The Right Side of the Road

Written by William Chadwick. Posted in Opinion, Politics

Published on June 17, 2009 with 22 Comments

A community divided over what to do about an unprecedented fiscal crisis.
On the one side, public health and human service advocates are seeking
an equitable budget that shares budget cut pain across all City departments.
On the other, firefighters and cops are reluctant to budge.
Photos by Luke Thomas

By Will Chadwick

June 17, 2009

Massive budget cuts to public spending that the City and County of San Francisco is facing is evolving into a power struggle for various factions of the city’s ruling bodies and services. Whilst Mayor Gavin Newsom initially handed health and human services the lion’s share of the cutbacks (believed to be in the region of $150m), he increased general funding to police and fire departments in his proposed budget by 5 and 6 percent. Much of the Board of Supervisors’ work since then has been trying to rectify this imbalance and to stop various parts of the city’s “social safety net” from disintegrating.

Outside City Hall Tuesday there were two very different rallies that took place before the Board of Supervisors met. At 12.30pm, public health supporters gathered on the steps of City Hall and attempted to give a serious presentation on why we should not allow such drastic cuts to San Francisco General Hospital, methadone programs, housing initiatives and mental health programs, to name but a few areas that are going to be impacted. There were several short speeches from members of different services, describing specific incidents of how the cutbacks would have immediate adverse affects on peoples’ lives and ongoing health.

As their rally went on, their speeches became less and less audible. This was due to two factors: more and more small groups tried to jump on the bandwagon and ended up standing in front of the speakers, muffling the sound. The other reason was less innocent. Across the street, firefighters, Teamsters, and several other unions were preparing their own rally, and the rabble-rousing music they were blasting was being progressively turned up.

By contrast to the public health and human service supporters, the self-professed public safety supporters had made this a family and neighborhoods issue. Along with off-duty firemen came their young children and anyone else they could drum up including police, army, teamsters, you name it. They even all turned to pledge allegiance to the American flag at the start, something that is of course extremely common, but nevertheless seemed a mite out of place.

Pledging allegiance to the flag: a mite out of place.

The speakers – nearly all men, and mostly full of thunder and rhetoric – gave the impression that this was not just any old rally, but one in which we needed to fight for the very values and fiber of Our Great Nation. There was scare-mongering talk of people dying, more criminals being allowed out onto the streets; streets not safe to walk down. It felt, to be honest, like a cross between a Republican Party convention and a night of World Wrestling Entertainment. Two of the bigger guys could have squared off and it wouldn’t have surprised me.

WWF: SF POA honcho Gary Delagnes
and SF Firefighters Union (Local 798) Prez John Hanley.

The tone of the firefighters and their public safety rally, combined with the fact that they had enlisted not one, but two mayors to speak (both Gavin Newsom and former Mayor Willie Brown), showed far more than just savvy organization by Newsom campaign manager Eric Jaye. That Newsom talked at length about how grateful he was to the fire department, coupled with the fact that he originally proposed no cuts to their funding, smacks of the kind of politics that involves political favors, popularity contests and back-scratching, all at the expense of San Francisco taxpayers.

Puffer Fish former Mayor Willie Brown.

Newsom’s speech pandered to an already-incensed crowd at a time when he is running for Governor of California, requiring a strong power base of powerful support. He also didn’t shy away from assisting in the general demonizing of the Board of Supervisors, as the nasty people who reversed his generosity to the fire department. He expressed almost genuine disbelief that anyone would have wanted to tinker with his supposedly flawless budget proposal.

Mayor Gavin Newsom.

There was no such backing by any mayors at the public health rally. Supervisor John Avalos spoke briefly on their behalf, stating he did not favor any one sector, but believed in everyone doing their bit to “share the burden.” There was little in the way of the black-and-white invective from the firefighter’s rally across the road. Someone even raised the point that, although the ambulance drivers’ union was camped with the public safety supporters, they, more than any others, should understand that even if they can get a patient to SF General Hospital as quickly as possible, public health cuts might mean there would be no-one to actually treat the patient upon arrival.

Supervisor John Avalos

It seemed like a straight battle between which sector was going to have to swallow whole these enormous and potentially crippling cutbacks, yet no-one among the placard carrying holders had the gumption to actually write a sign saying “Public Health vs. Public Safety.” But, that’s what the standoff was boiling down to.

