’s not going to change – it’s not going to have as dramatic an impact locally as district elections had, because the Greens won a seat in your traditional runoff, right? That’s how I got elected. But I think it’s going to serve as an example for the rest of the country. The Democrats can’t complain about Florida in 2000 when there’s a measure that they can implement, on a national scale, to allow for majority elections so that it couldn’t happen again. We’ve essentially given them an example that they can’t deny.

One thing that people said about IRV (Instant Runoff Voting) is that it favors grassroots candidates, because in traditional elections, what often would happen is you’d have one very identified “machine” candidate, and everyone else would be running as an independent – well, think of the mayor’s race. Susan Leal – “Gavin Newsom’s the machine, he’s not good.” Angela Alioto – “Newsom’s not good, he’s the machine.” As soon as there’s a runoff, then you have the press conferences where, because they’ve been promised things, they come back on board. Everything’s copasetic, they’re all back in the fold, because the machine cuts the deal and takes care of them.

With IRV, you would have to say to say to your supporters, “Newsom’s terrible, but vote for him second.” That’s not going to – you would lose votes if you did that, so it (IRV) favors, I think, the independent candidate, because they hear the message, and if it’s an anti-machine message, then it’s more likely to stay that way.

Q: You definitely don’t seem to be very interested in the machine politics. I mean – I’ve talked to some people who know you, I’ve read some of the articles that you’ve written. I’m told that you don’t own your house – you rent it. You’ve got roommates, and I would never have imagined that the president of the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco rents his own home and shares it with roommates. One of your former aides told me that you get your suits at second-hand stores. How is it to deal with a system where money and politics intertwine so deeply? How do you stay apart from that?

A: Well, look – first off, I haven’t gotten a suit at a second-hand store in awhile, OK? But Art Agnos gave me some suits right before the mayor’s race, and we had a running joke that the race was really about trying to get the suits back in Room 200, right?

I think money is the problem in politics. You’re not going to change anything as long as candidates have to seek money to run elections. Let’s be candid – I got defeated (in the 2003 mayor’s race) because my opponent outspent me by a wide margin, and people say it and act as if it doesn’t mean anything. “Whatever – he won, it’s over.”

But if you think about what that really means, to be outspent 10 to 1, with all the soft money and everything combined, 10 to 1 – imagine what would happen now, if this fellow and I got in a fight with you, just 2 to 1. Imagine 10 to 1. (They say), “We’re going to fight you 10 to 1, so we can pour mail all over the city talking about lies, that you want to double taxes, that you don’t like school kids, that you’re a Bohemian that’s going to lead to municipal anarchy.” And you have to respond.

Well, you’re fighting on a lot of different fronts. Every day, a new piece of mail is hitting the neighborhoods calling you a communist and you have to respond. Well - it can’t be done. 10 to 1 – that’s very difficult.

If you’re ever going to get a non-millionaire into that office, or somebody who isn’t looking for the next office that they’re going to hold, it’s only going to be done because of public financing. If the public doesn’t trust somebody that doesn’t run with public monies, they actually start developing an ethic that says, “Putting your own money in a campaign, or raising money among rich people is seen as like, ‘the curse.’” That will happen someday, but it’s difficult.

In Massachusetts, voters approved public financing of campaigns. They approved it also, I believe, in New Mexico – incredibly successful. Even incumbents that ran with public monies, what they had to do was they had to go out and get like 150 or 75 people to give them $25 contributions. Once they had that, they qualified, and then they got money to run. If you didn’t want to agree to public financing, you didn’t have to, you could do it the old way. But everyone that did it the old way was losing; the public only wanted the new way. And the people that won said, “Wow, that’s great, I don’t have to listen to the lobbyists that come to my office. They come to my office now and I treat them totally different.”

The Massachusetts state legislature – I think it was Massachusetts and not Maine – repealed public financing by a voice vote of the legislature, and it was a Democratically-controlled legislature that repealed something everyone agreed had been successful. That, you know – that’s what we’re up against.

Q: Do you think that we’ll see, in the next 20 or 30 years, a major Green Party candidate hold statewide office or national office?

