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District 8: Under the rainbow

By Betsey Culp

History hangs heavy over District 8, like the fog that obscures the terrain of its western boundary on top of Twin Peaks. The district resembles an old-fashioned reversible doll. Pull the skirt in one direction, and you have pretty little Red Riding Hood; pull it the other way, and out pops the wolf in Granny’s clothing. Both images are so powerful that it’s hard to see past them to the reality of today.

On the one hand, the district carries memories of families and simple pleasures. Former residents like Eileen Collins Spiers, who moved away in 1970, remember the neighborhood as a child’s paradise. In this month’s Noe Valley Voice, Spiers recalls picnics in Douglass Park, baseball at the intersection of Noe and Alvarado, and terrifying motorcycle rides up the 22nd Street hill. “The freedom we city kids had, even during the rebellious 1960s, is unknown today. We were free to explore our neighborhood and interact with its residents as though it were an extension of our own back yard.”

On the other hand, it serves as a symbol of the hard knocks this city sometimes delivers to its citizens. May 21, 1979 ­­provides just one instance. On that night hundreds of people poured into the streets to protest the picayune seven-year sentence imposed on the murderer of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, and the police retaliated.

Let the Castro’s “Uncle Donald” tell what happened.  “They gathered at Market and started moving the crowd down toward 18th. We were in no mood to comply. Many of them weren’t wearing badges and name tags! They came to our neighborhood to get even. They formed a line and moved us half way down the block…. People came from every direction to join the resistance and we moved the invading forces right back up to the corner. They appeared to be leaving but they somehow regrouped at the corner of 18th and Castro. We stood and watched as they marched into the Elephant Walk, smashing windows, doors, tables, chairs, bottles, and people’s heads.”

Today there’s a fierce campaign being fought to decide who will represent District 8 on the Board of Supervisors. It can’t be lost on anyone here that the winner will be following in Harvey Milk’s footsteps. And that one reason for the demise of the previous district election system was the jolt to political optimism that accompanied his death.

But more than twenty years have passed since the White Night riots. A lot has happened, to the city and to the district.

 Here’s a quick tour, just the facts. District 8 covers the area from Duboce to Bosworth, from Twin Peaks to Guerrero. In general, its residents are white (71 percent, compared to 47 percent citywide), middle-aged, well educated, and progressive.  They live in what David Binder identifies as six neighborhoods: Noe Valley, Diamond Heights, and Glen Park, Twin Peaks/Corona Heights, Duboce/Reverse Triangle, and Castro/Dolores Heights.

On misty nights a visitor might almost imagine that Eileen Collins Spiers is still careening down Noe on a slick piece of cardboard, with a Red Riding Hood doll peeking out of her pocket. This is still a district of well-maintained houses and small shops. It’s not surprising that the battle against the construction of  “monster homes” was launched from Noe Valley. That the Castro led the fight against invasive chain stores. Or that the incumbent supervisor from this district, Mark Leno, identifies himself as a small businessman. 

But the wolf is never out of sight in District 8. The wolf is queer. In a city where 11 percent of all likely voters identify themselves as gay, bisexual, or other, this district as a whole comes in with 30 percent. Only tiny Glen Park falls below the citywide average, with 9 percent. And Deboce/Reverse Triangle, Castro/Dolores Heights, Twin Peaks/Corona Heights weigh in with close to 40 percent each.

This one characteristic colors the district’s entire political stance, for many voters refract every issue through a prism of gay-bashing, discrimination, AIDS, and LGBT civil rights. Most of the candidates for supervisor have been active in gay-related, and particularly HIV/STD-related, causes. Two of Leno’s pet projects as supervisor have been the creation of a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center at 1800 Market Street and the institution of a medical cannabis ID program. Eileen Hansen is public policy director of the AIDS Legal Referral Panel.  Shawn O’Hearn works in the City College of San Francisco HIV/STD Education Office and writes on gay issues for Magnus magazine. Gary Virginia, who has been diagnosed with AIDS, serves on the board of directors of an HIV/AIDS services nonprofit and writes the leather column for Frontiers magazine.

As you might expect from a district with this kind of profile, the complete roster of six is a smart, savvy lot.


For starters, there’s the mysterious Scott Bingham, self-described as the CEO of an Internet company. Bingham refuses to attend debates sponsored by “special interest groups” because he wants to represent “all people.” He dreams of creating an Internet-enabled direct democracy where his constituents can express their opinions. “My primary task as supervisor would be to tally the votes (informal opinions of the residents) every week — then go to the board meetings and vote according to the majority will.” This cipher is hard to pin down, but he does express one opinion on the DemocracyNet website (dnet.org): “ If elected, I will work to the bone to end women suffrage. I think most women will agree that this has been going on too long. Now is the time to end the terrible suffrage of women.”

In contrast, James Green is earnest and concerned. This San Francisco native and Fire Department paramedic speaks openly of his political inexperience, but he’s put together a host of positions on everything from domestic partner benefits (he’s for them) to dot.coms (ditto). A maverick in the progressive center of the city, he describes himself as a fiscal conservative.

Gary Virginia leans left, dubbing himself “The People’s Choice.” Also a newcomer to the campaign circuit, he has made a name for himself as a fundraiser and local activist. Staunchly independent, Virginia was one of the first candidates to take a stand against soft money. His program includes the establishment of a nonprofit district in a “safe zone” along Market Street and the creation of an LGBT history museum within the now-in-the-works Harvey Milk Plaza.

Shawn O’Hearn ran for supervisor in 1996 and 1998, spending less than $1,000 in each race. He was elected in March to the Democratic County Central Committee, not — he says proudly — by spending and endorsements, but going door to door and talking to residents. He joins a number of progressive candidates throughout San Francisco in asking why a 49-square-mile city with a $4.4 billion budget can’t solve some of its basic problems. Like many of these candidates, he advocates increased neighborhood participation in the political process.

Eileen Hansen is Tom Ammiano’s candidate in District 8. Hansen has a long history of labor and community organizing all over the country and prides herself on her negotiating skills. In manner, she’s forceful and determined, preaching what may be described as the Alice Waters school of political action — “Bring everybody to the table.”

Hansen is usually portrayed as the main challenger to Mark Leno, Our Mayor’s appointee to the board of supervisors. Leno is of course running on his record, but he’s also doing his best these days to enforce his image as an independent legislator. He’s had a little help from his enemies: his attacks on monster homes have earned him the hostility of Brown ally and Residential Builders Association head, Joe O’Donoghue.        By most accounts, he’s been an accessible and engaged representative of the community, as even his detractors acknowledge. It’s hard for an outsider to gauge their criticisms, which often seem to amount to a chorus of “Anything you can do, I can do better.”

One of the unrecognized problems for District 8 in this election is what to do with an aging wolf. In other parts of the world, the Castro may be a symbol of gay liberation, but here it’s your father’s Oldsmobile. In Deboce/Reverse Triangle, a new generation of gay men has arrived, with different perspectives and more offbeat lifestyles. The skills and lessons learned over the past twenty years, which spawned a host of able politicians, may no longer apply.