Once inside City Hall, the standoff continued to heat up as both sides chanted outside the board chambers with the firefighters demanding to be let in over those who had formed an orderly line to gain ingress.

Once the Beilenson Hearing (a State-enforced hearing to consider the Department of Health’s budget eliminating or reducing medical services) began, after a powerful speech by Supervisor Chris Daly, the public got their chances to voice their concerns.

Supervisor Chris Daly

Most refreshing was a young firefighter, who braved the ire of a sea of public health supporters to state that he would rather take a pay cut than see any fire station close, or any health or human services department close down due to cutbacks.

“There must be a middle ground,” he said.

Let’s hope those responsible can find it.

William Chadwick

William Chadwick is a young English writer who has recently moved to San Francisco from London. He has worked on-and-off in journalism for almost ten years. He is passionate about the theater, and has directed and written several plays. He is currently trying his hand at teaching English.

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Comments for The Right Side of the Road are now closed.

  1. Morning space cadets,

    Schwartz, that isn’t your real name? Hmmm. That would make you a coward wouldn’t it?

    My 900 votes for mayor were 900 more than Matt Gonzalez got. Or, Chris Daly. Or, Ross Mirkarimi. That’s because they chickened out and let Gavin run unopposed. Unlike yourself sir, I am no coward.

    You know who the only real man is out there? One who criticizes me, I mean? Rob Anderson. He never hides behind jumbled letters like, for instance, Arthur Evans does with Ruth R. Snave. Anderson fears no one and I respect that. The rest of you are a bunch of chickenshits.

    And, Schwartz … I don’t believe you ever wore a military uniform unless you rented it from a costume shop. Give us your real name and we’ll check it out.

    My preference is to solve the budget problem by using Luke Thomas’ idea. Simply cut salaries across the spectrum until you reach a balance. Painful but no one gets fired. When presented with the idea, Board members all agreed that it was a good one. Then, they refused to even discuss it.


  2. “a person who stirs up the passions or prejudices of the public, usually for his or her own interests”


    The interests of Local 798 are in preventing layoffs, fair enough. The interests of San Franciscans include adequate fire protection but extent to other areas.

    That Local 798 is playing to passions by suggesting that the proposed cuts would endanger San Franciscans. Your definition only requires one of passion or prejudice and Local 798 has met that test.

    I don’t begrudge you fighting for your interests, but it is the job of our elected officials to balance multiple competing interests, and in this case, the pain is going ot be shared equitably irrespective of rabble rousing because candidates who hold that broader philosophy won the elections for supervisor.

    Oakland managed to do this, where the cops and firefighters made concessions. Some rank and file of Local 798 realize that what we’re seeing here is not anti-firefighter any more than cuts to public health are anti-doctor and are open to discussions.

    We need to have the adult conversation that they had in Oakland instead of relying on rabble rousing to play fear based politics at a time when we need to be coming together to get through this crisis.


  3. Missed all the rallies this week, but I was treated to this robocall phone message when I got home from work this afternoon:

    “This is Tom O’Connor, a proud San Francisco firefighter. This week the Board of Supervisors voted to lay off firefighters, police officers, and sheriffs. These cuts could mean closing up to 12 out of 42 fire stations, taking neighborhood patrols off our streets, and releasing criminals from our jail. Press one to be transferred to your supervisor, Eric Mar, so you can tell him to reverse the cuts, keep our streets safe, and our fire houses open. Thank you for your time. Paid for by your San Francisco Firefighters, Local 798.”

    Firefighters should not be pitting themselves against health care workers — they should be united in demanding more progressive taxation that does a more equitable job of distributing the wealth and maintaining basic services. But they seem determined not to do that as they have wedded themselves politically to the forces in this city that oppose redistribution of the wealth.

    I have yet to receive a competing robocall from the unions that represent the health care workers whose jobs are at risk — presumably because their unions are not as well-healed as the firefighters unions.

  4. Luke,

    Here is the Random House definition of rabble rouser:

    “a person who stirs up the passions or prejudices of the public, usually for his or her own interests”

    prejudice? own interest? This is very inflammatory language when used in a political context.

    I thought you would have known that.

    An alternative word to use could have been “passionate” . Some word that could have informed the reader on the atmosphere without attacking. Remember, the firefighters and police are our brothers. Most of them do a heck of a job.

    Kids should not be allowed to play with matches. Chadwick needs supervision.