A: I would say yes, because of the experience of the Socialist Party in the early part of the 20th century, and also the Progressive Party in the 1930s. In California, in San Francisco, Frank Havinor was elected president of the Board of Supervisors as a member of the Progressive Party. Before me, this was the last time someone outside the two parties, a member of a third party, had won that post. He later went on to Congress.

He was elected to Congress as a Progressive. Now once he got to Congress, by then the Progressive Party had fizzled out, and he ended up joining the Democrats and being part of their caucus, because the party didn’t sustain itself.

The Socialists had probably a hundred mayors in the United States in their heyday, and they elected Victor Broner to Congress – they had a congressman, believe it or not.
I met, in Milwaukee, just recently when I was there for the national Green Party convention, I met a guy, Frank Zeidler, who had served as mayor of Milwaukee. Zeidler was a registered Socialist and mayor of the town all the way up to 1960.

Q: That I find astonishing.

A: Yeah, it really is, and he’s still alive and he got up there and talked about all the good things that he did back then, the park system that they implemented, this and that. People were very happy with what they did.

Q: It seems like what I hear, especially among you people – you know, I’m your age, I go to school where I’m dealing with people who are in their early 20s, and I hear a lot of talk about social justice. I was trying to think today, “Has this changed in the last 20 years, in the last 30 years?” Is it more important to people now, less important to people now – which way is it? Has it changed? What do you think?

A: Well, I think your question is very ambiguous. Social justice encompasses so many different social phenomena. I think the generation of the 1960s was the most active in terms of trying to liberate our country from sexual, repressive ideas, promoting drug use and other kinds of liberty.

In the 1960s, you still couldn’t find probably two or three printers in San Francisco that would print the word “fuck” if you wanted to print a newspaper, you know what I mean? Times have changed dramatically, and that was part of that effort, so we’ve made some big steps.

What we’re finding though now is that there is a phenomenon of the widening disparity between rich and poor, because of the nature of international capital that is making the corporate entities larger and larger. People that work in these entities, they’re not making enough money. They’re not keeping pace with inflation, not since the 1960s. I think that’s the problem – it’s not easy to fight these gigantic, monolithic institutions. It’s very, very difficult. You look at Bechtel Corporation, you look at PG&E – the city is going to get excited because we’re going to get PG&E to give us about $30 million a year by changing a particular fee that they owe to us. That’s great, but this is like the crumb off the table. It means nothing to them.

Q: Does it ever bother you that your opponent in the mayor’s race parties with the Gettys? I mean, he (Newsom) certainly seems to live the moneyed lifestyle.

A: That doesn’t bother me. What company you keep is your business. What bothers me is that the press never stopped to really contemplate where his wealth comes from.

If you’re a politician, and we want to make you wealthy, we want to give you independent wealth and we want to prop you up, we can’t give you – I can’t give you a million dollars. That’s against the law, right? But I could – now assume I have Getty wealth, right, I’m as rich as anybody, I could say, “Hum, I want you to – I’m going to pay you money to manage some of my investments.” Oh great – you’re just a city councilman, this guy wants you to manage money for him. Now, I’m sorry, but I think that this is pretty scandalous. Just on its face, why would we – that’s a fucking bribe. That’s somebody giving you money, because they’re trying to prop you up, and ultimately, maybe it’s not a bribe because they don’t want something directly in return, but clearly you’re trying to enrich a politician for certain reasons.

And then, let’s say I’m interested in opening some restaurants, and nightclubs and wineries, and in every investment I do, you’re going to be a partial investor. I’m going to loan you the money to invest in these ventures. When you get asked by the press, you think that you’re paying back this money, but you can’t even tell the reporters how much you’re paying. You’re confused, “Oh yeah, what are my house payments? I can’t even remember.” This is basically what went on.

