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China Policy Stirs SF Political Debate

John Dunbar

On April 9th San Francisco will be the only city in North America to host the 2008 Olympic Torch relay for the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics. 

San Francisco is home to North America’s largest overseas Chinese population.  30% of the City’s population was either born in China, or is of Chinese ancestry.  Events in China are covered here with more scrutiny, whether in the English or Chinese language daily press.

Protests started March 10th in over twenty-five places across Tibet, and in four neighboring provinces with large Tibetan minority populations.  The date echoes earlier Tibetan protests.  These recent events have initiated a fierce local debate and caused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi  (D-San Francisco) to speak out against human rights violations by the Chinese government.  Pelosi left Washington with her husband, Paul, to visit the exiled Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India on March 21st.  The Dalai Lama has lived there since the Chinese People’s Liberation Army crushed large scale protests in Lhasa on March 10th, 1959. According to published sources, 86,000 Tibetans died as a result of those protests.  China has asserted since 1949 that Tibet is part of China.  Most of Tibet has been occupied by the People’s Liberation Army since October 1950. 

In March 1989 there were also large scale protests in Tibet against Chinese occupation.  As a result, China imposed military rule on the province.  

The latest protests have resulted in 140 deaths, according to Tibetan sources.  The Chinese government counters that 22 people died, and 13 of those were caused by fires set by Tibetan protestors.  China’s continued occupation, suppression of religious freedoms, and its repopulation program involving the settlement of Han Chinese in Tibet are at the root of the present conflict. 

The world’s attention is focused on China because of the upcoming 2008 Beijing Olympics. Pelosi said the Tibetan protests represent “a challenge to the conscience of the world.”  Additionally, Pelosi said, “If freedom-loving people throughout the world do not speak out against China’s oppression in China and Tibet, we have lost all moral authority to speak on behalf of human rights anywhere in the world.”

In San Francisco, reaction to these events is focused on the April 9th Olympic Torch event. Mayor Gavin Newsom and his Board of Supervisors allies Carmen Chu and Sean Elsbernd have resisted local calls to protest China’s Tibet crackdown.  Supervisor Chris Daly is now sponsoring a resolution concerning what the Mayor actually does when the Olympic Torch is received here on April 9th.  Daly asks that the Mayor note that the Olympic torch is “received with alarm and protest."   In a March 20th Board of Supervisors committee hearing, Chu moved to strike language critical of China’s human rights record.  On a 2-1 vote Elsbernd joined Chu in striking the language, with Supervisor Jake McGoldrick dissenting.  That day McGoldrick was lobbied by a representative of the local Chinese consulate, but dissented anyway. 

Daly has vowed to reintroduce the critical language before the entire Board of Supervisors at its April 2nd meeting.

Pelosi has waded into the Olympics debate as well by releasing a statement from Washington on March 28th critical of the Chinese government: "The Olympic Charter states that the Olympics should seek to foster ‘respect for universal and fundamental ethical principles.’ Sadly, the Chinese government has not lived up to its commitments to improve the human rights situation in China and Tibet.”

To maximize its clout in local elections, elected officials who make up the San Francisco Democratic establishment like Mayor Newsom, Speaker Pelosi, Senator Dianne Feinstein, former Mayor Willie Brown and former State Senate President Pro Tempore John Burton act as a block, and make their individual endorsements in contests accordingly.   This is the essence of the “machine” that local progressives have railed against with mixed success since the 1970s.  However, in this case Pelosi is at odds with a local Democratic establishment that prefers not to offend Beijing.

Pelosi has a history of criticizing Beijing’s human rights record.  But the visit to Dharamsala, and issuing statements critical towards China about the Olympics in the run up to the Board of Supervisors vote on April 2nd suggests local political factors also are in play.  While Pelosi has never had a strong local challenge since winning her Congressional seat in 1987, she has a political antenna for what motivates her constituents.  Among left-liberal voters there is enormous discontent over the Iraq war and some frustration over the fact that Congress has not shut down funding for it.  On February 5th, Barack Obama carried Pelosi’s Congressional district against Hillary Clinton, who voted to authorize the Iraq invasion, by over 18,000 votes.

On March 16th over 500 people attended the Unitarian Church on Franklin to listen to antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan speak.  Sheehan is now running against Pelosi as an Independent, and is traveling the country to raise funds to do it.  Pelosi’s district includes all of the City’s most progressive and left leaning neighborhoods. While Pelosi’s stand on war funding, or her support of the USA Patriot Act in 2001 might not poll well, Pelosi’s willingness as House Speaker to challenge Beijing over Tibet is political capital she can bank.

April 2008

Lennar’s Political Campaign For June Land Use Vote

By John Dunbar

The powerful Lennar Corporation is turning to tested political methods to win voter approval in June. At stake is the future of the $1.4 billion development that could involve up to 10,000 housing units, hundreds of thousands of square feet of commercial office space and the future of one of the last undeveloped parts of San Francisco. The development site is the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard and Candlestick Park.

To date the Lennar Corporation has spent over $600,000 for the measure. According to filings with the Ethics Commission Lennar’s expenses include legal work, public opinion research, political consulting and public relation fees. Some of the top political talent in the City has been contracted for this work.

Land use fights are bitter in San Francisco. Former Mayor Willie Brown’s stadium mall initiative in 1997 proved a polarizing battle that Brown won narrowly but left lasting political damage. The Brown years were characterized by other development contests which contributed to the 2000 shakeup of the Board of Supervisors.

So while Mayor Gavin Newsom supports Lennar’s bid, he has former Mayors Brown and Dianne Feinstein serve as the Chairs of the Lennar effort.

Lennar is one of the nation’s largest homebuilders. Publicly traded, it has been financially devastated by the downturn in the housing market and mortgage lending crisis. According to published reports Lennar lost $1.9 billion in all of 2007, $1.25 billion in the fourth quarter alone. In 2007 its stock was downgraded to junk bond status. Turning a profit in San Francisco would help balance out losses elsewhere.

The first political problem for Lennar is the skeptical outlook San Franciscans have towards development. A large electoral block reflexively opposes any land use change. For voters who think it’s foolish to mess with perfection it’s difficult to persuade them to support condominiums and minimalist commercial office space.

The second issue is the ongoing controversy within members of the Bayview Hunters Point community over levels of asbestos dust that have been put into the air because of Lennar’s construction work at the old Naval Shipyard. This issue has been debated by both the Board of Supervisors and Board of Education in 2007. Opponents claim that a public school adjacent to the project site was exposed to asbestos dust and Lennar has yet to admit responsibility – a bad sign for future endeavors as far as the community is concerned.

These two issues explain why Lennar must invest in top political talent.
The latest chapter in the Hunters Point Shipyard development plan is another ballot measure that could also be headed for the June ballot. Sponsored by a City supervisor and neighborhood representatives, the measure if adopted would make 50% of the units sold at the new project affordable to moderate income households.

Kofi Bonner from Lennar has described the competing measure as a “poison pill.” If sponsors of the ballot initiative qualify the measure, this June’s ballot blockbuster development fight will be even more fun to watch.


March 2008



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