Category Archives: Long-form Journalism

Progressively Worse: The Tumultuous Rise and Fall of San Francisco’s Left

(This article first appeared in the SF Weekly)

Even last year, people were talking about the city’s “progressive machine.” The welcome mat to City Hall was crafted locally, out of hemp. Progressive supervisors held a legislative majority and controlled the agenda. At last, crowed the Bay Guardian, progressives could install a mayor espousing “San Francisco values,” now that Gavin Newsom was off to become Lieutenant Governor and look busy.

Nobody talks like that anymore.

Between lost elections and internal defections, the progressive bloc has been reduced from a reliable six-to-eight supervisors (a majority and occasional supermajority) to a solid three or four — John Avalos, David Campos, soon-departing Ross Mirkarimi, and Eric Mar. They lost control of legislative committees. Board President David Chiu is a progressive apostate who despises them only slightly less than they despise him. In this month’s mayoral election, progressives were beaten by Lee, the man they helped put into power, but they are thrilled — thrilled — to have placed a distant second. Losing by less than you thought you would is the new winning, for progressives.

Daly was right. But the progressive fall from power was more than just a fumble. The whole playbook was flawed.

Ten years is a long time to hold a coalition together. Progressives’ decade dominating the board was a hell of a run. While it’s easy to focus on their foibles, progressives pushed through major changes that altered many aspects of city life. Even their opponents concede they could be effective legislators with big ideas.

But as the city changed, progressives didn’t. Astoundingly, the city’s dominant political coalition never developed an effective fundraising apparatus, never engaged in outreach beyond catering to the supporters it already had, and never created the kind of organization needed to run an effective citywide race. For a movement stocked with community organizers, they did remarkably little organizing. Avalos is just the latest progressive mayoral hopeful who “rallied the base” — and lost. But it’s not Avalos’ fault his predecessors didn’t build a citywide organization on the way up, which would have made his run so much easier. Now, they’re all on the way down.

So, yes, progressives fumbled. But their real problem was running only their favorite plays, in front of their own cheerleaders, not realizing they wouldn’t win without moving the ball across the entire field.


Continue reading Progressively Worse: The Tumultuous Rise and Fall of San Francisco’s Left

Out of the Wilderness: The Future of Burning Man Isn’t in the Desert. It’s Everywhere Else

(This originally appeared in the SF Weekly)

On the first Tuesday in August, the staff and volunteers of Burning Man’s media team come together to prep for the big event. It is 20 days out, close enough that they are already worried about staying hydrated.

They’ve approved just over 360 media projects from around the world to attend Burning Man this year — significantly fewer than years past. They’ve decided not to approve CNNs’ project this year because CNN ultimately wouldn’t agree to their terms.​

The team can be choosy. Burning Man is a perfect media storm: visually stunning, culturally challenging, and full of explosions. There’s not a media outlet in the world that can resist. This year Sarah Palin’s new TV channel requested 10 complimentary tickets and time to interview Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey. Palin herself was asking to come in for half a day to be filmed by her crew.

The people sitting around this table and on the phone are the ones who say no. It’s kind of a thrill.

The meeting is headed by Burning Man’s paid media staff, but as with almost everything Burning Man it’s the volunteers who make up the vast majority of the team. They’re a diverse group, ranging from a photographer in Ohio to a government official in Chicago to an academic in remote Canada to a network administrator in Singapore.

Hundreds of reporters, media outlets, and documentarians submit their applications to come and shoot video or photographs each year. When the reporters reach Burning Man, volunteers will give them ID badges identifying them as press (for years the badges have read “This entitles you to absolutely nothing”), tag their cameras, and help them find the story they’re trying to tell.

But this premise is flawed.

Increasingly, “Burning Man” is not happening at Burning Man. Go to the desert and you miss the story. Not because the event is unpopular — more people come every year, forcing a current population cap of 70,000. Not because it’s “jumped the shark,” lost the magic, or any of the other “it’ll never be cool again” things scenesters have been saying ever since the first person who didn’t belong to the San Francisco Cacophony Society showed up with a tent.

Rather, Burning Man culture has left the temporary building: It has crossed the desert and outgrown San Francisco.

If you want know whether Burning Man is a major philosophical movement that will change the world or a boutique system for throwing art parties, you have to look at its frontiers. That’s where Burning Man’s future will be decided.


Continue reading Out of the Wilderness: The Future of Burning Man Isn’t in the Desert. It’s Everywhere Else

The Forbidden City: How the Happy Meal ban explains San Francisco

(This originally appeared in SF Weekly, co-written with Joe Eskenazi)

In August 2010, San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar decided that city intervention was needed to help him raise his daughter.

As Mar later told reporters, he was shocked to discover a trove of toys from McDonald’s Happy Meals stashed in her room. Mar was the one taking his daughter to McDonald’s and buying the food — but he said that the “pester power” of a preteen was simply too much for him to withstand on his own. So he proposed that the city ban restaurants from including toys with meals of more than 600 calories that lack agreed-upon amounts of fruits and vegetables.

Mar’s “Healthy Meal Incentive Ordinance” subsequently passed in November by an 8-3 vote in the Board of Supervisors — a veto-proof majority. Barring legal action, the Happy Meal as we know it will be verboten in San Francisco come Dec. 1. Eric Mar’s daughter has been saved.

Both conservative blowhard Bill O’Reilly and left-leaning comedian Lewis Black — and many, many people in-between — were left to wonder “What the hell?” in the wake of San Francisco’s ban. It’s not the first time. In recent years, San Francisco government has passed numerous laws to make us healthier, greener, and — in the city’s eyes — all-around better people. Whether we like it or not. This includes banning the sale of cigarettes in drugstores, and, later, supermarkets; banning plastic bags in large chain stores; banning bottled water in City Hall, and the sale of soft drinks on government property; banning the declawing of cats; making composting mandatory; and forbidding city departments from doing business with companies that were involved in the (pre–Civil War) slave trade, yet haven’t publicly atoned.

The city may yet ban the sale of any pets except fish, and the sale of bottled water during events on public property. Banning foie gras, meanwhile, didn’t catch on, even here. Neither did allowing the city to prosecute anyone who depicts images of animal cruelty if they set foot in San Francisco — essentially the same niche Belgium has carved out for itself with accused war criminals.

San Francisco’s acumen for imposing bans has grown so pronounced that when an anticircumcision zealot began disseminating a petition to criminalize the practice within city limits, observers nationwide didn’t write it off as fringe lunacy but, instead, saw it as just another day at the office in San Francisco.

That ban didn’t make the cut. And San Francisco does not have a monopoly on banning things. But nowhere else can you ban so much with such ease and so little political blowback.

Continue reading The Forbidden City: How the Happy Meal ban explains San Francisco

Let it Bleed (Everything you need to know about San Francisco’s budget problems)

(This originally appeared in the SF Weekly, co-written with Joe Eskenazi)

“Infinite” is not a word you expect to find in a report on municipal spending. It’s more of a science fiction–type term — Tremble, Earthling, before the infinite might of Galaxor! But there it was, in a recent report on San Francisco’s finances: Spending on the city’s employee retirement system in the past decade had grown at an “infinite” rate.

Naturally, that’s an exaggeration. If you do the math, the city’s retirement costs for employees in the past 10 years actually grew only 66,733 percent.

Still, you might call that a Galaxor-sized number.

In fiscal year 1999-2000, the city spent about $300,000 on its retirement system. In fiscal year 2009-10, it was $200.5 million. Benefits alone — not salaries, just benefits — for current and retired employees this year are budgeted at $993 million. Spending on retirees’ health care and pensions is conservatively projected to triple within five years.

And after that? Infinite.

This is not a conspiracy but, rather, a mathematical certainty. It’s also not a surprise. Every San Francisco government official who can do math has known about this calamity for years.

Continue reading Let it Bleed (Everything you need to know about San Francisco’s budget problems)

The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.

(This originally appeared in the SF Weekly, with Joe Eskenazi as a co-writer)

Despite its good intentions, San Francisco is not leading the country in gay marriage. Despite its good intentions, it is not stopping wars. Despite its spending more money per capita on homelessness than any comparable city, its homeless problem is worse than any comparable city’s. Despite its spending more money per capita, period, than almost any city in the nation, San Francisco has poorly managed, budget-busting capital projects, overlapping social programs no one is certain are working, and a transportation system where the only thing running ahead of schedule is the size of its deficit.

It’s time to face facts: San Francisco is spectacularly mismanaged and arguably the worst-run big city in America. This year’s city budget is an astonishing $6.6 billion — more than twice the budget for the entire state of Idaho — for roughly 800,000 residents. Yet despite that stratospheric amount, San Francisco can’t point to progress on many of the social issues it spends liberally to tackle — and no one is made to answer when the city comes up short.

The city’s ineptitude is no secret. “I have never heard anyone, even among liberals, say, ‘If only [our city] could be run like San Francisco,'” says urbanologist Joel Kotkin. “Even other liberal places wouldn’t put up with the degree of dysfunction they have in San Francisco. In Houston, the exact opposite of San Francisco, I assume you’d get shot.”

Who is to blame for this city’s wretched state of affairs? Yomi Agunbiade, that’s who. Metaphorically, that is.

Continue reading The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.

Putting the Test to the Test

(This originally appeared in 2003, on the 10 year anniversary of the establishment of the New York State’s mandatory standardized testing regimen, now more commonly known as “the Regents Exams.”)

After almost 10 years of controversy, New York State education officials insist that their new standardized tests have improved classroom teaching and raised the achievement levels of high school graduates.

“Prior to the early 1990s there were no such thing as education standards in New York,” said Deputy Education Commissioner Jim Kadamus. “Under the old system, we had a two-track system: some kids got the Regents, some kids didn’t.”

Yet critics of the state’s program say it may actually be doing more harm than good. And Kadamus and others cite virtually no hard statistical evidence behind most of their claims.

Milton Cofield, a member of the New York State Board of Regents, was asked at a December public meeting in Rochester to name even a single study showing that the Regents exams have been accomplishing everything the state claims.

He couldn’t.

Kadamus himself acknowledged in February that the state actually has no statistical information showing that the Regents exams have worked. Or that they should work.

“The evidence we have right now is anecdotal,” he said.

Continue reading Putting the Test to the Test