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.
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.
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.
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.
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.