In the morning, long before the San Francisco fog burns off, a 68-year-old San Francisco native sometimes takes it upon herself to clean up the garbage on city streets. She dons an orange safety vest and carries a metal pick-up stick. She might even stop to talk a homeless person into accepting city services.
If she looks familiar to longtime residents, that’s because it’s Angela Alioto, former San Francisco supervisor and current candidate for mayor. Alioto regularly picks up garbage on the streets of the city she adores.
And Alioto isn’t alone. In this year’s hotly contested San Francisco political elections, public officials and candidates have taken to tackling some of the city’s biggest problems themselves — namely, cleaning up San Francisco’s needle-ridden and feces-dotted sidewalks. Candidates used to kiss babies while they campaigned; now they pick up trash and do other civic services to impress voters that they care.
“Me personally? I’ve been doing that for 35 years,” Alioto says. The longtime political candidate (and daughter of a San Francisco mayor herself) knows a thing or two about campaigning in San Francisco. This is her third run for the city’s highest office. As for her competition, “I don’t think they’ve been out there cleaning the streets.”
Actually, a lot of them have. Rafael Mandelman, a candidate for District 8 supervisor, often can be spotted serving food to homeless people in the Castro District. His main competition, incumbent Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, is a regular at the San Francisco Public Works Community Clean Team days.
Hillary Ronen, District 9’s Supervisor, who’s not up for election this year, regularly joins former supervisor and current BART Director Bevan Dufty picking up trash at the 16th Street BART station. And BART Director and candidate for Supervisor Nick Josefowitz, has joined them.
Are these projects campaign stops or sincere efforts to tackle real problems?
“There is a fine line of distinction because there is a natural skepticism,” former state senator and mayoral candidate Mark Leno says. “Is one doing this when there’s no camera there, or just when there’s a camera there? That is not the case for Bevan,” he says with a laugh. “I think a candidate — not just me or not just this race — had to be a little careful if suddenly there’s an interest in community service displays that weren’t there before.”
“It happens every mayoral election,” San Francisco Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon says of these hands-on efforts. “It seems to be a little more pronounced this time around.”
Does it bother actual city workers when politicians take to cleaning up the streets themselves — especially during an election year? “We welcome the help,” Gordon says. “We can’t be everywhere all the time, but we’re a lot of places.”
She warns, however, that Public Works recommends that good Samaritans — politicians or otherwise — don’t go around picking up hypodermic needles without a little training. “I think,” confesses Mandelman, “there’s a picture of me picking up a needle in Dolores Park in 2010.”
All of this down-and-dirty civic engagement begs the question: Is a social media picture of a politician personally connecting a homeless person with city services or toting a bag of urban garbage the modern-day equivalent of posing with a baby?
The answer, at least according to former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, is, well, yes. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
“I’m not gonna try to bullshit you. Yeah, I’m trying to show the voters what I can do with this kind of an effort,” Agnos says of his work in the streets both during the campaign and after his election. “People always have been ready for that kind of candor. You have to be sincere, but you also have to be honest.”
It’s easy for the elder statesman to speak bluntly now. While the nearly 80-year-old remains a community activist, Agnos has long since retired from elected politics.
“It’s a way to draw attention because you’re trying to get publicity in a campaign, and you’re looking for ways to present a positive image to the voter,” Agnos says. “Each generation of politicians and their strategic advisers looks for ways to identify with the ordinary citizen so as to demonstrate their empathy and education with the issues of the day. It may take a different form, but the approach is generally the same.”
Basically, according to Agnos, it’s OK to milk a photo opportunity if you’re getting a hands-on education about a problem and are sincere in finding a solution. For example, when Agnos was running for San Francisco’s mayor in 1987, the issue of the day was abandoned cars. “I would go with the traffic people to cite them and get them towed away,” Agnos says.
Not only would Agnos take the opportunity to show voters that he’d heard their complaints about the abandoned cars, but the field trip also gave him the opportunity to see the problem — and the challenges to a solution — firsthand.
“When I went out to 16th and Mission to clean with Bevan,” Josefowitz says, “I got a different appreciation for the challenges it takes to clean in that environment, and it helped inform me when I went back to BART management on how to have a deeper discussion on how we can keep our system clean.”
According to Sheehy, his work with community cleanup projects serves as a much better way to engage with concerned voters than more traditional campaign methods. “It’s fun, it’s casual,” he says. “It’s a great way to connect with constituents.”
Mandelman’s monthly shift at a homeless food program has allowed the two-time candidate to engage with his district’s most vulnerable residents. “My thinking about homeless people and drug addiction and conservatorships is absolutely informed by people who are homeless and mentally ill and drug addicted,” Mandelman says.
The real test will come after the mayoral election in June and the supervisors’ election in November. It’s then that San Francisco voters will be able to gauge the sincerity and the success of their elected representatives.
“Best advice?” offers Leno to his fellow candidates. “Be yourself, be natural.”