Gonzalez Interviewed on Adachi Pension Reform Measure

Written by FCJ Editor. Posted in News, Opinion, Politics

Published on July 02, 2010 with 11 Comments

Former Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez. Photo by Luke Thomas.

By Rod Ciferri, special to Fog City Journal

Editor’s Note:  The following is a transcript of an interview conducted earlier today by Rod Cifferi with former San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez.  In the interview, Gonzalez discusses, among other related topics, his support for SF Smart Reform, a controversial pension reform measure sponsored by Public Defender Jeff Adachi.  The measure, which is expected to go before voters in November, aims to rein in unsustainable healthcare and pension costs projected to exceed $1 billion by 2016 if needed reforms are not enacted.

July 2, 2010

So how did your involvement with Jeff Adachi’s pension reform effort come about?

Well, I’ve worked with him trying to keep his budget from being cut on several occasions. As you know the entire SF Public Defender’s Office budget is less than the budget for Police Department overtime. Nevertheless, he often suffers cuts based on increasingly scarcer resources.

Recently, he started trying to figure out why this keeps happening to him. And he started asking me about my experiences with city retirement and whether I was aware that the city’s contribution to pension plans has risen astronomically. Specifically, we spoke about the 2002 Prop. H which gave police officers the right to retire at the age of 55 with 90% of their income as retirement income. Supervisors put that measure on the ballot, but I was the only Supervisor who wouldn’t endorse it. I remember thinking at the time, although I had no numbers to back it up, that it was totally unsustainable. Police retirement at the time was 75% of their income at the age of 62, which I thought was pretty good, all things considering.

When Jeff launched his ballot measure I wasn’t really paying that much attention. But eventually I wandered over to his website to read the measure and listened to an interview Ronn Owens did with him on KGO. At one point the leader of the police officer’s union, Gary Delagnes, called in to the program to give Jeff a hard time. One of the things he emphasized was that Jeff didn’t have any other politicians supporting his effort, to suggest that therefore it was bad public policy, and this bothered me. It bothered me because I knew he didn’t have any support because the lack of support was less about the merits of the measure and more about politicians wanting to avoid conflict with labor.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi

So I picked up the phone and told Jeff that the next time someone asked him who was supporting his measure, he could say I was.

The campaign later sent out a press release, with a quotation by me, because I had agreed to speak at a rally that Jeff couldn’t attend. Later, he was able to be there and we both spoke about the measure.

What did the press release say?

Basically that although pension reform wasn’t the only thing we needed to do to fix municipal budgets, it was a key component and that progressives need to get serious about this issue.

Tell me about the measure, what is the problem you’re trying to address exactly?

Data collected from the budget analyst Harvey Rose’s office and the City’s controller has found that San Francisco’s yearly contribution to employee pension and health care costs have gone from $175 million just 5 years ago, to $525 million today. It’s further expected to be nearly $700 million in two years. Basically it isn’t sustainable.

A report of the Civil Grand Jury was released in June on this very issue. They lay it out pretty well. I encourage people to read it. Also, people should go to the campaign’s website and read the measure themselves. If you support the measure, download the petition and sign it.

Roughly half of city employees are not currently required to contribute toward their own pensions. That’s not the case in other cities. So we’re basically creating a widening gulf between private sector workers and public employees. The former are not interested in further supporting workers who, on the whole, have such a better situation. Albeit, one that we would all like to improve and make applicable to all workers, someday.

Is it fair to focus on workers instead of banks, and so-called “capitalists,” who have caused this economic crisis?

I think we need to focus in multiple places all at once. The economic crisis has certainly exacerbated the speed with which we are forced to come to terms with these pension mandates, but I have also railed against banks. Listen, I took off time from my law practice to go around the country with Ralph Nader talking about the unsustainability of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, how it was depleting badly needed money from cities like ours, and I argued strongly against the whole credit derivative phenomenon and against bank bailouts that would hurt workers and the neediest in our society. So it cannot be said that I only purport to fix issues with a focus on pensions.

