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This spring's race for assessor, which pits former supervisors Dick Hongisto and Mabel Teng against incumbent Doris Ward, promises to be heated. Here is an introduction to one of the candidates. Others will follow.

Assessing Hongisto

Supervisor Matt Gonzalez interviews Assessor Candidate Dick Hongisto

MG: Dick, before we get into the Assessor’s race, I think we should talk about your past and specifically some of the things that seem to have gotten you in trouble.

RH: OK, I’d like to because there’s a lot of misinformation out there about who I am and the progressive causes I’ve fought for.

MG: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you become a police officer and first get into politics?

RH: You’ll probably find this surprising, but after I graduated from high school, at Washington H.S. here in the city, I wanted to become a secondary school teacher. Being from a blue-collar family, I had to work my way through college at San Francisco State. To do that, I looked for the best paying night job I could find, which at that time was with the police department. It was such a different world then of the 1,800 police officers in the department, 27 were African-American, about 3 were Asians, and there were only a handful of women working at the juvenile detail to process crimes involving teenage girls that was in 1960. There was an unspoken rule that gays and lesbians were frozen out of the department. And all people of color, frankly, were discouraged from employment. If they did apply, the department would use different parts of the screening process, such as background investigations, or medical examinations, to find excuses to block their hiring.

As a person studying philosophy and sociology, I was being trained to question almost everything and to understand the prejudices and irrationality of some aspects of American culture racial discrimination; sexual orientation discrimination; size, age, height, and weight discrimination. I started to question why women or gay people couldn’t be police officers, and why there were so few Asians in the department, and so few African Americans. I challenged the idea that you needed to be 21-35 years of age to join, or that you needed to be a minimum of 5' 9" tall. As a result of my questioning these standards I also rebelled against a lot of the common vulgarity and everyday speech used in the department. I started to demand that people around me stop using the “n” word. Pretty soon I found myself surrounded almost every day by other officers who would harass me about my views. To counter the bigotry in the department, I started to organize other police officers who had any glimmer of hope of looking at some of these issues, especially the racial issue, as I did. I held meetings this was in 1965 and started the nucleus of what finally became Officers For Justice, an African-American police officers association. I was pretty conspicuous in the group as the only white guy. I was delighted when in 1968 my friend Henry Williams was chosen as the first president and we finally achieved official recognition from the department.

Through this process I became extremely disliked in the department by my peers and was considered a communist. I had also been advocating the decriminalization of marijuana; at the time a single seed could get you sent to San Quentin for three years. I finally got into politics when my enthusiasm for progressive social change turned to jail reform. So in 1971 I ran for sheriff and defeated the incumbent Mathew Carberry. My sole intent was to reform the San Francisco jails.

MG: What kind of sheriff were you? Did you pursue the types of reform you had as a police officer?

RH: Absolutely. I was the most progressive law enforcement officer in the United States, with no close second. I hired women and minorities. I opened up the field of law enforcement by actively recruiting in the gay and lesbian community. I reformed the jails by improving living conditions, medical care, and rehabilitation programs, and I introduced vocational and G.E.D. programs in the jail. I built classrooms in the jails and had them staffed by teachers from the public school system and community college system. I created a jail library and band. I had Joan Baez sing a concert in the jail and with Bill Graham organized a concert at Winterland to raise money for inmate services. I even changed the sheriff’s badge by taking the seal of the city and county out of the middle of it, and putting in the peace symbol instead. Needless to say, it created a tremendous uproar from the right. At first, the badge maker refused to make the badge.

I also worked with legislators then-State Senator George Moscone, among others to change laws related to how jails are operated in California. And since I was in the doctoral program at the University of California, Berkeley, I was able to be on the cutting edge of the most progressive thought related to criminal justice in our society.

MG: Tell me what happened with the I-Hotel? What was that all about?

RH: The International Hotel was a smaller hotel housing a number of elderly Asians living on limited incomes. Many were Filipino. The building was a cornerstone of what was colloquially called “Manila Town.” It was owned by a multi-multi-millionaire Thai liquor mogul named Sapusit Mahaguna, who was hoping to tear down the hotel and build a hi-rise on the property. To me, the whole thing was disgusting. The idea of displacing hundreds of poor elderly pensioners and many that didn’t even have pensions so that a multi-multi-millionaire could make many more millions was just wrong. They had nowhere to go.

