The Art of Public Service: A Q&A with former SF Mayor Art Agnos

As originally printed in our October 26th print edition, this is the extended interview with former Mayor Art Agnos.


My wish list of people to receive a San Francisco tour from has always included Jerry Garcia, Dianne Feinstein — and now — former mayor Art Agnos. During the eighties, Agnos oversaw a city that is almost unrecognizable to today’s San Francisco. For one, there was a freeway along the Embarcadero, which Mayor Agnos removed after it crumbled in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The horrific AIDS crisis ravaged the city, which Mayor Agnos combatted by increasing the city’s AIDS budget by 98 percent. Even after moving to larger state and national roles, Agnos still focused his advocacy on San Francisco, fighting against a 2013 bill to allow developers to build high-rises along the Bay’s waterfront.


Because of these accomplishments, former Mayor Art Agnos is the recipient of the Leo T. McCarthy Center’s award for public service. He will be awarded the honor on Nov. 9, along with a keynote from his self-proclaimed mentor, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.


Agnos reflects on his years as mayor and the current state of the city with the San Francisco Foghorn.


DeFazio: You were Leo McCarthy’s chief of staff when he was was speaker of the assembly. How does it feel now to receive an award in his namesake?


Agnos: It’s the greatest honor I’ve ever received to be recognized by a great university that houses the McCarthy Center. He was my mentor, my big brother, my just closest friend, my best friend, best man at my wedding, all of that. It’s a great honor to be recognized by an institution that houses a center that works on educating young people who are interested in public service. Thats what he did with me. He trained me and showed me the way to be effective working for people.


DeFazio: What do you think he would say know if he was here to see you accept this award?


Agnos: *Laughs* What would Leo say now? He would probably joke a little bit about it because we were that close and say, “Couldn’t they find anyone better than you, Art?” But, he would be very proud, because he was always very proud of me as I went on. He encouraged me — even though I was his number person — to move on into public life myself. He was the main source of my support for the campaign for the assembly in 1975 and he was a major supporter, advisor, counselor in my campaign for the mayor in 1987.


DeFazio: I actually did the UCDC program through the McCarthy Center and it was the best thing I did at USF. It wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the McCarthy Center.


Agnos: Absolutely, we wanted to give young people the chance to understand that there are many ways to be in public service. Not only elected office, but appointed office and volunteers. And just to get an orientation and you go into the private sector as an executive of some sort. It is a great asset to understand the machinery of government and the nature of politics.


DeFazio: How did San Francisco became the city you ended up devoting so much of your life to?


Agnos: Well, I grew up in New England and after graduate school, I felt I wanted to explore new parts of the country and get away from a small town where I grew up — Springfield, Massachusetts — and come to San Francisco, which had a world-class image of a city, of values, a city of diversity. It sounded like the place I wanted to be in the sixties and it turned out exactly what I was expecting. I wanted a sense of opportunity.


DeFazio: Yeah, with what you’re saying about San Francisco — diverse, opportunity, another question I had was that in a lot of ways you helped give San Francisco the progressive reputation it now wears so proudly. You appointed more minorities in top city positions than ever before, you extended partner benefits to same-sex coupes decades before other cities, pushing to increase African American and women in the SFFD. How do you think San Francisco is doing now in terms of leading the country in progressivism?


Agnos: It’s struggling. It’s struggling because the sense of opportunity that I came here for and the affordability of the city is under great duress. Because of policies from City Hall that have not prioritized — despite all of the political rhetoric — does not prioritize the opportunity and the affordability that has always characterized SF.


The planning processes of San Francisco frankly are skewed in favor of high-rise, rich developments. And that’s not conducive to bringing in the kind of people who have always made San Francisco the extraordinary place it is; the artists, the teachers, the entrepreneurial restaurateurs. Just the whole working group of people that create San Francisco and the ambiance that characterizes it.


DeFazio: What policies do you think are to blame for why this has happened?


Agnos: We have not been aggressive enough in demanding affordable housing from every developer that comes to City Hall. We have allowed developers to skate away from meaningful responsibility to build affordable housing.


In my opinion, it ought to be 35 to 40 percent on every single project. And if developers say they can’t afford to do 35 or 40 percent affordable housing, then I would tell them to wait until they can. And if we had had a policy like that, which was the policy by the way when I was in City Hall; it was far more aggressive, if had that policy been in place for the last three mayors, we wouldn’t have an affordable housing crisis today. We wouldn’t have a homeless problem today.


We have allowed developers to dictate the kind of housing that has been built in San francisco for at least 25 years. Unfortunately, their priority, their focus is one thing: profit. How much money can they make on each development? And we want them to make money or they wouldn’t be in business, but we have to take a share of that and build affordable housing, which also can pay for itself. It’s just not as lucrative as the expensive, high-rise housing that characterizes the developments today.


DeFazio: For me researching into your time as mayor to mayors now, it seems like a different world.


Agnos: It was! You know why? Because I was the second [progressive mayor of San Francisco], but the first one to serve four years. The first progressive mayor in the history of San Francisco was George Moscone, who also was a state legislator before. He was a liberal or progressive as they call them today. Unfortunately, as you know, he was assassinated before he finished two years. But a lot of the policies I began to implement, part of them came from him.


For example, one of the things that he did that I copied, that I picked up from him, that has never been repeated again: In order to make sure that we empowered the neighborhoods and the people in them, [Moscone] created a committee on commissions in which a group of citizens came together to interview and recommend people to serve on the commissions that dictate policy for our city.


