A Libertarian at City Hall?

Written by: 
Aubrey Freedman
John Dennis was officially endorsed by the Libertarian Party of San Francisco for District 2 Supervisor at our August meeting.

Could a man raised in the densest Democratic county in America and now living in the bluest city in the country end up becoming Libertarians’ best chance to get a real freedom-loving politician into San Francisco City Hall?  Unlikely as it seems, yes, it’s actually possible this November. The lone Republican candidate for District 2 Supervisor, John Dennis is waging an enthusiastic campaign this fall to get a seat at the table. District 2, which covers primarily the Marina District, Pacific Heights, and Cow Hollow, is undeniably the wealthiest district in The City and probably the most conservative.  The other candidates are Catherine Stefani, appointed by Mark Farrell when Mayor Lee passed away; Nick Josefowitz, BART Board Member for District 24; and Schuler Shula, a relative newcomer to politics.

(I interviewed John for this article at his home in District 2 earlier this month. I’ve known John since the Ron Paul 2012 campaign days.)

John hails from Jersey City, New Jersey and grew up in Curries Woods, a government-owned and operated housing project.  As often happens when government owns property and no one really cares about it, gradually it deteriorates into a slum. Curries Woods followed this familiar pattern, and after 30 years, things had become so run down and dangerous that all but two of its seven buildings were razed to the ground.  John recalled the earlier years of his upbringing there to be “fun” at the time, but apparently his parents felt differently and moved out of the project when he was 13. His family background is working class, as his father was a longshoreman and his mother was a City Hall clerk. She also served as Democratic Party Committeewoman (forbidden term these days) and was a “practical” Democrat.  Just as most people stick with the political values they learned at home, John says he became a Democrat by “osmosis.”

That all changed when John went to Fordham University in the Bronx.  Studying for a business degree, John became involved in student government and was elected Student Body President.  He began to take an interest in the outside political world and discovered Ayn Rand in his senior year and “devoured” her writings all summer long.  He took a course taught by Father Jim Sadowsky, a “Libertarian Jesuit” who hung around with the likes of Murray Rothbard and Walter Block and was of the anarcho-capitalist persuasion, and that solidified libertarianism in John’s political psyche.  Father Sadowsky’s teachings were heavy on ethics, free markets, and especially the principles of contract law.

John wasn’t politically active for many years, though he did help out a few times during Ron Paul’s presidential bid as the Libertarian Party candidate in 1988.  His work for an ergonomic furniture company took him to Chicago and eventually to San Francisco in 1991. He remembers very vividly what sparked his political interest again.  He was in Columbia, South Carolina in May of 2007 on a business trip and noticed signs out announcing the upcoming debate between Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani. He decided to watch the debate, and as fate would have it, that debate had the “Giuliani Moment” when Giuliani, at that time the frontrunner as the GOP candidate for president, exploded at Ron Paul for saying that the US government’s foreign policy of interventionism was the reason for the 9/11 attack and demanded that Ron Paul retract his statement and Ron Paul refused to back down.  That was the beginning of the end of Giuliani’s run—and the ascent of Ron Paul as a serious contender for president as a peace candidate. After that debate, since John himself is opposed to the US government’s involvement in overseas wars, he was hooked (politically) and worked on the Ron Paul campaign extensively becoming a precinct captain in the Iowa caucus helping Ron Paul tie with Huckabee in Iowa and coming in second in the Nevada caucus. John became so involved in the 2008 campaign that, as often happens in the political world, sooner or later someone suggested running for office himself.  The rest is local history as John ran against Pelosi in 2010, 2012, and 2014. Despite his anti-military and pro-civil liberty stances which should have put Pelosi to shame as a representative in Congress for “San Francisco values,” sadly John was unable to crack through the Democratic stranglehold on San Francisco voters.

This time around, things may be different.  This being a local, non-partisan election, District 2 voters may actually be looking at the effectiveness of current government programs, rather than just voting with their political hearts.  Local government is more about the nuts and bolts of government that people see in action every day rather than what goes on in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. We wonder if District 2 taxpayers are content with the government services they pay City Hall to perform and if they’re getting good value for their money spent.  It remains to be seen if there’s enough dissatisfaction with San Francisco’s government to propel a Libertarian Republican to City Hall.

John’s emphasis in his campaign this time is homelessness, property crime, and housing.  He says libertarian values are easier to expound when it’s a federal election, rather than a local one.  Since the federal government does so many things unauthorized by The Constitution, it’s pretty easy to use it as a guide and apply libertarian principles; it’s harder, though not impossible, with local issues.  According to the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, The City spends $382 million per year on the homelessness problem, and by all accounts, things are getting worse, not better. When Mayor Breed walks the city with the “Poop Patrol,” and a major medical association that has been holding its annual convention in San Francisco since the 1980’s cancels its convention here and will hold it elsewhere due to safety concerns for its members, you know something is amiss.  Johns says The City should be looking at which programs work and which ones don’t—and start cutting funding to those nonprofits with nothing to show for the taxpayer funds received. He is the only candidate talking about Homeward Bound—a homelessness program funded by the taxpayers that I never even heard about until this campaign—where The City arranges with the homeless person’s family back home to take him or her back and The City pays for the person’s travel costs back home.  Helping the old-fashioned, way which is expecting a person’s family to take responsibility for its members rather than tossing them away for “society” to take care of. Of course this program won’t work for everyone, but it is a step in the right direction. Spending taxpayer dollars—definitely a libertarian value that should resonate well with District 2 voters. Rather than just throwing more money at the problem like the current Prop C, which the voters will decide on in November which is just another gross receipts tax and this time for the homelessness industry, Homeward Bound actually shows some positive results.  On property crime and the car break-in’s problem, John lauds Prop 47’s goal of releasing felons guilty of victimless crimes but says its shortcoming was the inclusion of the $950 limit downgrading property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors which has fueled the car break-in problem. He would like to see beefed up police patrols to deter the problem. Again, giving the taxpayers police protection they pay for is perfectly in line with the libertarian value of giving the taxpayers tangible results for services they expect and pay for. Since John is currently working in the housing development industry, he has seen firsthand The City’s onerous approval system and says it is completely dysfunctional and needs immediate reform.  Bureaucratic delays and uncertainties currently cause housing projects to take years instead of months to get approved, all the while increasing the costs which of course get passed on to renters and buyers.  He says the constant reworking of architectural plans again and again to satisfy the bureaucrats increases the costs and restricts the housing supply needlessly.  He would like to see the approval process speeded up to 6-9 months for final approval for all housing.

When asked about whether he would be accepting public financing for his campaign that The City offers candidates that have received more than $10,000 in contributions (he qualifies), unlike some of the other District 2 candidates, John has chosen not to accept any government financing.  He said with public financing, the taxpayers end up supporting candidates they don’t even like—or worse still, candidates whose values are completely different from theirs. He said accepting any public financing is akin to “dividing up the loot.” Wouldn’t an attitude like that be refreshing for a change at City Hall?

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John Dennis was officially endorsed by the Libertarian Party of San Francisco for District 2 Supervisor at our August meeting.