It's Wednesday morning, and I have packed my bags for a long flight to Pittsburgh to attend Netroots Nation. It will be my third year going as a blogger from Beyond Chron -- but my first as a speaker. Evan Coren, who parlayed his blog activism to win a seat on the City Council in Columbia, Maryland has recruited me for a panel discussion on Friday afternoon called Local Blogs: Covering City and County Government and Empowering Activism. We will be joined by panelists from Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans -- for a superb line-up of bloggers who play a key role in their local governments. The following is my story about covering San Francisco politics ...
Local government has a bigger impact on our lives than most of us realize. As one local candidate for public office once said, "local government can make the difference between an unmitigated disaster -- and just a regular disaster." The big decisions are made at the federal and state level, but local government is where the rubber hits the road -- where we make decisions like allocating stimulus money, or blunt the damage of draconian budget cuts that come from the top. It's where zoning laws can make a crucial difference in what gets built in your community. Local politicians are far more accessible -- and a small but vocal group of citizens can show up at City Hall and have enormous power.
Bloggers play a crucial role -- not only to mobilize community activists around a common issue, but to spread information about what goes on in local government. As newspapers cut back on their staff and cover local municipal meetings with less and less frequency, often the only way people can learn about a critical hearing in their neighborhood is through a blog. And it's the reason why we started Beyond Chron for San Francisco.
Beyond Chron is unusual for most liberal blogs, in that we are published by a local non-profit organization -- the Tenderloin Housing Clinic -- that has incorporated it into the type of work that we do. It allows me to get paid for what I write, which is a huge advantage relative to most blogs that are 100% volunteer operated.
The Tenderloin Housing Clinic -- and its Executive Director, Randy Shaw -- has played a key role in San Francisco for 29 years. Founded to give free legal advice to low-income tenants in the City's most impoverished Downtown neighborhood, we have expanded our mission to provide money management services for clients on government assistance, manage fifteen residential hotels that serve as the main housing referral for the City's homeless, and community organizing to improve the life of Tenderloin residents. Randy has written three books -- The Activist's Handbook, Renewing America and the recent Beyond the Fields, which chronicles the legacy of Cesar Chavez.
The San Francisco Chronicle has long been the bane of progressive activists in the City -- and we have often made fun of it. But because it's the Bay Area only "paper of record," whatever makes it in the Chronicle dominates news coverage for the next few days -- to the detriment of tenant activists. It became most apparent in the 2003 Mayoral election, when the Chronicle's coverage of the Newsom-Gonzalez race was akin to how Fox News covered the Bush-Kerry race. We had to fight back, and in April 2004 started Beyond Chron. We are now one of the top local San Francisco blogs.
I was in law school when Randy started Beyond Chron, but had worked as a community organizer at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic from 2000 to 2003. When I graduated from law school in 2006, I joined Beyond Chron as the Managing Editor -- where I have been working ever since (despite having passed the California Bar Exam on the first try!)
Most recently, I have done extensive work at Beyond Chron analyzing the San Francisco budget. In these tough times, every city government is going through painful budget cuts - but in San Francisco we have been hit by California's budget crisis (Netroots Nation will also have a panel discussion Saturday on the state budget.) Moreover, non-profits like the Tenderloin Housing Clinic are always a "political football" during budget season between the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors -- so we fully expected to see drastic cuts from Gavin Newsom.
Add the fact that we have a dysfunctional city government culture -- where the Mayor refuses to engage the Board of Supervisors, Gavin Newsom is running for Governor and is preparing every move with an eye on the statewide electorate -- and we have a genuine recipe for disaster.
On June 1st, Newsom released his budget proposal for the 2009-2010 fiscal year -- which the Supervisors then have a month to scrutinize and offer amendments. In typical Newsom fashion, he spent an hour going through details -- in a wonkish sounding presentation that sounds very impressive for those unaware of the context. His budget would have no tax increases, no layoffs of police and firefighters and only $43 million in Health Department cuts (as opposed to the much higher numbers we were afraid of.) And besides, said Newsom, he cut 28 percent out of the Mayor's Office.
It sounded too good to be true, because it was. Not laying off police or firefighters sells well to Southern California voters -- but meanwhile the City has a $500 million deficit. After his speech in front of a packed press conference, most reporters simply turned to members of the Board of Supervisors and got a quote or two reacting to the Mayor's speech. I didn't see the point, because the Supervisors didn't know anything more than we did. So I picked up the Mayor's budget, and tried something revolutionary -- I read it.
Newsom wasn't cutting $43 million out of Public Health -- it was over $100 million. And the Mayor's Office was actually getting a 60 percent increase in funding, although most of that was from federal grant money that the office would dole out. He was downsizing his staff -- but only by 8 percent, and those positions were just being re-allocated to other City agencies. In other words, the Mayor lied -- and had the nerve to think he could get away with it. And he almost did, since no one else in the media bothered to read the budget.
I like to tell this story, because it shows how easy it is for bloggers willing to put in the hard work to break a significant story at the local level because the traditional media has abdicated its responsibility. Over the next several weeks, I attended numerous Budget Committee hearings at City Hall -- and pored over the Budget Analyst's reports on City departments. Beyond Chron became one of the "go-to" websites for those wanting to follow the San Francisco budget, and I am proud of the work we put into that effort.
A month later, an unprecedented $43.7 million in crucial programs that serve the City's poor were saved by the Board of Supervisors -- thanks to the hard work of community organizers to fight cuts in health and human services. But the process was deeply flawed; much of the Mayor's pet projects remain, and the Fire Department -- despite getting a $6 million cut -- is still bloated and top-heavy. And now that we got more bad news from the state budget, San Francisco has to make $18 million in mid-year cuts -- with probably more down the line.
It's why we still need local political blogs ... and why the work you do to cover City Hall in your own community is crucial, and can have a decisive impact in peoples' lives.
Please join us on Friday at 1:30 p.m. in Room 315/316 at the Convention Center -- soon after the Arlen Specter-Joe Sestak debate. If you want to send a question for the panel on Twitter before or during the panel, please use the hash-tags #nnlocal or #nn09. If you cannot attend, a video of our panel will be archived at http://www.netrootsnation.org/video.
Paul Hogarth is a lawyer and community organizer at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, a non-profit in San Francisco that also publishes Beyond Chron -- voted the Bay Area's "Best Local Website" in 2008. Paul is Beyond Chron's Managing Editor, where he covers City Hall, affordable housing, and marriage equality. He is a former elected member of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board, and almost filed to run for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors this year. Paul has appeared on CNN's "Blogger Bunch" to discuss Prop 8, and is a frequent guest on Bay Area radio shows about local politics.
Follow Paul Hogarth on Twitter: www.twitter.com/paulhogarth