With Kamala Harris about to become California's next attorney general, San Franciscans get to relive the hubris of a century ago, when we ran an empire so powerful we could take water from the Sierra Nevada (which we still do), bury our dead in Colma (which some of us still do), and answer to nobody for abusing our power.
Harris will be one of an unusually large group of San Franciscans in the commanding heights of power in Sacramento and Washington. Gavin Newsom will soon become lieutenant governor. Native and St. Ignatius grad Jerry Brown is governor- elect. Former state Senate president pro tempore John Burton is chairman of the California Democratic Party. Dianne Feinstein is the most powerful deal-broker in the U.S. Senate. And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi needs no introduction.
Those versed in the history of San Francisco's municipal colonialism may find nothing surprising here. A century ago, our moneyed oligarchy logged the Northwest bare and left mining tailings all over the West. But that was when San Francisco was the most significant metropolis in the western United States, says Gray Brechin, author of Imperial San Francisco. Now we have a smaller population than Fresno County.
Nonetheless, San Francisco is to state and national politics what Brazil is to soccer and Somalia is to open-ocean piracy. As you might see youngsters foot-juggling on every bit of bare ground in a Brazilian favela, every other San Franciscan is a politico, making alliances and maneuvering for influence in one of the city's 400 neighborhood associations, 9,000 nonprofits, or dozens of political clubs.
This makes the local political game the world's toughest, says former San Francisco assemblyman and mayor Art Agnos. "There are so many different elements in the structure of San Francisco that one has to navigate — religious institutions, political clubs, neighborhood organizations — that by the time you navigate all those and get into office, you have experience that can't be duplicated in too many other places in the world," he says.
Winners innovate. And San Francisco's political class has brought, or perfected, new ideas while in office. Winning at politics, however, is not the same as winning at policy. And our politicos' knack for earning votes and maneuvering doesn't always advance the commonweal.
What follows is a rundown of San Francisco's crop of national and state all-stars, and the stamps they've put on government.
Earlier this year, SF Weekly's Peter Jamison chronicled in detail how, for someone aspiring to be California's top law enforcement official, Harris had an extraordinarily poor record ("A Lack of Conviction," Feature, May 5, 2010). This spring, her success rate in felony trials had dropped below that of any California big-city prosecutor. The Chronicle and other local media uncovered a scandal where Harris had failed to inform defense attorneys about a cocaine-skimming scandal at the police department's drug-testing lab. Prosecutors she supervised, meanwhile, obscured criminal histories or misconduct records of officers testifying at trial, possibly endangering hundreds of criminal cases.
Harris brazenly pressed forward with her AG campaign, pretending in speeches and interviews that San Francisco was a real-life manifestation of her 2009 book, Smart on Crime, which claims she has toughened, rather than enfeebled, the local criminal justice system.
In Sacramento, expect her to brilliantly preside over failure and scandal while somehow convincing people who matter that she deserves a promotion when her term is up.
During the lieutenant governor campaign, Newsom's opponents made much of the fact he had previously expressed disdain for the office. "What does the lieutenant governor do? For the life of me, I don't know," Newsom said with cameras rolling.
Voters apparently realized Newsom was perfect for the do-nothing job. He campaigned on combating homelessness, but let the problem fester. He touted meaningless policy measures such as switching from bottled water to tap. Meanwhile, officials in crucial agencies overseeing planning, transportation, health, and, yes, tap water, never saw his face.
Expect Newsom to be a lieutenant governor exquisitely matched to the demands of his office, a place where the executive's choice of beverage really is the most important issue under his purview.
Postgame analysis of Democrats' loss of the House of Representatives last month focused on whether Pelosi was too aggressive in achieving goals such as health care reform. The pith of her political contribution, however, was in navigating her party into a position to get things done.
Step one: Crush George W. Bush. Legislating as our forefathers imagined might have produced a Social Security reform bill mingling the best aspects of of the Bush proposal with Democratic protections for current and future retirees. Instead, Pelosi burned it down.
This ruthlessness didn't surprise local Pelosi watchers: Two decades ago, she'd been entrusted to protect Democratic interests during the Keating Five scandal. Now her political innovation of crushing enemies is a fad. Listen as Republican freshmen pledge to abolish health care reform, pillory climate scientists, and otherwise return to a pre-Pelosi age.
And the Rest
These aren't the only innovative S.F. power brokers in Sacramento and D.C. Jerry Brown has made a Hollywood epic of political reinvention. Dianne Feinstein has amassed power by sitting on the fence on most issues of national and international importance. John Burton has kept alive a tradition stamped on the California Assembly by Willie Brown, in which the state Democratic Party gained permanent power by selling government to the highest bidder. Burton sits on the board of the University of Phoenix, a private trade school firm that benefits from regulations eviscerated while he ran the California Senate.
The next time you vote in a board of directors' election at your cooperative preschool, listen to a tiring speech at your neighborhood association meeting, or encounter a youngster passing out fliers for an obscure good cause, remember to be nice to these budding San Francisco politicos. Before long, any one of them could end up running the world.