Sunday, August 28, 2011

2011-08-28 "S.F.'s progressive course at stake in election" by Rich DeLeon from "San Francisco Chronicle" newspaper
Rich DeLeon is professor emeritus of political science at San Francisco State University. He is author of "Left Coast City - Progressive Politics in San Francisco, 1975-1991." His new book on San Francisco politics will be published by the University Press of Kansas in fall of 2012.
San Francisco voters, as usual, have a lot on their plates. On Nov. 8, they will select a new mayor, district attorney and sheriff, and they will decide on eight ballot measures. In the mayoral race, in particular, the burden of choice will be heavier than in most past elections. Voters must choose from a crowded field of 16 candidates, 10 of whom are current or former officeholders and most of whom are serious, well-funded contenders.
Under the city's ranked-choice voting system, the voters will need to do more political homework much earlier than in the past, because this election will be a one-day sale without the option of a later runoff election simplifying choice, for good or ill, by whittling the 16 down to two. And as the voters survey the candidates to decide how to rank and vote for up to three, they will also need to consider two rival charter amendments that address the central focus of recent campaign debates, namely, how to control San Francisco's accelerating public pension obligations and rising health care costs to secure the city's financial future.
All of that is a lot for the voters to ponder and weigh. But if we place this mayoral election in a bigger picture frame, there are even deeper and more important issues at stake.
This election, as I see it, is about choosing how San Francisco will be governed as a progressive city through economic hard times. It is about making the transition from a strident politics of ideology to a more traditional politics of interest and identity. And it is about the capacity of local government to take care of business and the capacity of business to take care of San Francisco.
By a progressive city, I mean one that is democratic, just, green and growing. That combination is rare in the annals of American urban politics. Given the constraints of federalism and capitalism, a progressive city is hard to achieve and even harder to sustain. San Francisco could prove to be the exception.
San Francisco's citizens are diverse, well informed and highly politically active. Their role in making public policy extends to land use, development and other important issues - there is no sandbox here. Further, experiments in local self-governance are common. Recently, for example, San Francisco became the first major U.S. city to use ranked-choice voting for city elections. The city also adopted public financing for election campaigns. This year, both innovations are being used for the first time in a mayoral race. Democracy is alive and well in San Francisco.
Impatient with federal government inaction, San Franciscans have moved ahead to advance the cause of social justice on their own turf. The city's labor standards policies, for example, now include equal benefits for domestic partners, a high citywide minimum wage, mandated paid sick leave, and a landmark health care program for uninsured residents. The city also continues its fight for marriage equality, protects and helps undocumented immigrants, and guarantees budgets for programs serving children's needs.
Yet income inequalities persist, blue-collar jobs and affordable family housing are in short supply, and the city's African American and child populations are shrinking. It is sadly ironic that San Francisco has some of the nation's most advanced social justice programs while the population of poor people, workers and children who might benefit from them slowly disappears.
Goaded by federal neglect, San Francisco and other cities have taken the initiative in coping with climate change and protecting the environment. The city now runs the nation's top-rated recycling program, imposes local curbs on greenhouse gas emissions and has ambitious targets for the use of renewable energy. By recent reports, San Francisco is now North America's greenest city.
San Francisco's local economy is starting to boom again, this time as an emerging center of biotech research, clean and green technologies and digital social media. Unlike most U.S. cities, however, San Francisco's main problem has not been how to generate economic growth but rather how to control it. The city's growth-control policies were forged in the troughs of business cycles after waves of capital investment. Such planning by the rearview mirror can be risky and ineffectual.
The city's Downtown Plan, for example, was well designed as a surge protector to limit the damage of future high-rise office construction. But it did little to protect neighborhoods from the dot-com boom that followed years later. The most recent growth burst, therefore, is raising old fears and some hackles even as it creates jobs and needed city revenues.
In sum, San Francisco is a progressive city, but one with problems to solve and challenges to meet if its people want it to remain one.
A pivotal event in moving the city this far and this fast was the election in 2000 of a "progressive supermajority" to the Board of Supervisors. Politics as usual was suspended over the next 10 years as the supervisors collided (and occasionally collaborated) with two mayors in steering the city to the left. Now the Class of 2000 is history, Gavin Newsom has left for Sacramento, and the transition to a new political era has begun.
The legacy of reform achieved by those leaders, however, was not the work of morning glories. Their progressive initiatives were hardwired by policy into the programs and routines of the city's bureaucracy. The city's administrators and planners will keep San Francisco progressive for a very long time simply by doing their jobs. An even deeper entrenchment of progressivism can be seen in the blossoming of "San Francisco values" in local political discourse. Bill O'Reilly minted the term to target San Francisco as the viral source of left-wing extremism infecting all living Democrats and liberals.
In San Francisco itself, however, politicians happily adopted the term as their own simply by inverting O'Reilly's invective and projecting only positives from the negatives. The same values many conservatives despise - marriage equality, women's choice, immigrant rights - are precisely those most San Franciscans cherish in their local political culture. Thanks to institutional and cultural inertia, the sky will not fall on progressives in January 2012, no matter who takes office as mayor.
Yet troubles and turbulence lie immediately ahead. In addition to concerns about pensions and health care costs, the city faces large projected budget deficits over the next three years and beyond. In solving these kinds of problems, the city can expect little help from the feds and even less from the state, requiring greater dependence on the local private sector for needed resources. The challenge progressives face under these conditions is finding ways to work with business while consolidating and defending their victories. The challenge business leaders face is adapting their legitimate quest for profit and growth to a settled local political culture rooted in San Francisco values.
After years of tumult, most San Franciscans would welcome some political peace and quiet along with greater civility in the making of public policy. But civility, like happiness, can be overrated, especially if it is a facade concealing backroom deals, avoidance of controversy and deafness to noisy suffering. Dragons be there. San Franciscans are conservative about being progressive.

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