Peter Camejo speaking at the June 1970 national anti-war conference in Cleveland which voted to establish the Peace Action Coalition. Photograph is taken from Peter’s Pathfinder pamphlet Liberalism, Ultraleftism or Mass Action, 1970.
The following is the unedited version of a chapter included in Peter Camejo’s newly released memoir, North Star, published by Haymarket Books. The book version was edited for reasons of length, so we present it here in its entirety, for the historical record, and with Peter’s permission.
CHAPTER 24: MATT GONZALEZ: THE LIGHTNING BEFORE THE STORM
by Peter Camejo
From the original manuscript
NORTH STAR: A MEMOIR
Often when a major historical shift is going to take place there are flashes of what is to come. In Venezuela I loved watching the lightning that would announce that a tropical storm is coming. Sometimes in Caracas we would get one every afternoon. They are such beautiful events, as the rain comes down not as normal rain but in a torrent, cleaning the air and washing everything before it.
Just as I was in the last phase of the 2003 recall elections a new development that is yet to be understood was starting in San Francisco. Matt Gonzalez was about to announce for mayor of the city in what turned out to be the most amazing story of any Green Party member running for office, in a situation unparalleled as yet anywhere else in the United States.
One night in August I got a call on my cell phone from Matt. He said to me, “Where are you? I need to meet with you.” I was in a hotel in San Francisco because the next morning at a very early hour I had to do a TV interview on, I think, Channel 4. As it turned out Matt was only two blocks away at the apartment of Meredith Gittings. Meredith, Matt’s girlfriend at the time, was a former ballet dancer who was now in her first year of law school. I told Matt I would walk over and join him.
The three of us sat together in Meredith’s tiny kitchen, drank port and coffee, and I think had pastries as Matt explained to me he was going to enter the race for mayor of San Francisco. I remember the first words I said to him, “What? Jesus, you should have decided that months ago. There’s very little time. Newsom’s been campaigning for a year.” Matt told me, “I think I could win.” I responded, “No, the Democrats have San Francisco locked up.” He said, “Well, in any case we’ll get a good showing and stop Newsom from having a mandate.” I told him, “Okay, if you decide to do this I will back you 100 percent and do what I can to help you.”
Matt Gonzalez was an incredible development within the Green Party. He had graduated from Stanford as a lawyer and gone to work for years as a public defender. He was now thirty-eight-years old, had been a progressive Democrat who had run for office for district attorney and lost. He had run opposing the three strikes law and the death penalty while supporting the need to promote environmental prosecutions.
Then in 2000 he ran for the Board of Supervisor from a progressive district which included the famous Haight-Ashbury area. The supervisory elections had been changed from citywide races requiring huge funding to districts. He became the favorite to win the nonpartisan race and made it into the runoff. One day Matt attended a KRON TV debate between the Democrat Dianne Feinstein and the Republican Tom Campbell while they excluded Medea Benjamin, the Green Party senatorial candidate. It dawned on him that he didn’t agree at all with so much of what the Democratic Party stood for and how it acted towards elections. So he switched his registration to the Green Party just before the first round in the elections for supervisor. He wrote an op ed in the Bay Guardian headed “Why I Turned Green.” He made it into the runoff as a registered Green.
I remember when I first heard of this my reaction was I wished he had waited till he got elected so we could have a member of the Board of Supervisors. Willie Brown, the mayor of San Francisco, put out an attack on Matt’s joining the Greens and mailed it to all the voters of his district. The mailer claimed that Matt leaving the Democrats would shift the U.S. Supreme Court to the right and ensure the overturn of Roe vs. Wade. When the vote came in, however, Matt won with 66 percent against one of Willie Brown’s closest allies, who was president of the School Board. Matt’s vote seems to have increased a bit by voters’ reaction to Willie Brown’s attack. Matt became the highest elected official in California for the Green Party.
I met Matt in 2000, soon after his election, at a Green Party meeting where he gave a talk. I walked up to him, introduced myself, and told him I really liked his talk. He mentioned that he knew who I was and admired my work. I sensed immediately that he was a very principled person. Not a calculating politician looking to see what could promote a career. Many elected Greens worry about how to get elected or reelected, meaning not to talk about controversial issues. In one case I was supporting a Green running for the assembly who in a debate with the Democrat came out against raising the minimum wage! Matt would turn out to be the exact opposite.