As the sheriff I was required to carry out the eviction, which I did not want to do. I met with Mayor Moscone and essentially conspired to delay the eviction so that the city could try to buy the building for the tenants through eminent domain. George Moscone had a great heart. He was one of the kindest people I have met in my life. He and I saw this one eye to eye. Certain supervisors blocked our efforts. Meanwhile, I was held in contempt of court for refusing to carry out the eviction. I was ordered jailed by Superior Court Judge Ira Brown. Obviously because I was the sheriff of San Francisco, I was jailed in another county San Mateo. I was also fined the maximum at the time, $500. The owners filed a $1.25 million lawsuit against me personally. The city attorney refused to defend me. So I hired a lawyer at personal expense. In all I spent $30,000, which was a lot of money back then.

After sitting in jail for five days, I agreed to do the eviction. I considered resigning, but I could not bring myself to abandon the reforms I had already started on. Ultimately, I knew that if I didn’t carry out the eviction, some one else would.

MG: I doubt that there are many elected officials who would go to jail in such a circumstance today. How did this event get reinterpreted to make you the villain?

RH: Let me make this clear I was not regarded as a villain at the time. Hundreds greeted me upon my release from jail and they knew the pressure that had been brought to bear on me to force me to carry out this eviction. There was one very publicized photograph of my using a sledgehammer to pound open a door in the hotel I think that was it I think over time some people simply didn’t know all the facts. If you only see the photo, well I look like a villain. Actually, at the time I didn’t want to ask my deputies to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself. I hated doing that eviction, but I went as far as I could, short of resigning, in trying to stop it.

MG: I know you left the Sheriff’s Department eventually to take a job as police chief in Cleveland, Ohio and later that you worked in the prison system of New York. How was it that you came back to San Francisco and were elected supervisor?

RH: While in Ohio and New York I kept in constant contact with my friends in San Francisco. I really missed the city. I went to Ohio and New York with the idea of trying to create progressive change there. But in the end, I concluded that I would help get more done and be a lot happier back in the city.

MG: You knew Harvey Milk, Dan White, and George Moscone. Did you ever think something like the assassinations might happen?

RH: Yes and no. A number of us thought someone might try and get us. Milk in particular was a target because he represented something the extreme right could not deal with. Harvey Milk was a wonderful person who gave his life for the progressive and humanitarian causes he believed in. Like George Moscone, he is a hero who died in battle. I don’t know how else to say it.

MG: How long were you a supervisor?

RH: Ten years.

MG: What caused you to run for assessor?

RH: As a supervisor, I found that the Assessor’s Office was a disaster. There wasn’t even an employee roster. They didn’t have one computer and that was 1990. I had been successful in my work in Cleveland and in New York, not to mention SF, in being able to turn around malfunctioning bureaucracies. I was elected in 1991 with a mandate to fix the agency, which I did by doing such simple things as requiring employees to show up on time and focusing on the backlog of work that needed to get done. I also computerized the office and tried to bring it into the 20th century.

I found buildings and properties that were not on the tax roll and began to collect revenue that had been missed by my predecessor.

MG: After he was elected mayor, Frank Jordan made you chief of police. After you were there less than two months, you were discredited by the police action and curfew here in San Francisco resulting from the Rodney King verdict and by the seizure of the Bay Times issue that ridiculed you on its cover you know the one depicting you with a baton between your legs.

RH: Matt, I have been in countless civil rights demonstrations and I’ve always supported the right of people to engage in civil disobedience. But I don’t support massive rioting and the destruction of property the looting of stores. A civil rights demonstration shouldn’t be an excuse to steal. I didn’t like the Rodney King verdict, but what people don’t understand is that if you don’t stop the rioting, people are going to die when things get out of hand. In Los Angeles, 43 people died. Maybe I over-reacted, but no one died in San Francisco.

MG: The problem, Dick, was not how you handled rioting. It was that you barred any demonstrations, peaceful or otherwise, the day after the looting and rioting had already taken place. I can understand that you didn’t want a repeat of the night before, but a complete ban on demonstrating was pretty severe.

RH: That’s not correct. There was no ban on demonstrating. The police got involved when demonstrators deviated from agreed-upon routes and bottles and rocks started getting thrown. I was advised by the legal department that I could declare an unlawful assembly and order the crowd to disperse once the crowd became violent.

MG: What about the Bay Times issue?

RH: The Bay Times issued an edition lampooning me on the cover. At the time, a lot of the officers working to stop the rioting were taking a lot of abuse everyday they went to work being called names, spit at, and having bottles thrown at them. I wanted them to see how I, as management of the department, was getting my own share of grief. Wanting to convey that message to the rank and file, I told the vice president of the Police Officers Association (POA) that I wished he would get some copies and show them to the POA leadership or to some of the rank and file so they could see how I was getting dumped on just as they were. The problem was that he and some others went out and picked up 2,000 copies!