And then, later on, when these entities get sold at a profit to a silent partner who happens to be me, and somebody else buys these back from me and you, you are now a millionaire. You’re running around saying that you’re an entrepreneur and that you know about business and you’ve got a record for being able to accomplish something, and you’ve paid taxes and you’ve paid the payroll tax, and that Gonzalez fellow over here, he’s a lawyer who represented poor people and we don’t even know where his money comes from. Do you know what I mean? That’s what happened.
That story got told, but it gets told in not the way that it ought to be told.

Q: How should it be told?

A: The way I just gave it to you. It’s really offensive that somebody is going to claim to be an entrepreneur because a rich guy wanted to give him money and found a way to launder money into his personal account. I just want to tell you the way it fucking is, because I think you can deal with it, and I get a sense that you’re a righteous guy. I’m just telling it the way it is. It hilarious – you wouldn’t believe it if it were in a movie.

Meanwhile, here’s a true story: The Chronicle calls me up, and they want my tax returns. I’m running for mayor and they want to see my tax returns. Fine – I don’t make any money. I’ve got a salary of $37,000 a year before the salary went up (for members of the Board of Supervisors). I call the IRS, I say, “Hey, I’m running for mayor, I need a copy of my tax returns.” I don’t even keep the things because there’s nothing in them. “Ok’, they said, “We don’t do that anymore, but we can give you a summary of your taxes.” “A summary?” I said. “Why can’t you just send … ” “Well, we just stopped sending the complete thing, we just prepare a summary.” So I say, “OK, why don’t you do that for the last couple of years, and if I get somebody on the phone that wants to ask questions about the summary, can you answer them with my permission?” “Yeah, OK.”

We turn over the summaries to the Chronicle, which says I made $37,000. I don’t own any property; I don’t have any investments out of whatever I have in the retirement things, because I work for the city. We say (to the Chronicle reporters), “You can get on the phone and ask anything you want.” And then they publish, over and over again, that I wouldn’t release my taxes.

Q: Why?

A: Because they wanted people to think that I was wealthy and that I was trying to hide my wealth. The Chronicle reporter came to me after the election and wanted to talk me. She was a relatively new reporter with the Chronicle. She said, “Matt, why do you have this attitude?” And I told her this story. I said, “Look, just let me give you this example, if you guys do shit like that, how are you going to expect me to be your pal?” She says, “Well, you know, it’s funny.

One of the first assignments I had was to come to City Hall and get the document you file every year, which is your disclosure of economic interests.” I said, “OK, so you know I don't own anything.” She says, “Yeah, because I got it and looked at it. It was the same thing that was in your tax summary.” Well - duh. They knew I don’t have anything, but they’re trying to promote that idea.

I just gave it to you as an example, but the media is enormously powerful. In this race, they certainly went – “it was an independent expenditure” someone was saying to me, it’s like funding the other guy’s campaign.

Q: I read the article you wrote about, what was it, “Why I Turned Green.” I remember in it that you mention that you were standing – I think you were doing a demonstration for a friend of yours…

A: KRON – Medea Benjamin.

Q: Right. In the article, you basically describe that, “I’m standing out here, I can’t get any (media) coverage on this and television coverage is just supremely important when you’re running for elective office.” Do you think the media has treated you fairly? Do you think they treat third-party candidates fairly?

A: My answer is no to that, but I have primarily relied on what are considered lesser sources, student newspapers, independent weeklies, the online stuff and it has driven the Chronicle crazy. They’re so happy to have a new supervisor in my place, not because – they’re going to miss the stories that they could write about me, but what they love is the idea that they’ve got someone that’s going to talk to them.

I would only talk to them if I really wanted to. If I had something to really say, I’d go to someone I’m going to trust to get the word out, because, you know, these guys can really spin what you say in very negative terms.

During the mayor’s race, I’m giving a talk at City College, and I say, “Hey, you know, we have a problem, a widening disparity between rich and poor. We gotta deal with this. A lot of it has to do with education, technology – community colleges are a way to try and bridge the gap and get people educated, so they can compete in these environments.” John Wildermuth writes a story in the Chronicle, “Gonzalez Calls For A Class War.” What kind of bullshit is this? This is reporting? I would have called up and complained to his editor, except I’m sure he was, you know, right on board with that.

