By Chris Barnett
It was opening night at Uptown Joe’s, the new neighborhood clubhouse at the Majestic Hotel, and into the gold-and-white dining room strode assistant U.S. attorney Abraham Simmons. Heads turned, and not only because he had four massive briefing books under his arms.
“I’m going for it,” he announced to his dinner companion.
He had just come from a meeting with some political types. He had made up his mind to run for the District 2 seat on the Board of Supervisors coming open this year.
District 2 includes most of the neighborhood north of California Street, plus parts of Russian Hill and Seacliff.
The hard-charging federal prosecutor might have chosen a different path. His experience in a corporate law firm working on complex financial litigation and a decade in the U.S. attorney’s office made him a strong candidate for a judgeship. But two years ago he was appointed to the city’s civil grand jury, the public watchdog responsible for rooting out misconduct and finding ways to streamline city government. For the past year he has also been the grand jury’s appointee to the committee that oversees the city’s general obligation bond funds, which gives him front-row insight into the city’s finances.
As he has spent more time in City Hall, he has become more concerned about the city’s $6.6 billion annual budget. “In fiscal 2009, we received $600 million less in revenues than projected,” he says. “In 2010, we’re projecting about another $530 million drop. We’ve eaten through our reserves and have just $25 million left. We’ve set ourselves up for a perfect storm of fiscal Armageddon.”
And he doesn’t buy the argument that the city has to choose between eliminating jobs or raising taxes.
“We give the city enough taxes and fees,” he says. “We need a greater return on our money with improved city services.”
In addition to his experience in analyzing and resolving complex financial issues, Simmons brings a collaborative approach and a broader vision.
“Now that we have district elections, the emerging model says each supervisor should scrape, grab and take what can be taken at the expense of everyone else.” Simmons says. “I don’t subscribe to that approach. We have city-wide problems.”
“I’m for a new collaborative model where every district recognizes a problem, puts forth their own interest and compromises where possible in finding a solution to the common problem,” he says.
The first-time candidate is already behind in name recognition. Janet Reilly, a former television personality and the wife of political kingmaker Clint Reilly, is in the running for the District 2 seat; she lost a race for the state Assembly in 2008. There’s also a longshot chance incumbent supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, who’s termed out and running for insurance commissioner, might still try to hold onto the seat, but it would take some legal wrangling. Political scion Joe Alioto-Veronese and realtor Meagan Levitan are said to be in the wings. And there is a host of other candidates, including architect Frank McCullough, who calls himself Captain Democracy.
It won’t be the first time Simmons has faced long odds.
“Growing up, I lost three of my siblings to extraordinarily difficult diseases,” he says. “It taught me two things: first, it’s a sin to waste a minute of your life; second, be happy, don’t complain and appreciate the beauty of being healthy.”
Simmons, 45, and his wife, marketing consultant Nancy Sur, have three children and live in the inner Richmond.
Even though Simmons is not the typical back-slapping, glory-seeking politician, he’s never been shy about the spotlight.
“Every Sunday, my mother’s Cuban relatives—sometimes 20 or 30 aunts, uncles and cousins—gathered at our house for dinner,” he says. It was a musical family, and all the kids played instruments. “We pretended we were the Jackson Five. I was happy when I got to play Michael.”
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