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Rachel Gordon recalls defining moments
in 17-years on City Hall beat

Rachel Gordon, San Francisco Chronicle maestri of clarity and sub-text,
recently elevated to cover California state politics
Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

By Pat Murphy

April 7, 2006

City Hall terra firma quakes this week as the reporter to watch moves to higher calling.

Rachel Gordon - for 17 years covering San Francisco City Hall, most recently for the Chronicle - packs her bags to bag expanded Chronicle coverage of State figures.

Gordon won't be leaving her beloved San Francisco, merely relocating to a Fifth and Mission streets Chronicle desk with front-row memories of the City she loves to read about.

An avid reader since childhood, Gordon was a 'natural' - the trade's highest compliment - to become a reporter.

"I love reading newspapers," she told the Sentinel.

"We get four newspapers delivered at home. I would guess we probably have 20 magazine subscriptions."

Liz Mangelsdorf, an accomplished Chronicle photographer and Gordon's spouse, devour the printed word at home with their infant daughter showing similar inclination.

"My daughter already tries to pick up newspapers. But she tries to eat them and not read them," Gordon laughed.

Gordon's hunger for the printed word, and her mastery of same, led Gordon to an early stint with the Alameda Times Star. She moved to the San Francisco Independent, to the San Francisco Examiner, and then to Northern California's big gorilla - the San Francisco Chronicle.

Growth of online news increased her reading appetite in recent years.

"I go to the Examiner to see if we're beat.

"I go to the San Francisco Sentinel to see what you guys did. I go to BeyondChron. I go to the SFusualsuspects and I go to the Wall to check out the chat rooms."

Looking back over her career Gordon recalled first ascent of the City Hall Grand Staircase as a reporter.

"I remember when I used to come to City Hall when I was a kid. My mom was sometimes looking for free entertainment.

"It was the days of Quentin Kopp and Dianne Feinstein, Dan White and Harvey Milk.

"I came down on Muni with my sister the night of the White Night riots. I testified once at a hearing trying to raise the Muni fare to a nickel, whatever, for students.

"It's a pretty remarkable thing. We came to Mayor Moscone's inauguration and then to his memorial service.

"I remember the first time I walked up the steps as a reporter with a notebook in my hand of the Grand Staircase and I was like, 'Wow, this is pretty remarkable to do.'"

KCBS veteran bureau chief Barbara Taylor gently mentored the newcomer, Gordon recalled affectionately.

KCBS veteran reporter Barbara Taylor

Since 1989, she churned out eyewitness accounts of often-tumultuous history in the making.

"I've covered four administrations. I've covered the Board of Supervisors, different agencies, police department administration.

"I've seen lots of homeless plans come and go. I've seen lots of panhandling plans come and go."

Gordon described defining moments in recent San Francisco history.

"Definitely the Loma Prieta Earthquake and seeing how the City dealt with that.

"There was Art Agnos who was kind of on the ropes politically and really showed his true colors as a City leader in terms of bringing the City together after the earthquake.

"Definitely through Gavin Newsom it was the same-sex marriage issue.

"All of us were expecting him to be a pretty boring policy wonk but he surprised everyone shortly after he came into office with this.

"It defined his mayoralty in many ways with that one edict. It will help him or haunt him, I guess, for the rest of his political career.

"The Tom Ammiano for Mayor write-in campaign was a pretty exciting thing. It showed a lot of disenchantment with the status quo at City Hall and he energized a lot of folks.

"And also the 2000 Board of Supervisors race really changed the face of it in terms of challenging Willie Brown's power at City Hall.

"Most of his allies on the Board lost and it swept in a whole new group of folks from Tony Hall to Matt Gonzalez to Chris Daly."

Covering City Hall was often a waiting game, Gordon recalled.

"I think I've spent hundreds if not thousands of hours sitting in the mayor's reception room trying to chat up the bodyguards... waiting for the mayor to leave the office and catching him on the way out.

