Robert Haaland: Veteran Activist Seeks Coalitions

by Casey Mills on June 28, 2004

Robert Haaland looks at San Francisco and sees a city full of frightened people. He believes they are frightened of losing their jobs, losing their health care, and losing their housing. He hopes to connect with these people, many of whom he believes live paycheck to paycheck, in his attempt to secure his election as District 5’s representative on the Board of Supervisors.

If elected, Haaland would be the first transgender candidate to win a seat on the Board of Supervisors, and possibly the highest ranking openly transgender individual in American politics.

Haaland grew up in the Midwest, and moved to San Francisco after being kicked out of his home by parents terrified of the then-misunderstood AIDS virus. Haaland had come out as a homosexual when he was eighteen, and his family was scared he would give them the deadly virus.

After arriving in San Francisco, he worked a succession of jobs – in the Conservation Corps, as a park ranger, and as a volunteer fireman – before enrolling in Laney College. From Laney, he transferred to UC Berkeley, and from there to Hastings Law School.

At Hastings he participated in a well-known civil justice clinic that trained students to become radical lawyers. The clinic focused on community-based organizing, and as part of the program Haaland participated in some tenants rights organizing and in the fight for affirmative action. He quickly became hooked on activism, finding his early organizing experienced to be the most positive experiences he’d had in his life.

“I loved it,” said Haaland. “And I became totally disinterested in becoming a lawyer.”

One lesson he learned from his experience at the clinic was a strategy for organizing he still considers very important and employs today – that of putting the real responsibility for change in the hands of those being organized. Haaland believes organizers should not be taught to speak for the people, but rather to empower the people to speak for themselves.

Upon graduating Hastings in 1996, Haaland came out as transgender. He said he struggled for a while after coming out, as some of his friends had problems with his decision. The decision to come out also pushed him further away from practicing law.

“As a transgender person, you don’t just go in to some big law firm downtown and get hired,” he said.

Haaland continued to become increasingly involved with tenants rights issues, and soon began working for the San Francisco Tenant’s Union as a volunteer coordinator. The first campaign he worked on became one he still considers one of his greatest political accomplishments.

The campaign was against Proposition E, one that attempted to eliminate rent control. Despite being outspent by a phenomenal margin, Haaland and the union were able to mount a successful campaign by employing a massive amount of volunteer energy and courting the youth vote with a series of pub-crawls.

Haaland then moved on to the housing rights committee, a non-profit organization devoted to tenants issues. With the committee, Haaland worked to save Section 8 housing vouchers and to address issues low-income tenants were facing at the time, particularly mold and mildew issues causing asthma among residents and their children.

From his position on the housing committee, Haaland moved on to the Service Employees International Union, (SEIU) Local 790, where he currently works as an organizer. The union represents many city employees, a group of people Haaland feels is incredibly under-appreciated.

“These folks are some of the lowest paid workers,” said Haaland. “City workers get a really bad rap, but they’re incredibly committed to public service. I have enormous respect for these folks, I really do.”

At Local 790, Haaland has been involved with putting pressure on state legislatures and working with city hall to gain benefits for service workers. He also attempts to provide a structure for union members to achieve whatever political goals they deem important.

Haaland sees the issues he has fought for while serving the Union as largely synonymous with the issues he wants to fight for as a Supervisor. When asked if Haaland is worried if his connection to the Union, which he will quit if elected, might cause him to place their interests before others, he is quick to respond, “What interests? You mean like providing health care to people?”

In 1999, Haaland orchestrated and ran the political event that he is possibly best known for – the write-in mayoral campaign of Tom Ammiano. The campaign galvanized the city’s left, drawing phenomenal energy to a race that had previously been considered ho-hum. Although ultimately unsuccessful, it set the stage for the major progressive gains on the Board of Supervisors in the 2000 elections, and cemented Haaland’s status as a substantial figure in San Francisco politics.

Also in 1999, Haaland was elected as vice-president of the Harvey Milk Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Democratic Club. Haaland had experience with the club, playing an integral role in getting “transgender” added to the club’s name.

Haaland then served as the clubs president for 2003-04. Haaland says the experience was as “a great one,” during which he worked to gain Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender support for both instant run-off voting and anti-war activism. The latter cause Haaland particularly enjoyed working for, because it represented an issue that an often times divided LGBT community was able to agree almost unanimously on – a rarity for any San Francisco political movement in San Francisco, says Haaland.

“In San Francisco, you’ll have 8 out of 10 people who all agree on an issue, and then two who disagree just to be contrary.”
For Haaland, disagreement is an unavoidable part of politics. However, he hopes to be a builder of consensus, a talent he believes he picked up while serving his two terms on the San Francisco Democratic Central Committee.

“One of the things I learned there is your success really depends on your ability to go across the aisle and get consensus on an issue. There are differences between the Democratic Party and the LGBT community, and frankly even within the tenant and labor communities. It was a great experience for me – that’s what I spent most of my time there trying to do was build consensus around issues, and that’s the approach I want to bring to the board of supervisors.”

One aspect of political disagreement Haaland doesn’t like is the tendency to make such disagreements personal. He considers this the worst recent trend in San Francisco politics, and believes that when arguments cease to become issue-based, they lose most of their power and relevancy.

However, Haaland does admit getting angry with fellow politician and current District 5 Supervisor Matt Gonzalez when he chose to enter the race for Mayor last November.

At the time, Haaland was supporting Ammiano, and didn’t believe Gonzalez’s entry in the race was good for progressives – a belief he was very vocal about.

However, Haaland claims he does not dislike Gonzalez, pointing in particular to the countless hours a week of campaigning he did for Gonzalez once it became apparent Gonzalez would face Gavin Newsome in the run-off. In fact, he says he believes Gonzalez has done a good job of pursuing a progressive agenda during his time on the Board.

While Haaland would be the first transgender person ever elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, he doesn’t believe his sexuality will enter in to the race. Haaland believes District 5 voters to be some of the most sophisticated in the city, and believes instead that the race will ultimately be decided on issues and how well each candidate can articulate their position on them.

“If anyone is entering thinks they can win this race with a slogan,” said Haaland, “I think they’re going to be very mistaken.”

Haaland believes what sets him apart from other candidates is his familiarity with issues he feels most candidates do not have any experience with at all, namely tenants rights and public health.

“There’s some issues on which I can hold my own with a lot of the progressives, but there’s also areas that I’ve been involved with that they haven’t even touched,” said Haaland.

Haaland may face a tough road convincing voters of this. His top three competitors, Lisa Feldstein, Ross Mirkarimi, and Bill Barnes also bring extremely broad experiences with various issues in San Francisco to their respective campaigns, and will all be running on multi-dimensional, multi-issue platforms.

However, Haaland has quickly racked up an impressive array of endorsements, including the San Francisco Tenants Union, Assembly members Mark Leno and Leland Yee, Supervisors Tom Ammiano, Jake McGoldrick, and Aaron Peskin and nine members of the Democratic Central Committee, to name just a few.

This could prove an extremely strong coalition, especially considering Haaland’s connections to the labor and queer communities, and if mobilized correctly, could also prove very extremely difficult to beat come November.

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Filed under: Bay Area / California

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