Elected President of the Board of Supervisors
As Matt began working as a supervisor he handled himself in a way that everyone developed respect for him. For instance, he wouldn’t raise funds for a future campaign. He would tell people up front if he disagreed with them, but always politely. Gradually all the other board members realized he was a completely principled person who respected them.
In 2000 when Matt was elected the vote showed a shift to the left among the Democrats. Willie Brown’s more rightist current lost a majority of the board of supervisors. A progressive wing on the board started working together. Matt was included in this informal bloc without his alienating the more conservative supervisors. Matt’s demeanor was never to attack people personally but just be honest about his views.
Two years later when the issue of who will be the new president of the Board of Supervisors arose there was a division among them that split them down the middle. Matt’s name was raised as a possible candidate that they hoped could both represent the progressive supervisors’ majority but work with all the others and handle the job in an effective manner. Tony Hall, an independent conservative on the board, nominated Matt with the support of two of the most liberal supervisors, Chris Daly and Gerardo Sandoval, both Democrats.
The vote deadlocked with three candidates: Sophie Maxwell with three votes, Aaron Peskin with four votes, and Matt with four votes. For a long period Maxwell just wouldn’t step aside so they held seven more votes and it was unchanged. Finally Aaron Peskin dropped out and threw his support to Matt. With Aaron’s vote and Jake McGoldrick Matt got the six votes he needed. He was elected and so we had a Board of Supervisors dominated by the Democrats who elected Matt, the Green, to the second highest position in the city. Later Matt appointed Aaron Peskin as chair of the Finance Committee although there had been no agreement prior to his election. The pro-corporate Democratic Party establishment, especially people like Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, and most of all Mayor Willie Brown, were not happy.
Few people realized how effective and principled Matt was. Through his work as president he began promoting legislation that would really make a difference to working-class people. He raised the minimum wage and tied it to inflation so the usual gradual cutting of the minimum wage through inflation ended in San Francisco.
He helped support strikes and looked out for the interests especially of the poorest workers in the city. He stood up for animal rights, and opposed gentrification by stopping the introduction of major chain stores that would destroy small family businesses. He tried to reestablish city control over energy but was unable to achieve it. He put on the ballot a proposal to give undocumented workers the right to vote, at least on city matters such as the board of education where their children go to school. Matt’s proposal was put on the ballot and almost won.
Matt believes it was the post 9/11 fears that blocked his resolution for the undocumented. Some wanted him to modify his proposal to only cover noncitizens here legally but Matt wouldn’t do that. Louise Renne, the city attorney at the time, said, “The measure will allow Osama Bin Laden to vote . . .” Matt’s response was, “I didn’t know Osama lived in San Francisco. That’s great; it’ll save chasing him around Afghanistan, as we’ll be able to pick him up at the department of elections.”
He proposed and had accepted instant runoff voting for San Francisco to maximize democracy within the city and set an example to help promote electoral law changes. San Francisco’s pro-corporate politicians opposed Matt, trying to prevent the idea of democratic elections from getting a foothold. But Matt won and the law was changed.
I cannot over emphasize how important this issue is. The rule of money over people needs to maintain a two-party monopoly controlled by them. Instant runoff voting threatens that because it removes the spoiler issue and opens hope, the right of people to vote for who they really want, regardless of what party or positions they may favor, without it having a “spoiler” effect. Once IRV is passed, the issue of spoiling elections disappears. The two major parties are fighting this in many cities and states, trying to bloc the development of democratic free elections.
In the end, if IRV were established, along with proportional representation, meaning every vote would count and every citizen would have representation, the door would be open to a wave of change. It would inevitably mean the breakup of the Democratic Party unprincipled coalition. Unprincipled because those who vote Democratic are in their majority Latinos, African Americans, unionized workers, the poor, environmentalists, and progressive-minded people, while the policies that are implemented are pro corporate and for the rich. Allow free elections and this coalition would inevitably begin to turn into a potential electoral base for people favoring democracy and the rule of people over money.
The June Gay Rights Parade
In June 2003, while the recall election was under way, before Matt was a candidate, Matt and I with Jo Chamberlain, chair of the San Mateo County Green Party, marched together leading a small contingent of Greens at the Gay Rights Parade. As we marched we noticed that block after block the people enjoying the parade would break into applause as we passed. I remember leaning over to Jo and saying, “Do you see what is happening?”
Keep in mind, in a “spoiler” framework, 17 percent of the people of San Francisco voted for me for governor in 2002 and they were fully aware and pleased by Matt’s rise to president of the Board of Supervisors. I could see the potential to build an alternative political force in this city. Proof of the potential was about to happen in the next five months.