  5. Schwartz, were you outside Board chambers on Tuesday? Did you attend the rallies?

    Here’s the definition of rabble rouser: “A leader or speaker who stirs up the passions of the masses; a demagogue.”

    And in case you need to know what demagogue means:

    “A leader championing the cause of the common people in ancient times.”

    You may disagree, but I think Will hit the mark, hence no need to edit what is an appropriate use of the term.

  6. Chard, no worries. In my agreement I too was referring to the divide and conquer approach of Newsom/W Brown.

    I was not confusing Brown with H Brown.

    H Brown would not know how to tie his shoelaces without step by step diagram instructions.

  7. Luke, I don’t disagree with you at all, but I believe there are multiple agendas working here.

  8. Mr. Scwartz;

    Perhaps I could’ve been more clear, but, for the record, I meant to say “Newsom / WIllie Brown are setting the progs ….etc.”

    Your feud with Harold never entered my thoughts.

  9. Luke,

    references to firefighters etc as rabble-rousers by Will Chadwick is exactly the type of language that should not be used at a time when tensions are high. As he is new to the City, can cut him a break. However, your failure to assist in the editorializing of his article is disappointing. At this point we should be trying to unite firefighters, SEIU etc. otherwise we will allow Daly’s ego and Newsom’s ego to get in the way. And they will both leave a trail of division and misery behind them.

    But they will not lose out. Newsom will find an easy job somewhere, probably working for the Getts again while Daly can always return to his rich Republican family in Bowie.

  10. Chard, you’re way off mark. This is about saving lives and preventing a complete meltdown of society as we know it. We’re all in this together, inhabiting a small blue planet in the middle of a unfathomably large universe. The only power we the people really have is at the ballot box, and it won’t be the supervisors who are trying to save jobs and services that will be recalled. You can be assured of that.

  11. Some good comments here. I particularly appreciate David Waggoner’s comment:

    “Capitalism has its merits, but if we have a minimum wage, why shouldn’t we then have a maximum wage? Increase the budgets of public health and public safety by fairly taxing the obscene assets of the rich.”

    Here’s a list of the 20 billionaires with domiciles in San Francisco:

    If each of these billionaires gifted the City 1.35 percent of their combined total net worth ($42.6 billion as of 2006), our $576 million budget shortfall would be wiped out. All jobs and services would be saved.

  12. Yes I agree Chard. But as long as we have attempts to create divisions by the writer of this article and comments from Brown. We on the progressive side risk splitting apart and allowing the enemy to divide and conquer.

    I wonder can Brown stay quiet for a few months and not expose us to attack.

    Harold Brown received 915 votes in the Mayoral election. That is 104, 681 votes behind the winner. He received less votes that guys called “Grasshopper” and “Chicken”.

    He needs to be benched, otherwise we will not be taken seriously. No room for cartoon characters when there is business to be done.

  13. Guys, this is all about getting rid of the progressives on the board.
    Newsom/Brown are setting the progs up to look like the bad guys when the axe falls.
    I anticipate recall efforts in the future, headed up by the firefighters and cops.

  14. Mr. Brown, I am in fact a veteran. I was a reserve that saw action. Did not want to go. Did not agree with being there. But I did my duty. Please do not insult me.

    And I am an accomplished contributor to SF politics for many many years.

    Your attacks that are both personal and wildly inaccurate is a contributory factor to why the democratic party in SF is in danger of ripping itself apart.

    if you do not agree with someone, your tactic is to undermine them personally. Your stances are repugnant to good people. Shame on you and your bully boy tactics.

    That is why you only ever received sympathy votes when you run for office. People recognize you for the loud boorish fool that you are.

    I am happy to slap your back on occasion and give you the impression that I value your fun and wild opinion. But with the veil of anonymity I can tell you clearly what everyone is thinking. You are a fool that people indulges. You are the Frank Chiu of SF City Politics.

  15. Schwartz,

    Would you like it if I stood and yelled my opinions into your ear? Nor would I like it if you did the same to me. Using enhancements to sound sucks and you know it. You a veteran? I didn’t think so. You ever been a firfighter? I didn’t think so. I’ve been both and let me tell you, firefighters are the most versed and articulate of City employees. They don’t need a ‘weighted’ favor vis a vis extra amplification.

    Let me put this as directly as I can Mr. Schwartz. You have absolutely no credibility and I have it all. You want to defend me as a firefighter and vet? Get my permission first.