"All of them are late often. Frank Jordan was probably the most on time of any of them."

Fun also was part of Gordon's City Hall tenure, she said.

"There have also been tremendously fun things at City Hall.

"Things you just wouldn't expect. Things like ballot box lids floating on the Bay.

"Annemarie Conroy, when she was on the Board of Supervisors, wanted to get a ballot measure qualified and she was coming in right at the deadline.

"They locked the door on her. She pounded on the door and she demanded that the person's watch be subpoenaed if they didn't let her in because she didn't agree with whether it was five o'clock or after five o'clock.

"I've met two presidents, a vice president, gone down into the sewers, gone up to the City Hall Dome. Kind of neat things if you're a San Franciscan."

View from City Hall Dome overlooking Alioto Piazza

Gordon also remembers the one story which impacted her most.

"Probably my favorite story I've ever written was going out to City Jail in San Bruno where Catherine Sneed runs an organic farming program.

"I must admit I went out there with a lot of skepticism in terms of 'why are we spending time and resources teaching criminals how to farm?'

"Within forty-five minutes of walking the field with some of the inmates, with Catherine and listening to them, was my mind very changed.

"To me that's the most exciting thing for a journalist, to go in with an assumption and to come out with another. To actually learn something to let my readers learn that too, that there are many sides to things.

"I remember this great big burly guy who was walking me through the fields, and he stooped down to a tomato vine and he pulled out this little cherry tomato.

"And he cupped it in his hands, and he wanted to show 'This is what I grew!'

"It really was this turning point for me in a way, of really to just being really aware as a reporter with assumptions.

"That was early in my career. That was probably in 1991... that's a lesson I've carried and I always have that story near me at my desk."

City Hall news coverage changed over the years

"I think with you, with the Sentinel and the advent of blogs, there are different voices...

"I think when we had really two very strong daily papers in San Francisco, the Examiner and the Chronicle, that helped bring different perspectives to a broader audience to San Francisco.

"While the Examiner is making a go of it now it doesn't really have the resources to really make a run for it.

"The Chronicle, I think, is being as aggressive as it had been and will be more so.

"There used to be more TV and radio reporters in City Hall, assigned specifically to City Hall, and there are fewer now. Bay Guardian used to have a bigger presence at City Hall."

"I think people are finding out a lot more about City Hall through internet and blogs, and chat rooms.

"I don't think a lot of them have the same standards for fairness and balance and accuracy.

"People are getting news in a different way and I hope people are understanding that it is in a different way.

"At least at the dailies we definitely strive for accuracy, fairness and balance.

"I think it's kind of more like Great Britain now. You know that there's a labor paper. You know that there's the conservative paper."

For cub reporters first venturing City Hall, Gordon offered seasoned advice.

"Be interested in what you're doing. Be skeptical. Be willing to get excited and be willing to get angry and be very patient. Don't mind getting white hair because you're going to be under a lot of stress.

"And be willing to listen to as many people as you can. If you're covering San Francisco make sure you go out to the neighborhoods and ride Muni. "Talk to the aides. Talk to clerks of the Board who are wonderful. Talk to Harvey Rose and Ed Harrington. Call up old Supervisors and old Mayors.

"Don't box yourself in and be willing to keep a sense of humor."

For herself, the time now comes for fresh new eyes on City Hall and time for Gordon to discover fresh new vistas, she reflected.

"I was really glad for my 17 years and I'm really, frankly, glad to be leaving too.

"It's time to have fresh eyes covering these folks and it's time for me to go and explore what else is out there."

"The Chronicle I think is in really good hands now with Cecilia Vega, Charlie Goodyear, and Marisa Lagos. They're going to bring very good reporting skills and a new freshness to the beat."

Vega now holds the mayor's beat. Goodyear moves to Dean of the City Hall Press Room as he continues City Hall coverage. Lagos this week left the San Francisco Examiner to join Chronicle City Hall staff.




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