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“Dissent, Rebellion, and All-Around Hell-Raising”

Swearing In the Supes

By Betsey Culp

I’m a sucker for beginnings — graduations, weddings, and yes, the inauguration of a new batch of supervisors. Old animosities temporarily step aside during what Supervisor Tom Ammiano calls  the “warm and fuzzy” times. Everyone is on his or her best behavior. In this brief moment before real-life complications set in, there’s something in the air that suggests anything is possible.

It isn’t the pageantry of these occasions. What excites me is the way that the participants present their best face to the world. As a former lit-critter, I take them at their word. Later, I hold them accountable for what they said.

And so, on a rainy Saturday in January, I headed to City Hall, to watch the supes in action. Being politicians, they tossed around a lot of words. One woman who arrived about an hour late stood near me. She glanced at the TV screen, turned her hand into a quacking duck’s bill, and mouthed, “Still talking!” But I listened.

[Note to the people in the SFPD’s Public Affairs Office, who are holding my press pass while they decide whether to renew it: Contrary to your assurances, the sheriff’s deputies in City Hall do not — I repeat, do not — allow anyone into the press box without a press pass. Not even simply to take a couple of photographs. For this reason, the observations and photos that follow were made from a distance, while I watched the proceedings on TV in the South Light Court.]

Beneath the participants’ predictable expressions of gratitude and cooperation swam several consistent themes, which will undoubtedly churn the political waters during the next two years.

First and foremost, there was a special kind of civic boosterism: As Sacramento and Washington turn away from progressive social and economic issues, San Francisco proudly stands behind its role as “a dynamic laboratory of change in a creative society.” Mayor Gavin Newsom set the tone: “It’s high time to take pause and reflect on what’s so extraordinarily right about San Francisco, in a world that seems to be moving increasingly in the wrong direction, both nationally and at the state [level].” The supervisors, who had done their homework well, chimed in with a flurry of quotes. Sean Elsbernd began somewhat tamely, with a statement from Georges Pompidou: “Your city is remarkable not only for its beauty. It is also, of all the cities in the United States, the one whose name, the world over, conjures up the most visions and more than any other, incites one to dream.” Jake McGoldrick upped the ante, noting the “difficult times” we live in and quoting Utah Phillips: “The degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free.” Then newcomer Ross Mirkarimi stood up, a white ribbon in his lapel “to signify my opposition to our actions in Iraq but also my alarm that such misguided actions nationally would continue to adversely impact us locally. ” The self-proclaimed representative of the city’s “hippest district” added a quote from Barbara Ehrenreich: “Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.”

The game was decidedly afoot.

Or maybe somebody had announced, “Let the games begin.” For another, more local game was swimming right alongside the national one.

Six of the supervisors in the chambers on Saturday were veterans of the 2000 elections that returned district elections to San Francisco, and a seventh — Mirkarimi — was another veteran’s anointed heir. They were part of the astonishing progressive sweep that marked the end of politics-as-usual in the city. And they had now all proved that they could not only be elected; they could be re-elected.

Their rhetoric reflected the strength that comes from hard-won victory. It also reflected the strength that comes from four years’ experience in getting things done.

The supervisors know well that district elections are under attack from the right. But they also know that their successful re-election vindicated district elections. Ammiano said, as he nominated Aaron Peskin for Board President: “I’m so proud of the district-elected system, and I’m so proud of the supervisors that have been elected through that system.”

The campaign last fall was marked by what Mayor Gavin Newsom calls “little niches,” promises to clean neighborhood streets, fix potholes, and otherwise pay attention to district needs. Peskin continued in this vein in his acceptance speech, vowing that the “nitty-gritty workings of an effective government are going to be championed under my watch.” But he embedded those nitty-gritty niches deep within “strong social principles” and “ethics and good government practices.” And he tacitly acknowledged the role he and his fellow veterans have played in governing the city by closing with a pledge that “this Board of Supervisors will maintain its independence, its intelligence, and its integrity.”

The gaze of the other supervisors extended far beyond district boundaries. Ammiano spoke of universal health care, protection of the education system, and “complete and equitable HIV/AIDS funding.” Sophie Maxwell looked forward to a time when “murders anywhere in the city will not be tolerated,” and when “anyone can become middle class.” Mirkarimi spoke of the need for “an urban planning vision.” Sandoval directed his attention toward education, alternative power, and above all, leadership training for mid- and top-level city managers.

Those political fish are indeed roiling the water.

As they do, they’ve given themselves a new name. During the course of the inauguration, a new word leaped to the surface of the political discourse. Don’t try to pin me to the right or the left, Mirkarimi said. “I see myself as a populist. I see myself fighting for the great city of San Francisco.” Don’t call us progressive or liberal or conservative, Ammiano said. “We are populist. We like to meddle. We like to be heard. And we like to have our say.”

An interesting reframing is taking place before our very eyes. According to my thesaurus, the opposite of “populist” is “elitist.”

Let the games begin.