Dance of Local Politics: Part 2
Steven J. Moss
In 1973, Eric Redman published The Dance of Legislation, relying on his two years as a member of U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson's staff to trace the drafting and passage of a single piece of legislation. The book, which became a classic description of the legislative process, provides a vivid picture of the bureaucratic infighting, political prerogatives, and Congressional courtesies necessary to make something happen on Capitol Hill. Throughout 2013, View publisher, San Francisco State University adjunct lecturer, and former Board of Supervisor candidate Steven Moss will publish installments of The Dance of Local Politics, highlighting the often humorous and sometimes teeth grinding process that makes up San Francisco politics. This is the second installment. If you’d like to support this project, either financially or by helping to secure a publisher for it, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
You’re Not White, You’re Jewish
I walked up the worn, narrow staircase to Pastor Kenneth Sampson’s tiny office. A retired grocery store manager, the pastor lead a small Baptist congregation — less than a hundred souls — from a sagging Victorian-style building, located in San Francisco’s historically Black neighborhood, “Bayview.” I’d met him a few years after launching my nonprofit, which, after a ten year effort, had helped close the City’s two aging power plants — both located in supervisorial District 10 — and launched a series of programs to assist poor families lower their energy bills while creating “green” jobs. He was now president of the nonprofit’s board.
As I entered his cramped space, the pastor got up from behind his desk to shake my hand. As usual, he was dressed impeccably, in a brightly colored three-piece suit.
“Hello, Mr. Moss,” he said. He gestured towards the 1970’s-style brown vinyl chair, taken from some long dismantled dinette set, in front of his cluttered desk. “Good to see you.”
We sat down. We chatted for a few moments about his latest trip to Ghana, and the small school he’d just opened at the church. Our conversation trailed off. He looked at me impassively.
“So, what’s brings you here today?”
“Well, pastor, I’ve decided to run for supervisor, in District 10. I wanted to get your advice, and support.”
He looked at me. “You sure you want to do that,” he asked, a slight smile played on his lips. “In this town?”
Over the years Sampson and I had many conversations about local politics. Most of those revolved around the system’s petty, quid pro quo, characteristics. The opinions of the pastors at small African-American churches were ignored, elbowed aside by the handful of flashier, louder, church leaders with sizeable congregations. Politicians — particularly legendary power player and fixer Willie Brown — demanded absolute allegiance, the absence of which could trigger blocked construction permits, or the shut-off of funding for social service programs.
What bothered the pastor most was the un-kept political promises that were regularly made to address the violence, joblessness, and poverty that plagued Bayview, and its even more isolated and derelict neighbor, Hunters Point. That concern prompted Sampson’s primary guidance to me about the nonprofit — no matter what, get the services out on the street — advice I’d followed, regularly fielding teams of community members trained to install energy efficient light bulbs and refrigerators, and water-saving toilets.
“Yes, well, someone has to do it,” I said, weakly. “I think I can make a difference,” I quickly followed up, more firmly. “I know the district, and its needs. I understand how the process works. I mean, I teach it!”
“God bless you,” replied Sampson. “If you’re willing to do it, you have my support.”
“Thank you. I really appreciate that. I’m wondering, though, how do you think African-Americans will feel about a White guy running in a district that’s traditionally been represented by a Black person?”
Sampson leaned forward from his chair, his hands templed on the desk. “Steve, you’re not White. You’re Jewish. You’ll do fine.”
While Sampson’s evocation of the historical connection between Jews and Blacks gave me deep comfort, it was an echo from an era that had largely passed. Traditional African-American religious leaders clung fiercely to the centrality of Israel, the holiness of the Jewish people, and the ties that were created a half-century ago, as part of the Civil Rights movement, when prominent rabbis marched shoulder to shoulder with Black activists. But more secular African-Americans were drawn to the Palestinian’s cause — viewing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as akin to apartheid — or, more prevalently, were too busy raising families and earning a living to worry much about religion or Middle East politics.
From the perspective of the District 10 elections, the neighborhood Black churches’ influence was waning, hollowed out by a steady migration of African-Americans from Bayview-Hunters Point to the East Bay suburbs of Pittsburg, Antioch and elsewhere — where large numbers were caught up in the 2008 housing foreclosure crises — and the disintegration of traditional family structures.
Forty years ago almost two-thirds of Black children were being raised in a two-parent home; more recently that percentage had been cut almost in half. Many of San Francisco’s Black church goers have been lost to the suburbs, the pressures of single-parent families, or the nation’s general drift towards either passive secularism or charismatic fundamentalism. As recently as the 1990s Bayview-Hunters Point’s population was two-thirds Black. By 2010 it was almost equally divided between African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latinos. The European-American population is steadily growing, with such a significant number of gays that a new moniker had been coined for the community; “Gayview.”
My nonprofit work, starting in 2001, was mostly with Bayview’s Black leadership. While the nonprofit had provided services to poor households in the district regardless of race, because African-Americans had historically been most politically engaged and economically disenfranchised, we’d made extra efforts to recruit them into our training and job programs. I didn’t know much about the Asian-American community — which was even more dominate in another part of the district, Visitacion Valley — or the Latino population, which was oriented towards churches, social centers, and businesses outside the district, mostly in the nearby Mission neighborhood.
While I hoped to get my fair share of votes from Bayview-Hunters Point, with several other African-Americans and two Asian-Americans in the race I wasn’t counting on those communities to get elected. It was another District 10 community, Potrero Hill — were I raised by daughter, and owned the community newspaper, the View — and its tiny neighbor, Dogpatch, located just north of Bayview, where I was looking to get the main body of my support.
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