Are S.F. voters serious?

Posted: Dec 04, 2003 12:00 AM

"One of the things that I've really realized was that the work I was doing as a public defender is in many ways extended in my work as a legislator," San Francisco Board of Supervisors President and mayoral wannabe Matt Gonzalez explained during Tuesday's televised debate with rival Supervisor Gavin Newsom. "As a public defender, I was sort of representing one person at a time, people with mental health issues, poverty issues, housing problems. Now, as a legislator, I try to impact that so there are less people that end up at the Hall of Justice."

Of course a public defender should be an advocate for indigent defendants. But in a position that is supposed to represent the city's overall best interests, Gonzalez instead is the boss defender of lowlifes. Oh joy.

And he has used his position to thwart the will of San Francisco voters -- working taxpayers who, by 60 percent, supported Newsom's "Care not Cash" homeless initiative in November 2002. The measure was supposed to cut general assistance cash grants to homeless recipients who receive shelter, food and other services. It passed because city voters came to realize that giving as much as $410 a month to substance abusers is neither compassionate nor effective. The city would do better to steer homeless welfare recipients into shelters and, better yet, rehab or other programs.

But thanks to Gonzalez-think, "Care not Cash" didn't happen. A judge ruled that only the board could write homeless policy. Newsom tried to get the board to approve an identical measure, but Gonzalez was key in defeating it.

As Gonzalez said in the debate, he doesn't believe in cutting benefits for street people who would only get a "cot in the room." But if cots in shelters aren't good enough for the homeless, why fund them at all?

Gonzalez railed against "root causes" that turn people into panhandlers. His remedy: a higher minimum wage, which means he has no prescription for people who don't want real help and don't want to work -- other than to keep giving them cash so they can foul themselves and the Special City.

Homeless advocate Randy Shaw wrote in the San Francisco Sentinel, "If the 2003 mayor's race focused on homelessness, as it did in 1991, Gavin Newsom would win."

So the question is: Are S.F. voters serious enough to elect Newsom, the only city politician to take on the city's homeless establishment?

I talked with a few undecided voters before the debate, and some clearly were sidetracked. "Care not Cash" passed a year ago, one man said, but it didn't improve city streets (because the supervisors stonewalled it). Some voters were turned off when Mayor Willie Brown -- a Newsom backer -- said that Gonzalez has "some kind of defect in his head that makes him believe African Americans aren't qualified." (But that rant reflects reflect poorly on Brown, not Newsom.) Former Supervisor Angela Alioto's endorsement of Newsom -- with her statement that Newsom discussed making her something like a "vice mayor" -- hurt Newsom.

OK, so what is more embarrassing: Da Mayor's big mouth or the gantlet of crude panhandlers lining Market Street? What is more damaging to the city's reputation: Newsom cozying up to Alioto or citizens holding their noses to avoid the stench as they walk downtown?

Others say Newsom's too slick, too tailored, too scripted -- his persona violates the city's bohemian conceits.

I wonder. Is the Special City's reverence for nonconformity so strong that voters are willing to say that if someone defecates on their doorstep that's OK because the homeless should have choices while taxpayers have none?