2004 First Place Writing Winner

In their own words…

“I was sitting at a fast food restaurant in Ames, Iowa last April when my cell phone rang. “This is Jan Watten from the Hearst Foundation, do you have a minute to talk,” she asked. “That depends,” I replied, “Do you have good news?” To my joy and amazement, Jan had great news. I was going to San Francisco.

Once there, I met fascinating people who shared interesting stories, and I found that the skills I have learned work just as well 2,000 miles away as they do in the Midwest. I also discovered how amazing it feels to be surrounded by people your own age who are just as passionate as you, and who, on a different day or with a different assignment could have won just as easily.”

News Story

San Francisco’s only Green Party supervisor expressed reservations Friday morning about Ralph Nader’s campaign for president.

Speaking to a group of about 20 students, journalists and university officials in town for the Hearst National Writing Championship, Boards of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez said that it’s time for other candidates beside the 70-year-old consumer advocate to challenge the two parties.

“I’m not that enthusiastic about his campaign primarily because I think we’ve already been there a couple of times,” he said, referring to Nader’s bids as the Green candidate in 1996 and 2000./ “I would like to see somebody else run.”

Gonzalez said he would favor activist and former California gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo, though he added that he might change his mind if Nader , now running as an independent, starts pushing more policies Gonzalez supports.

One of those policies is instant-runoff voting, also known as rank-choice voting. In an instant-runoff system, voters rank their choices of candidates instead of picking just one. The two candidates with the most first-place votes advance, and voters who picked anyone else have their votes assigned to whichever of the two remaining candidates they ranked highest.

This system would allow third-party candidates to run without “spoiling” elections for the major-party candidates they favor, Gonzalez said. He blasted Democrats for only blaming Nader for their loss in the 2000 election and not trying to change the system.

“The Democratic Party has spent three years not working for this reform,” he said.

San Francisco voters passed a measure in 2002 that will take effect this year, mandating instant runoff voting in municipal elections.

Gonzalez also voiced support Friday for allowing non-citizens in San Francisco to vote in local elections, citing the centuries-old American value of “no taxation without representation.”

The U.S. Constitution’s silence on the matter should be taken as a sign that states and cities can make their own rules about whether non-citizens can vote, Gonzalez said. If a majority of supervisors support the idea, it would go before the voters of San Francisco for a final decision.

Allowing non-citizens voting was one of the key items on Gonzalez’s platform when he ran for mayor last year. Though he lost a December runoff with Gavin Newsom, 53 percent to 47 percent, Gonzalez said his strong showing has given the more moderate Newsom the ability to take progressive stances without alienating some of his conservative supporters.

“He’s really able to look at them and say, ‘Would you have preferred Gonzalez?’ None of them are going to answer ‘yes’ to that question,” he said. “If my role in the mayor’s race was simply giving him that cover, then I’m glad to do it.”

The failed attempt at the mayor’s office will be his last election for a while, Gonzalez said. He will not run for a second term and said he will return to his former profession as a lawyer before considering other political posts.

“The Green Party has always seen as one of its values the idea of the citizen politician,” Gonzalez said, “somebody who’s willing to be in and out of politics rather than seeing it as a professional career.”

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Personality/Profile Article

His hair is long, but not so long as the scraggly gray beard covering part of a T-shirt that reads, “People are entitled to know what’s in their food. We want labeling on genetically modified food.”

Standing in the Board of Supervisors chamber in San Francisco’s City Hall, Jim Dorenkott isn’t your ordinary political aide. Then again, Dorenkott’s boss, Board President, Matt Gonzalez, isn’t your ordinary politician.

After all, how many other leaders in American government proudly cite Marx as a defining influence? Or switched from a major party (Democratic) to a minor one (Green) between a general election and a runoff? Or think that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom-you know, the one who got all that national attention for allowing gay marriages-really needs to become more progressive?

Sure, this is San Francisco, where conservatives have about as much success as a pitcher throwing a fastball to Barry Bonds. But even against this liberal backdrop, Gonzalez stands out, his unabashed support for workers, immigrants and minorities making him the latest darling of the left.

And he’s not about to apologize for it.

“I’m perfectly comfortable with the label of progressive or discussing Marxism or something like that,” he says. “I’m not a Marxist or a communist or anything like that. But I do see incredible shortcomings in American democracy.”

His devotion to progressive causes helped him garner 47 percent of the vote in a mayoral runoff election against Newsom in December and nearly allowed him to become the first Green Party mayor of a major U.S. city. His supporters cite his unwavering commitment to that in which he believes as one of his great strengths.

“He’s someone who believes in equal justice for all,” says Victor Marquez, vice president of the nonprofit San Francisco Tomorrow, which lobbies on environmental and space-planning issues and endorsed Gonzalez in the mayoral race. “He’s someone who’s not afraid to tell the truth and speak the truth.”

It’s an approach Gonzalez, born in Texas in 1965, says he learned from his days in college at Columbia University in New York and law school at Stanford.

At Columbia, the egalitarian political theories of Karl Marx spoke to him. At Stanford, he says he studied case after case in which the judges interpreted laws in favor of large corporations at the expense of ordinary people.

“What’s not being spoken about is the other reality,” he says. “You’ve got judges who have donor lists during their campaigns who are heavily influenced by certain interest.”

