Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Rosenthal is one 'freak' of a candidate


Alix Rosenthal. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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Standing 5 feet 11 inches tall and wearing a no-nonsense business suit, Alix Rosenthal dresses as one would expect of a well-respected, up and coming lawyer recruited to work for Oakland City Attorney John Russo. But it isn't her daytime attire that has attracted attention to Rosenthal, who is trying to unseat popular District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty.

The image of Rosenthal getting the most attention is a photo of her in the San Francisco Chronicle, which ran last year as part of a special package on "Burning Man at 20" that depicted various attendees of the yearly weeklong gathering in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. In it Rosenthal stands legs apart, arms raised above her shoulders with fists clenched wearing a hot pink halter top, black octagonal stockings, and gold briefs with a red arrow drawn below her belly button pointing to her crotch.

A former Disneyland employee, Rosenthal's outfit would make Mickey Mouse blush and run afoul of the "dictatorship's," as she calls it, dress code. But the image squarely jibes with her view of San Francisco as a "weird" city. As Rosenthal told the local progressive Web site in July, "I love how freaky it is. I love the freaks, and I include myself in the freaks."

The photo and Rosenthal's comments – as well as a fundraiser held earlier this month dubbed "Get in B.E.D. with Alix" – have dogged the 33-year-old political newcomer ever since she announced her decision to take on Dufty – whom she considers not progressive enough – in the race to represent the Castro, Noe Valley, and Glen Park neighborhoods. Bloggers and critics have compared her Burner pic to the infamous shower photo that derailed former Mayor Frank Jordan's re-election campaign and even to Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis's widely ridiculed tank photo that served to sink his election hopes.

Stung by the criticisms, Rosenthal recently told the Bay Area Reporter that despite her belief being a freak is exemplary, she would refrain from again using the word "freak" during the campaign. She added that she is prepared to see the Chronicle photo used to attack her character.

"The word 'freak' is not a word I am going to use again. I was referring to a group of people who feel outside of the mainstream and that is a good thing that should be celebrated," said Rosenthal as she sipped a beer in the patio at the Castro's Cafe Flore. "Clearly, I wasn't running for office when that picture came out. I am sure my opponent will use it against me. But I am proud of it. I love Burning Man."

It is not just comments about her Burner attire confronting Rosenthal, but questions about what she does when she is out in the desert. The festival is known not only for its stunning artworks and festive camp themes but also as a party where drug use is rampant. Rosenthal admits she has done drugs at the event but contends, "it is not the focus of why I go." A member of the advisory board of the Black Rock Arts Foundation, Burning Man's nonprofit arm, Rosenthal said she is attracted to the event's creative aspects and of a society formulating overnight and "recreating the rules."

"It is not just a big old drug party in the desert," asserted Rosenthal, who declined to specify which drugs she had taken. "It's about the art. The art out there is something else."

While her platform is absent any mention of combating drug use, in particular fighting crystal meth within the gay community, Rosenthal said it is not an issue "I take lightly." She declined to state how she would tackle the issue of crystal meth differently from her opponent, who has made it a priority over the last four years, but did list providing users with access to healthcare on demand and treatment as top solutions.

"I have seen friends and family who have had problems. I know there is a lot of scourge with crystal in the Castro. I have never done crystal but I have seen the effects of it. It is a nasty, nasty drug that I hear is very addictive," said Rosenthal.

One issue she has made a priority for her campaign is battling domestic violence. A survivor herself – a boyfriend she was living with in 2002 was abusive – Rosenthal said the best way to conquer the problem is by acknowledging it exists.

"It's all about self-esteem issues that lead to physical violence. I am talking about it in this campaign because that is how we are going to fight it by talking about it," she said. "If people keep it in the closet and don't speak up, we will never know how prevalent it is in our communities."

Critical of the way the police department handled her case, Rosenthal on her campaign Web site calls for better training of police officers and emergency service workers in responding to victims of domestic violence.

"It was a horrible experience made even more horrible by the police department. I told my story to eight sets of officers, some of whom were not very sympathetic," she said.

Family rebukes AIDS reference

Rosenthal grew up in Claremont, the Southern California college town, where her mother, Karen Rosenthal, served as mayor and was active in the pro-choice movement. Her father, Michael, worked as an abortion provider and as an Ob/Gyn. Her mother's first reaction to learning her daughter wanted to enter the campaign was "Are you sure you can afford the pay cut?" joked Rosenthal. "She sent me a lot of books on integrity and how to demonstrate your character through integrity and standing up for what you believe in."

