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Death of a Fighter

Evelyn Nieves | October 16, 2014 | Story Politics

Ted Gullicksen spent his last Sunday at the office, an aging Victorian on 19th and Capp Street that houses the San Francisco Tenants Union.

“It’s paperwork day!” he said, as though it were a holiday, when he opened the door.

The executive director of the most active and influential tenants collective in the nation had been working seven days a week, the only way to catch up in these final weeks before Election Day. He had been spending so much time out of the office—leading rallies at City Hall, organizing leafleting walks all over the city, and speaking at protests in front of “bad landlord” buildings (i.e. ones where tenants are being evicted without reasonable cause)—that he relished days like this. The controlled chaos of a normal day, with tenants from all over the city lining up seeking his help, and volunteers on the Prop. G campaign—the anti-speculation tax measure that SFTU helped draft—sprawling on any patch of floor they can find. But today was a break from all that: His haven, the sunny parlor he called his office for 25 years, was blissfully empty and still.

I’d come at his invitation. We needed to finish up a prior interview about the union's role in mitigating the city’s housing crisis. As a journalist, I’d known Gullicksen for 15 years as someone to call for comment on housing stories. But this time, he was the story. I was working on a profile of Gullicksen for this magazine, a portrait of one of the longest-lasting San Francisco activists, still going strong. The story would focus on Ted’s fights against and alongside City Hall, and his efforts to make life easier for thousands of San Franciscans. It would explore Ted Gullicksen as Mover and Shaker.

He giggled at the label. “Mover and shaker,” he said, smiling. “Well, when my bike needs a tuneup, I move and shake it.”

But even after hours and hours of interviews and deep research, I still didn’t have the answer to a basic reporting question: Why did Gullicksen keep up the good fight after all these years? Activism is a blood sport, its players as worn out as NFLers after a few years of butting heads and tackling opponents. Why was he still so excited about his low-paying, high stress, often thankless job?

“Because,” he said—smiling, of course. He smiled all the time, even as he talked. “Because we can still win. We’ve learned how we can make a difference.”

For Ted, that meant rewriting the rules. Since 1992, he said, the Tenants Union had been involved in ballot measures on “every even-number election year.” The propositions he helped write were all aimed at the same thing: Protecting low-income tenants, one way or another. The organization's policy, he said, was to never let an election cycle pass without some sort of tenant protection ballot measure. “And we’ve won nine out of 10,” he said.

It was no boast, just fact. For reporters, activists like Ted are prime sources. But I’ve never come across one quite like Ted. He had a gazillion friends—and no enemies. Even his professional “enemies,” the city's landlords, never besmirched him personally. Part of it may have been his disarming appearance: He looked like a librarian—a small, friendly one, with round wire glasses and a receding buzz cut.

But another part of it was his authenticity: The man walked the walk. Community organizers, like clergy, often pledge themselves to a life of voluntary poverty, and Ted was no different. When he moved to San Francisco from Massachusetts in 1985, he chose the Haight, predictably. But in 1996, for financial reasons, he moved with his then-girlfriend to an apartment in the Bayview. The forlorn, mostly African-American neighborhood hard by the city’s industrial section was dangerous then, but Ted never left, riding out gang wars, crime waves, and lately, a different sort of onslaught: gentrification. “I notice I have company on my bike rides to work now,” he said, laughing. “I never had company, for years and years.”

I’ve been reading a lot about Ted lately and I realize that my first, second, and last impressions of him were the same as everyone else’s. He was a kind, decent, modest fellow, committed to his cause. His constant companion was his dog, a little whitish ragamuffin that had wandered into his backyard a few years ago. Ted called him “Falcor,” after the “luck dragon” in The Never Ending Story.

During our talks, I only witnessed one flash of indignation. “It used to be you moved to San Francisco to make a difference,” he said, after we had spent a few minutes mourning old haunts lost to high rents. “Now, people come here to become instant millionaires.” But, like a Zen priest, he was smiling again almost instantly. “I have a lot of hope,” he said. “The tenants movement is very energized, we’ve never been more effective, I think.”

The National Association of Realtors was spending money to defeat Prop. G. The “No on G” campaign, Ted said, smiling, was planning to spend more than $2 million to defeat it, while the “Yes” campaign—his campaign—had raised under $100,000, mostly in small donations. “I think we’ve got the momentum,” he said.

Two days later, Ted passed away at home in his bed. He was 61, still vigorous, in seemingly good health, and not at all done fighting.

Evelyn Nieves is a freelance journalist and former San Francisco bureau chief of the New York Times.

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