Q: Let me ask you this – where do you go next? In three months, what is a typical day going to look like for Matt Gonzalez?

A: I’m going to be in court litigating cases. I’m going to try and get some big lawsuits off the ground, lawsuits that could take five to ten years to deliver. I’ve got a couple of ideas already. I’m meeting with an expert, on Monday probably, to try and kick this around. To sustain that, we’re going to do nuts and bolts civil litigation and criminal defense work, in cases where we believe that somebody deserves a righteous defense, either because they’re innocent or because they’re guilty but don’t deserve what the state wants, the pound of flesh that they want. That’s what we’re going to do. Hopefully, we can put together something successful.

I think I will continue to be a presence, politically, locally. I’ll continue to write. I write my little thing for Mesh Magazine, I’ll do that every two months. I’ll continue to write my three op/eds a year somewhere, the Examiner, the Chronicle, elsewhere. I just got asked to give a commencement address at New College Law School in May, so I’m going to do that. I’m going to still be involved.

I’ve joined the board of a group in Sonoma County called the Praxis Peace Institute. They host a lot of good political discussions. I’m going to be hosting something later in the month, a lunch here in San Francisco for Ralph Nader, who’s trying to deal with raising money to continue his ballot fight against the president’s re-election effort. So, you know, I’m going to be very involved.

Q: I was reading on the Web this morning about elections in Iraq, and I wondered what you think about that. You seem to be someone who’s very involved in democracy. It’s a word that crops up frequently in your writings. Do you think we’re ever going to have democracy in Iraq? Do you think we’re going to enforce democracy there?

A: I don’t know the answer to that. I think it’s pretty clear that a minority can disrupt elections. I think that if there was that kind of minority movement in the United States, you could have a serious disruption of elections. I think we’ve seen some of that, but I think it speaks to the fact that the United States doesn’t have any legitimacy there.

Nobody trusts the United States, so even if what we’re offering is ultimately, in principle, a sound concept, like people voting for their own leaders, people are suspicious because of who’s bringing this gift. I think it really cries out for a transition with other nations becoming involved. The U.S. has got to get out and let the United Nations – beg the United Nations – to come in with regional partners to try and stabilize what’s going on there.

I don’t know if it can be done. It’s so messed up. There are so many warring factions – I don’t know.

Q: In the last election, San Franciscans agreed that the United States should be out of Iraq, but what are we going to do? What can we do?

A: Well, I think that it ought to be a litmus test for people running for public office. I mean, the right wing won elections because they had litmus tests. For instance, I will not vote for a candidate who voted for the PATRIOT Act. I don’t care if it’s a school board election, or if he’s trying to get elected class president. I don’t care if he wants to get elected to go buy groceries at the corner store – I’m not voting for anyone who voted for the PATRIOT Act, period. Done. Never. I don’t care who their opponent is. I will stay home.

I think that there have to be consequences when we get treated that way. These are not allies of ours, the people who do this. I’m not going to pretend that John Kerry was going to stop the war when he was saying he was going to escalate the war. People that wanted to pretend that was going to happen: I’m sorry, it wasn’t going to happen.

Q: Do you think that there’s anything that the average citizen these days can really do anymore? I’m thinking of the people at my school, young people graduating college. They’re going to get their degrees, go out – but what are they going to be able to do? They’re not graduating from Stanford, they’re not graduating from Harvard, they’re not graduating Yale. What are they going to be able to do?

A: Did you ever read the book Working by Studs Terkel?

Q: No, I don’t think I have.

A: He writes about an interview with a guy who works in a factory line making automobiles. The guy just talks about the dullness of the work, and in the interview, the guy admits that sometimes, he just likes to fuck ‘em up. He likes to put a little scratch in the car as it’s leaving the factory, just to personalize it. I think that this is what we, as human beings, have to do when we are working within these places that are so – they’re so much larger than us.

Obviously, we can’t just decide to live outside of this particular society. We’re kind of stuck with what we have. We need to find a way to metaphorically scratch what we’re dealing with, personalize it. If you’re in a position of power in a law firm or a corporation or in anything, in any kind of bureaucracy, government, school, you have to lean on the side of the most progressive stuff that you can do.

