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San Francisco left seeks to channel spirit of ’75

SF Public Press
 — Aug 17 2010 - 4:34pm

It could have been the plot of a science fiction novel, or perhaps “Rip Van Winkle.” Thirty-five years after its first meeting, the Community Congress awakens in 2010 to find its city and the world transformed — and perhaps a new reason for being.

Many things in San Francisco have changed since the first such gathering in 1975. The first Community Congress was held that June and is credited for several major political changes to the city, including rent control and district elections.

Some of the same participants of the first meeting, as well as ample new blood, convened over the weekend at the University of San Francisco to hammer out what they called a progressive platform for a more just, equitable and sustainable city.

The list of problems was long: Muni, healthcare, affordable housing and tenant rights. A few solutions: promote cooperative businesses, establish a health and human services authority, reform the rent board to increase tenant representation, establish a municipal bank and place buses in separate transit-only lanes.  

Only a few veterans from the first congress attended, including Diamond Dave Whitaker, the ubiquitous left-wing poet and self-described “local gadfly” (and one of the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s local heroes for 2010),  and Calvin Welch, co-founder of the Council of Community Housing Organizations. Welch was on the planning committee for both meetings.

1975 was a mayoral election year in San Francisco. Welch recalls that Mayor Joseph Alioto had been turned out, but not before presiding over an urban renewal program that displaced large numbers of low-income and minority residents. A host of problems plagued the city, including high unemployment, holes in the social safety net and high rent and property taxes. Welch and his collaborators wanted to coordinate a movement of liberals who represented a wide variety of backgrounds, expertise and communities. The conference drew one particularly high-profile attendee: George Moscone, who went on to win the mayoral race that year, taking office in 1976.

“We conceived of a process that would start around issue areas and then lead to a citywide community congress with the notion of bringing those folks together to agree on a common program,” Welch said of the 1975 inception. “We very self-consciously set out to try to create a network of people and a dialogue.” 

District elections of supervisors were the centerpiece of this effort.

In early 2009 Welch and his late colleague Rene Cazenave began talking with people who had institutional bases in important sectors of the city to see if they could take the time to put another community congress together. It took more than six months of discussions.

Welch said the goal was to build trust and working relationships, and by those measures, things went well. There were no fistfights or major disagreements, and they even agreed on a platform.

But although the conference attracted about 220 people over the two days, some participants questioned how representative the group was of San Francisco as a whole, and how much momentum they were able to generate.

Welch expressed disappointment at the number of people and organizations that did not attend. No one is calling this a movement, instead saying the ideas are still in the inception stages, and that the real outcomes are contingent.

 “The goal is to get people from different organizations to agree on a platform, and use it in the mayoral race,” said Corey Cook, a professor of political science at the University of San Francisco. “There’s some really smart people in the room.”