This spring's race for
assessor, which pits former supervisors Dick Hongisto and
Mabel Teng against incumbent Doris Ward, promises to be
heated. Here is an introduction to one of the candidates.
Others will follow.
Supervisor Matt Gonzalez interviews Assessor Candidate
MG: Dick, before we get into the Assessor’s race, I
think we should talk about your past and specifically some of
the things that seem to have gotten you in trouble.
RH: OK, I’d like to because there’s a lot of
misinformation out there about who I am and the progressive
causes I’ve fought for.
MG: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you become a
police officer and first get into politics?
RH: You’ll probably find this surprising, but after I
graduated from high school, at Washington H.S. here in the
city, I wanted to become a secondary school teacher. Being
from a blue-collar family, I had to work my way through
college at San Francisco State. To do that, I looked for the
best paying night job I could find, which at that time was
with the police department. It was such a different world then
— of the 1,800 police
officers in the department, 27 were African-American, about 3
were Asians, and there were only a handful of women working at
the juvenile detail to process crimes involving teenage girls
— that was in 1960. There
was an unspoken rule that gays and lesbians were frozen out of
the department. And all people of color, frankly, were
discouraged from employment. If they did apply, the department
would use different parts of the screening process, such as
background investigations, or medical examinations, to find
excuses to block their hiring.
As a person studying philosophy and sociology, I was being
trained to question almost everything and to understand the
prejudices and irrationality of some aspects of American
culture — racial
discrimination; sexual orientation discrimination; size, age,
height, and weight discrimination. I started to question why
women or gay people couldn’t be police officers, and why there
were so few Asians in the department, and so few African
Americans. I challenged the idea that you needed to be 21-35
years of age to join, or that you needed to be a minimum of 5'
9" tall. As a result of my
questioning these standards —
I also rebelled against a lot of the common vulgarity and
everyday speech used in the department. I started to demand
that people around me stop using the “n” word. Pretty soon I
found myself surrounded almost every day by other officers who
would harass me about my views. To counter the bigotry in the
department, I started to organize other police officers who
had any glimmer of hope of looking at some of these issues,
especially the racial issue, as I did. I held meetings
— this was in 1965
— and started the nucleus
of what finally became Officers For Justice, an
African-American police officers association. I was pretty
conspicuous in the group as the only white guy. I was
delighted when in 1968 my friend Henry Williams was chosen as
the first president and we finally achieved official
recognition from the department.
Through this process I became extremely disliked in the
department by my peers and was considered a communist. I had
also been advocating the decriminalization of marijuana; at
the time a single seed could get you sent to San Quentin for
three years. I finally got into politics when my enthusiasm
for progressive social change turned to jail reform. So in
1971 I ran for sheriff and defeated the incumbent Mathew
Carberry. My sole intent was to reform the San Francisco
MG: What kind of sheriff were you? Did you pursue the
types of reform you had as a police officer?
RH: Absolutely. I was the most progressive law
enforcement officer in the United States, with no close
second. I hired women and minorities. I opened up the field of
law enforcement by actively recruiting in the gay and lesbian
community. I reformed the jails by improving living
conditions, medical care, and rehabilitation programs, and I
introduced vocational and G.E.D. programs in the jail. I built
classrooms in the jails and had them staffed by teachers from
the public school system and community college system. I
created a jail library and band. I had Joan Baez sing a
concert in the jail and with Bill Graham organized a concert
at Winterland to raise money for inmate services. I even
changed the sheriff’s badge by taking the seal of the city and
county out of the middle of it, and putting in the peace
symbol instead. Needless to say, it created a tremendous
uproar from the right. At first, the badge maker refused to
make the badge.
I also worked with legislators
— then-State Senator George Moscone, among others
— to change laws related
to how jails are operated in California. And since I was in
the doctoral program at the University of California,
Berkeley, I was able to be on the cutting edge of the most
progressive thought related to criminal justice in our
MG: Tell me what happened with the I-Hotel? What was
that all about?
RH: The International Hotel was a smaller hotel housing
a number of elderly Asians living on limited incomes. Many
were Filipino. The building was a cornerstone of what was
colloquially called “Manila Town.” It was owned by a
multi-multi-millionaire Thai liquor mogul named Sapusit
Mahaguna, who was hoping to tear down the hotel and build a
hi-rise on the property. To me, the whole thing was
disgusting. The idea of displacing hundreds of poor elderly
pensioners — and many that
didn’t even have pensions —
so that a multi-multi-millionaire could make many more
millions was just wrong. They had nowhere to go.
