The city’s lead­ing ex­port may be po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - PAGE TWO - JOHN DIAZ

San Fran­cisco has of­ten been been over­rep­re­sented at the top lev­els of the state and na­tional cap­i­tals. Still, there has never been a mo­ment quite like this, when lead­ers who came from the city by the bay have as­sumed roles as speaker of the House, both U.S. se­na­tors and gover­nor of the na­tion’s most pop­u­lous state, along with the statewide of­fices of lieu­tenant gover­nor, con­troller and trea­surer.

Oh, and one of those se­na­tors, Ka­mala Har­ris, just hap­pened to be the No. 1 “get” last week for all the cov­eted shows — from “The View” to Stephen Col­bert to NPR to “Good Morn­ing Amer­ica” — as she em­barked on a tour for her new mem­oir (“The Truths We Hold: An Amer­i­can Jour­ney”) in ad­vance of the ex­pected an­nounce­ment of her 2020 pres­i­den­tial can­di­dacy.

So what is it about Cal­i­for­nia’s fourth-largest city that pro­duces such ex­tra­or­di­nary depth and di­ver­sity of lead­er­ship skill? It’s not as if they come from a sin­gu­lar mold. They’re all Democrats, of course, but their styles could not be more dif­fer­ent. Gov. Gavin New­som has the movie-star looks and a de­sire to dis­sect and dis­cuss data to the point of au­di­ence ex­haus­tion; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a force of per­son­al­ity, with an abil­ity to pivot from charm to stee­li­ness as cir­cum­stances merit, which makes her a for­mi­da­ble fundraiser and world-class leg­isla­tive tac­ti­cian; Har­ris has a touch of all those qual­i­ties along with a prose­cu­tor’s fo­cus and an aura of destiny that put her in the con­ver­sa­tion for pres­i­dent from the day she was sworn into the Se­nate just two years ago.

What they all have in com­mon is hav­ing been tested in San Fran­cisco.

“San Fran­cisco is a rough po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Fran­cisco. “Get­ting elected to the San Fran­cisco Board of

Su­per­vi­sors is much harder than get­ting elected to Congress in many parts of the coun­try.”

And why is that? The an­swer may be ev­i­dent on the streets, where an elected of­fi­cial has nowhere to hide, even in a city of about 860,000.

“One of the won­der­ful things about San Fran­cisco is that the res­i­dents of our city are so deeply en­gaged,” Wiener added. “When you rep­re­sent all or part of San Fran­cisco, you can’t B.S. your con­stituents. Peo­ple watch, peo­ple, know, peo­ple un­der­stand what’s go­ing on.”

Nathan Bal­lard, a prom­i­nent strate­gist who served as com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor for New­som when he was mayor, cited three fac­tors for San Fran­cis­cans’ el­e­va­tion in Sacra­mento and Wash­ing­ton: a highly en­gaged elec­torate, a “ro­bust me­dia cul­ture” and an “un­usu­ally com­pet­i­tive elec­tion process” that can be gru­el­ing for even the lower-level of­fices.

“They say that San Fran­cisco’s sour­dough is the best in the world be­cause the foggy air does some­thing spe­cial to the yeast,” Bal­lard said. “You can take the same yeast to Seat­tle, Buf­falo or Port­land but it won’t make the same sour­dough. The same can be said of our pol­i­tics: There is some­thing in the air that gives our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers great strength.”

One of those el­e­ments is men­tor­ship. The late Rep. Phil Bur­ton, a mas­ter of ma­chine pol­i­tics, was a pow­er­house in both the city and na­tion’s cap­i­tal dur­ing his ten­ure in Congress from 1964 to 1983. He had a knack for spot­ting and coach­ing lead­ers, in­clud­ing his brother John (who later be­came state Se­nate leader) and Wil­lie Brown (state As­sem­bly speaker, then mayor).

The Bur­ton-Brown ma­chine changed the dy­namic of state pol­i­tics, pulling the bal­ance of clout north­ward. Its in­flu­ence res­onates to this day with Brown’s role as “the nurs­ing fa­ther” in “the new gen­er­a­tion of lead­er­ings in­clud­ing Cal­i­for­nia’s gover­nor (New­som), its ju­nior se­na­tor (Har­ris) and the mayor of San Fran­cisco (Lon­don Breed),” ob­served James Tay­lor, pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at the Univer­sity of San Fran­cisco.

