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Pushing the debate

Supervisor Chris Daly interviews Assembly candidate Harry Britt


CD: Harry, for over a decade you defined progressive politics in San Francisco, and yet some of us younger folks aren’t familiar with this history. How did you get to the Board of Supervisors and what you see as some of your bigger accomplishments while you were there?

HB: Harvey Milk convinced a lot of lesbians and gay men that we should put our anger and our dreams into politics. When he was killed he left a will in which he named me as a possible successor. I held that office for fourteen years, and during that time I worked with a lot of communities to create neighborhood zoning, to provide strong rent control, comparable worth for women, the nation’s first domestic partner ordinance. I sponsored Proposition M to control downtown growth and to protect neighborhoods and generally used the office as a place where people who wanted to change things could come and work with me.

CD: What drew you to Harvey Milk?

HB: I’ve always been active in politics. I had worked in the Civil Rights movement. I had worked on urban organizing in Chicago. But here was a leader who worked for my own people and to deal with the discrimination that I personally felt as a gay person.

CD: You mention the Civil Rights movement. When did you first get involved in politics or social movements?

HB: I can go back further than that. My grandparents had a life-size portrait of Franklin Roosevelt in the entrance to their house. And as a little boy, every day I was told that this man had saved our country from poverty. So I was given a vision that politics was really there to help people who had problems. I’m not sure that people feel that way about politics anymore. But one of my hopes is to be able to go to Sacramento to restore some of that accountability to the people that Roosevelt symbolized in my family.

CD: At some point you went from Harry Britt, the kid walking by that portrait, to Harry Britt, the young man involved in the Civil Rights movement…

HB: I was a Methodist minister in Chicago at a time when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was working there. The city was going through a serious racial division. There seemed to be a very deep unwillingness to deal with the experience of African Americans within the broader community. Meeting Dr. King and experiencing the movement that he was so centrally involved in changed the lives of a lot of people in my generation.

CD: By 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had moved from talking more singularly about civil rights to more generally talking about the social inequities in the United States. And your legislative legacy at the SF Board of Supervisors seems to address the social condition of folks who are usually left out.

HB: Being in Chicago, I got a very strong feeling for how the neglect of urban realities can produce alienated and broken families, unhealthy living conditions, and a sense of hopelessness amongst millions of people. Dr. King addressed those feelings. He told people who did not have a sense of possibility in their lives that they could have a dream. Skipping ahead, Harvey Milk made a similar call to lesbians and gay men. And in both cases there was an understanding that the struggle of one group of people for dignity can’t be separated from the general need for society to deal responsibly with human problems.

CD: You had these formative experiences in Chicago and then in San Francisco, characterized by Dr. King in the 60’s and then by Harvey Milk in the 70’s. Then you were catapulted to such a prominent role in San Francisco local politics.

HB: I never had any desire to be a politician. When Harvey’s death led to my becoming a supervisor, I felt some discomfort in that role.

CD: As another person who has spent some time both at the Board of Supervisors and teaching at the New College of California, I know that it can be a serious change of pace. What has the transition been like for you?

HB: Well, it’s not that different for me, Chris, because in my supervisor’s life I tended to spend time with community activists and New College is an activist place. I do wear a coat and tie a lot more now than I like to. I’m not a coat and tie kind of guy.

CD: You look good though.

HB: All my life I have disliked superficial relationships. As a young gay boy, I learned to deal with people on different levels. So I love being a teacher. In teaching the relationships reach to people’s values, goals, and strategies for coping with life. In politics, quite often, relationships are more about certain rituals that politicians play. So that’s the big difference to me — the quality of relationships. Now I’ve been lucky in my political life to be surrounded by people who are issue-driven and with whom I have some wonderful relationships. But I will miss the chance to spend three or four hours with a student discussing ideas. That’s something that will be one of the great experiences of my life no matter what happens to me politically.

CD: You do lose the opportunity to spend lots of quality time with individuals. But one of the things that I’ve found that may translate a little bit from the university to the position of Supervisor or State Legislator is the ability to use your elected office to teach or educate…

HB: Absolutely. Jake McGoldrick, who like me is an ESL teacher, once told me that he sees his position on the Board of Supervisors as a teaching gig. I teach history. And when you are dealing with issues of government, there is often a lack of understanding of the history behind the issues — of the reasons why communities have taken the stances that we have. About why we need affirmative action, why we need comparable worth — because of histories ignored by people who are not part of those groups. Yes, I look forward to going to Sacramento to try to teach a history-oriented way of making policy that understands why things are the way the are and what must be done to make them better.

A particular history that I got very involved in was the HIV epidemic. As the only openly gay elected official around at the time that it broke out, I obviously had some special responsibilities there. I worked with the public health delivery system, the medical community and with community activists to create the San Francisco model of responding to HIV. I’m very proud of that model and believe that there’s a lot of wisdom in that history that can make the State’s system of health care delivery more accountable to people who need services and a little less accountable to the health maintenance organizations and the insurance companies.

