Oft-mocked San Francisco leads the waySan Francisco Chronicle
November 04, 2008
(11-03) 20:27 PST -- David Binder, a San Francisco political consultant working with the Barack Obama campaign, thinks it all started back in 1984.
"We had the Democratic Convention here," Binder said, "and (Republican nominee) Ronald Reagan spent the rest of the campaign talking about ’those San Francisco Democrats.’ "
It wasn’t the first time someone equated the City by the Bay with nutty, left-wing politics, but it has turned out to be a phrase with sticking power.
Living in San Francisco means constantly being told you’re in the kookiest place in the country - a city where you vote on whether to name a sewage plant after the outgoing president and where residents enthusiastically debate whether to enforce prostitution laws. How do you think those ideas play in Middle America?
But what is lost in the talk radio chatter is how San Francisco has consistently been ahead of the curve on a range of important issues. That’s the trade-off of being a San Franciscan. You may be misunderstood by the rest of the country, but you’re likely to be on the cutting edge of the next big thing.
Richard DeLeon, a retired political science professor at San Francisco State, wrote his book, "Left Coast City," in 1992. He is working on a sequel, tentatively called "Vanguard City."
"San Franciscans, across the board, see themselves on the national stage," DeLeon said. "They always see themselves as the vanguard, leading the way, heading for the spotlight."
Alex Clemens, founder of Barbary Coast Consulting, said he’s given the idea lots of thought. His thesis is that because so many people choose to come here from somewhere else, they have self-selected for free-thinking.
"We are extraordinary exporters of ideas and concepts to the state, and from the state to the country," said Clemens. "Some of them are outlandish, but even the discussion has its benefits."
The vote on Proposition 8, which would ban same-sex marriage, is a San Francisco issue that is capturing much national attention in this election, but local residents were debating health benefits for domestic partners way back in 1982. That year, Mayor Dianne Feinstein vetoed a proposal from the Board of Supervisors because she thought it was too much, too soon.
"Now I look at Dianne Feinstein as the lead spokesman on TV against Proposition 8 and I think, my God we’ve come a long way," said Binder, a local pollster and political strategist. "It wasn’t successful at first, but we started it here."
Today, of course, health plans routinely cover domestic partners, and a 2006 Human Rights Campaign survey found that more than half of all Fortune 500 companies offer benefits to domestic partners.
Bruce Cain, a UC Berkeley professor who is executive director of the University of California Washington Center in Washington, D.C., said the political successes of U.S. Sens. Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reflect the depth and range of San Francisco politics. Those women belie the kooky San Francisco image, even if Washington was slow to get the picture.
"When Pelosi took over in the House, everyone assumed that she was going to be a left-wing nut," Cain said. "They completely underestimated her."
The city’s legacy of being on the bleeding edge of politics goes way beyond gay and lesbian rights. In 1984, San Francisco voters approved - after a bitter and controversial election - what was then considered the strictest nonsmoking policy in the country: Any nonsmoker who objected could declare a work space a nonsmoking area.
"People said it was outrageous," Binder said. "It was anti-business. And now every city in the country has some kind of nonsmoking ordinance."
So when can we expect a thank you card from a grateful nation? Don’t hold your breath say the pundits. We’d be more likely to have Sarah Palin rent a North Beach apartment and open a vegetarian falafel shop.
"It’s hard to get beyond the image," Cain said. "When you have an innovative culture, it comes with biases and stereotypes. When you are staying outside the lines, you end up looking strange, eccentric and threatening."
So it is probably best to bide our time and wait for others to catch up. With innovations in green building policies, citywide health care and all those same-sex marriages, San Francisco will continue to play its role as the place where the future happens first.
"San Francisco is like a petri dish," DeLeon said. "If it doesn’t work here, it won’t work anywhere."
See this article in the San Francisco Chronicle