Whither the special city?

Posted: Nov 03, 2003 12:00 AM

It's funny how many San Franciscans opposed the gubernatorial recall election because, they agued, it made California a national laughingstock. I guess they haven't noticed: San Francisco is worse than a laughingstock; it is the stuff of tourists' homeless horror stories, a city where residents equate Market Street with squalor.

In Tuesday's mayoral election, city voters will have a chance to vote for change, but will they? Reports suggest a majority of voters may vote for one of the so-called progressive candidates -- Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Matt Gonzalez, attorney Angela Alioto and City Treasurer Susan Leal -- whose political positions have helped make the Special City a haven for vagrants.

Even if the only candidate who offers any hope of staunching the city's steady decline wins the most votes -- I refer to Supervisor Gavin Newsom -- there will be a runoff race in December if he draws fewer than 50 percent. And if Newsom does not win with a resounding majority in December, he will have no mandate for change.

What gives with San Francisco voters? Time and again, they vote in favor of measures to remedy the city's super-sized homelessness -- and then vote for politicians who undermine them.

Last year, a whopping 60 percent of voters went for the Newsom's "Care Not Cash" measure, which would cut the amount of cash the city gives to homeless welfare recipients (up to $410) so that more cash would go to provide the homeless with housing and services.

When a court decision overturned Proposition N, the supervisors failed to pass a law upholding the voters' will. Why? Because, it was clear, City Hall's so-called progressives feared the wrath of homeless advocates far more than the wrath of taxpayers and voters.

"I actually think the city is incredibly divided on homeless people,'' explained pollster David Binder, who conducted polls for Proposition N. San Franciscans "continue to vote on homeless measures, yet people react negatively to anything they see as too law-enforcement oriented."

Let me stipulate: The city should provide more care for the mentally ill living on the street, as well as services to help those battling addiction. There's nothing humane about letting mentally ill people deteriorate on city sidewalks.

But all the services in the world won't help people who are "homeless by choice." I am talking about people who have no desire to kick their habits and prefer to sleep on the street or doorsteps than stay in a shelter.

According to city welfare chief Trent Rhorer, city outreach statistics show that for every 100 contacts with the city's homeless, 95 percent refuse services. Which is why voters approved "Care Not Cash.''

When voters support "Care Not Cash'' obstructionists -- Alioto, Ammiano, Gonzalez and Leal -- they lead City Hall politicians to believe the electorate is not serious.

Binder has a nicer way of looking at what I see as schizoid voting. "Sometimes we overlook the pragmatic center of San Francisco," Binder noted, referring to less ideological voters "who generally have the votes to swing the balance of power from one side to another. They just want a city that works, and they want to be proud of their city."

Fine, but if the voters are angry at the advance of squalor downtown and in the neighborhoods, and if they want action, they won't get what they want by sending mixed messages that tell "progressives" they can keep stonewalling.

In politics, only strong numbers talk. Look at what happened after Arnold Schwarzenegger's solid victory at the polls. When it looked as if he might just squeak into office, Sacramento Democrats were ready to pounce on the new governor. Then, when the numbers proved to be so great that savvy partisans were forced to admit that voters were rejecting politics as usual, they began tripping over each other in their eagerness to show they got the message.

San Francisco is a beautiful city. There is no excuse for the rancid smells. There's no excuse for letting sick people degrade themselves and the streets they inhabit.

Yet there would be no need for excuses if voters didn't repeatedly vote against their own wishes. So, if San Franciscans don't strongly back Gavin Newsom, the man with the plan, maybe they're not serious about cleaning up their city.