Perfect Circle - G&G Interviews
A Lone Voice of Principle Broadens the Debate:
Garlic & Grass Talks With Matt Gonzalez
Matt Gonzalez grew up in a Mexican family in south Texas. From there, he went his own way, attending Columbia University and then Stanford Law School. He worked for ten years as a deputy Public Defender in San Francisco before being elected in 2000 to that city's legislative body, the Board of Supervisors. Today, as the President of the Board of Supervisors, Gonzalez holds the highest elective office that any member of the Green Party currently holds in the United States. He is also a leading candidate for mayor of San Francisco in the upcoming November 2003 election.
As part of our effort to amplify unheard political voices, and to explore a political perspective outside the mainstream media's narrow purview, Garlic & Grass sat down with President Gonzalez.
Garlic & Grass: Standing on the left end of the 11-member Board of Supervisors -- and perhaps on the left end of American elected officials today -- you're in a unique position to comment on the American political spectrum. This is Garlic & Grass's spectrum [below at right]. What do you think?
President Matt Gonzalez: I think it's very accurate. And I think looking at something like this can be valuable in helping anyone to get some perspective.
G&G: On the spectrum, the Democrats are split in two: the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) Democrats are split off to the right from, in a sense, the 'true' Democrats, who stand for different values from the DLC. What do you think about this and about where the Greens are placed?
MG: Again, I think it's accurate. But I don't know whether the 'true' Democrats are really much better, or stand for entirely different values than the DLC-affiliated Democrats. Are they really much closer to the Green Party? When you see someone like the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) being made into the darling of the Democrats, someone who opposed gay marriage and supported the Patriot Act, you see where the soul of the Democrat Party is.
But I will say that Democrats like Wellstone, and Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), are more open than the DLC Democrats, who seem to have an instinct for exclusion rather than any interest whatsoever in new ideas.
G&G: Looking forward, what do you think is the right path for the Democrats to take?
MG: Well certainly they could win more elections if they actually fixed the 'spoiler problem,' instead of blaming it on the Green Party. In city councils and at the state level in many states, Democrats are in a position where they could set up Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), a system in which voters get to rank their choices. IRV would ensure that Democrats would win more elections.
G&G: You've been active in bringing IRV to San Francisco, haven't you?
MG: Yes, and a resolution to use IRV in all local San Francisco races passed last year, and we're trying to get it implemented. Unfortunately it looks like the software hasn't been put together, so there's a fight over whether we should get into a hand-count election.
There was also a very important ballot measure on IRV in Alaska about eight months ago; it would've applied statewide, to all elections, including federal elections and presidential elections. The state Democratic Party opposed the measure, while the Republicans there supported it because there was a conservative party that was spoiling them in some elections. So it's kind of like as long as these parties don't suffer the spoiler effect, they're not really interested in the fundamental electoral reform that's necessary to widen, not the spectrum of political parties, but the spectrum of the discourse in the legislative chambers that do the primary decision-making in this country.
And I can tell you, even just being one Green on this city council, you can really change what's being talked about, what's being considered, or how an issue is being discussed. Just with that lone voice. So I think there's a certain degree of urgency for us to try to get things like IRV happening. And I think any Democrats that aren't at the forefront explaining what exactly they've done in this regard -- I think they have no standing to argue, "You've got to vote for the lesser of two evils," or "Don't vote for the person you really want, because he or she can't win."
G&G: Is it always the right idea to vote Green?
MG: I ran for District Attorney back in 1999, and I'll tell you, I've spoken to many political parties, including the Socialist Party, at a socialist conference in Berkeley a few months ago. I think there are a lot of people who are not really that interested in pursuing electoral politics.
They work in politics from a foundation of the impossibility of effecting change and reform within the system. I have the utmost respect for that opinion and rarely directly quarrel with it. It's not the opinion I happen to hold, but I really don't have a problem with someone who says, "I'm not going to bother to vote in your phony elections."
For me, now having been the individual person in politics in the Green Party here on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, I've seen that there is quite a lot of change that can happen. You can behave differently, and then people have to explain their behavior in relation to yours. So for instance, before I entered the mayor's race last month, I was the only elected official at City Hall who didn't have an open bank account. You couldn't give me money. Why couldn't you give me money? Well, because I wasn't running for anything, right? Well, neither were any of my colleagues, but my colleagues will all accept checks from you at any time. And it's this, the war chest, that they put together for their next race. It's that kind of stuff you can tear down by example. And people start to say, "Hey, if he can do it, why can't anyone else do it?"
And I think there are also opportunities for change. Recently I put a minimum wage measure on the ballot that would raise the state minimum wage from $6.75 an hour to $8.50 here in San Francisco. It's very important for low wage workers; for 50,000 low wage workers, this is going to be a big deal. This might pay their rent two months out of the year. You know? So when I look at that, I see first hand how even one very optimistic ideological person can force an issue simply by putting it on the table. It's not that my colleagues are so against these issues, it's that given the wide array of things they could be working on, they don't choose these issues. They don't choose Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), they don't choose lifting the minimum wage.
Even one ideological person can force an issue simply by putting it on the table.
- Matt Gonzalez
G&G: This is fascinating. What you're saying is, looking back at the spectrum, just by having one person a little bit off towards the yellow and green colors on the spectrum, you get a broader debate -- a debate that both allows more issues to be debated and forces the issues that are debated to be debated from a broader perspective.