Picking a Candidate for Mayor
A peculiar thing happened in San Francisco. A pro-business economic conservative, Gavin Newsom, with the support of Willie Brown and some of the city’s big financial interests, began campaigning a year before the city would even start its election for mayor. Newsom is famous for standing up for a very progressive policy allowing gay and lesbian marriages. To his credit, after becoming the mayor he championed this cause that made him popular among people who would otherwise be turned off by many of his policies. What few people know was that prior to his election he was the only candidate running for mayor who opposed gay marriage. Even the Republican police chief running for mayor, Tony Ribera, favored gay marriage.
What most people also do not know is that in 2000 Newsom worked with and promoted being on George Bush’s voter cards. Those are the cards that are put on people’s doors to indicate which candidates Bush supported in San Francisco. Newsom, a Democrat, thought it perfectly okay to associate with and give indirect support to George Bush. Newsom’s pro-Republican posturing paid off in spades for him and was the key to his victory by a small margin in the mayoral election.
The progressive current on the Board of Supervisors began looking for a progressive to run against the pro-corporate Newsom. Tom Ammiano had run but lost against Willie Brown and was a declared candidate. I personally respect Tom and admire many of the positions he has taken. But some of the progressive supervisors considered him too weak as a candidate to beat Newsom. He wasn’t considered a good debater and didn’t have much citywide appeal. The discussions were going around in circles finding no easy solution. Matt was in the middle of all this. Some people associated with Supervisor Aaron Peskin made the decision to do a poll to see who might really be the strongest possible candidate. They included Matt’s name since as president of the Board of Supervisor he was becoming well known and liked.
Up to that point Matt had no plans to run. But the poll showed strong support for him. Others began pointing out that running a well-liked leader that most everyone felt comfortable working with could give them the best chance.
Last Minute Candidate
Some other progressive supervisors had already announced they were running when Matt Gonzalez decided to enter the race. His decision was so late they had to quickly gather $10,000 so he could qualify for the ballot, since there was no time to collect signatures. His roommate at Stanford and future law partner, Whitney Leigh, worked hard to raise this amount. The last day to enter the race they had to rush to get all the money into the bank so they could pay the filing fee. Enrique Pearce, who was in charge of bringing the check, got stuck on BART (the Bay Area Rapid Transit system). Matt was waiting at his apartment five blocks from where they had to register. Enrique made it with only fifteen minutes before the door would close and Matt wouldn’t be able to run.
On Friday, August 8, 2003, Matt became a candidate. The first round in the elections was set for November 4 with the runoff on December 9. Now that he was a candidate he faced a rather unsettling problem. First he had to at least come in second in the first round against a group of well-known, relatively well-financed established progressive and liberal Democrats who had been campaigning for months. He had less than one month to campaign. Where are you going to raise funds quickly and organize volunteers?
Matt immediately turned to the people who had worked on his campaign for supervisor and personal friends. He also, of course, appealed to the Green Party for volunteers. The Greens had 15,000 members in San Francisco.
To get the Greens’ endorsement he had to go before a meeting where all kinds of bureaucratic and antidemocratic rules existed. For instance, if a Green was not in the inner circle and they didn’t show up at the rather boring monthly meetings they couldn’t vote. Often at county levels an in-group gets control. They often tend to be those most interested in getting people elected or running themselves. In San Francisco this created a weakness and illusions in the Democrats. The rank and file of the party, especially the youth, are attracted to its ideals. They tend to be to the left of those attending county meetings. This fact would be seen repeatedly over the next four years in the Green primaries. This political weakness in the San Francisco leadership would be more fully revealed in 2004.
Matt and I went together to ask the Green Party of San Francisco to endorse him. I was at that point the best known and most popular Green statewide in California, as the recall elections and the televised debates were making me a household name. Matt made a presentation on what his campaign would mean and why the Green Party should support the Green running in the elections. I gave a short but emotional appeal to those present to vote for Matt, especially because some had already gotten involved with Tom Ammiano’s campaign. A two-thirds majority was needed. To my shock the San Francisco Greens did not endorse Matt. A majority voted for him but we failed to get two thirds. If we could have had a meeting of all Greens in the city or even a referendum, Matt in my opinion would have won overwhelmingly.
Before the Greens would endorse Matt he won the endorsements of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association and the Bicycle Coalition. A short while after that the San Francisco Greens called another meeting to reconsider. Matt’s brother Chuck attended. Chuck was a Green Party activist who walked precincts for Green candidates but he had not attended recent citywide meetings. At first there were protests not to let Chuck vote. The issue was finally resolved allowing him to take part in the poll. Matt got the endorsement by one vote!