The press kept saying I ordered police to confiscate the paper, but that is absolutely false. What happened was that I told one officer in the Police Officers Association about the paper to make the point of how the left was attacking me remember I didn’t have a lot of support among conservative police officers who knew I wanted to do to the Police Department what I had done to the Sheriff’s Department you know, real lasting progressive reform. So, basically I was showing him a paper that attacked me so that the POA could see that maybe there was no love lost between me and the left. I thought if I was going to be attacked so hard called a Nazi and stuff well, at the least I could try and get some use for my progressive agenda.

What I find amazing is that anyone would believe that I would order newspapers seized because the paper attacked me. I have been attacked during my whole career, so this was nothing new. And well, to finish the story, officers went out and collected 2,000 newspapers, and that was pretty much it for my career as chief of police.

Mayor Jordan had coaxed me out of an elected position assessor to another post so that he could get a supervisor to take the assessor position and well, give him an appointment to the Board of Supervisors. When the newspaper thing happened, no one wanted to listen to the testimony of all involved at the Police Commission. And the reform I would have implemented never happened.

MG: What the hell did you think when you heard that police had confiscated 2,000 copies of the paper?

RH: I was astounded, really.

MG: Did the district attorney consider criminal prosecution?

RH: Well, Arlo Smith, the district attorney at the time, said you couldn’t be convicted of stealing free newspapers. But that was hardly the point. Fine, it’s not a crime, but the implication that a police chief wants to suppress speech is very troubling and obviously and for good reason did not sit well with the public.

MG: Do you know how many issues were printed at the time of the Bay Times?

RH: I later learned that the total print run was 40,000.

MG: With the return of district elections, you ran for supervisor against ten other candidates, including myself, in District 5. You didn’t appear to be a serious candidate, other than attending forums and demonstrating your wide knowledge of city government. I certainly learned a lot from you. Why did you run?

RH: Initially, I got into the race to make sure that there would be someone good, an honest independent, who would represent the people of this city instead of a political machine. I was concerned that without name recognition, many of the professed independent candidates wouldn’t have a chance, so in many ways I filed to keep my options open. Once the forums began, I saw that there were a couple of candidates who would be able to put the whole thing together, and so I began to use the forums less to promote my own candidacy but rather to promote good government ideas I have always held.

MG: I don’t know if you realize this, Dick, but you were the only candidate in the race who supported me once I was in the run-off against Juanita Owens.

RH: No, I didn’t know that.

MG: One last question. Recently, just this year, you testified in the One Market Plaza case. Can you say something about that?

RH: It is really why I decided to run for assessor. But first, I think we need to explain what the case is, as I am sure most people have never heard of it.

The building complex at One Market Plaza comprises one square block at the foot of Market Street. It was owned by Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, which sold it to the IBM Pension Fund in 1986. Proposition 13 requires that property values for the purposes of taxes be reassessed whenever there is a transfer of title. But Liberty Mutual and IBM concealed the transfer to avoid paying their fair tax. When I heard a rumor that a sale had occurred, I initiated an investigation. Because IBM and Liberty Mutual both denied the sale, our investigation bogged down. But a brilliant local attorney named Michael Mendelson also heard the rumor. He was able to obtain the income tax returns of the IBM Pension Fund, which showed IBM was admitting ownership on their federal tax returns.

The Assessor’s Office was also sued by then I was no longer assessor to force the office to reappraise the property and increase the property tax due. By then, about 30 million in back taxes was owed. IBM started to put up a fight to oppose the new increased taxes. Both the City Attorney’s Office and the Assessor’s Office recommended returning millions and millions of dollars to IBM. The attorneys who brought the lawsuit called me as a expert witness during the proceedings before the Assessment Appeals Board. My testimony support Mendelson’s argument that instead of giving money back to IBM, nothing should be given back and that an additional $12 million should be exacted from them for their fraud. After my testimony, the Assessment Appeals Board concluded that rather than return millions of dollars to IBM, IBM should be charged with the additional $12 million in fraud penalties. Our efforts resulted in ten to twenty millions of dollars or more in properly collected taxes going into the city treasury.

That’s why I’m running for assessor. We need someone running that office who is committed to properly valuing property and making sure that the taxes due are properly reported to the tax collector for collection. I have the independence to carry out this mandate and have held the office previously and have the skills and drive to get things done.