October 14, 2014, was an awful day, the kind of awful you remember for years. I had flown down to Los Angeles that morning to speak to an audience at Cerritos Community College about San Francisco’s battles with the ACCJC. As I got out of the car at Cerritos, I happened to check my iPhone and saw the news breaking on Facebook that, after nearly five decades of raising hell, the San Francisco Bay Guardian was no more. And then, just hours later, my phone brought the further horrible news that the city’s leading tenant activist, Ted Gullicksen, had been found dead in his bed.
I am not sure when I first met Ted, though it must have been in the early years of the last decade when I was getting involved in the local Democratic Clubs and he was regularly out at election time making the rounds of those clubs, pitching a pro-tenant reform or speaking up against yet another scheme to roll back rent control. It has always amused me that, for some on the right, Ted was somehow the embodiment of San Francisco’s “extreme” Left. To the contrary, in my experience, he was always incredibly pragmatic. The only thing extreme about him was his commitment to keeping people housed, but when it came to crafting and enacting legislation at the ballot box or in City Hall, he was brilliant and disciplined.
I have been reading the Bay Guardian since I was in high school, but it is as an adult—as a political activist and candidate—that I really came to appreciate and rely on the paper. It was for decades the primary vehicle for communicating with progressive voters. Its readership relied on the Guardian to cover important local political stories that the Chronicle and the Examiner would not cover and, at election time, to help identify the reform-minded candidates who would challenge the too-cozy relationships between politicians and the wealthiest private interests.
For the last two weeks, friends and foes of the San Francisco Left have been speculating about the likely impact of the loss of these two pillars of progressive politics. In an October 19 Chronicle piece, Heather Knight painted a portrait of a movement adrift and in decline, with the shuttering of the Guardian and the death of Gullicksen two more blows to a beleaguered movement that, in Knight’s account, has been “hemorrhaging for years.”
Tim Redmond (on his blog at www.48hillsonline.org) and Randy Shaw (on his at www.beyondchron.org) have each from their own perspectives argued that Knight both overstates the past strength of progressives and understates their current influence. As on so many things, I tend to agree with Aaron Peskin, who likens San Francisco politics to a pendulum that has swung toward the moneyed interests, but will inevitably make its way back toward reform. He told Knight: “You could have easily said the exact same thing in 1999, but everybody got sick and tired of City Hall and the pendulum swung the other way.”
Of course, there is abundant evidence that, whatever may be happening to the institutions that historically sustained the Left, its values remain deeply embedded in the City’s DNA. That evidence notably includes the successful campaigns over the last two years to control waterfront development and the resilience of David Campos’ assembly campaign, which, by drawing sharp contrasts with Chiu’s more moderate positioning, appears to have largely or entirely erased a double-digit deficit in the polls. One could add to that list the Board of Supervisors’ recent 7-4 passage of Campos’ legislation to regulate tenant buyouts, a longtime priority of and fitting posthumous tribute to Ted Gullicksen.
In his October 22 post-mortem on the Guardian, Chronicle columnist Carl Nolte surveyed the various supposed causes of the Guardian’s demise: “Economics, the decline of print and the shift to the Internet killed it, the blogsters and Twitterati all said.” But Nolte disagrees: “I think they were wrong. Nobody killed the Bay Guardian. It died of hardening of the arteries. It died of old age.”
There is a ring of truth to Nolte’s analysis, and an implicit challenge to our generation: to take a progressive tradition that made the San Francisco we know and love and to build new institutions capable of renewing and sustaining that tradition in the 21st century.
Meanwhile, at least for this election, the Guardian’s endorsements remain posted online at www.sfbg.com. And don’t forget: Campos for Assembly, and Yes on G, for Gullicksen.