Matt Gonzalez speaks at a 2008 Sheehan for Congress rally outside the Federal Reserve building in San Francisco to draw attention to the Obama administration's pillage of the public treasury to bailout Wall Street and failed banks. Photo by Nick Bygon.

The labor unions, I might add, have supported many candidates who put into place laws that hastened, if not caused, this crisis.

Some have argued that the contribution levels are regressive and that they would have supported the measure if it had a progressive means of making workers who make less contribute less?

Requiring a percentage of total earning is actually progressive. It could be even more progressive with a sliding percentage scale of retirement contribution. But as the measure currently stands, if you make more money, you pay more.

Some are getting confused because we often say that sales taxes and bridge tolls are regressive. In other words, if you have a fixed amount that everyone pays, say a 30% tax for cigarettes or a $5 bridge toll, lower wage earners are actually paying more if calculated as a percentage of their income than the wealthy. Hence, why we say its regressive.

But that’s not the case here. In fact, its the opposite. Paying a percentage of your income, even if it’s the same percentage across the board, guarantees the higher wage earners pay more. It’s also worth noting these are pre-tax dollars and they go into a retirement account that belongs to the worker. They can take the money out of these accounts, if they leave employment prior to retirement, if they choose to do so.

Todd Chretien dis-invited you from speaking at a socialist conference?

Yes, that came as a surprise to me. Although I’ve been dis-invited from things before, so I’m pretty used to it. I was once refused service at a restaurant because of my work creating the highest minimum wage in the country. And members of the local Democratic County Central Committee canceled a fundraiser on my behalf when they learned I had joined the Green Party, when I was running for Supervisor.

So, it’s not a big thing. I was more surprised that they issued a press release to announce their decision. I guess they were rather proud of it.

Next time I see Todd, I do intend on asking him what he did to labor leaders when they came out in support of the Lennar Project in Bay View Hunter’s Point? Did he dis-invite them or issue a press release condemning that?

You mean, did he disinvite labor for a vote that progressives condemned as bad for the African-American community?

Exactly. But I’ve no idea.

Well, is this rift permanent between you?

Between me and Todd? No, I doubt that. I campaigned for him when he ran for Senate against Dianne Feinstein and we’ve always been friendly toward one another. I spoke at a Socialist conference in Seattle recently with Cindy Sheehan too, so I think my “left” credentials will withstand this disagreement.

Candidate for U.S. Senate Todd Chretien leads an anti-Israeli aggression rally, 6/23/06. Peace and Freedom Party candidate for U.S. Senate, Marsha Feinland, at left.

You made comments to Luke Thomas about Labor, specifically challenging Tim Paulson to a debate. How did that come about?

When I learned that Paulson called Adachi an “embarrassment to San Francisco” and something about my drinking the kool-aid with him, I thought okay, let’s have a public forum where your allegedly better views can be scrutinized. Anyone who resorts to name calling should have to come out of the shadows and say it to my face is basically what I was thinking.

I’ve seen Jeff Adachi defend poor people, mostly African-American and Latinos, in our city’s courtrooms for over two decades and so a comment like the one Paulson made is highly offensive to me.

Paulson has apparently declined my offer, although I said I’d debate anyone he designated as a proxy. In any event, the point I made to Luke Thomas is worth repeating. Labor loves to wear the progressive mantle. But they don’t always deserve it. They will support the worse hack political candidates if those candidates gave Labor their pay raise or better retirement, regardless of what kind of measure’s they’ve pushed to hurt poor people, and regardless if those pension promises are actually illusory.

SF Labor Council head Tim Paulson congratulates Mayor Gavin Newsom on his defeat of Janice Hahn for the California Democratic Party nomination in the race for Lt. Governor, Yoshi's, 6/8/10.

Illusory?

Yeah, because it’s all premised on economic growth in a flimsy financial market.

Say more about Labor wearing the progressive mantle?

