Web celeb eyes City Hall

Mailing list pioneer toys with San Francisco mayoral race.

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It was meant to be a joke. Craig Newmark, creator of the popular Bay Area community site Craig’s List, announced his bid to become San Francisco’s mayor on April Fools’ Day, with a campaign platform of “sucks less” — than incumbent Mayor Willie Brown, presumably, or other career politicians.

But Newmark — a Java programmer who describes an adolescence replete with thick black taped-together glasses and pocket protectors, “the full nerd clichi,” and who now makes the A-list of the high-tech party circuit — says some see his candidacy as no laughing matter: “I’ll vote for you” e-mails are pouring in (prompted, no doubt, by several no-joke news stories about his mayoral run).

“We’ve all seen for some time the desire for real change,” says Newmark, whose teasing candidacy announcement included a proposal to turn San Francisco’s notoriously problematic public transit system into a worker-owned business. Attributing late trains and bad bus-driver attitudes to an unmotivated work force, Newmark is sincere in his push for the tried-and-true Silicon Valley solution: Give the workers a piece of the action. “Frankly,” says Newmark, “I like the idea of people owning the companies they work for.”

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Newmark’s platform of “ridiculous proposals” also included a plan for San Francisco police and meter maids to be assigned to neighborhoods and personally introduced to the communities they serve; for city government to offer online customer service; and, of course, for free public Internet access at schools and libraries. “My intent was a joke with a few serious ideas smuggled in,” he says.

In essence, Newmark’s platform reflects the same community-building instincts that have guided his site, which lists jobs, housing and local events. In fact, while Newmark remains unpaid for daily work on the site, he and his colleagues have opted not to pursue advertising opportunities without agreement from the site’s members. The member consensus, so far, is no ads — and therefore no paychecks.

“We are doing for-real democracy,” Newmark says. “A lot of our lives is dictated by who you know.” By giving the average member’s voice a weight equal to his own, “we’ve kind of flattened it a little bit.” The price Newmark pays for listening to the public is more work; without ad revenues, Newmark has to take on more software engineering contracts.

For now, Newmark isn’t sure if a for-real mayoral run is in the works. “There would be a significant loss of privacy,” he says. And then there’s the smiles, the speeches, the flesh-pressing: “I’m still basically an engineer at heart — you know, check your social skills at the door.”

If Newmark fails to make the grade, his joke release says he’ll begin a new career as a trophy husband. But in conversation, he sounds more excited about a shot at City Hall. “The reaction [to the joke] caught me by surprise … Who knows what can happen?”

Kaitlin Quistgaard, Salon's former technology editor, writes frequently about the arts and South America, where she once lived.

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