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Power Base

A seat of influence for local, state and national politicos—Newsom, Pelosi and a possible Madam President—San Francisco’s outsize (and outsider) success grows.


Known for its sweeping tolerance of individual difference and strict intolerance of political difference, San Francisco is a big city that, in matters of policy, behaves like a smaller one. Politics is a patchwork of dozens of clubs. Everyone is in everyone’s business. Every debate is a litmus test of true progressive convictions. Every issue is a proving ground.

So, it’s all the more remarkable this politically claustrophobic city has spawned a number of California lawmakers that currently include Gov. Gavin Newsom and Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, State Treasurer Fiona Ma and State Controller Betty Yee. U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are national names. Before them, the city produced two state Assembly Speakers in Willie Brown and Leo McCarthy, at a time when the position was one of the most prominent and powerful in the legislature. Not to mention two-time former California Gov. Jerry Brown and his father, Edmund Gerald “Pat” Brown, who were both born in San Francisco. The two Browns ran for president—Pat to be a power broker at the Democratic National Convention; and Jerry, who tried to win. Harris recently announced she is running for president, and some think Newsom will—if not now, then later. “It’s a representation glut,” says John Goldman, descended from one of San Francisco’s most prominent pioneering families. “It’s an embarrassment of riches.”

Normal political realities that dictate San Francisco would prolifically produce an array of the influential and powerful—around one-fourth of California’s 40 governors were either born or have long-standing roots in the city—is at odds with normal political reality. It’s not Los Angeles, more than four times as populous, yet so vast no one individual dominates the scene. It’s not San Diego, the cul-de-sac of California, surrounded by the ocean, the desert and Mexico. It’s certainly not San Jose, which is as sprawling and hungry as any city in the nation, but remains vastly and vaguely indefinable—politically and culturally. Maybe size does matter. San Francisco is one of the only places in the state where a chance encounter—literally bumping into someone on the street—occurs. Tailor-made for gossip, familiarity and alliances, the city’s compact 47.355 square miles results in a close-knit community that edges into politics and the arts. A small group of friends and associates might decide to fund a major museum exhibition, bring in a new symphony conductor, or support a local politician and nurture his or her career to state and national prominence.

Goldman, who was president of the San Francisco Symphony for 11 years, notes the delineation between individual involvements in other cities. “All would have their own cause, and there wasn’t a lot of overlap. That’s not the case in San Francisco. The same families support everything. It’s like everyone is in this together.” A recent piece in the Los Angeles Times made detailed note of the “eight elite families”— including the Gettys, Pritzkers and Fishers— many of which are benefactors of the arts, that backed Newsom from his high-school days to the governor’s mansion. In the same way, Pelosi’s national power base began with a relatively small squad of friends and supporters from the city.

It’s not only the compact nature of the city’s landscape or the intense and personal nature of its politics. Based on those qualities, the influence of San Francisco still makes no sense. But, then, the city has never been a sensible place. Historically, it was for dissenters and mold-breakers. “It goes back to the gold rush,” says Burlingame’s Joe Cotchett, a nationally renowned antitrust and class action lawyer, and a major player in state, regional and local politics. “It’s a different kind of person who lives in the Bay Area. They believe in going from point A to point B, people who always want to move forward, people who want to do something every day." A city, in other words, primed for reinvention and the individuals seeking to escape the social and class constraints of other places, with an eye for the up-and-coming Newsom despite his "eight elite" support. (Newsom could not be reached for this story.) In a San Francisco Chronicle article on the city’s political uniqueness, famed poet and beat icon Lawrence Ferlinghetti said San Francisco “was founded by desperadoes, outlaws, nonbourgeois adventurers—not your usual establishment types.” From the beginning, San Francisco was largely unreachable by the rest of the U.S., a port more often visited by the world. “It’s always had a tradition of total independence,” Ferlinghetti was quoted. “Even when I arrived here in 1951, the citizens had an island mentality. We’re San Franciscans first and members of the United States second.”

“San Francisco values” has been used as a derisive label, hinting at a kind of out-of-the-mainstream kookiness. But San Francisco values—which are deeply rooted in the city’s history, both progressive and aggressive, and are marked by the outsider’s willingness to take risks and break from the status quo—may be the uniqueness that has put so many of the city’s politicians on the path to wider influence. “I take great pride in the values of San Francisco and in our city’s tradition of acting upon them, which can be seen in the courageous progressive spirit of activism and public service that blesses our community,” says Pelosi, in a written response to San Francisco magazine. “The strength of leadership from San Francisco is rooted in the strength of our values, which are embodied in the song of Saint Francis, who is our namesake and patron saint: ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me bring love. Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.’”

Harkening to the idea that politic influence is the city’s fundamental nature, Pelosi adds, “San Franciscans are trailblazers. ... San Franciscans are firmly focused on the future.”


Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco 

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