Democratic Club signed on, as did Senator Dianne Feinstein, peninsula congressman Tom Lantos, Glide Memorial Church’s Rev. Cecil Williams, and a diverse assortment of ethnic community groups and political leaders.

They trumpeted the policy wisdom of Prop. J far and wide, only to be steamrolled by the powerful majority aligned against any such experiment.
The last thing Roberta Achtenberg expected was that her formal reentry into San Francisco politics would be hijacked successfully by a disgruntled former candidate for mayor.

Just three months prior, Supervisor Matt Gonzalez had amassed a considerable following among the City’s progressives. Gonzalez, a Stanford law graduate and experienced public defender prior to his 2000 election to the Board, had very nearly prevailed as a surprise runoff alternative to the Democratic establishment’s anointment of Gavin Newsom (losing by a 53%-47% margin).

Like the underworld, urban politics has its own holy ethic entitling losers to due consolation, and Gonzalez resolved to make Prop. J a tasty dose of comeuppance he would deliver personally to the new mayor.

For the March primary election, by which time the progressive standard-bearing presidential runs of Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich had long since fizzled, Gonzalez and six of his Board allies reconvened his mayoral campaign forces with as much leftover money and organization as they could muster, to oppose Mayor Newsom on Prop. J. Their troops camped in Gonzalez’s own former headquarters, from which they managed phone banks, a masterful media blitz and an impressive pamphleteering effort.

In essence, the fight against Prop. J rekindled the romance of Gonzalez’s mayoral run. Swing voters who had puzzled over the choice for mayor had considerably less doubt over Prop. J, and they voted in huge numbers to grant Gonzalez the booby-prize he sought.

Usually a thoughtful and principled legislator preferring careful policy deliberation to political expediency, Gonzalez used Prop. J to gain a taste of just desserts after the brass ring had narrowly evaded him.

Composing Prop. J’s own eulogy the evening of its resounding defeat, Achtenberg struggled to remain upbeat. “Tonight’s result, while disappointing, is only a temporary setback,” she told the Chronicle. “Starting tomorrow, supporters of Workforce Housing will continue advocating for it until it becomes policy. We build exactly zero units of middle-income housing in San Francisco.

That’s a shame, and it must change.” Achtenberg donned the garb of undeterred gladiator, but someone of her experience and savvy had to know that a seventy-to-thirty percent defeat betrayed nothing but the gravest of political miscalculations. She may have suffered a crushing blow to her own standing as an opinion leader and to her political capital in the housing fight. Her Monday speech to the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July, extolling John Kerry’s positions on civil rights, won her nary a mention in the Chronicle.

In San Francisco’s continuing wars over boosting housing supply, presumably Achtenberg has retreated to nurse her wounds and ponder her next move

In San Francisco’s continuing wars over boosting housing supply, presumably Achtenberg has retreated to nurse her wounds and ponder her next move. A new $200 million city housing bond measure on the November ’04 ballot may occupy her full-time, and she will remain busy girding herself for future civil rights, social justice and Chamber of Commerce issues.

But the sting of the Prop. J defeat is unlikely to wear off soon. One would not blame Roberta Achtenberg if she were to decide, in retrospect, that “workforce housing” isn’t such a fancy name after all.

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