After graduating from Stanford in 1990, Gonzalez became a public defender. He failed in 1999 in his first attempt to become a supervisor but came back in 2000 and defeated Juanita Owens for the District 5 position, despite switching parties between the November general election and the December runoff.

He says he decided to make the switch after attending a rally outside a U.S. Senate debate in San Francisco. The major parties had kept the Green Party candidate from participating and exclusion that incensed Gonzalez and, he says, revealed some of the inconsistencies in the Democrat’s message.

“For me it kind of all came together,” he says, “And I realized I didn’t want to be a member of a party that didn’t want to debate other parties.”

So while he firmly backs Newsom, widely seen as an extremely progressive democrat, for allowing gay marriages, he also notes the mayor’s opposition to raising the city’s minimum wage to $8.50 as a sign that he doesn’t support San Francisco’s working class. Gonzalez also opposes Newsom’s “Care Not Cash” policy, which aims to provide more housing for the homeless while giving them less money.

For their part, Newsom supporters say they respect Gonzalez but also recognize the need to compromise and appease different interests.

“Obviously…it was a very heated race,” says Mishana Hosseinioun, who works in the mayors press office. “[Newsom] is trying his very best to do what is best for everyone.”

Hosseinioun adds that the mayor is trying to reach out to Gonzalez supporters by supporting gay marriage and convening a 33-person panel that will develop a plan to end chronic homelessness in the city within 10 years.

It’s those sorts of progressive actions that convince Gonzalez his campaign for mayor and his progressive values still are having an impact.

And it’s Gonzalez’s dedication to standing by those values that makes volunteering as an unofficial third aide worthwhile, Dorenkott says. “It’s just kind of an honor to be serving this guy.”

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Spot News

Like many hard-working San Franciscans, Gerardo woke up early Thursday morning, arrived at his place o business before 8 a.m. and hung out with his co-workers.

He needed only two things to make his morning complete: a job and a home.

An undocumented worker based in San Francisco’s Mission District, Gerardo, who declined to give his last name, sleeps in his car and spends each day waiting on the corner of Cesar Chavez and Bartlett streets. He sits on a milk crate or chair, hoping that someone will drive by and hire him to work on a construction or painting project.

With a city panel set to release a plan in the next month to eradicate chronic homelessness in San Francisco, Gerardo and his fellow day laborers in the Mission are putting a new face on the homeless problem, that of the working Latino man with no drug dependency or mental illness.

At Dolores Street Community Services on Valencia Street, hundred os such men come each day to seek various services, said Javier Matos, a development assistant who puts out the organization’s newsletter. Almost all of those the group serves come from the Mission, with more that 100 living in four temporary housing locations that the independent nonprofit runs in the neighborhood.

But neither Gerardo nor fellow day laborer Manuel Lopez stays in these shelters. Gerardo said he would head back to his car at 5 or 6 p.m., while Lopez said he would spend the night “debajo del Puente”-under the bridge.

Work has become sparse for these men lately. The contractors know where to find them, but with workers dotting street corners on Cesar Chavez throughout the neighborhood, competition for the $10-15 an hour jobs are fierce. More often than not, the men at Cesar Chavez and Bartlett leave work without working.

“It’s too little jobs for too much people,” explains Gerardo, 38, his scraggly brown hair sticking out from the bottom of his winter hat.

The day laborers accept jobs American workers won’t take, such as lifting objects so heavy they hurt their backs. But at the end of the day, they don’t have enough money-or legal standing-to find a place to live.

Homelessness didn’t used to be such a problem for the Latino community, Matos said. But as more undocumented workers moved into the Mission, they struggled to find housing because of legal barriers. And as the immigrant families stayed longer in the United States, the bonds that used to hold them together began to come undone.

“It’s becoming more of an issue as Latino culture becomes more westernized,” Matos said.

He is concerned that, though the Latino homeless problem in the Mission seems to be getting worse-the city has no reliable statistics to confirm or refute this-few in positions of power are taking notice.

Jesus Medellin, assistant director of Housing Not Borders, which also primarily serves homeless Latinos, had similar concerns. He said with mayor Gavin Newsom’s “Care Not Cash” plan going into effect, fewer shelter spaces would be available for Latino homeless people, including undocumented workers.

“We have never been asked what we think,” Medellin said. “You only see politicians come to the people when there’ an election.”

Newsom has taken several steps to address the city’s homeless problem generally. In March, he appointed 33 local politicians activists and experts to a panel that will examine how to end chronic homelessness in San Francisco in the next 10 years. The mayor set a June 30 deadline for the panel to complete its work. President Bush has urged America’s mayors in early to come up with 10-year plans to eliminate permanent homelessness and pledged incentives to those that do.

But undocumented workers in the Mission might not benefit from this planning as much as other groups. For one thing, they could be barred from places receiving federal funding because they are not legal residents. Also, Medellin said, many undocumented workers don’t want to provide fingerprints to shelters, which some require, for fear of being turned in to immigration authorities.

Matos said he also worries that the focus on chronic homelessness will lead politicians to forget those, like most of the Mission’s day laborers, who don’t fulfill the homeless stereotypes of having mental illnesses and drug addictions.

“Those that don’t fit that definition of homelessness,” he said, “are going to fall through the cracks.”

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