Well, a couple of things immediately come to mind. The Labor Council refused to support Prop H in 2008 that would have mandated 100% clean energy and it would have funded a study to further investigate public power. I think it was Local 6 who blocked that. Tim Paulson, on behalf of the Labor Council, spoke out in favor of the Lennar Project which is basically going to displace African-American’s from Hunters Point Shipyard. Even putting aside questions about the failure to fully remediate the Navy’s contamination, Lennar thinks 160% of AMI (area median income) will yield housing for the community, which is absurd. It doesn’t matter anyway, Lennar is already saying they’ve decided not to build over 400 rental units of housing they had promised.

They’ve done other things.

This whole debate is interesting because I’ve heard you speaking out against corporations and specifically about the need to strengthen labor unions?

That’s true, I’ve always believed in that. In April I spoke at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, one of the most conservative campuses in the U.S. I spoke to a law school class about corporate accountability, and specifically about the person-hood movement, and I also spoke to an assembly of students on progressive issues. Ironically, my talk centered around how weak the Labor movement is in our country right now and my belief that the Taft-Hartley law of 1947 needs to be repealed so Labor’s past glory can be recaptured.

In May I spoke at Cal Tech in Pasadena specifically addressing the Arizona immigration law, SB 1070. I oppose it of course and spent the time breaking it down, explaining how I thought it could be challenged.

You did something with MoveOn.Org recently, too, didn’t you?

That’s right, an event in San Francisco on how to limit the power of corporations. Rabbi Michael Lerner and New College President Peter Gabel spoke as well.

Someone said this pension reform measure was like supply-side economics? Is it?

Well, that is absurd and mostly just trying to associate it with the negative Reaganesque concept. Supply-side economics is all about eliminating regulation or reducing taxes with the thought that it will create more goods and services and that it’ll thereafter lower the price of those goods and services. Hence it’s alleged advantage. This pension reform measure has nothing to do with that idea.

Can you say something about Michael Moritz? I understand he’s the biggest financial backer to Adachi’s measure?

I don’t believe I’ve met him before. I was told he is a venture capitalist, a former board member of Google, who supported my campaign for mayor over Newsom and I know he has contributed to the presidential candidacies of both John Kerry and Barack Obama. I saw somewhere that he had given money to Max Baucus in Montana, too.

I’m not a fan of Baucus. Or Kerry and Obama for that matter. But you should probably ask Jeff about this.

What do you see the future as?

Well as it relates to pensions, I’d like to be raising wages for all workers, not just represented ones. And obviously trying to provide better pensions across the board. If we could give workers 100% of their income at retirement, I’d be all for it. In fact, I would like to see a guaranteed national retirement security system. And maybe that’s the goal, but, at this place and time, giving represented workers these packages means we have to make sacrifices elsewhere. And unfortunately, the poor and mentally ill, and services for them, all suffer. This is not just rhetoric, ask Adachi about how cuts to his office affect the neediest populations.

I think it’s great to say how we should exact more from corporations and banks and rail against capitalism. But in the absence of an immediate source of funding for these pension mandates, services for needier workers and the unemployed will be eliminated. That’s a reality.

It also places progressive politicians in a position where they appear to only be serving these mandates. Which causes the electorate to doubt they can govern on a wider scale.

Again, I want to emphasize that the decisions that place us in this unfortunate economic situation are often made by the very politicians labor unions support. Bank bailouts, wars, elimination of depression-era protections, all done by Labor’s candidates.

How’s the saying go? If you live by the sword, you die by it.

So, you’re basically arguing that these pension mandates take money away from other equally compelling needs?

If you’re putting hundreds of millions of dollars in pension programs that you didn’t used to, well those dollars aren’t going to public defending services, they aren’t going to drug treatment programs, etc.

It’s also worth noting that at the U.S. Social Forum that’s taking place right now in Detroit, excluded workers, meaning those workers who are not represented by labor unions, are trying to organize for better conditions and speaking out about their struggles. We’re talking about domestic workers, day laborers, farm workers, incarcerated workers, and others. John Sweeney, the president of the AFL-CIO says he’ll support better legislation for these workers, but let’s see if that materializes. It would be an important step to showing Labor cares about more than just their own which is what I’ve seen in San Francisco.