Her family is overwhelmingly supportive of her decision to enter the race, but she has received complaints from some relatives, whom she preferred not to identify, for talking about her uncle Cameron's death in 1995 to AIDS-related cancer in interviews and on her campaign site. She said her uncle never discussed with his family being a gay man, calling his friends he would bring home "traveling companions," but that his sexuality was no secret. Still, she said she has been asked by some family members to omit any references to her uncle's death to AIDS.

"Everyone in my family, except for two relatives, are rallying around me in speaking up about Cam. I am proud of Cam and there is nothing shameful with having AIDS or being gay," she said. "They wanted me to delete any info about Cam from my Web site, that would be tantamount to putting him back in the closet. I would never do it."

Her candidacy has raised other issues for her family. Her partner of nearly three years, Steven T. Jones, is the San Francisco Bay Guardian's city editor. Jones has had to step back from his reporting and editing duties covering City Hall due to her entering the race. Jones said he is not playing any role in the Guardian 's coverage of the race and will excuse himself from the paper's endorsement meetings on both candidates.

"I have got to do a dance around the conflict of interest both on the campaign and here at the Guardian . You can imagine how difficult that is to do for the city editor," said Jones, whose only role in the campaign is as the "official BBQer" joked Rosenthal. "It is not easy," said Jones. "She is my partner and I certainly am not shy about raising my political opinions and things she should be doing in the campaign but I try to keep it at arm's length."

The two met when she served on the city's Elections Commission and Jones covered the ensuing battles Rosenthal found herself facing, including the decision to fire Elections Department head Tammy Haygood, an out lesbian and one of the few African Americans to hold a top position in City Hall, [she said she based her decision to remove Haygood from the post solely because she lacked the right experience for the job] as well as to postpone the implementation of ranked choice voting in local elections.

"I was fairly critical of her and hard on her. She called to yell at me and that is how we met each other," said Jones, who lives with Rosenthal in Corona Heights above the Castro. His children from a previous relationship live with them part of the time. "When that issue had passed and I was no longer covering it, she called me to mend the fences a little bit. It had gotten so nasty between us. That evolved over several months into a romance."

Rosenthal refers to Jones as her domestic partner, even though the couple does not meet the legal requirements to register as such with the state, because she said, "There is no better word for it. We refuse to get married until our gay and lesbian friends can marry."

A latecomer to the race – Rosenthal said she was first approached about running in late May – she said she made the decision to run a week prior to the city's Pride Parade and in that time has raised nearly $9,000. She is accepting matching funds from the city with a spending cap of $83,000 in the race and needs to raise $23,000 to receive the funds.

After some initial reservations, Jones said he is "fully supportive" of Rosenthal's candidacy.

"My first reaction was 'Are you sure you want to do this?' The kind of tenor of political dialogue today and how negative and hard it can get, I think I was pretty protective of her at the start," he said.

As a veteran reporter of the city's political fights, he is nonplussed by the attention her Burning Man participation is receiving. A Burner himself – the couple plans to take part in this year's gathering – he said there is no reason for Rosenthal to shy away from her connection to the event.

"If there is anybody in San Francisco who is going to make an issue of someone going to Burning Man and getting costumed up and engaging in creative expression, the problem is theirs not ours," said Jones. "San Francisco is and really should be proud of Burning Man; it is one of our greatest exports. I see no reason why she should shy away from that event."

Rosenthal's boss, Oakland City Attorney John Russo, also finds himself in a bind regarding her campaign. Russo said he considers Dufty a friend, and while he feels both would make good supervisors, he stressed that he is not endorsing in the race.

"I like them both," said Russo, who recruited Rosenthal from the Meyers Nave public agency law firm in Oakland to help move along that city's redevelopment of its decommissioned army base.

"I knew it was right up her alley," said Russo, adding that Rosenthal came to his attention for her expertise on ethics issues within city government and as someone who was politically adept. "She handles the Oakland army base reuse process and has broken many logjams that have existed with that project for 10 to 12 years."

As for what advice he gave on running a political campaign, Russo, who lost a state Assembly bid in June, said, "I told her I hoped she knew what she was getting herself into. A lot of people think running for office is a glamorous thing. But there is an aspect of it that is a real grind."

So far Rosenthal's enthusiasm for politics has not been dampened. Her time on the Elections Commission – when the managing partner of the local law firm where she worked at the time received calls suggesting he should fire Rosenthal for being a "loose cannon" on the commission – has steeled her for whatever attacks she faces in her supervisor race.

"One commissioner, who will remain nameless, said to me you are the swing vote and your political future will be in jeopardy depending on how you decide," recalled Rosenthal. "Political alliances come and go in this city. Willie Brown's rule of politics is make no permanent enemies. I didn't take it personally then, I don't now."

This is the first in a series of profiles on the District 8 candidates.

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