San Francisco - Inside City Hall
With Nicholas Olczak
Photos by Luke
February 13, 2008
I feel a sense of transgression as Im led into the press
box, like an outsider snuck into a secret sect. The room has a
staged grandeur about it. The high ceiling, ornately plastered,
painted in different pastel shades. Polished wood stretches down
the wall behind the clerk and presidents long desk, reaching
out into the fitting of the room. Its like a church, but
with that newness, that cleanness which is distinctly American.
This setting gives grandness to the supervisors. Yet rather than
the mighty, wizened gods I imagined, they are almost ordinary.
Some are surprisingly human, surprisingly young, to be holding
the city in their hands. They really do seem to represent the
ordinary people of the districts which elect them. As the clerk
checks attendance, I glance round, letting their different characters
sweep into me.
Theres Ross Mirikami, who reminds me of a vampire with
a small goatee accentuating the length of his tanned face. His
greased hair is swept back with a slickness which sheens his whole
body. Gerardo Sandoval stares surlily forwards - chubby Latino
face and serious eyes, neat silver hair the same colour as his
tidy suit. Sophie Maxwells hair and eyes fizzle with energy
and willpower. She is a tall, commanding African woman, watching
the world cynically through nose perched glassed.
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi
Supervisor Sophie Maxwell
Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval
A few seats along is Carmen Chu. Straight glossy hair falls tidily
around an attentive, business-like Asian expression. Chris Daly
contrasts with this neatness, and with the slickness of the others.
His suit is thrown over a tieless white shirt, crumpled a little
like hes just been in a fight. This reflects his reputation
as a political scrapper. His cropped hair and glasses are those
of a tired computer programmer. A heavy shadow of stubble covers
his rounded jaw and his eyes scowl.
Supervisor Chris Daly
Supervisor Carmen Chu
This scowl is particular for the sturdy Sean Elsbernd. He sits
opposite, physically and politically, looking like an overgrown
schoolboy in his loose blue suit. Hands stuffed in his pockets,
he gets up to shuffle around restlessly, a hint of playfulness,
of cheekiness, still hiding in his youthful face.
Supervisor Sean Elsbernd
The bulk of Jake McGoldrick comes and slumps in the chair next
to him, golden strands of hair stretched across his bald patch.
Like an oil prospector in his sandy colored suit. Nearby, Amiano
leans back comfortably, used to the politicians role now.
His body exudes casualness. His dark blue blazer makes him look
like an aging partygoer. An earring twinkles his more exuberant
Supervisor Jake McGoldrick
Supervisor Tom Ammiano
People are still shuffling in, still greeting each other loudly,
but the huge animal of democracy is already leaping forwards.
I have to lean in closer to hear as the clerks murmured
voice races through the first items. Numbers 1 to 16 are dispatched
in a single clack of the hammer. The next item is read quickly
and voted on: Supervisor Sandoval? Ay Supervisor Maxwell?
Nay Supervisor Chu? Ay etc
moves so fast. Each of these points is something real being debated,
some law that can impact hundreds of peoples lives. I worry
that it is too fast. There is so much to decide though. If you
want a democracy that embraces everything, perhaps this speed
Like the clack-clack of a train, the meeting surges on with this
insistent rhythm. Then suddenly things stop as one of the supervisors
chooses to speak on an issue. This is perhaps the real magic of
democracy the potential for human feelings to influence
things by arguing passionately for their beliefs. Sandoval stands
and makes a clipped objection to CCTV funding. Mirikarimi rises
in response, standing powerfully straight, his crisp, persuasive
words like a solo in the meeting's symphony.
After this brief interlude, the rhythm resumes again. As points
are raised, Supervisors get up and pace around, talking to each
other, leaning over to greet people in the press, leaving the
room for a while and then returning later. I watch as some tourists
come into the public gallery and pose for photos. There is a sense
of great comfort in the functioning of democracy here. I wonder
if there is perhaps too much complacency at times, standing in
the way of effective decision making.
In the middle of the meeting, the supervisors hear an account
of the investigation into a recent oil spill. A short stocky man
comes to the microphone, adopting a tone of frankness as he twists
and euphemizes mistakes. His words rush out in a long, smooth
flow, relaying every detail of the report. This is a culture of
accountability, where every detail must be dwelled upon, everybodys
roles questioned, all the mistakes ringed in heavy red for everybody
to see. Yet I sense that few of the supervisors are really listening.
The speech keeps going as eyelids slide down, chins drop into
palms, and people get up to stretch stiffened limbs.
Finally its time for the lobbyists that powerful
part of democratic process that gives a voice directly to the
people. An Indian man - a regular here stands to speak,
staring forward at the supervisors with intent white eyes. His
speech starts slow, but builds into an impassioned plea, its polished
rhetorical phrases carefully practiced. He begins a series of
stepped phrases to the climax, but then the buzzer sounds, slicing
the head off his rearing argument. This is the contradiction of
this great democratic ideal. If everyone is allowed to speak,
then each person will have too little time to say anything.
Next is a Middle Eastern man whose curled grey hair is pulled
tightly back accentuating his fierce expression. Eyes stare out
from sagging skin thats overgrown with a ragged grey beard.
Leaning forward, he growls at the supervisors, his rough tone
and accent making it hard to understand what he means. He is speaking
about a church where he helps the homeless. Suddenly he pulls
a tattered blanket out, light pushing through its many holes.
This is all the government gives to help him, he shouts accusingly,
and I feel a wave of pity. But I see that the supervisors are
hardly listening now. It is late in the afternoon and the serious
agenda is complete.
There feels something wrong in this; that these leaders of the
people are too tired by bigger business to hear the plight of
these people. That because the issue comes in such antic form,
instead of a written memo, it no longer has weight as political
Overall, my visit to City Hall has shown me the great energy
that democracy has in practice, but also the ways in which practicality
and casualness might damage its ideals.