Mr. Lie and the Sad State of SF Politics
Politics in San Francisco can be a blood sport or a farce — sometimes both at once — but we sometimes forget that real people’s lives are affected by the high-stakes struggle for control of The City. Families get divided or displaced, reputations get ruined, stress and insecurities mount, our ideological enemies become demons, and the truth gets buried under mountains of self-serving rhetoric.
I’ve had some poignant opportunities to ponder the State of the City over these last few days, the most powerful coming last night at a press preview for actress Eliana Lopez’s new bilingual play, “Cual es el Escandalo?” (“What is the Scandal?”), about the 2012 scandal she endured with her husband, progressive SF Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.
“This was a very sad and dark moment in San Francisco politics,” Lopez said during the play, which was written and directed by her brother, Alfonso, who she grew up with in Venezuela.
Indeed it was dark and sad, starting when police leaked to the press a report that Mirkarimi had grabbed Lopez’s arm during an argument, then as the matter blew up into his prosecution on domestic violence charges and an attempt by Mayor Ed Lee to remove Mirkarimi from office for official misconduct, which failed but nonetheless became a toxic issue that the mayor and his financial backers have tried to not let anyone forget.
With Mirkarimi facing re-election this year, San Franciscans were already going to subjected to yet another round of political mailers and other attack ads inaccurately calling him a “wife-beater” and feigning overwhelming concern about domestic violence, an important issue that the city’s fiscally conservative power brokers have cynically transformed into a blunt force weapon to attack progressive politicians.
But Lopez has now launched a preemptive attack with her courageous, artistic re-telling of that ugly saga, illuminating what happened with intriguing personal insights. While presented as a “fictionalized account of real events,” one that wraps factions of her critics into a pair of composite characters (Mr. Lie and “The Neighbor”), this story will ring true for those who closely followed the events as they unfolded, as I did in covering the case for the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
We see through Lopez’s eyes as she leaves her family and a successful acting career in Venezuela to marry then-Supervisor Mirkarimi despite their language barrier, the stressful adjustments to the demands of motherhood and being a political wife in a strange land, and how suddenly everything exploded in a scandal that tore apart her family and cast her in new roles, from the helpless victim to conniving co-conspirator, that didn’t fit her self-conception.
During a Q&A after the performance, Lopez graciously said that she doesn’t question anyone’s motives, and that everyone probably thought they were doing the right thing. And she said her reason for opening up those old wounds was to promote healing and perspective: “We should have a conversation and see the human side of this.”
Nonetheless, the play highlights the hypocrisy of those who claimed to be acting to protect and help her — particularly the overly friendly neighbor, Ivory Madison, who betrayed Lopez’s trust and called the cops; and Mayor Lee, who overreached on his accusations against Mirkarimi before even launching an investigation and without ever trying to talk to Lopez — while doing real damage to her and her family.
The play’s Mr. Lie is a thinly veiled caricature of Lee, right down to the squat mustache and squinty grin, but Lopez said that the character is an amalgam of the law enforcement and political establishment figures who spent millions of dollars of public money trying to destroy Mirkarimi, such as District Attorney George Gascon, Police Chief Greg Suhr, mayoral Chief-of-Staff Steve Kawa and venture capitalist Ron Conway, Lee’s main political benefactor and a source of funding for political hit pieces that have tried to amplify and distort the scandal for political reasons ever since.
This is the establishment that Mirkarimi will be running against this year, and there are some who think that he has no chance, but I don’t agree. At a time when cop culture — with its brutality, racism and hair-trigger willingness to tell calculated lies — is undergoing much-needed public scrutiny across the country, the timing might be lucky for Mirkarimi.
He was the chosen successor of popular and progressive longtime Sheriff Michael Hennessey, who people sometimes forget was regularly vilified by the law enforcement establishment that he sought to reform, often with great success, and they challenged him in just about every race he ran over 40 years.
This time is no different, even though Mirkarimi’s critics will try to make the race all about that time he grabbed his wife’s arm, rather than the reform of a police culture that has been staging gladiator-style fights in San Francisco Jail, illegally shaking down poor people and protecting property and privilege more than people.
Sadly, most of the contests on this year’s ballot are only proxy battles against the real source of problems and popular concerns in this city: Mr. Lie, or rather, Mayor Lee. He and the powerful people who placed him in office to do the bidding of capital have effectively cleared the field using back-room threats and promises, leaving only token opposition.
That includes the most recent entrant, Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, who told me this week that he can’t win and is mostly doing it as an exercise to explore in his San Francisco Examiner column. “It’s more interesting to do this as a journalist,” he told me this week.
Maybe, but that’s not terribly helpful for the rest of us, who need real candidates to be talking about how this city has gotten off track by catering to the wealthy while displacing and disempowering the working class. Another candidate, Amy Farrah Weiss, is running a campaign that’s part policy wonk and part hippie healer (her mantra is YIMBY: Yes in My Back Yard), but it also won’t be the sharp critique of how power is being wielded, and in whose interests, that this city really needs.
The most inspiring and promising political movement now underway is the fiery activism coming out of the Mission District where I live, which this Tuesday will stage another “The Mission Invades City Hall” in support of Sup. David Campos’ legislation to create a moratorium on market-rate development in the Mission, trying to put the brakes on displacement until the city can develop a real plan to build more affordable housing.
When they invaded City Hall a few weeks ago, the police and political establishment looked like they were ready for a war, barricading the Polk Street entrance to the building and having cops in riot gear at the ready. It was a shameful display by those who run this city, but these people have proven themselves shameless.
The same monomaniacal quest to consolidate power and punish their enemies that animated the Lee Administration during the Mirkarimi scandal has continued today in their efforts to alienate, divide and weaken the last remnants of this city’s once-strong progressive movement. It’s dispiriting, something that drives us all a little crazy.
Last night, after the play, I gathered with friends over beer and food just down the street from the Mission Arts and Cultural Center that staged the play. Inside, I experienced a strange series of events that I’m still sorting out.
First, two progressive activists wielding “No Monster in the Mission” literature tried to educate us on the issues and encourage us to attend Tuesday’s event, but they did so by talking at us in a shrill and condescending way, accusing us of “being all about frat parties” and “probably not from San Francisco.” It was weird and unsettling, and probably a sign of how desperate progressive activists have become during this dire times.
Then, we were joined by a Reuters reporter who was covering the play and anguishing about how there was nothing of substance there for him to write about, dismissing it as “fictionalized” and therefore irrelevant. I told him that there was more truth in that play than he’ll hear at most press conferences, but it didn’t seem to penetrate.
Finally, Lopez and her brother showed up and joined us, and we got a chance to chat at length about the play, their perspective on what happened and the sad state of San Francisco politics. The “very sad and dark moment” that Lopez chronicled continues to this day, even if it’s been tidied up by the false veneer of political unanimity.
No, readers, these are tough times and the divisions are real, but with the sorry state of the mainstream journalism these days, maybe it’s the artists who have the most to offer us right now. So do yourself a favor, catch “Cual es el Escandalo?” this weekend or next, and let’s start to have a real conversation about what happening to our city.