As the sheriff I was required to carry out the eviction,
which I did not want to do. I met with Mayor Moscone and
essentially conspired to delay the eviction so that the city
could try to buy the building for the tenants through eminent
domain. George Moscone had a great heart. He was one of the
kindest people I have met in my life. He and I saw this one
eye to eye. Certain supervisors blocked our efforts.
Meanwhile, I was held in contempt of court for refusing to
carry out the eviction. I was ordered jailed by Superior Court
Judge Ira Brown. Obviously because I was the sheriff of San
Francisco, I was jailed in another county
— San Mateo. I was also
fined the maximum at the time, $500. The owners filed a $1.25
million lawsuit against me personally. The city attorney
refused to defend me. So I hired a lawyer at personal expense.
In all I spent $30,000, which was a lot of money back then.
After sitting in jail for five days, I agreed to do the
eviction. I considered resigning, but I could not bring myself
to abandon the reforms I had already started on. Ultimately, I
knew that if I didn’t carry out the eviction, some one else
MG: I doubt that there are many elected officials who
would go to jail in such a circumstance today. How did this
event get reinterpreted to make you the villain?
RH: Let me make this clear
— I was not regarded as a villain at the time. Hundreds
greeted me upon my release from jail
— and they knew the
pressure that had been brought to bear on me to force me to
carry out this eviction. There was one very publicized
photograph of my using a sledgehammer to pound open a door in
the hotel — I think that
was it — I think over time
some people simply didn’t know all the facts. If you only see
the photo, well I look like a villain. Actually, at the time I
didn’t want to ask my deputies to do something I wasn’t
willing to do myself. I hated doing that eviction, but I went
as far as I could, short of resigning, in trying to stop it.
MG: I know you left the Sheriff’s Department eventually
to take a job as police chief in Cleveland, Ohio and later
that you worked in the prison system of New York. How was it
that you came back to San Francisco
— and were elected
RH: While in Ohio and New York I kept in constant
contact with my friends in San Francisco. I really missed the
city. I went to Ohio and New York with the idea of trying to
create progressive change there. But in the end, I concluded
that I would help get more done and be a lot happier back in
MG: You knew Harvey Milk, Dan White, and George Moscone.
Did you ever think something like the assassinations might
RH: Yes and no. A number of us thought someone might
try and get us. Milk in particular was a target because he
represented something the extreme right could not deal with.
Harvey Milk was a wonderful person who gave his life for the
progressive and humanitarian causes he believed in. Like
George Moscone, he is a hero who died in battle. I don’t know
how else to say it.
MG: How long were you a supervisor?
RH: Ten years.
MG: What caused you to run for assessor?
RH: As a supervisor, I found that the Assessor’s Office
was a disaster. There wasn’t even an employee roster. They
didn’t have one computer —
and that was 1990. I had been successful in my work in
Cleveland and in New York, not to mention SF, in being able to
turn around malfunctioning bureaucracies. I was elected in
1991 with a mandate to fix the agency, which I did by doing
such simple things as requiring employees to show up on time
and focusing on the backlog of work that needed to get done. I
also computerized the office and tried to bring it into the
I found buildings and properties that were not on the tax
roll and began to collect revenue that had been missed by my
MG: After he was elected mayor, Frank Jordan made you
chief of police. After you were there less than two months,
you were discredited by the police action and curfew here in
San Francisco resulting from the Rodney King verdict and by
the seizure of the Bay Times issue that ridiculed you on its
cover — you know the one
— depicting you with a
baton between your legs.
RH: Matt, I have been in countless civil rights
demonstrations and I’ve always supported the right of people
to engage in civil disobedience. But I don’t support massive
rioting and the destruction of property
— the looting of stores. A
civil rights demonstration shouldn’t be an excuse to steal. I
didn’t like the Rodney King verdict, but what people don’t
understand is that if you don’t stop the rioting, people are
going to die when things get out of hand. In Los Angeles, 43
people died. Maybe I over-reacted, but no one died in San
MG: The problem, Dick, was not how you handled rioting.
It was that you barred any demonstrations, peaceful or
otherwise, the day after the looting and rioting had already
taken place. I can understand that you didn’t want a repeat of
the night before, but a complete ban on demonstrating was
RH: That’s not correct. There was no ban on
demonstrating. The police got involved when demonstrators
deviated from agreed-upon routes and bottles and rocks started
getting thrown. I was advised by the legal department that I
could declare an unlawful assembly and order the crowd to
disperse once the crowd became violent.
MG: What about the Bay Times issue?
RH: The Bay Times issued an edition lampooning me on
the cover. At the time, a lot of the officers working to stop
the rioting were taking a lot of abuse everyday they went to
work — being called names,
spit at, and having bottles thrown at them. I wanted them to
see how I, as management of the department, was getting my own
share of grief. Wanting to convey that message to the rank and
file, I told the vice president of the Police Officers
Association (POA) that I wished he would get some copies and
show them to the POA leadership or to some of the rank and
file so they could see how I was getting dumped on just as
they were. The problem was that he and some others went out
and picked up 2,000 copies!