    Good job, Will … Schwartz is a dip shit with no accomplishments who attaches himself to these discussions.


  16. Interesting article. Concerned about the reference to “The other reason was less innocent. Across the street, firefighters, Teamsters, and several other unions were preparing their own rally, and the rabble-rousing music they were blasting was being progressively turned up.”

    Rabble-rousing? Really? You have been here a few weeks and you are calling the people who have saved our lives and protected our homes and ensured our public safety rabble rousers? That’s a cheap shot. You may disagree with their stance, but please rise above the narrow minded us versus them approach. The firefighters and police have been loyal supporters of democratic causes.

    It appears to me you are trying to fan the flames of discontent and pit SEIU against the firefighters. That is very disappointing and dangerous.

  17. There is no free lunch. Public health IS public safety when it comes to mental health and substance abuse treatment at the DPH.

    Arthur Evans would be the first to whine, complain and moan about public drunks and druggies urinating and defecating in our residential neighborhoods as he knows that the SFPD can’t really be bothered to deal with quality of life matters.

    Who’s to say whether enforcement dollars spent at the SFPD are more or less effective than treatment and prevention dollars spent at the DPH?

    We do know that Eric Jaye, Newsom’s main handler is also working for the SFFD. Could there be a conflict of interest here on Jaye’s part?

    John Avalos is not leading a radical charge here to exact vengeance on political opponents, rather that is Newsom’s approach by saving the programs of constituencies which support him while ravaging those of his opponents.

    No, Avalos is leading the charge for equity in assigning the pain to various city agencies irrespective of whether they support him or not.

    The progressive Supervisors support 92% of the public safety budget, and for that, I’ll give them an ‘A.’ The last 8% needs to be sloshed around so that San Francisco values are not cut from the budget as well.


  18. Excellent article. What is lacking in this debate is the view that this “showdown” is a divide-and-conquer tactic of the right and very wealthy. Pit the public health supporters against the public safety supporters, when in fact both are two sides of the same coin. The people who should share a disproportionate amount of the pain are the people who “share” a disproportionate amount of the resources, namely the millionaires and billionaires of San Francisco. We need leadership that is wiling to go after the resources of the fabulously wealthy to protect us all. Capitalism has its merits, but if we have a minimum wage, why shouldn’t we then have a maximum wage? Increase the budgets of public health and public safety by fairly taxing the obscene assets of the rich.

  19. I really appreciate the insightful and informative article. I could only attend the PUBLIC HEALTH rally for approximately 20 minutes, so not only was the account of this rally crucial but I appreciate the coverage of the other rally. I was APPALLED to see signs to recall Supervisor Avalos. Why? Because he values prevention and support services for the most vulnerable populations. Avalos and the other supervisors supporting the improved budget are doing the only ethical thing. It is truly offensive the police and firefighters represented at the rally are so myopic and have adopted a truly shameful and selfish stance. I am a state worker who has taken a 10% pay cut just three months ago. I have a modest salary and now have to survive on less. I APPLAUD the firefighter willing to make even a more profound sacrifice and accept a pay cut over lay offs and service cuts. Public safety workers KNOW there is a crisis, the revenue is just not there! There is no way to fund public safety to the levels we ALL would like. I appreciate the police and firefighters taking risks to keep us safe but they have to show compassion and act rationally now and accept the budget from Avalos et al until the economy improves. Youth violence prevention program makes me feel a thousands time safer that having police show up after a crime is committed.

  20. Will,

    Well I’ll be damned, you can write. … Great piece with a detachment that only a new arrival could evoke.


  21. This is a wonderful opinion. The things mentioned are unanimous and needs to be appreciated by everyone

  22. It’s time for both Mayor Gavin Newsom and the board of supes to start acting like responsible adults with the budget.

    Newsom drew up his budget in isolation, without properly consulting with the various departments. For example, Public Defender Jeff Adachi asked repeatedly to meet with Newsom, who refused.

    On the other hand, the supes’ Budget Committee cut tens of millions of dollars from the public safety budget without consulting the agencies involved about the consequences, according to media accounts. The aim was to score ideological points.

    If the politicians at City Hall were less given to drama, and more given to good-faith and common sense, a compromise could readily be reached in regard to both social-welfare and public-safety needs.

    But that’s not the San Francisco way. So we’re going to see more posturing for the cameras by everybody, more fingers pointing to the sky, more dire rhetoric.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we could recall them all?