It's Not Easy Being Green
By Claire Lui '00
After losing a close
runoff election for the mayoralty of San Francisco, Matt Gonzalez
'87 has chosen to step back from politics for a while as he
ponders his future.
PHOTO: AP PHOTO/MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ
Matt Gonzalez '87 is standing at his desk, opening
mail. As president of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, the
No. 2 politician in the city hears from many opinionated citizens.
His favorite came on a postcard and read, simply, "The supervisors
are all dumb and you are their leader!"
The writer might be happy to know that Gonzalez, seen by many as
a fast-rising progressive star, is not running for re-election this
fall. His supporters are not.
Last November, Gonzalez's star seemed especially bright. In the
city's mayoral race, which he had entered just weeks before the
primary, Gonzalez had pushed Gavin Newsom, the Democratic favorite,
to a runoff. In San Francisco, a long-time blue stronghold, the
idea that the Dems might lose to a Green Party member made everyone
pay close attention. The candidate himself was happily cocky. When
I congratulated him on making it to the runoff, I could hear the
smile over the phone: "Did you doubt I would win?"
When Gonzalez lost the mayoral runoff by a narrow margin, it was
considered to be a setback, but not a major one. He still was arguably
the highest-ranking Green in the country and an important presence
in San Francisco politics. Most observers assumed more races were
soon to come.
But in March, Gonzalez announced he was not running for the Board
of Supervisors again. He is going into private legal practice, and
is considering various progressive firms. Certainly, he says, there
is another political race in the future, but when pressed for a
timeline, Gonzalez criticized the concept of a career politician.
People think "politicians are supposed to stay forever," he says,
"but politicians who return to private life stay connected to what
people are doing."
After growing up in a small Texas town, Gonzalez left for Columbia.
Entering as part of the College's first coed class, Gonzalez describes
the student body as a diverse group and says he's glad his class
was "not just filled with valedictorians," adding, "I went to school
with some incredibly bright and compelling people who challenged
my thinking and my ways."
Graduating with a double major in political science and comparative
literature, Gonzalez attended Stanford Law, where he was an editor
on the law review, and graduated in 1990. For the next decade, he
was a public defender in San Francisco. Discouraged with the then-district
attorney, Gonzalez ran for the position in 1999. Though he lost,
he was emboldened to run for supervisor in 2000. Originally listed
as a Democrat, he became frustrated with the insider politics of
the party, and he quit and ran as a Green. He won and was elected
to represent District 5, which includes Haight-Ashbury, the Western
Addition, Japan Town and the Inner Sunset. It's a district that
includes the poor and homeowners, long-time residents and a new
influx of hipsters - in short, a snapshot of San Francisco.
Art Agnos, a Democrat and the former mayor of San Francisco, continued
to support Gonzalez after his switch to the Greens: "I believed
then, as I do now, that the important thing was his honesty, his
character and his commitment to the issues that we share: economic
justice and neighborhood empowerment."
During Gonzalez's term as a supervisor, he pushed through a minimum
wage raise. Speaking about the politicking involved, he noted, "It
was difficult to get people interested in it because it didn't benefit
their constituencies. A lot of times when you try to get progressives
to make a decision, rather than convincing them, you simply checkmate
them around their own rhetoric and force them to go against their
Lawrence Kane '86, who remembers Gonzalez as "very
smart and relatively quiet" at the College, organized San Francisco
Mayoral Forums for the Northern California Columbia Club and compared
Gonzalez and Newsom: "As an individual, Matt appeared to be much
more of an ordinary person whom you would meet around town. He came
on time, by himself, and was extremely personable. On the other
hand, Gavin had many handlers and ran a much more professional operation."
It was a contrast noted by many. Newsom was viewed by his opponents
as a wealthy socialite, a man beholden to business interests and
the outgoing Willie Brown administration. Gonzalez, meanwhile, was
viewed by many as a left-winger who supported such seemingly quixotic
ideals such as free bus rides, and who did much of his fund raising
through events featuring poetry readings and art shows.
In the end, Gonzalez lost 47-53. And Newsom, with his headline-making
support for gay marriage, became more progressive. But in San Francisco,
where gay marriage has widespread support, Gonzalez notes, "I would
caution against believing that support of gay marriage in San Francisco
defines you as a progressive here."
In response to those frustrated by his decision to step back from
politics, Gonzalez points to his best adviser: himself. "Why should
I stop making decisions on what I think is right? That's what got
me elected to being a supervisor, that's what got me elected to
the mayoral runoff." And, he says, opening up the field to a new
supervisor is what's best for the constituents. "People shouldn't
be held hostage by one person's idea of what a district needs,"
There's also a possible return to his roots, as he mentioned last
year. "I'm not capable of saying I won't go home," he says. "Notwithstanding
the political differences of Texas, I've always liked where I come
from, so it's always been a natural thought that I would get back
Claire Lui '00 grew up in San Francisco and spent one summer working
in Mayor Willie Brown's office. She is a freelance writer and researcher,
and lives in Queens, N.Y.