Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau
Oct. 18, 2010
John Dennis may be Don Quixote with a twist: a Republican with a $2 million war chest and the endorsement of a leading San Francisco liberal who is taking on incumbent House Speaker Nancy Pelosi - by running to her left.
Last week, Dennis was endorsed by former San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez, who came close to beating Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2003 and was presidential candidate Ralph Nader's running mate as an independent in 2008.
Gonzales sent Pelosi a blistering letter that opened: "I write you because a large number of your constituents, myself included, are tired of your leadership." Ridiculing Pelosi for her refusal to debate, Gonzalez wrote, "I intend to vote for John Dennis and I will encourage everyone I know to do the same."
On Thursday, Dennis was embraced by anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, who challenged Pelosi two years ago. He also got a rave review in the Huffington Post.
Since her first narrow win in a special election in 1987 with just 36 percent of the vote, Pelosi has had one of the safest seats in Congress. She regularly picks up more than 80 percent and never less than 70 percent of San Franciscans' votes.
John Dennis, (center) a Republican candidate for California's Eighth Congressional District, works with Bill Briggs (right), director of operations at John Dennis for Congress 2010 campaign headquarters in San Francisco, Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010. Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle
This is one reason why Pelosi is speaker, ensuring her rise in seniority and enabling her to be a national leader without fear of a serious challenge back home.
'Thought I'd aim low'
Dennis thinks this year is different.
"There are so many reasons to run, it was hard to say no," said Dennis. "It's my first run for office. I thought I'd aim low."
The son of a longshoreman who was raised in a Jersey City, N.J., housing project and now lives in Pacific Heights, Dennis, 46, made his fortune in ergonomic furniture.
He belongs to the battered libertarian wing of the GOP, and has been met with a backslap by House Minority Leader John Boehner and a rally at City Hall with former GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul.
Abolish overseas bases
Dennis not only would end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also would abolish most overseas bases.
"We could start doing reviews of military bases around the world," he said. "We have 700 of them in 130 countries. Why not do a review? We did it for the domestic bases. Can't we simply ask, do we need the base in Zambia?"
As a civil libertarian, he supports same-sex marriage, the decriminalization of marijuana, and opposes the Patriot Act.
As an economic libertarian, he would abolish the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce and Education. He dismisses the stimulus programs. "To suggest that somehow Washington and Nancy Pelosi have this magical way of spending money that we all become prosperous is laughable," he said.
Dennis handily defeated interior designer Dana Walsh in the GOP primary after the pair spent a whopping $2 million for the 10 percent of the city that is registered Republican. Walsh's www.johndennisexposed.com website (which accused him of wanting to befriend Muslims, among other things) appears only to have helped his candidacy.
Dennis' own candidate video features a skeptical cowboy narrator who tells viewers, "Welcome to San Francisco, California. This is Nancy Pelosi country. Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful woman in the United States. I wouldn't want to go against her. But John Dennis does."
His key charge is that Pelosi has muted or abandoned her positions on the wars and civil liberties now that George W. Bush is no longer president and Barack Obama is.
"The Congress has constitutional authority over the war power," Dennis said. "The Congress has control over the purse strings. Nancy Pelosi, the woman who passed health care, the dream of progressives since Teddy Roosevelt, certainly has the political wherewithal to stand up to the president. So why didn't she?"
Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said Pelosi "has not voted for any of the Iraq or Afghanistan supplementals" under either administration and voted for an amendment to July's funding bill that will pressure Obama to start withdrawing troops next year.
Dennis accused Pelosi of standing up for human rights in China but ignoring civil liberties incursions by the U.S. government.
"They've done nothing to rescind the most egregious parts of the Patriot Act, which includes allowing FBI agents to write their own search warrants and walk into your house," Dennis said. "Why hasn't she done anything to repeal that?"
Hammill said Pelosi voted against reauthorization of the Patriot Act and that its renewal in 2011 is "another reason it's important the House not be controlled by the Republican party that rubber stamped all of President Bush's actions."
Dennis faults Pelosi for not moving to repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act; Hammill said Pelosi vigorously opposed the law when it was passed and this year pushed through a House repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" ban on gays in the military while getting a hate crimes law enacted.
Most of the $2 million Dennis has raised has come from 35,000 donors around the nation who would love to see Pelosi toppled. Pelosi has refused to debate Dennis; since first winning office, she has debated only one opponent, Elsa Cheung in 1994 on radio.
Pelosi is not campaigning to hold her own seat, but is traveling across the country raising money for Democrats to hold the House.
So why would San Franciscans send Pelosi packing, given her power and ability to bring home the bacon?
Dennis argued that Pelosi won't be speaker if Republicans win control of the House, and may even lose her job as Democratic leader.
"Then what's San Francisco going to have?" he asked. "It's going to have a Republican-controlled House with a marginalized former speaker as the backbencher. Who's going to have more capital, her, or the guy who had the biggest political upset in history?"
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead