Heart of the City Archives
MisterSF.com's 2003 Mayoral Candidates Series

Matt Gonzalez in the studio of artist Tom Schultz.



The art of being Matt Gonzalez
by Hank Donat

When I decided to interview the candidates for mayor of San Francisco on unconventional outings around the city, I never imagined that one of them would take me to the city of Oakland. But then again, Matt Gonzalez is full of surprises.

For this column, Gonzalez, 38, has chosen to share his spotlight with abstract painter Tom Schultz. Gonzalez has twice shown the work of the east bay artist as part of his monthly exhibit of local talent in his City Hall office.

Shortly before we venture out of the 415, I arrive at Gonzalez's campaign headquarters in the Horseshoe Cafe on Haight Street. With its hodge-podge of cast-off furniture and a former retail showcase as a reception desk, the office has "grassroots" written all over it.

As we approach the corner of Haight and Fillmore, a slightly grizzled woman passes by and says to no one in particular, "There's our next mayor."

"Oh, thank you," Gonzalez says in a soft voice that's as unassuming as it is vaguely comforting. With his eyes on the sidewalk in front of him, Gonzalez continues walking. "Where's your car?" he asks.

I return the question, "Where's your car?"

"I gave my car away," says Gonzalez.

Like the campaign office itself, Gonzalez has a quality that can only be described as rumpled. The press, if not the public, has picked up on a certain unpolished aspect of his appearance. A recent Chronicle item told of former Mayor Art Agnos presenting Gonzalez with hand-me-down suits.

But to dismiss the president of the Board of Supervisors - the first Green Party board member - as less than formidable would be a shallow conclusion. Remember what happened to so many TV criminals who underestimated Lt. Columbo.

We stop for a shot of wheat grass - Gonzalez's suggestion - while waiting for campaign treasurer Randy Knox to pick us up for the ride over to Oakland and Schultz's studio.

Throughout our conversations I attempt to address some of the misconceptions that voters may have about Gonzalez, about whom less is generally known than the other top-tier candidates.

Is he a socialist, as one weekly paper has called him? "What's interesting about that is it really speaks to the fact that there's still red baiting in our society," Gonzalez says. "Democrats want everyone to believe that Greens are to the left of them because then the Greens can always be marginalized.

"On certain issues like the death penalty or gay marriage, okay, we're on the left of that spectrum. But when you get into economic decision-making, in a lot of ways the Greens are more conservative and pragmatic.

"Besides," he adds, "do you think Tony Hall would nominate a socialist to the board presidency?"

Gonzalez says he broke with the Democrats partly because they did not want to debate third party candidates, particularly Green Medea Benjamin, during the state's U.S. Senate race in 2000.

At Schultz's studio in the old Western Macaroni building on 57th Avenue, Gonzalez is relaxed around friends Knox and Schultz, surrounded by the trappings of Schultz's Bohemia - his life and work.

Schultz's paintings are excellent. An influence of urban architecture is apparent, as well as bold, jazz-fueled gestures. "There's a lot of Mingus in this one," Shultz says of a particular work.

Later, back in San Francisco, Gonzalez dismisses comparisons between his campaign and the "Run Tom Run" revolution of 1999. He says the write-in campaign that propelled Tom Ammiano into the run-off with Mayor Willie Brown was "a phenomenon and a movement." Gonzalez says he has too much respect for those Ammiano supporters to consider his entry into the race similar to that effort.

He says he his own message. "The primary thing I'm hoping to accomplish is articulating progressive ideas in a way that appeals to a broader group than just progressives."

Gonzalez says he often finds common core values among constituencies and that has helped him on the board of supervisors.

"As board president I respect the right of other members to disagree with me and to vote against things that I want. I don't punish them for doing that. That's the traditional political model. You're supposed to really get angry and go try to undermine somebody else's legislative effort. I try to engage people on substance and I think they appreciate it."

But can a Green Party candidate mount a worthy challenge to bigger fish in the pond? Gonzalez says yes. "I suffer because I don't have $100,000 to launch my mayoral campaign but I'm proud of that," he says, "I think we're going to be able to raise enough money to be competitive."

"People respond well when they hear that I ran a campaign for supervisor and had money left over or that I raised the least amount of money and still managed to beat an opponent who outspent me five to one."

"The way Gavin Newsom gets defeated is by someone who is articulate and who can talk specifics and defend not only their voting history but an agenda that more than just the left should adopt."

Among other views, Gonzalez says chronic homelessness is "a problem of political will and one of resources."

"You have to have a shelter system and supportive services where you try to stabilize people who are coming into shelters. Then you have to try to move people into transitional housing and permanent affordable or low-income housing. That model works. It doesn't work overnight. It doesn't have a catchy title to promote a candidate but at the end of the day that's what works."

Our visits are scattered over a couple of days and locations. Working without a press secretary, Gonzalez keeps a schedule that's, well, a little rumpled.

At the exhibit of Schultz's work in Gonzalez's office Schultz tells admirers, "They're actually painted by my 93 year-old mother. I just sign them," a line I had heard sometime earlier in the afternoon.

Like the canvases on the office walls, Gonzalez is abstract but not entirely elusive. Either he's truly enigmatic, or what you see is what you get - a kind, soft-spoken, art (and poetry) loving progressive politician cast against type.

One thing is clear. Gonzalez is self-assured enough about where he's heading not to be easily distracted by other ideologies. In a political world where money and not ideas monopolizes the dialog, he is an original.

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Copyright 2003 Hank Donat
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