“It is pre­cisely be­cause of the legacy and foun­da­tion of Phil Bur­ton’s Demo­cratic ma­chine that San Fran­cisco dom­i­nates the state’s na­tional and key statewide elected of­fices,” Tay­lor said.

Or, as po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant Mary Hughes put it, “In Los An­ge­les you have the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try ... in San Fran­cisco our in­dus­try is pol­i­tics.” She at­trib­uted the city’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with pol­i­tics, in part, to the “in­ten­sity and den­sity” of tal­ent — along with the city’s im­age as a wel­com­ing place for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and ac­cep­tance of the un­ortho­dox.

“There is a siz­zle and en­ergy and ex­cite­ment in San Fran­cisco that at­tracts peo­ple who are do­ers,” said Hughes, who has been build­ing an im­pres­sive net­work of her own in re­cruit­ing and groom­ing fe­male can­di­dates. “If we’re talk­ing ro­man­ti­cally about Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tion, San Fran­cisco is a place where peo­ple clus­ter who have dif­fer­ent ideas, new ideas.”

And they are will­ing to ex­port them, most fa­mously in the Valentine’s Day rev­o­lu­tion of 2004, when, un­der New­som, City Hall be­gan to is­sue same-sex mar­riage li­censes in open de­fi­ance of state law.

As he moved from City Hall to the state Se­nate in 2016, ex-Su­per­vi­sor Wiener said he was re­minded of ex­pec­ta­tion of a San Fran­cisco leg­is­la­tor by his pre­de­ces­sor Mark Leno. “The beauty of rep­re­sent­ing San Fran­cisco in Sacra­mento is that you have the space and the lat­i­tude to push the en­ve­lope,” Wiener said he was ad­vised. “Not ev­ery­one here has that. Our con­stituents de­mand it.”

Fox News and other right-wing out­lets might like to car­i­ca­ture San Fran­cisco as “Left Coast City,” and same-sex­mar­riage cham­pion New­som as its post-

er child, but the fact is that he was the cen­trist in ev­ery race he ran un­til he went statewide. As mayor, New­som’s will­ing­ness to take into ac­count the le­git­i­mate con­cerns for the busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment put him in con­stant con­flict with a pro­gres­sive fac­tion on the Board of Su­per­vi­sors that re­sented his charisma and re­sisted his pol­icy ini­tia­tives at al­most ev­ery turn.

“This bru­tal ‘Game of Thrones’-style cul­ture pro­duces some un­usu­ally strong po­lit­i­cal lead­ers,” Bal­lard said. “Gavin New­som went through hell and back when he was mayor. And that’s a big rea­son that he is ar­guably the best po­lit­i­cal ath­lete on the scene to­day. If you can make it in San Fran­cisco, you can make it any­where.” New­som may have moved from San Fran­cisco, to Kent­field with his young fam­ily, and then to the gover­nor’s man­sion in Sacra­mento, but there is no es­cap­ing the in­flu­ence of the city on hon­ing his po­lit­i­cal acu­men and es­tab­lish­ing his na­tional stature. Har­ris, the for­mer San Fran­ciso district at­tor­ney and twice-elected state at­tor­ney gen­eral, now lives in Los An­ge­les with her hus­band and stepchil­dren, but she surely will be cast as an icon of “San Fran­cisco val­ues,” by crit­ics and ad­mir­ers alike, in a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, state Trea­surer Fiona Ma and state Con­troller Betty Yee all have San Fran­cisco pedi­gree — and each is a pos­si­ble con­tender for other statewide of­fices.

It’s worth not­ing that the for­mer gover­nor, Jerry Brown, had San Fran­cisco roots of his own. He was by the side of his fa­ther, Pat Brown, in a cam­paign for San Fran­cisco district at­tor­ney in 1943 with the slo­gan, “Crack down on crime, elect Brown this time.” The el­der Brown won an up­set vic­tory that year and was elected gover­nor in 1958. Young Jerry was “raised in the rough and tum­ble of San Fran­cisco po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns,” Bal­lard re­minded, call­ing him “the Dutch New­som of his time,” a ref­er­ence to the new gover­nor’s 2-year-old son who stole the spot­light at Mon­day’s in­au­gu­ral.

So keep an eye on that kid on the stage; the San Fran­cisco magic tends to tran­scend gen­er­a­tions.

John Diaz is The San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle’s ed­i­to­rial page ed­i­tor. Email: [email protected] sfchron­i­cle.com Twit­ter: @JohnDi­azChron

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