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Peeking from the clutter of my desk screams the infuriated text of a newsletter sent to me monthly by the Small Property Owners of San Francisco. "The Coming Storm," it says, referring to a new law making it harder to evict tenants when spouses or other family members move in.
Unrighteous fury also fills my e-mail box. A half-dozen or so messages from reactionary soft-money creeps calling themselves SFSOS belch paranoid half-truths, race-baiting hysteria, and other divisive nonsense.
This barrage of fringe propaganda continues by fax, by mail, by e-mail from business lobby groups such as the S.F. Building Owners and Managers Association, the S.F. Chamber of Commerce, and similar associations. Weekly it seems to pollute our civic discourse with resentment-mongering aimed at selfish, shortsighted ends.
I haven't commented in the past on business leaders' role as the troglodytes of San Francisco public life because, in an ordinary world, it's not interesting. The very term "business lobby" is widely viewed as a slur in America, because business' traditional role has been to corrupt politicians, enrich a few fat cats, and worsen life for the rest of us.
In San Francisco, however, business interests enjoy a unique opportunity to forge a nobler way. Yet they always seem to squander it with obnoxious, self-serving political advocacy.
In most every other place in America, the battle between citizens' groups and commercial interests has been a business-led rout. The result: physically ugly cityscapes and sweetheart public sops for business at the expense of everyone else. Here we have the other extreme.
This city is in the thrall of an anti-business lobby called the progressive movement that, uniquely in America, usually wins. The progressives successfully fight new buildings, or new uses for old ones. They successfully battle the encroachment of clean, high-paying industries such as biotech, multimedia, financial services, and others in the name of preserving the city's "blue-collar heritage."
The result has been physical blight, economic stagnation, a skyrocketing cost of living, rampant homelessness, and citywide psychological malaise.
You'd think that in such an arena, business groups could be seen as champions of the public interest. Yet in San Francisco they seem unable to elevate their reputation beyond the usual one as reactionary assholes.
The inability of business groups to shine in San Francisco public life struck me earlier this month when television and newspaper reporters telephoned Chamber of Commerce President Lee Blitch, wanting a quote. Supervisor Jake McGoldrick had proposed that San Francisco study the possibility of learning from a program in London, where the city reduces congestion by charging motorists a fee to go downtown. Mainstream news outlets must balance every new idea with a quote denouncing it. And they got it from Blitch.
"We are trying to get out of the recession, but [sic] go back into it," the SF Examiner quoted Blitch as saying.
"If we want people to spend their money so we can get their sales tax to provide services we want, we have to encourage people coming in and shopping at our stores," Blitch said on a piece of tape run by the local ABC station.
It must be tempting to become reporters' "business source" in these dial-a-quote times. But when you tend to spout reactionary nonsense, there's a case to be made for silence. New York City is looking at the same downtown traffic-fee proposal that has won raves in London. The idea is to reduce auto traffic so buses and pedestrians can move freely, so more people can fit into downtown, and -- that's right -- so more people can shop. From a business standpoint, there's no reason not to at least study such a possibility in San Francisco.
The Chamber of Commerce is a minor offender when it comes to throwing turds into S.F. public discourse. The worst is Wade Randlett, president SFSOS, founded with money from area business magnates, including Dianne Feinstein's husband, investment banker Richard Blum; Gap founder Donald Fisher; and financier Warren Hellman. Randlett was profiled a few years ago in the tome How to Hack a Party Line. It was one of those dot-com-era books that were ubiquitous a while back, and it made a big deal of the job Randlett used to have soliciting funds for the Democratic Party from Silicon Valley millionaires, as if that were the new new-new-economy thing.
Randlett eventually got another job: distributing specious invective on behalf of wannabe-local-playa billionaires. As the SFSOS president, he weekly spams San Franciscans with e-mails that demonize opponents of what might be called a 1950s, conservative vision of white, homeowning, boardroom-controlled San Francisco. Spam readers are urged to click online hyperlinks couched as surveys or pre-written "letters" to politicians. Randlett then faxes the results of these clicks, as if they were constituent letters, to the Board of Supervisors, thus jamming city fax machines. Board members recently suggested computers be programmed to electronically translate faxes into e-mails, to blunt the tree-killing force of this technique. Randlett promptly sent out a spam alert saying this would be anti-democratic.
Last year, Randlett earned press coverage by saying he was going to push a ballot initiative that would end desegregation in San Francisco schools. This measure seemed aimed at sparking political warfare that would have pit the city's affluent white and Asian residents against less affluent Hispanics and African-Americans. Randlett said Sen. Feinstein supported this measure, something she disavowed before later resigning from the group's board. Randlett quietly abandoned the measure.