I am pleased to announce the inaugural Cassandra Awards.
I will give these awards out whenever it occurs to me to do so to honor public figures who are attacked for a stance about which they are later proven correct. (I still need a name for the opposite of the Cassandra Awards, for those who are completely wrong about something and face no consequences.
“We will be greeted as liberators in Iraq.” “The fundamentals of the economy are sound.” “The Twitter tax break will be great for people living in the neighborhood.”)
Politicians rely on a public bereft of historical memory. Journalists don’t need to be dumb or corrupt to abet this amnesia. Yes, most owners of media outlets are ideologically aligned with monied interests and have a direct financial stake in preserving confusion and cynicism among the public. But front-line reporters are just overwhelmed and overworked. High turnover means reporters shuffle beats on the regular. Most reporters couldn’t catch a lie if they wanted to.
Which is how I once found myself in a bizarre screaming argument at Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe in Oakland with a Wall Street Journal reporter who insisted that it is a good thing when reporters don’t know what they’re talking about. It assures more “he said-he said regardless of truth” reporting that we have come to call objectivity.
The first Cassandra Award goes to former District 3 supervisor and current candidate for supervisor Aaron Peskin. Back in 2010, Peskin was chair of the local Democratic Party. He managed an independent expenditure committee that lost all the supervisor races that ultimately resulted in the elections of Scott Wiener, Malia Cohen, Jane Kim and Mark Farrell.
Two weeks before the election, real estate mogul and nemesis of rent control Thomas Coates dropped $225,000 in support of supervisors Wiener, Farrell and two of the losers. Peskin’s independent expenditure committee put out mailers, protested the Association of Realtors and was all over the news raising the alarm about the threat to rent control. Moguls don’t buy elections out of civic spirit. They’re investing in policies to get their money’s worth. Coates would expect a return on his investment.
The candidates were indignant about such dirty campaigning that falsely accused them of threatening rent control. They emphatically denied that they would ever dare to touch rent control. Wiener sent out an email blast that he would never hurt rent control. They won.
Then in 2011, Wiener and Farrell voted to eliminate 1,500 rent-controlled units at Parkmerced. In 2012, Farrell introduced and they both sponsored legislation to convert 2,200 tenancy-in-common units to condos, thereby eliminating yet more rent-controlled housing. (The condo-conversion legislation was amended through the democratic process and they opposed the final version of their own legislation, because compromise.) In 2014, they both voted for the Airbnb deal that allowed as many of 5,000 rent-controlled units to be plundered (“shared”) for Airbnb.
In retrospect, Peskin was right. Rent control was in danger. Coates hired politicians to undermine and erode rent control without the conflagration of a direct repeal. If Peskin’s campaigns had been successful, there would be more rent-controlled housing in San Francisco today. Sometimes things are true.
It’s not that candidates Wiener and Farrell were lying in 2010 when they promised to preserve rent control. They were and still do represent their interests and ideologies faithfully and consistently. The dilemma is that pro-rich, pro-corporate politicians can’t win elections by saying what is in their hearts, like “the rest of you can suck it, we’re going to live in our castle.” So they have to drench it in euphemisms like “mom-and-pop small landlords” and “building consensus” and “responsive government.”
And they can depend on reporters never to ask a follow-up question, or even remember when they trot out their next dodgy idea.