When I became mayor, I did the same thing. I created a committee of fifty people who interviewed hundreds of applicants for the police commission, the planning commission, the public utilities commission, all of the commissions. [They] then gave me recommendations as to what would be the best balance in terms of gender, best diversity in terms of ethnicity and race and creed and all that stuff. And I picked my commissioners from that approved list from a citizen’s committee. That’s why we had the broadest diversity, as you suggested in your comment, in the history of San Francisco.


For example, let me just give you how weird things were historically. Lesbians were never picked to serve on the fire commission because there was this mythology — believe it or not — that said lesbians start fires!


DeFazio: Hah!


Agnos: Have you ever heard of something that crazy?


DeFazio: No never! God, it was a different world.


Agnos: And to just blow up that mythological stereotype, I put a lesbian for the first time in the history of San Francisco — an up front lesbain, there may have been somebody in the closet — but an upfront lesbian on the fire commission and she turned out to be a superstar. Especially during the earthquake. She was the one who arranged for us to get another fire boat that we used in the earthquake in 1989.


DeFazio: Yea, you certainly blew up that myth. I hadn’t even heard of the myth.


Agnos: Isn’t that wild? I was the first mayor in the history of San Francisco to have gay men and lesbians as bodyguards, police officers I mean. A couple of lesbians and a couple of gay men who were part of my security, bodyguards. I was the first mayor to ride in the gay freedom day parade.


In fact, funny story. My youngest son was six years old and I thought it was important for my whole family to be in that parade, just as they normally are in other parades, whether it’s the Chinese New Year parade or St. Patrick’s Day.


But mayors had never ridden in the Gay Freedom Day parade and I brought my family and we rode down Market Street in the parade and […] when we finished the parade, the 6 year old, Stevie, he said “Dad, that was great! Can we go back and do it again?!” *Laughs* He loved the parade. They all did, because the crowd was so warm and receptive.


DeFazio: Mayor Agnos, what the heck is “Camp Agnos?”


Agnos: Yeah. Good question. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the homeless were made homeless again. And let me explain what that means.


[…] In the south of Market we had a number of SRO [Single Room Occupancy] hotels that the city was using to house homeless people. And when the earthquake came, those hotels were damaged so these formerly homeless people were back on the streets homeless because the hotels were not habitable.


A group of about 400 [homeless persons] set up camp with tents like you see today in Civic Center — right in Civic Center across from City Hall. And we had no place to put them because there were thousands of people left homeless because of the damage of the earthquake. The homeless were the only ones who didn’t have the kind of extra resources that other people had. They were dependent on the city and the city had just lost it’s primary source of housing in these SRO hotels that we paid for the to live in.


It was mess to be very honest. It was mess because people living outdoors without proper facilities make a mess. But I did not have a place. It took me a year to locate alternative facilities to rehab the facilities and make them appropriate for human beings.


So anyways, I let them stay there. My political opponents started to make an issue out of it, saying I should kick them out of there. And I said, “There is no place to move them and I’m not going to use the cops to run them all over the city like we do today. I’m gonna let them stay there until I can find an appropriate place for them to live.”


The newspapers dubbed it “Camp Agnos,” because wouldn’t use the cops to rouse them until we had an alternative. When I got an alternative and there’s two of them now — one’s at fifth and Brannon and the others at Polk and Geary — we moved them to a place where they could live indoors with the proper facilities. With their pets.


But for a year, I let them live there and it was a mess. But I said, there’s no place to move them, I’m not gonna brutalize them and it will motivate us as long as we see them right in front of my backyard, their front yard in the Civic Center, it’s gonna keep us moving as fast as we can.


DeFazio: Do you think it ended up doing that? By people who are walking to City Hall to work every day, it may have had an effect on the way they thought of the homeless population?


Agnos: It had an effect on the whole city because these folks were — it was unsightly, it was a mess, but I didn’t have any choice. Except to use the cops to go in there and run them out of Civic Center and then they would spread out into all the neighborhoods and then you would see what you see today in San Francisco.


The cops come in with the DPW [Department of Public Works] trucks. They run them out of there. They go ten blocks down the road. They set up camp again. And then after a month, they get run out of there, they set up, so they were playing– today, we play musical chairs.


DeFazio: It’s funny how time moves backwards sometimes.


Agnos: It’s terrible. Especially in the winter. It’s a terrible, terrible commentary on how we treat people to let them live in those tents in this terrible outdoor weather, in the winter. But even now, living on a curbside under a freeway with no sanitary facilities, no water, nothing to clean up, nothing, is not the way people in San Francisco should live. And we can do better. It takes political courage and aggressiveness that’s not there today.


DeFazio: What skills and techniques do you think universities should be teaching college students [to resist Trump]?


Agnos: I break it down into five very simple words. I encourage [college students] to learn: to think, to read, to write, to count, and to talk.


People have to think about issues and study them so they can come up with good solutions that make a difference.


You have to learn how to read with comprehension so that when you read something, you understand it and are ready to do the next thing.


Write it in a clear, compelling way. For example, when I’m in City Hall as the mayor and I get your memo, I can’t have you standing over my shoulder saying, “What I’m trying to say here and what I meant to say there and what I hope to say here.” It’s gotta be clear and convincing when I read it and you’re not there. […]


Talk means to be able to get in front of a group of people and speak to them about the issues you care about in a clear, convincing, compelling, inspiring way. To be able to give a good understanding of the issue you may be supporting or promoting.


And the final one is count. I don’t mean everyone has to be an economist, but it’s important to understand money. Because everything that we try to do in government needs money, requires money, and we need to understand how to use it efficiently without waste, to make a difference on the problem that we’re working on.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *