December 6, 2000
life | extra
Tony Hall, a dissenting view
Taking a stand
Public defender Matt Gonzalez's progressivism runs deep
MATT GONZALEZ LIKES to talk, and to listen. In the clamor of a hectic runoff campaign, his staff is organizing phone banks and dropping literature. But the candidate himself would rather discuss the issues, in depth. One campaign worker says that in an afternoon of meet-and-greet at Safeway, Gonzalez talked to a single voter for an hour and a half.
Voters are apparently listening. Gonzalez was by far the top vote-getter in the Nov. 7 general election. Now he faces a Dec. 12 runoff with the well-funded Juanita Owens, a member of the San Francisco Board of Education and longtime political hack who has the support of Mayor Willie Brown (see "Past Imperfect").
Growing up in a Mexican family in conservative south Texas, Gonzalez always went his own way in ninth grade he quit the football team for the debating club. Debating led him to philosophy and political science at Columbia, which led him to Stanford Law School. And a summer at the California Appellate Project, fighting death-sentence cases, helped confirm Gonzalez's belief that the law could be a friend to the powerless.
"You see ugly stuff in [death penalty] cases," he says. "You look at the race of the defendant, the race of the victim, and you realize the incredible arbitrariness."
In 1991 he was hired by San Francisco's Public Defender's Office, where he became one of the department's finest trial lawyers. In his nine-year career Gonzalez has represented nine defendants facing life sentences. He won eight cases outright; the case he lost was reversed on appeal.
Last year Gonzalez made his first foray into electoral politics when he challenged District Attorney Terence Hallinan, then running for reelection. Hallinan had taken a progressive approach to the prosecutor's job, but Gonzalez thought Hallinan's management skills weren't up to the task.
"There was a lot of stuff in the press about him doing stuff wrong, and it was blamed on the fact that he was a progressive," Gonzalez says. "I got into the race to defend the idea of a progressive D.A." Hallinan was reelected; Gonzalez placed third. But his passion and expertise with criminal-justice issues put his name on the map.
As a candidate for supervisor, he has had to weigh in on a broader set of topics, both city- and neighborhood-oriented. But he didn't have much to learn about one hot-button issue: the disappearance of arts space. Gonzalez serves on the board of local nonprofit Intersection for the Arts, and he edited and published a small-press edition of the works of beat poet Jack Micheline.
"Matt is intimately involved in the arts; it's an organic connection," his friend Marc Capelle says. A local musician, Capelle believes city hall needs someone like Gonzalez to defend space for artists.
But saving arts space and implementing the rest of Gonzalez's agenda will take more than one supervisor. "I want to see a progressive majority on the board, and the historic moment is there," Gonzalez says. "To be part of a coalition on the board to counter the legislation or lack thereof that's out there right now would be wonderful."
His role in such a coalition, he predicts, will be to bring in swing votes. "You can't win people who are bought," he says. "But for folks who are thinking about the issues, I can bring them in."
Gonzalez's insistence on expressing his convictions has caused at least one stir in the campaign. Soon after the general election, he changed his voter registration from Democrat to Green. He explained the switch in an opinion piece in the Nov. 15 Bay Guardian.
Gonzalez says he changed parties because he was tired of waiting for the Democrats to pay attention to the left. However, the decision made waves with some of his supporters, who fear he'll alienate Democratic voters. A stuffed Kermit the Frog on a shelf in his campaign office testifies: it ain't easy being Green.
Sure enough, Owens immediately sent out a mailer stating, "There is only one Democrat running for supervisor in District Five." Gonzalez changed parties, she preposterously charged, "in order to pursue his political agenda."
Gonzalez stands by his decision. "Not a single one of my positions on any issue has changed," he says. He sees himself as a reflection of District Five's left-of-center politics. "I can become a Green and get elected from this district," he says. "I can come from the left and be an iconoclast. People here get it."
E-mail Gabriel Roth at firstname.lastname@example.org.