Q: Back in the election, when you were running for mayor, you did pretty darn good. You got 47 percent of the vote as I recall. Yet, I get the feeling that, in some ways, you’re a little bitter about it. During your last meeting with the Board of Supervisors, you talked about your run for the mayor’s office. Did it hurt to lose? Did you think you’d win?

A: No, I didn’t think I’d win. I think that after the election, we weren’t disappointed because we understood the historic nature of this possible victory for the Green Party. We would have been assured of a place to be able to grow from. This would have been a major victory for us. What was disappointing was that we got so close. Now, we weren’t supposed to get that close, that was not supposed to happen, so it’s really more like a missed opportunity than anything else.

Disappointment? Sure, you get disappointed. I’m not as disappointed that I lost the mayor’s race as I was about losing the recent non-citizens voting measure. That one is more recent in my memory. We lost by one percentage point, one and a half percentage points, whatever it was. That’s politics – you win and you lose.

What you’re hearing in terms of bitterness is just someone who is angry about the state of political matters, period. I hope I stay angry, because out of that comes a willingness to do things, like getting a minimum wage passed, or changing how elections are done, or fighting chain stores, or keep zoos from having elephants or whatever the hell the issue is. That doesn’t come because I’m happy with everything; that comes because you gotta be pissed-off. You get out there, you try and change it, you expend political capital to try and make it happen.

The other side feels they have had many losses in these past four years. They know how many elections they’ve lost. We had our fair share of victories.

The progressive community came out stronger than we were six months before the mayor’s race. The progressives were in tatters, we didn’t have a candidate, Newsom was going to win in a landslide. If you look at the numbers, this is something to be proud of. In this election, versus four years earlier, Ammiano – I mean, (Former San Francisco Mayor Willie) Brown and Newsom, four years apart, got the same number of votes, 132,000, 133,000 votes.

The difference was, I had basically 120,000 or 119,000 votes. Ammiano (four years ago) had 90,000. The progressive candidate, in a four-year period of greater displacement, because of gentrification, got 30,000 more votes while the establishment candidate is treading water. They had to spend ten times as much money to do that. That’s phenomenal. I mean, if I were a member of Newsom’s camp, I’m sitting around saying, “We’ve got a problem on our hands, ‘cause if they pick up another 10,000 votes or 20,000 votes, this thing’s over.”

Q: Do you think people are more pissed off now? Why is that change occurring? Is it occurring because people are unhappy with the system as it is, because they’re unhappy with the “machine” politics, because they’re unhappy with all the money in politics, because they’re tired of seeing people walk into politics to line their own pockets?

A: This is what I think; I think that, at one time, people looked at the political spectrum, before Greens were on it, and preferred the progressive Democrat, the middle-of-the-road Democrat. With a Green in there, with such a small percentage of the registered voters in the party, if you run for mayor from a party that has such little power, immediately people know that there’s something authentic about you. Why would you have thrown your lot with such a weak party if all you cared about was political power, right? Why would you do that? It doesn’t make any sense, right?

Do you know the number of times I’ve had people say to me, “Matt, you’re going to join the Democrats and run for the state assembly and try to go to Congress as a Democrat, aren’t you?” It says to me that that’s the conventional wisdom. I was able to get a lot of people to trust me as a political figure, in terms of “trust me on the political issues,” at the outset. I have a long history with disenfranchised groups, like artists and musicians and what have you, that are more likely not to get involved in politics. You get a candidate that you like, one that knows something about what you do, you get excited about that.

Q: How did you choose to get involved?

A: In what?

Q: In politics. I mean, as I understand it, you worked in the Public Defender’s Office for 10 years.

A: Yeah, I ran for district attorney in 1999. I had a kid that was convicted for selling marijuana. The prosecutor wanted to recommend a six-month sentence, which I thought was stupid. I ran for district attorney to bother the incumbent (Terrance Hallinan), and to really call him on his wild claims of being extremely progressive. It was extremely funny. He was good at getting press coverage, but he wasn’t good at implementing his progressive message. I was trying to hold his feet to the fire. Out of that came the political experience that led to the Board of Supervisors.