MG: I force people just to vote on it. Vote against it. Show who you are by voting against this reform measure, or this good government policy. And, you know, sometimes people end up voting with you because they don't want to be seen as opposed to whatever reform measure you're pushing. But if you're not on the inside, pushing it, then when a coalition of folks makes the rounds trying to find a Board member interested in moving on an issue, the member can always say, "Aw, gee, you know I'd love to help, but I've got these other priorities," or "Well, labor isn't into it," or "Bring me this," or "Prove that to me." And then, a couple of years later, the Board member comes back to the coalition or the activists: "I need you to help me raise money for my campaign; I'm really with you and I want to fight for your issue, and I just need your help. Yes, it's true, I didn't do a thing for you yet, but I give you access, I let you talk to me, I let you feel like you're making progress. So give it back to me."
I got into the race for mayor because it was starting to feel a lot like a coronation of Gavin Newsom, and I think people are really looking for an alternative, someone who can articulate and defend progressive ideas. I got into the race to say Newsom's vision for this city is not the right vision. I think that if people hear the progressive argument, they'll sense it's about the foundation of American democracy: a concern for working class people and for a certain degree of equity and equality despite the amount of wealth you have. And while we as Americans certainly haven't yet achieved any sort of real equality, these are values that for whatever reason we believe are part of our heritage. And I think progressives can really challenge people to look at these values and say, "Hey, if it's true these are our values, then let's go implement them."
We'll see how it goes. The Greens in this city probably will not have another chance at the mayor's seat any time soon. In the last 50 years, since about 1950, only on two occasions has there been an open mayor's seat -- an incumbent who's served two terms. This happens incredibly infrequently. And this is when you have the greatest chance of people paying attention to you, because there isn't an incumbent, and for that reason alone it's important to be in the race.
I think that if people hear the progressive argument, they'll sense it's about the foundation of American democracy.
- Matt Gonzalez
G&G: Let me run something by you. One of the arguments you're using for running for mayor is that Gavin Newsom, a conservative, is the leading candidate. It looked like a coronation, so you said, well, if I can run and clearly differentiate myself from him and demonstrate that my values are core progressive American values, the people will have the clear choice they ought to have about their city. By moving to the left, away from Newsom, you stand out from the wall, where Newsom's other opponents blend in. Do you think that this transfers to the national presidential race? Is it better to run against Bush with a more clear left position that balances the views and issues of the debate on the spectrum?
MG: Personally, if you're in a political party, and you think your ideas are better than the other parties', you should be fielding candidates and trying to get them votes. What we learned in Alaska with IRV is that you only get the parties' attention on the spoiler problem if you've in fact caused a problem for them. And I get that people say, "Bush is the worst thing that ever happened," and "Oh my God, the Greens are responsible."
But look, I'm 38 years old, and I don't believe in this safe incrementalism. I don't believe in this, where every time I go to the polls, I see the name I really want to vote for, but those Republicans or whoever are too scary -- so I gotta vote for this guy who's a watered-down version of what I believe in. Why should I have to do that? This is the 21st century. Why are the Democrats and Republicans promoting nonmajority elections? Why do they let an entire state go to a candidate who wins a plurality of the votes? It's an insult to the intelligence of the folks who have run Congress for the past century to suggest through their silence that this somehow can't be fixed. You know? They're not coming to the Greens saying, "We really don't like George Bush, and we know you really don't like George Bush, so vote for our guy this time and here are the things we're going to do to enact electoral reform so that in the future you don't have to vote for our guy and you get to vote for your guy." No, they don't do that. They come to us and say: "Oh my God that Republican is so bad, you gotta vote for our guy."
And we say: "Well, what's in it for us?"
They say: "You don't like that bad guy either. That's what's in it for you."
Us: "Well, what about these issues we want to address?"
Them: "Hey, not our problem."
G&G: And the issues get swept under the rug.
MG: Yeah. [Laughs]
For me, you know, Dennis Kucinich is running, and I'm a supporter of Kucinich. I like what Kucinich has to say on the issues, and I'd love it if Kucinich got the Democratic nomination. If he did, I think you'd see a collaborative effort between the Democrats and the Greens. If someone else, like Howard Dean, gets the nomination, I think that while yes, he's an improvement over George Bush, he doesn't really address the major concerns that the Greens have, so we'll be in that same position again where people are saying, "Hey, vote for our guy, but we're not making you any promises on your issues."
G&G: Last thing. You spoke at the Socialist conference and confronted the fact that they don't vote at all. They don't participate in elections at all, and you don't hold it against them. So is your position that you either vote Green or you don't vote at all? It's not between the Greens and the Democrats; you're a step to the left on the spectrum. It's between the Green, the Socialist, and not voting at all.
MG: I like to think that when I go into the voting booth I'm voting for the best candidate. So if the Democrats field the best candidate on the issues, I'm going to vote for that candidate.
At that conference I made the bold suggestion that the socialists should field a candidate for Board of Supervisors in the Mission district. And they kind of reacted as if there's no way they could do that. I said, "No, really, you guys need to have a dialogue about this. If you have political ideas and you see things in government that you want to change, you may really want to consider going down that path." I get the sense that that's not what they want to do, that they want to organize around issues as opposed to candidates, and that sort of thing, which is certainly their right. But I think the experience of the Green Party in San Francisco -- not only with my election, but the Green Party now has two members on the School Board here too -- has really conveyed a message out to the electorate that the Greens are legitimate. You know, you can't fear what you get to see and get to know and get to rely on.
Just having a Board President who's in the Green Party, who people have respect for, is important. Some factions start to say, "Hey those Greens aren't what I thought they were." I think that that's very useful. And I think that's something the socialists and other parties on the left of your spectrum could gain as well.
Interview conducted by Tony Brasunas.
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