The Tsunami Begins
Matt’s campaign took off immediately upon his announcement, making the events within the Green Party leadership essentially almost irrelevant. First to volunteer was Michelle Mongan, an accountant who took over being assistant treasurer. Enrique Pearce, a Chilean/Scottish law student who had worked with Matt at city hall as a legislative aide, became the campaign director and did a marvelous job under very difficult circumstances, putting a team together. Amy Laitinen and Marianne Love, both aides to Matt at city hall and Greens, helped round off the initial group heading the campaign. Alli Starr became the volunteer coordinator, facing a massive problem as hundreds began volunteering. As the number of volunteers grew the activity in the office exploded. A DJ booth was set up where various DJs would come in and spin records. Given that most of the volunteers were young the campaign would on some evenings turn into parties late into the night.
One of Matt’s strongest friends and supporters was Jim Dorenkott, who played a hundred different roles both during and after the campaign. His official driver was Bob Coleman. Among other key staff members was his treasurer Randy Knox, an attorney and former prosecutor.
Tens, then hundreds of volunteers began appearing to support Matt. At the beginning they only had a small office in his home district, in the Horse Shoe Café on Haight Street. After the campaign it burned down. Among those volunteering, of course, were many rank-and-file Greens but also independents and registered Democrats. Later Matt moved to an enormous office that I believe could fit close to a thousand people. I remember one night driving at about 11:00 pm through the Mission and deciding to take a look at his new office. To my surprise about thirty volunteers were still in there working. In the primary race they raised about $150,000, making Matt’s campaign the lowest funded of the leading six candidates. In the runoff he raised about $750,000, way behind the millions Newsom raised but the highest ever for a Green mayoralty candidate.
The law for raising funds is peculiar. Independent political action groups not directed by a candidate are allowed to bank millions of dollars. These groups then can do their own campaigning separate from the official one. Also if you end the primary with a debt you can raise $750 per person. Newsom, of course, arranged to be in debt. Matt ended his primary without debt and was limited to $250 dollars per person.
The rapid and amazing growth of Matt’s campaign has to be in good part explained by a split in the leadership of the Democratic Party. Newsom clearly represented the most pro-corporate right wing of the Democrats. The more progressive minded, and I would even say radical Democratic Party local leaders were upset, since they correctly felt the majority of Democrats stood by them, not Newsom. They bolted and began endorsing Matt Gonzalez. They could care less that he was registered Green. This surprised me. I thought the right would immediately start a Green-baiting campaign against Matt and the more liberal Democratic Party leaders would be hesitant to endorse him.
I was still in the recall race as a hard pro-labor anti-Democratic Party Green. I told Matt I shouldn’t be too visible in his campaign at first, to give him a chance to win over endorsers. He didn’t think I was right about this for two reasons. He was not as concerned over how well a Green attack would work and he felt my success in the debates had made his campaign even more doable since it undermined misunderstandings of the Greens and had broadened our base.
It became clear right away that supervisors like Aaron Peskin, Chris Daly, and Jake McGoldrick endorsed Matt and soon it would be 6 to 3 backing Matt on the Board of Supervisors. Matt’s success can’t be understood without recognizing this development. I thought to myself, What exactly is happening here? Matt’s platform was clearly pro labor, antiwar, anticorporate domination. It was in clear opposition to official Democratic politics, yet a majority of elected Democratic Party leaders on the Board of Supervisors were shifting to support him. Matt’s views didn’t bend one iota because of this. I think it was the exact opposite. Many Democrats, even elected leaders, loved the fact that he would stand his ground and not bend on his pro-labor positions. Was this a little like the “Barn Burners” I thought? All I knew for sure was that if Matt won it would have a very positive impact on many levels. Even if he didn’t win but just got a huge vote.
Youth and Latinos
Matt’s support among youth spread rapidly. Even though there was little time left there was a jump in registrations among youth. In the Latino sections of the Mission Matt’s support was overwhelming, maybe as high as 80 percent. If there had only been enough time to bring Antonio Gonzalez and his organization to register Latinos and young people! The truth is that working people in general were becoming interested in Matt.
Matt combined elements that no other Green candidate possessed. He had credibility by being a high elected official. He succeeded in getting important legislation passed. His personality was charismatic and attractive to people. His character was flawless. What he lacked but was able to put together with amazing speed was an organizational structure.
