first published in San Francisco Bay View Newspaper, June 29, 2005
A NEW ERA IN SAN FRANCISCO POLITICS? by Matt Gonzalez
SAN FRANCISCO POLITICS GENERALLY has avoided the nasty mudslinging that political contests in other major cities often devolve into.
That’s why a little-noticed, well-funded drive by Gap Inc. founder Don Fisher and his allies to destroy Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval — both personally and politically — is so offensive.
First they used a symbol of genocide to impede his re-election. Now they’re using legal maneuvers to try to take away his home. And the casualty isn’t just Sandoval and his family — political discourse in our city will never be the same.
The story starts with legislation I sponsored in 2003 giving City Supervisors the power banning chain stores in specific San Francisco neighborhoods.
Despite threats from downtown business interests, including Fisher, who said they’d go after him in his re-election bid, Sandoval supported the measure as a reasonable attempt to let neighborhoods shape the character of their own commercial districts.
Sure enough, during his re-election campaign, Sandoval became the victim of dozens of anonymous mailers that were breathtakingly misleading. One showed suffering AIDS patients on the cover and claimed Sandoval wasn’t doing enough for people dying from AIDS.
Another flyer had a close-up of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft with the words “Thanks Gerardo” on his forehead. The mailer ludicrously argued Sandoval’s support of a ballot measure allowing immigrant parents to vote in school board elections was somehow anti-immigrant, and thus helpful to Ashcroft.
This second flyer claimed an author: the “Yes on Citizenship, No on F” committee. The committee gave its address as 731 Sansome, the offices of Jim Sutton, Gavin Newsom’s campaign lawyer in the 2003 mayoral race.
Both mailers blatantly lied. Sandoval, as chair of the Budget Committee, restored funding to AIDS programs, and he sponsored landmark legislation in 2001 to allow immigrants to use consular ID cards for identification in San Francisco.
But the worst mailing against Sandoval — the dirtiest piece of political mail I’ve ever seen — showed a wall with a Star of David marred by a giant swastika. The backside took a comment once made by Sandoval about bar mitzvahs out of context. The remark, which Sandoval had long ago explained and apologized for, did not remotely justify the use of a Nazi symbol. Jewish groups in San Francisco rightfully condemned the mailer.
Clues as to the source of the fliers included an address, 4 Dorman Ave., and a permit number from the U.S. Post Office. After some digging, Sandoval learned the address belonged to a bulk mailing company. The postal permit was registered to political mail specialist Duane Baughman, who was paid a staggering $11 million for working on Republican Michael Bloomberg’s 2001 New York mayoral race.
Sandoval suspected Don Fisher was bankrolling the effort, since he’d made noises of getting even at election time — though, curiously, the fliers never mentioned the chain store legislation that Fisher was angry about. Yet Fisher’s immense wealth — Gap raked in $16 billion last year — meant he had money to throw away.
Sandoval took action. The election was approaching and Sandoval knew these lies—hitting mailboxes in District 11 daily—might affect the outcome.
Attorney Paul Melbostad, a former member of the Ethics Commission, represented Sandoval pro bono and filed a lawsuit to stop the mailings.
On Oct. 25, 2004, the court issued a temporary restraining order against the anonymous fliers and required the committee behind the Ashcroft flier to disclose its funding source: $50,000 from Don Fisher.
Sandoval won re-election, and that should have been it. But Sandoval’s lawsuit lingered until this spring, when Sutton, the lawyer hired by Baughman and Fisher, won a dismissal motion alleging Sandoval interfered with their “public participation” — despite the mailer’s misleading lies.
Now, in the aftermath of the dismissal, Sutton is seeking $150,000 in attorneys’ fees from Sandoval, nearly twice his annual salary. And Sandoval may have to sell his house to cover the bill. If they’re successful, Fisher, Baughman and Sutton will be ushering in a new era in San Francisco politics — one forever skewing public discourse here.
Sandoval grew up poor, the son of Mexican immigrants. He’s committed himself to public service, first working for Mayor Agnos and later with me as a public defender. He’s been effective for District 11, which includes the working class Excelsior neighborhood, fighting to receive an equal allotment of city resources.
The lies disseminated against Sandoval last fall under the guise of free speech are unconscionable.
San Francisco should be outraged.
Gerardo Sandoval, SF Chronicle photograph by Lacy Atkins.