Q: You’ve been called one of the highest-ranked Greens in the nation, the person who’s gotten the furthest. That makes me think that the people in the party may see you as a torchbearer, as someone who is going to take the party somewhere and do something. Yet, you’ve decided to step down. Has there been pressure from people in the party to keep at this, to keep trying to win elected office?

A: Look – when I ran for D.A., people thought I was crazy. They said, “Why are you running for D.A.? You don’t have a chance.” When I joined the Green Party, people said, “You’re crazy. You don’t have a chance. You’re not going to get elected.” When I threw my hat into the mayor’s race, people said, “You’re crazy – you don’t have a chance.” I want to step down from politics. Do you think I care what all the people who told me I was crazy all those times – I mean, it’s like you have to follow your own counsel. I’ve got people around me that I’m relying on that have kicked this one around and who have helped me make my decision.

This is a decision that was made prior to the mayor’s race. If I’d have won the mayor’s race, hey – I would have served my term, but otherwise I was thinking it would be good to have another Green get the seat. It’s a pretty safe seat I think, and I can continue doing other things.

John Halle was an elected official in New Haven, Connecticut. He’s a music professor at Yale. He is one of the kick-ass, Green-elected officials in the country, and he stepped down after one term. It was funny – he was out here visiting me about a year ago. I was trying to talk him out of it (leaving office after one term). He told me that it was the decision that he had made. I told him that I’d made the same decision, and he tried to talk me out of it. I think there’s a real lesson there. I mean, here we are, we did our work, we enjoyed our time, we fought as hard as we could, we had no illusions of what it is we’re up against. We’re not going to pretend. We know what it is, and nevertheless, we’re OK walking away.

Everyone has a responsibility to go in there and do their term of service. It’s not just me. Everybody out there, anybody out there that has any resentment over the fact that I’m leaving, I want to know why they’re not running. They’re got an obligation to get out there and do something.

Q: You’ve done your time, it’s their problem now?

A: I’m willing to go back, but I think that you need to be rejuvenated outside of these institutions. They are very oppressive places. It’s good to go back and remember who you are.

Q: When you said they’re very repressive places – how so? What’s it like being on the Board of Supervisors?

A: The machine wants to marginalize you, always. The machine tries to stop you from doing what you want, right? The machine is talking to the press every day, against you. Go try that for a couple of years. It’s cool. I fight back every day.

Four years from now, it will simply be eight years since I stepped aboard. I’ll still be doing what? I’m still going to be promoting candidates. The only thing that happens now is that the public gets to assess my four-year tenure and people write nice stories about me. Ross (Mirkarimi) – people write nice stories about him because he’s coming in. No one is threatened by me. “We can be nice to Matt.”

The Greens get all this good press that we wouldn’t have gotten if I’d just gotten re-elected, right? We just keep going. When I’m leaving, I get so much ink it’s incredible. We’re the story.

Q: It’s like they say, “Now we can finally be nice to you?”

A: Yeah, well, look – the press has said a lot of nice things about me. But the machine takes over.
Mayor (Willie) Brown and I used to have these breakfasts. At every breakfast, we were joined by two African-American attorneys who were Greens, one of them in his 50s and one of them my age. Both were very experienced, clerked for federal judges or were partners in a law firm – Willie liked their company. He was impressed by the radicalism of the Greens and he identified with it as the radicalism that he had when he started. But then, a month later – we’ve had these sit-downs over and over again, it's all good. A month later, he’s calling me a racist. That’s the machine.

The machine says, “We need your help crushing this threat.” You know, I understand it. I get it. I get along with him (Mayor Brown) fine. I know what he was doing. He knows

» 

 

PHOTO
Cheryl Guerrero | staff photographer
Matt Gonzalez attends the inauguration of the School Board Committee on Jan. 6. Gonzalez finished his last term as a member of the Board of Supervisors two and a half weeks prior.

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