The Greens were too weak. While there were certain specific reasons for this it was not anyone’s fault. With 15,000 members we should already have had local chapters in all the supervisory districts and a membership involvement at a much higher level. But that required an experienced leadership team and even more important, political clarity on our objectives. The problem was that two currents were passing through the Greens, slightly in conflict. Since the 2002 campaign for governor I had been obviously strongly pro labor. I had raised economic and racial stands not common in the party, in addition to the ecological positions more typical of Green candidates. The race issue was one of the most cutting edge, especially regarding three strikes and undocumented workers.
The positions I was advocating were popular among young Greens but they were not so well received by the more countercultural older generation. The base of those agreeing with the approach I was taking was organizationally much weaker than the more conservative wing, who were open to fusion with the Democrats, a current that clearly controlled the national leadership.
I remember in particular some Greens objecting to a joke I made on Channel 2 in an interview with Randy Shandobil where he asked me if I was a socialist. For a lot of reasons I would not answer that question, mainly because of the utter confusion it would create either way. Instead I said I was a “watermelon.” He asked me what do you mean and I said, Green on the outside and red on the inside. Most Greens didn’t seem to care one way or the other. The Green Party had people who called themselves socialists and others who very specifically did not. The party in its platform does not call itself socialist.
My two campaigns’ success made the Greens in California appear to the left of the Green Party nationally, probably more than it was. Many Greens were inspired by it. And it wasn’t just my campaign. That of Donna Warren added to this impact along with several of our other candidates.
Matt’s campaign was on another totally different level. If a third party even just the size of the Greens with a clearer leadership, platform, and organizational structure had existed, Matt’s campaign could have possibly opened up a different dynamic. This conflict would play itself out during the 2004 elections, which I will discuss in the next chapter.
In the primary many Greens felt Matt couldn’t win and they had to pick the best of the other progressives, primarily either Angela Alioto or Tom Ammiano. They felt he had not started soon enough. I was not too sure if he could win but, of course, along with most Greens I was supporting him. The reports coming in from Matt’s campaign were very hopeful, though the odds were against him.
Matt got a meeting hall for the primary that could fit about 500. It was at 111 Minna Street Gallery. When I got there the crowd was overflowing. I squeezed my way around to get a feel for it. The supporters were of all ages but a lot of youth. Suspense hung in the air, no one knew how this might turn out. When the votes started coming in, Newsom was way ahead but not near 50 percent to end the race. For the runoff position it was a bit back and forth but with Matt always either in first place or a close second. As the night wore on it was clear it would be a very close race. As time clicked away Matt developed a lead that gradually grew. The room went electric. People were amazed that the lowest funded, last entrant was going to make the runoff.
Newsom’s vote came in at 41.92% and Matt second at 19.57%. Even though this vote seemed very lopsided one has to remember that most of the other votes had gone to candidates that could shift to Matt.
I squeezed my way towards the front, since Matt was going to give a victory announcement. The excitement was tremendous. All I can remember that made such an impact on me was when he said, “Now you will hear a lot about me. I just want you to know none of it is true.” The applause for this statement was thundering. Everyone understood that Matt’s opponents — the corporate media, Newsom, Mayor Willie Brown — would want to talk about anything but the real issues. Willie Brown was quoted as saying, referring to Matt, “Too far left, out of touch, from outer space.” The media focus even got down to how Matt combed his hair.
Endorsements kept coming in to Matt’s campaign. One of the earliest had been the Bicycle Coalition, which has a large base. Matt was well known in the arts community and spontaneous efforts by fund raisers for him began to take place. Often no one even knew who was organizing it. The Deputy Sheriffs endorsed Matt by one vote. Greens, even from Germany, asked if they could come and help, but the campaign thanked them and said it was best if they didn’t. The campaign was already getting criticized because some volunteers were from Los Angeles and Santa Cruz.
Another rather remarkable aspect of the campaign was the posters issue. Matt took a policy not to place posters on telephone polls or anywhere where the people who actually worked or lived there had not placed it. All of Matt’s posters with few exceptions were in people’s homes or in small businesses on their windows. Newsom, with his millions to spend, had his posters everywhere else. But as I drove through the city I saw more posters for Matt than Newsom. I was stunned.
