Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Flashback to SF Mayoral Election Aftermath

Matt Gonzalez frequents the coffee shop where I spend what I like to call my morning “office hours.” It is there that I have come to recognize him, not as a city Supervisor, but as a familiar face in the neighborhood. It was only after he assumed the top city council position, and his photograph began to appear in the press, that I came to put the name and the face together. Until then he was just another neighborhood guy I would see on a semi-regular basis, perhaps with a passing smile or quick “good morning.” It was a moment of delight when I made the connection, as if to say, “Hey, I know that guy.”

Learning about the public Matt Gonzalez throughout the mayoral campaign, I was continuously impressed with his lack of plasticity. Many politicians instinctively exude the veneer of television, even while shaking hands on the street. Matt always appears human, and when he decided a few years ago to quit the Democratic Party in favor of the Greens, it was an act of principle and integrity by a man who knew which way the wind was blowing.

I have learned things about him that have further endeared him to me. While I found the tabloid-flavored newspaper pieces celebrating the youth and attractiveness of both candidates more disgusting than tantalizing, I was impressed by the fact that Matt looks the same on television as he does rounding the corner at Hayes and Fillmore. I had heard he is a fan of jazz, but I didn’t know that he played bass guitar in a rock band. A musician myself, I felt comfort knowing that we have that in common. When he speaks about artists and the poorer folk, he is speaking to us and not just at us.

There were a few times during the campaign when I would see Matt and some of his associates in the coffee shop, quietly formulating strategy and taking turns going outside to answer their cell phones. He was focused, but never imagining himself superior to his surroundings. The shameless self promotion required of a candidate for public office, the sheer amount of talking about oneself that's necessary when clarifying issue positions and fending off attacks from opponents, can easily go to one’s head. I respected the privacy of their hushed tones, while cheerfully acknowledging my novel opportunity to observe politics over breakfast.

While “stepping up to the plate,” Matt never intimated that it was all about him. If he purchased any new suits, they are quite similar to his old ones, leading me to believe that at certain moments he must have gracefully declined the advice of potential fashion handlers. George W. Bush must certainly have a makeup person. And this is San Francisco, after all.

I observed many things about Matt, both during the time I didn’t know who he was, and after. His casual gait is has a hint of slightly dragging feet, the sound of friction between shoe and floor. It’s noticeable in a quiet room, which the coffee shop becomes after the morning rush. He is sometimes accompanied by an attractive woman, better dressed than he, on their way to a meeting at City Hall or elsewhere.

What I witnessed this morning speaks volumes about his character. The day after a very public defeat, he entered the coffee shop, as if enduringly stepping right back into the flow of everyday life. When he ordered coffee for himself and his companion, I overheard both fatigue and relief in his voice.

On the day after losing the election, the ubiquitous “Matt For Mayor” signs invoked a sense of gloom. The skies over San Francisco had still not seen the front page, trumpeting Gavin Newsom’s victory. Their indecision between sunshine and downpour was a supernatural blend of catharsis, hope, and caution.

Matt purchased a Chronicle with a simple courage I silently applauded. He asked his companion, “inside or out?” inquiring where they would sit. The rain had just stopped but the bench outside was soaked. After bringing their beverages outdoors, Matt came back in for a few napkins to wipe the water from the seat they had chosen outside.

I paused to contemplate how Matt might feel about seeing reminders of defeat posted all over town. As if reading my mind, Matt came inside again, grabbed a handful of now souvenir placards and carried them outside to the bench, where he laid one next to the other, forming a temporarily protective layer on which to sit.

It was a poetic and utilitarian gesture. People often act intuitively when they think nobody is watching, when they leave public posturing aside. I was unable to see whether he placed the signs face up or face down.

I spent the rest of the day accepting the reality of the election. My proximity to the defeated this morning helped dissipate the denial that many other Gonzalez supporters must be experiencing, but I can’t help fantasizing about an alternate reality, where the absentee ballots were Green, and the celebration belonged to the underdog. With what dignity would Gavin Newsom have handled such a loss? Would he be at his local coffee shop, reading the paper and accepting smiles and condolences? Or would he be locked in at home in the Marina? We’ll have to wait at least four years for the answer.


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