CD: San Francisco’s HIV/AIDS model is one of the leading models in the nation…

HB: Well, it’s not perfect and hopefully it is getting better. But it did prove that you can take the needs of the community very seriously in your health planning and come out with a better system than if you just left it up to the politicians and the bureaucrats.

CD: In terms of being — what I call myself — a “little San Francisco Supervisor,” you had major impact on the national level.

HB: There were so many people involved. There were doctors working seemingly around the clock. What happened in those days was very special, and it has inspired people around the world to adopt strategies that we used here in San Francisco.

CD: The last six years of SF politics have been dominated by Willie Brown’s administration. There has been a response in recent years. Certainly Tom Ammiano’s write-in campaign was historic — getting 25 percent of the vote without even being on the ballot. Then the subsequent sweep of the Board of Supervisors of neighborhood candidates over candidates hand-picked by the mayor. How do you see Harry Britt, who in some respects is the father of progressive politics in San Francisco, fitting into this?

HB: The opportunity last year to create a progressive, district-based Board of Supervisors really motivated me again to get involved in political activity. People like Chris Daly, Aaron Peskin, and Jake McGoldrick…

CD: Sophie Maxwell, Matt Gonzalez, Gerardo Sandoval…

HB: They came into City Hall and they brought with them a different set of accountability. To me accountability is the “A” word in politics. The difference between politicians is not their issues; it’s to whom they are accountable. District elections created the possibility that political leadership will be accountable to the community. And that is happening in San Francisco. So I see what I am doing as connected with that surge of political energy that brought district elections and the new board into being. We now have such a great possibility locally.

CD: Lots of folks may not know how what goes on in Sacramento affects their day-to-day lives. What is going to be your role as a state assemblymember?

HB: The Assembly sets funding priorities for billions of dollars that shape our schools, our health care delivery system, and our transportation priorities. I have a lot of history in all of those issues. I have to mention that being a leader on this level brings with it a responsibility beyond legislation. I am concerned about the quality of political discourse and have not heard, whether it’s the energy crisis, the crisis in the Middle East, the supply-side economics that’s informing our current government, I have not heard the debate framed in ways to make it possible for government to address social problems. So one rule I hope to play in Sacramento, along with others, is to reshape the debate, to articulate the values of San Francisco which seem to be so different from the values of the political culture in Sacramento, to talk about homelessness and affordable housing and medical marijuana, and single payer health care and all the kinds of issues that, in San Francisco, are easy to talk about but find so much resistance in Sacramento.

CD: And maybe that’s why I am a Harry Britt supporter. Mark Leno, one of your main opponents, is a good guy who’s done some good things. But Mark Leno is not going to Sacramento to push the debate. He’ll go to Sacramento and cast some votes. To me, that’s the difference I see between Harry Britt, someone who will push the issues and speak out for San Francisco values which are not shared across California, and Mark Leno, who will go to Sacramento and “fit in.”

HB: When I teach politics at New College, I teach my students that you want people in positions of power who are not comfortable with the status quo, people who are there to change the political culture rather than to adapt to it. I am taking on issues that require organizing, require fighting, require taking some unpopular stands. I think that’s needed very badly in Sacramento right now.

CD: I forwarded you an article written by Maryland Senator Paul Pinsky [“Life as a Progressive Legislator,” The Nation (October 1, 2001)]. It talks about Progressive Maryland and progressive organizing — that a progressive legislator has trouble in this political climate implementing our agenda: universal health coverage, quality education for all kids, a housing agenda, a civil right/social equity agenda.

HB: Yes, I distributed it shamelessly. There are in this state very strong organizations advocating for the reform issues that I care about. They tell me that they feel unconnected to the legislative process in Sacramento. I hope that I can provide some leadership in making that connection stronger, in expanding their base, and bringing other legislators into that network. California is a big state, and it is not easy to create a statewide network that can win in Sacramento. But the foundations are there. There are already people in the legislature who are supportive of that agenda. There will be more after the election. And I think I will fit very comfortably into a leadership role in helping people who care about reform to win battles in Sacramento.

CD: When you get higher up the political ladder, the less interaction you have with everyday folks out in the neighborhoods. And it seems as if that’s when big-money special interests come in and scoop up all of the elected officials…

HB: I go to Sacramento every week, and it is a very different political environment than in San Francisco. Sacramento is controlled by special interest groups whose offices ring the capitol building. To achieve policy changes in that environment is very difficult. If it doesn’t come from San Francisco, I don’t know where it is going to come from. So the representative from this district needs to be someone who’s willing to make some changes in the way issues are defined in Sacramento. I always did that here on the board. There are some extraordinary people in Sacramento who are fighting for civil liberties, educational reform, and health care. They need more of a voice in the legislature than they would get from Mark Leno.

CD: Harry Britt, basically an assemblymember for the people…

HB: Well, it is easy to say that. What makes me feel good is that I seem to have the support of people in San Francisco who really believe that politics can be used to make life better for people. The fact that Carole Migden and Tom Ammiano have made my campaign a very high priority is important to me, and so many others, the teachers and the nurses, groups that have a social vision, have said to me that they trust me. On a personal level that means a great deal, and it is necessary to have that trust to achieve what we need to achieve in Sacramento.