Art Agnos, a former mayor of San Francisco who served from 1988 to 1992, had become friends with Matt. He stepped forward and endorsed Matt. He put no pressure on Matt to alter his views, just said he preferred Matt for mayor. In fact he gave Matt five of his suits for his campaign. It was a joke in the office that Matt was trying to get the suits back into the mayor’s office. There were no famous people campaigning for Matt; the closest being ex mayor Agnos. The momentum was growing.
Matt described to me how one day a pollster came to tell him that they had just finished a poll to be published the next day that showed him in first place. The margin of difference was very small and the poll had to be considered a tie. This, of course, created a panic in the Newsom campaign. But even more revealing was the panic it created in the Democratic Party as an institution. Were they about to lose a Democratic Party fortress to a pro-labor independent, a Green? What message would this send across the nation? Wouldn’t this turn this charismatic leader, otherwise relatively unknown, into a national figure?
The most amazing events began to take place. Bill Clinton, the Democratic ex-president of the United States, took off three days from his schedule to come and campaign against Matt. The fear this reflected was astonishing. This should be a lesson to all progressives of the underlying power of a mass break for social change from the two parties. The fear that hit the Democrats was incredible in spite of their overwhelming power position, of money, organization, and control over the unions.
The Nader phenomena that they thought they had buried with their relentless “spoiler” campaign had now raised its head in a new place and manner. A city assumed to be completely controlled by the Democrats where a challenge had never even been considered a possibility was in play to a Nader supporter. Matt was on the verge of beating a candidate backed by millions of dollars with a unified business community behind him endorsed by the famous mayor, Willie Brown, and all the national and state elected officials of the party — and the Republicans to boot.
Quickly following Clinton was Al Gore, the former vice president, who came to plead with the Democrats to stand fast behind their party nominee, who had been on George Bush’s voter card in the 2000 election. He failed to point out that Newsom was also the nominee of the Republican Party. Did Gore or Clinton argue on the issues? Of course not. All they argued was for Democrats to stay loyal to their party. Jesse Jackson was next in line, making robo calls urging a vote for Newsom. Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein, of course, got in the act. Here was a clear class line up. San Francisco Republicans and Democrats combined, with the Democrats reaching for their biggest names to try and stop an unknown Green Latino from becoming a pro-labor mayor of a major U.S. city.
The Labor Movement
The AFL-CIO in San Francisco understood perfectly that this electoral fight was between a pro-business and a pro-labor candidate. They also knew that if they dared break with the Democratic machine it would create in-fighting within the unions, as the Democratic machine would go to work to eliminate the rebels for not staying behind their pro-corporate party.
It is my understanding that they waivered a little bit but decided to play it safe, figuring in the end Newsom would win anyway. They decided to just continue in their submissive role to the Democrats. Today they know very well they threw an election that could have brought labor to power in San Francisco and changed the dynamic of the city as well as set an example for others. The present union leadership was not willing to dare to win.
Matt felt terrible that after fighting for so many of these unions they closed the door on him. Here he was fighting for the highest minimum wage in the country and opposed by the leadership of the unions. One union stood up for Matt: Local 2, which represents the hotel workers and other primarily Latino workers. They not only backed Matt in the mayoral race but when the great struggles broke out a couple of years later around the rights of the undocumented, Local 2 made its offices available for meetings and threw its support to the movement.
Sadly, Matt had hoped for the endorsement of the Janitors. He had marched with them and helped them at every turn. They capitulated and endorsed Newsom.
I Speak for Matt
During the campaign I rarely spoke at any of Matt’s meetings. Near the end, soon after the recall race had ended in early October, he asked me to come and speak with him. There was one meeting which I believe was very symbolic. It was primarily of young people, numbering about 500. I heard supervisors Aaron Peskin, Chris Daly, and Jake McGoldrick. Their talks were really quite good and clear. They posed the main issues for the city and urged a vote for Matt. They all received strong support from the youth.
Just before Matt was to speak he told the moderator to put me on for five minutes. As I rose to speak there was an ovation. I gave a five minute talk. I can’t remember exactly what I said except it was my usual, combining politics with history and the commitment to be true to yourself. I raised the idea of values greater than who will win this race, and spoke to the meaning of Matt Gonzalez as a person and what he represented. When I finished two things happened. One, I got a long standing ovation. It was as though the youth were saying this is what we believe, this is what we want. Then all three of the supervisors who had just spoken ran up one at a time to hug me.
To some this might appear as the progressive Democratic supervisors seeing the audience response and deciding to be seen associating with me. I don’t think so. I think deep down they actually agreed and all three felt moved and wanted to thank me for having the courage to always speak out the full truth before us. It was a great moment of joy for me and I have had only the most positive feelings for all three of them.