What should Labor do to win back Matt Gonzalez?

Labor doesn’t need to win back Matt Gonzalez, they need to strengthen themselves by being the progressive pillar they have been in the past. The trouble is, those days are the past. Let’s not pretend Labor of the 1930′s is today’s Labor. Start supporting progressive candidates and fight for progressive issues even if it puts you at odds with politicians who have granted you small favors, or big ones that you know can’t be paid for.

Rod Ciferri is a lawyer in New York State who resides in California.

  • http://www.fogcityjournal.com/wordpress/author/hbrown/ Harold Brown

    Marc,

    Where’s your comment?

    h.

  • http://www.jamiewhitaker.com jamiewhitaker

    Amen! Nice job of spelling out why SFSmart Reform IS a Progressive measure. If you approach the issue with the mindset that We All Do Better When We All Do Better, you realize keeping services intact by asking public employees to kick in some pretax income into their own livable wage pensions is the right thing to do right now.

  • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/patmonkrn/ Patrick Monk

    I just posted a more typical spontaneous streaming lack of consciousness Vivo Rojo Rant on “THE GREAT DEBATE”. But as I have to wait ten minutes before a table opens up at the Sushi Restaurant downstairs I figured I might as well pass the time by one fingering an obscure SFBG posting. I think its kinda apropos, it was in response to Seans “Muni Reform” initiative/proposition, whatever, and the suspect positions taken by purported Union/Worker “Representatives” in our city.
    And I quote – myself.

    “There is no arguing the fact that Muni is in need of some serious fixing, but why does the fix to this, and other similar budgetary conundrums, always seem to come at the expense of the workers, or involve cuts in essential services to the general public. The expenses incurred in running Muni have been a problem for decades. A “Quick Fix” has also been available and proposed for decades. The major beneficiaries of our “Public Transportation” system are the downtown businesses and corporations. [ If you dont drive a car, how long do you have to wait for a bus to get you and your kids to the beach on your 'day off'.]

    It is way past time for ‘them’ to make a significant contribution to the running and upkeep of Muni which delivers their workers and their customers to their door. It would be interesting to know how much revenue the city would receive if even 1% of the profits they transfer out of the city’s economy was levied against them.

    I am also curious as to whether or not the City Attorney intends to investigate the procedures by which the signatures were gathered to place the Elsbernd /FixMuni initiative on the ballot. For example were all the paid or volunteer signature gatherers required to carry and present the full text of the initiative and related documents, and require that all signatories were fully informed of the pros and cons.

    I trust that our current City Attorney, who apparently has aspirations to tread in Gavin’s greasy footsteps, will ensure that the same obscure, onerous and seldom enforced requirements that prompted him to negate and invalidate the rights of over 30,000 registered voters who requested a ballot initiative to further investigate and shed more Sunshine on the Lennar/BVHP Urban Renewal Project, [ a scam and boondoggle enthusiastically supported by Paulson and the SF "Labor" Council], another long run on sentence, I just hope, no demand, that our City Attorney will enforce regulations and requirements related to signature gathering in this case, with as much zeal as he did in the grassroots BVHP signature gathering effort.

    If not then I hope that our Public Defender will do what he has consistently done, even when it generates a knee jerk reaction from progressive purists, and continue to fight for and defend the rights of the people.

    I’m not ‘suggesting’ anything here…..nudge,nudge -wink,wink… but could it possibly be just a coincidence that BVHP has probably the highest number of black residents AND home-owners in the city, and that Local 250-A has probably the highest percentage of dues paying members than any other Local.

    Yo – Mr Paulson – tell me that it isn’t so !!!

    Happy 4th y’all. I’m just gonna spend some quiet time thinking about the way things were before my ancestors occupied and devastated the land and pray that we still have time to turn it around and save our planet for all life forms, animate and inanimate.

    FUCK THIS SHIT
    QUESTION AUTHORITY.

  • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/patmonkrn/ Patrick Monk

    OOPS. In vino non veritas. Correction, as if anyone but me gives a damn, but:-
    ” and that Local 250-A has probably the highest percentage of dues paying …”black”…members…”

  • mwbsf

    I support Adachi’s measure because I believe these pensions should be whole. The rest of us may have nothing or wall street casino 401ks, but these folks have earned their pensions. Let’s make sure they get them. I support this measure.

  • Ralph

    I too support Jeff Adachi’s pension reform measure. I suggest that those who would lockstep oppose the measure, read the Grand Jury report “Pensions Beyond Our Ability to Pay” to see how out-of-wack SFERS is. And for those of you who suggest that San Francisco is out to balance the budget at “the expense of workers,” you just don’t know your San Francisco history. Since 1902, when Boss Rueff picked Eugene Schmitz to run for mayor on the Union Labor Party ticket, SF has been a labor town And as the Grand Jury report recognized: “The escalation of pension costs can be attributed to many factors not the least of which being the relationship of public officials and unions who have negotiated extraordinary pension and retirement benefits today, without consideration of the unfair financial burden placed on future generations.

  • DavidinSF

    Gonzalez and Adachi San Francisco’s dynamic duo! Overlooking and protecting our great city by the bay.

  • http://sfgop.org Howard Epstein

    Nice too see that every once in a while conservatives and socialists can agree on something, but usually for different reasons.

  • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/patmonkrn/ Patrick Monk

    Howard, I agree wholeheartedly with you. I think one of the root causes of the predicament we find ourselves in today is the increasing polarization that has escalated over the last twenty years. Politicians of every stripe now seem to be focused on merely ensuring their re-election; dedication to the ‘party’ line regardless of common sense; not alienating their sponsors or supporters; etc.

    While there will always be a basic ideological divide between ‘conservatives and socialists’, sometimes resulting in violent confrontation, there was a time when accommodation could be reached on many issues, providing men and women of good faith would sit down together, reason rationally and listen to each other. When it was still possible for people of principle; eg, Pete McCloskey; to hold fast to their beliefs, even in the face of party opposition, without getting pilloried.

    I don’t pretend to be a student of history or particularly well schooled in political or legal nuance, but wasn’t a significant focus of traditional ‘conservative’ values the preservation and promotion of small business, farmers, preservation of the community, a decent standard of living for all, etc. ?.

    In many ways I think those of us at opposite ends of the political spectrum often have more in common than we sometimes dare to admit to our more doctrinaire colleagues. A case in point is a right honorable but dear departed neighbor of mine in Noe Valley for many decades, Harry Aleo.

    Harry and I were probably ‘at opposite ends’, not only of 24th Street, but also the political spectrum. Yet I had enormous respect for him. He was a man of principle and firm convictions, a crusty approachable old curmudgeon, known for his honesty, community involvement and fair dealings with his tenants. Despite our ‘disagreements’, in many ways I felt closer to him than many of the vacillating progressives in this town. His word was his bond, you could depend on it, you knew where he stood.

    Unfortunately that fealty is sadly lacking in the vast majority of contemporary politicos. The “Republicans”, and, to an only slightly lesser extent, “The Democrats”, are primarily beholden to the International Conglomerates; Mega Corporations; Big Business, Speculators, Developers and their bought and paid for ‘Representatives’. The vast majority of ‘regular folks’ are left fighting for the crumbs that fall off their table.

    Unless and until we reorder our priorities and acknowledge that we are interdependent with not only each other, but the Whole Earth, our future will continue to look very bleak.

    IN SOLIDARITY !!!!

    Patrick Monk.RN. Noe Valley.

  • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/patmonkrn/ Patrick Monk

    A picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll keep it brief.

    If anyone still has any doubt about where the Executive Director of the SF “Labor” Council stands, just look who he’s standing next to. What a despicable pair. The mealy mouthpiece of the speculators and developers, and the bosses bought and paid for stooge.

    Any truth to the rumor, started here and now, that Paulson is considering a job as Lennar’s Labor Relations Consultant ??

  • http://www.digitaljournal.com/user/515407/news Ann Garrison

    Adachi for Mayor.