The press kept saying I ordered police to confiscate the
paper, but that is absolutely false. What happened was that I
told one officer in the Police Officers Association about the
paper to make the point of how the left was attacking me
— remember I didn’t have a
lot of support among conservative police officers who knew I
wanted to do to the Police Department what I had done to the
Sheriff’s Department — you
know, real lasting progressive reform. So, basically I was
showing him a paper that attacked me so that the POA could see
that maybe there was no love lost between me and the left. I
thought if I was going to be attacked so hard
— called a Nazi and stuff
— well, at the least I
could try and get some use for my progressive agenda.
What I find amazing is that anyone would believe that I
would order newspapers seized because the paper attacked me. I
have been attacked during my whole career, so this was nothing
new. And well, to finish the story, officers went out and
collected 2,000 newspapers, and that was pretty much it for my
career as chief of police.
Mayor Jordan had coaxed me out of an elected position
— to another post so that
he could get a supervisor to take the assessor position and
well, give him an appointment to the Board of Supervisors.
When the newspaper thing happened, no one wanted to listen to
the testimony of all involved at the Police Commission. And
the reform I would have implemented never happened.
MG: What the hell did you think when you heard that
police had confiscated 2,000 copies of the paper?
RH: I was astounded, really.
MG: Did the district attorney consider criminal
RH: Well, Arlo Smith, the district attorney at the
time, said you couldn’t be convicted of stealing free
newspapers. But that was hardly the point. Fine, it’s not a
crime, but the implication that a police chief wants to
suppress speech is very troubling and obviously
— and for good reason
— did not sit well with
MG: Do you know how many issues were printed at the
time — of the Bay Times?
RH: I later learned that the total print run was
MG: With the return of district elections, you ran for
supervisor against ten other candidates, including myself, in
District 5. You didn’t appear to be a serious candidate, other
than attending forums and demonstrating your wide knowledge of
city government. I certainly learned a lot from you. Why did
RH: Initially, I got into the race to make sure that
there would be someone good, an honest independent, who would
represent the people of this city instead of a political
machine. I was concerned that without name recognition, many
of the professed independent candidates wouldn’t have a
chance, so in many ways I filed to keep my options open. Once
the forums began, I saw that there were a couple of candidates
who would be able to put the whole thing together, and so I
began to use the forums less to promote my own candidacy but
rather to promote good government ideas I have always held.
MG: I don’t know if you realize this, Dick, but you
were the only candidate in the race who supported me once I
was in the run-off against Juanita Owens.
RH: No, I didn’t know that.
MG: One last question. Recently, just this year, you
testified in the One Market Plaza case. Can you say something
RH: It is really why I decided to run for assessor. But
first, I think we need to explain what the case is, as I am
sure most people have never heard of it.
The building complex at One Market Plaza comprises one
square block at the foot of Market Street. It was owned by
Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, which sold it to the IBM
Pension Fund in 1986. Proposition 13 requires that property
values for the purposes of taxes be reassessed whenever there
is a transfer of title. But Liberty Mutual and IBM concealed
the transfer to avoid paying their fair tax. When I heard a
rumor that a sale had occurred, I initiated an investigation.
Because IBM and Liberty Mutual both denied the sale, our
investigation bogged down. But a brilliant local attorney
named Michael Mendelson also heard the rumor. He was able to
obtain the income tax returns of the IBM Pension Fund, which
showed IBM was admitting ownership on their federal tax
The Assessor’s Office was also sued
— by then I was no longer
assessor — to force the
office to reappraise the property and increase the property
tax due. By then, about 30 million in back taxes was owed. IBM
started to put up a fight to oppose the new increased taxes.
Both the City Attorney’s Office and the Assessor’s Office
recommended returning millions and millions of dollars to IBM.
The attorneys who brought the lawsuit called me as a expert
witness during the proceedings before the Assessment Appeals
Board. My testimony support Mendelson’s argument that instead
of giving money back to IBM, nothing should be given back and
that an additional $12 million should be exacted from them for
their fraud. After my testimony, the Assessment Appeals Board
concluded that rather than return millions of dollars to IBM,
IBM should be charged with the additional $12 million in fraud
penalties. Our efforts resulted in ten to twenty millions of
dollars or more in properly collected taxes going into the
That’s why I’m running for assessor. We need someone
running that office who is committed to properly valuing
property and making sure that the taxes due are properly
reported to the tax collector for collection. I have the
independence to carry out this mandate and have held the
office previously and have the skills and drive to get things