Once when we were driving to a meeting Matt said to me, “Peter, stop wavering on whether I can win. You’ve got to make it clear we can win.” I remember saying, “Yes, okay.” I always have felt it important to prepare people that we might lose or that our vote will be lower than expected, especially when the spoiler factor enters the picture. But Matt was totally right on this, we could win and it would make a real difference.
There was only one televised debate in the runoff. Even though the polls were now even, the Newsom people, having far more money to run TV ads, did not want to agree to TV debates. I have noticed this my whole life. Get a Democratic or Republican candidate with an advantage in the polls or in money and they don’t want the people to hear first hand the other candidates. They start backing out of debates with one excuse or other.
Newsom tried to focus on doing something about panhandling, an issue that can be approached from two angles, those suffering from utter poverty or those molested by the endless requests for funds on the streets. Whose votes Newsom wanted was pretty transparent and it wasn’t the panhandlers. These issues of homelessness and extreme poverty are not easily dealt with. They interrelate often with unemployment, mental illness, drug addiction, lack of education, depression, and are not easily solved. Newsom, knowing there was a desire by higher income voters to see the beggars removed, played it as a major focus, promising all would be done in a humane and helpful manner. He proposed taking away from the homeless what little funds they received from the city in return for a promise of services. When the supervisors pushed him to agree to specific services he refused.
By making this his main focus he could avoid dealing with other major pressing issues for the people of San Francisco, such as the impossible cost of housing for working people, the drop in educational services, the long-standing decline in the minimum wage, and an endless list of others vital to the average San Francisco citizen.
Matt tried to raise a balanced approach to the problems confronting the city, including homelessness but also the tax structure favoring the rich, which undermined education and other desperately needed city programs. His approach laid out a strategy that began with the needs of the average San Francisco worker, not just for the upper income sectors.
This undoubtedly is why Matt polled the lowest, down to about 20 percent, in the wealthiest districts of the city while polling the highest in the poorest areas such as the Mission. The campaign was really between two exactly opposite approaches. One candidate was for working people and one for corporate interests and the well off. People in the middle, often impacted by the pro-business media, were influenced to vote for Newsom. More educated and progressive minded people sided with Matt, along with working people and youth.
The working poor tend in large part not to be registered or the election would have been a landslide for Matt. Also the Democrats steal some votes, though the total numbers are unknown. In this race several examples appeared where low-paid workers were marched to the polls and told to vote for Newsom or lose their part-time jobs for or brokered by the city.
The dead who manage to vote, of course, vote Democrat, a long tradition in San Francisco. No one ends up going to jail for these abuses nor did Newsom demand an investigation and attempt to prosecute the people involved. After the elections I asked Matt if we should pursue these issues and he thought it was best not to try because the vote gap was too large for us to make the case we could close it over voter fraud.
In the one debate Matt’s thought out and charismatic presentations won people over. It was the relentless pounding of radio and TV ads, due to Newsom’s financial superiority and backing in the media, that allowed him to introduce confusion on Matt’s positions and win some votes. But in the end Newsom failed. On the day of the election he lost the majority of registered Democrats by a small margin to Matt, a stunning defeat.
One issue Newsom tried to throw against Matt was the office he rented and his endorsement by Walter Wong, a conservative head of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Wong was not happy with Newsom and liked Matt even though he knew Matt might oppose him on many issues. Wong rented Matt’s huge office to him at market rate. Matt was also endorsed by Joe O’Donahue from the Residential Builders’ Association. O’Donahue had supported Alioto in the general election, then Matt Gonzalez in the runoff. Wong backed Matt in both rounds. Even though Matt had voted against legislation supported by both of these men they didn’t trust Newsom and preferred Matt. Wong did so in part because he knew Matt would defend immigrants. Wong had supported Agnos in the past.
Newsom had a different arrangement on his office. He got a free office, which he paid for after the elections to cover himself. He received help from Julie Lee, who in July 2008 was convicted of five charges of mail fraud and witness tampering for funneling illegal contributions to Democrat Kevin Shelley’s 2002 campaign for California Secretary of State. Kevin, who I personally liked and would never have thought could do something of this nature, had to resign. The scandal did not touch Newsom. But Newsom enjoyed accusing Matt of accepting help from slumlords. That is, “slumlords,” according to Newsom, who in fact Newsom had begged to endorse him on various occasions.
Final Vote, December 9, 2003
I arrived about 9:00 pm to Matt’s headquarters the night of the election. I had to park many blocks away near Mission Street. As I walked towards the office I saw hundreds of youths come pouring out chanting “Matt Gonzalez!” and other slogans. They had so much energy they couldn’t stand waiting for the results and ran outside to stage an impromptu demonstration.
As I entered the campaign headquarters I was impressed to see how packed it was. I sat around talking to people and noting the intensity in the room. I left Matt alone, as he was busy with media and all kinds of things. I could feel the tension. Could we win? Everyone was hoping they were about to witness a great moment in the history of San Francisco and, really, the nation.
That evening, believe it or not, we won; more people voted for Matt than Newsom. But the early mail votes, especially an 80% landslide from the Republicans, tipped the scale so that when all the votes were counted we lost. Newsom received 133,546 votes to Matt’s 119,329 or 52.8% to 47.2%. The Republicans elected Newsom. All other sectors voted in their majority for Matt.
All around me people were crying. I mean literally crying, both men and women of all ages. I was actually overjoyed. I couldn’t believe we could do this well against all the odds. I was sitting alone thinking, what does this mean? I tried to tell a few people, “We did great.” It was useless. The moment was too deep. Soon it got to me and I felt tears coming, not so much that we had lost but what it could have meant if we had won.
No one left. They all wanted to wait for Matt to speak. We started a rally where the audience was so packed they couldn’t move. Young people had climbed up the walls or wherever they could to see. One after another leaders of the campaign spoke, including former Mayor Agnos, the supervisors, and many others. All spoke briefly. I had no plans to say anything. I had on a leather jacket I wouldn’t have worn if I was going to speak. But as the list of speakers was ending Matt looked around and saw me and waved at me, asking the moderator to call me to the front.
I tried to say we had won. This was a victory for our movement and the battle has only begun. I can’t remember well whatever else but Matt kids me about it and claims I said “We start tomorrow to continue this struggle.”
Finally Matt rose to speak. The ovation was overwhelming. He thanked all those who had worked for him and stated so beautifully how this was a campaign of the people of San Francisco for a new beginning. He talked in his carefully measured way. The response was immense, between tears. People were cheering him for having come so close to writing a chapter in American history at a time no one believed it could be possible.
The truth is Matt did write a chapter. He showed what could happen. Although this was in San Francisco and only an electoral rebellion, it was possible. The power of money over people will not rule forever, and with courage, commitment, and mass action, thoughtful action, the people can change this world. For a moment San Francisco showed what was possible. This campaign will go down in the history of the city and our nation as a flash of lighting of what will come in time.
I gave a lot of people hugs, especially Matt, and went home quite late, my mind tormented over what I had witnessed.
After a few days Matt called me and said, “Come have dinner with me.” I met him near where he lived and we went out to talk about what would happen now. He came right to the point, surprising me when he said, “I’m not going to run again for the Board of Supervisors.” I wasn’t expecting this at all. My first reaction was, “Why?”
It took me a while to get it. He pointed out to me that he was now so popular that he represented a threat. The media, the union leaders, all the major institutional structures were ready to try to destroy his popularity and high standing with the people, which they were already starting to do by monitoring every piece of legislation he worked on and keeping track of meetings he was holding in city hall. One example: Matt called a meeting of taxi cab companies and drivers to discuss the taxi industry. The next day Newsom announced a “blue ribbon commission” to investigate taxi matters. It came as a total surpise to the people Matt was meeting with and it was obviously rushed to undermine his efforts. The blue ribbon commission never met.
His establishment opponents would do it slowly. The Chronicle would start criticizing this and that, the TV stations would try to run little snippets of negative news on him, etc. But if he stepped down, after a first wave of surprise they couldn’t touch his popularity. When the right moment came we could move on what we had built.
Slowly I began to understand. Matt Gonzalez is one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. Period. That evening as we walked from the restaurant to his place practically everyone on the way would stop to say something, almost always totally supportive. For a long time, even today some five years later, when Matt and I walk down the streets in San Francisco, especially in the Mission, people wave at him and still thank him. As a joke I would often say to people, “Hey, what about me? I ran for governor!” More often than not they will laugh and give me a hug.
To this day Matt and I will walk into restaurants and the waiters refuse to charge us. Matt’s standing is still there; he was right. The moment has not come yet. We have talked of some possibilities but haven’t found the right one. For a period reporters would call me asking if I knew what his next move was. All I say is, he will win.
As an appendix we have included the short concession speech Matt made that evening.