My first contact with Matt Gonzalez came when I received congratulations in the form of a hand written note from him when I won my first election in July of 2001. I’m embarrassed to say that even though I should have I didn’t reply so that when I met him in person a few months later at the Green Party convention in Philadelphia in July of 2002, I apologized. Matt thought nothing of it and responded by scribbling his phone number. The next time I was in San Francisco, I called him up and had lunch with him and a couple of the staffers from his office. He gave me a tour of city hall-and we talked about Ambrose Bierce. I invited him to a concert of my music in Berkeley the next evening.
I certainly didn’t expect him to accept: this was a major big city official, after all, who I knew even from my limited experience in local government had almost surely already received numerous invitations to dinners, charity auctions, and ribbon cuttings on the same evening. More likely, my experience with politicians led me to believe that he would accept and then cancel. But there was Matt the next night, along with a friend, a striking woman named Meredith, if I remember correctly, at an obscure “new music” concert with about thirty others in attendance. He stayed to the end and was charming, warm and low key, completely comfortable with the mix of relatives, musicians and eccentric academics who are my old friends in the Bay Area. On leaving he asked someone for a ride to Bart which he and Meredith took across the bay.
All this was a surprise, and the evening left me feeling pleasantly bewildered, but what happened next shocked me. At the concert, Matt casually mentioned that he was running for the presidency of the Board of Supervisors. I replied, even more casually, that that was wonderful and that his winning would be a major step forward for him and for the Greens. “Let me know how it turns out.” He said he would.
This was on a Monday, I believe. My wife and I came home to New Haven on Tuesday and we got back into our normal routine. The following Thursday the phone rang: “John, this is Matt. I won.”
I am not even sure if I remembered who “Matt” was. A student, a constituent, a relative? My memory has actually gotten worse since I took office-yet another reason why people like Matt should be carrying the Green Party torch, and not me. Anyway, for what it’s worth, from that point on, any time “Matt” is on the phone, my response is to drop pretty much everything and ask “how high do you want me to jump.” And it appears that there are probably several thousand others who would respond in pretty much the same way- but I’m getting ahead of myself.
A nearly insignificant promise being kept-even to the letter-might seem like a small thing, but it’s much more than that when it comes to politicians. For politics is all about broken promises and there are invariably so many in the course of a campaign that we forget what they are. Politicians seem to have the ability to break promises hard-wired in their brains and this has been so for as long as I can remember.
Who even remembers Bill Clinton’s “putting people first” which morphed into “putting corporations first,” with the highest levels of wealth inequality in history emerging during his two terms. Who remembers the plans for investing in high speed rail and mass transit, in rebuilding America’s decaying cities. Who remembers using “the peace dividend” to invest in renewable energy technologies, in the arts, education and housing. And while many of us hope that Howard Dean will follow through on his promises to reverse the consolidation of the media, seriously move on national health insurance, roll back decades of anti-labor legislation, who, in her heart, really believes that any of this will materialize? All our experience in politics has taught us that what was on the table during campaigns immediately comes off once those who matter, those who paid the bills for the campaign, begin to call in their chips.
Everyone who was involved with the Gonzalez campaign knew that Matt was something different. And it wasn’t only his personality. We could have faith that Matt would keep his promises, not just because of who he was, but because of the network of friends and allies which formed the backbone of his support. Matt, unlike almost all politicians, including nominally “progressive” ones, doesn’t spend his downtime on the golf course with landlords, contracting firm executives, lobbyists, and white shoe lawyers, nor does he have any desire to. He shares a two bedroom apartment with two roommates and before taking office earned essentially poverty level wages as a public defender. With a Stanford law degree, this was not, you can be sure, a necessity for him; it was a choice.
And while he wasn’t brought up poor by any means, having made this choice Matt has joined the genteel poor. Like a lot of us, Matt may have the manners, the education, and skin color of a a stockbroker, a software engineer, or a corporate lawyer but our bank accounts and our standard of living tell a different story. We often have family resources which can protect us from financial ruin, allow us an occasional vacation, and a few middle class comforts, but we are increasingly vulnerable to higher rents, corporate out sourcing, a medieval healthcare system, cut backs in government services and the erosion of public education. People like us are increasingly realizing that we have very little in common with our childhood friends and relatives who have exchanged submission to corporatized work lives for SUV’s, high priced condos, private schools for their kids and some level of economic security. Our self-identification is no longer upward but downward, not with our former classmates and cousins across town but with our neighbors across the hall who, like us, are paying half or more of our incomes for housing, don’t have health insurance, are sending kids to increasingly degraded public schools and are living paycheck to paycheck. This was the coalition which accounted for Matt’s 47.5% showing and it is one which will need to come together for the politics of the future.
And, it turns out, I shouldn’t have been surprised by his coming to my event. Matt is a regular at any number of poetry readings, punk rock shows and theatrical performances which, like my concert, go on well below the radar screen. From the standpoint of the free market and the mass media, what we do is not even worth a second glance but to the small numbers of us who are involved in these sort of events, they are sometimes important, even profoundly so.
From spending time with us, Matt understands the depth of anger shared by artists, poets, musicians and writers directed towards a society spiritually poisoned and psychologically addled from its obsession with turning a quick buck. But unlike many of us, Matt understands that we share something with those getting gouged by landlords, getting the run-around from HMOs, those having to wait hours for a bus, those sending kids to schools without textbooks. We are all reduced to mute despair at the awareness that the media and government only has time for the “winners” -those who can afford to buy the fancy cruises advertised on T.V., the new cars, the suburban homes we see on the sit-coms. It has no time for the rest of us-we barely exist.
Matt’s particular genius, and this was clear from 3000 miles away, was to have created a community, an intense, joyful, chaotic community out of all of us-the overwhelming majority who have been made to feel that our contributions have no more value than that which the market has assigned to them, but who know down to the marrow of our bones that the price stamped on our services and our talents has little or nothing to do with our worth.
By bringing us together he has created the best kind of legend for himself and while I hesitate to say it, he has made himself a leader.
But I shouldn’t hesitate. For one of the defining characteristics of left-wing activism has been a deep distrust of both electoral politics and of leaders. While some of this is justifiable, it has a lot to do with where we are today-at the extreme margins of political life, unable to exert any appreciable political influence or even mitigate the most reactionary tendencies of both political parties. There are signs that a new political maturity is taking over based on the recognition that power is built on a partisan base from the bottom up, through organizations and coalitions very similar to the one which almost succeeded last Tuesday.
If we are going to have a leader, we could do a lot worse than Matt Gonzalez.
JOHN HALLE lives in New Haven. He is a composer, a music professor at Yale and a Green Party alderman. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org