'Left Coast' Stereotype Faces Test

Times Staff Writer

The San Francisco-bashing began even before Rep. Nancy Pelosi was confirmed last month as minority leader of the House of Representatives.

Repeating a slur from the Ronald Reagan era, critics dismissed Pelosi, a 62-year-old mother of five, as a "San Francisco Democrat" who represented a latte-sipping, tree-hugging, Left Coast city that was light-years from the American mainstream.

Even some Democratic centrists said they feared that Pelosi's leadership could repel rather than rally voters -- especially the growing ranks of suburban swing voters -- that Democrats need on their side if the party is to become dominant again.

Yet, at least some political theorists see this city as a model for the comeback of the Democratic Party.

"San Francisco is just in the advanced stage of what is going on in the rest of the country," said John Judis, coauthor of a recent book that foresees a revitalized Democratic Party rising from just the sort of socially tolerant, immigrant-friendly, high-tech professional, environmentalist milieus that San Francisco embodies.

Judis and coauthor Ruy Teixeira also listed Austin, Texas; Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C.; Boulder, Colo.; Boston; and Seattle as crucibles of an "emerging Democratic majority." All of these locales have voted strongly Democratic in recent elections.

Judis and Teixeira use the term "ideopolises" to describe such places. They are usually associated with prominent universities, their economies fueled by intellectual capital.

San Francisco may have its cultural quirks, said California Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, but on many issues that voters worry about most -- their children's education, the affordability of health care and prescription drugs and their financial security -- San Franciscans are just like everybody else.

"A politician, like Pelosi, who speaks to those concerns, will find receptive audiences in a lot of places," Maslin said.

Similarly, David Binder, a local political analyst and pollster, contends that his city "is never as out of sync with the rest of the world as others think."

"The issues that San Francisco cares about -- environment, social justice, health care -- I see as all mainstream issues. San Francisco is just a little more focused on them," he said.

Binder sees San Francisco as a showcase of political consensus that the national Democratic Party should emulate. "What San Francisco has shown is that people of color, labor and working professionals can coalesce around issues," he said.

A Narrow Appeal?

California Republican strategist Dan Schnur, on the other hand, says Pelosi's district represents a narrow slice of the national party and thinks Pelosi will have a hard time appealing to Democrats elsewhere while satisfying her hometown constituents.

"For example, voters in Palo Alto want to hear their candidates talk about free trade and open markets. Democrats in South San Francisco aren't going to be nearly as enthusiastic," Schnur said. "Suburban voters like candidates who support welfare reform and tough-on-crime legislation that doesn't go over nearly as well in the city."

And though Democrats have made impressive inroads in the immediate suburbs, Schnur pointed out, Republicans are putting up big numbers in the far outlying areas known as exurbs.

Conservative writer David Brooks agrees. "To me," Brooks said in a debate with Teixeira on National Public Radio, "there is no such thing as the ideopolis. The crucial political battleground in the future is between the inner-ring suburbs, which tend to be Democratic, and the outer-ring suburbs of cities, which tend to be Republican."

Historically, San Francisco has leaned more to the left than most other American cities. In the recent California governor's race, San Franciscans cast more votes for ex-Trotsky socialist Peter Camejo, the Green Party candidate, then they did for Republican nominee Bill Simon.

In 1994 nearly 70% of San Francisco voters rejected Proposition 187, which would have made illegal immigrants ineligible for most public services and education. Although the ballot initiative passed statewide, it was overturned by state courts.

The city was among the first to endorse gay marriages, and last year, San Francisco began allowing city employees to have sex-change operations at public expense.

It was the first city to allow cultivation of marijuana on city land for medical uses. It pioneered needle exchanges for addicts as a means of controlling AIDS and other diseases spread by dirty needles.

Republicans in San Francisco say they feel especially isolated. "We are definitely under siege," said Arthur Bruzzone, a local GOP leader who served as San Francisco party chairman from 1993 to 1996.

"With the help of the San Francisco media," he said, "the Republican Party has been successfully demonized here as a bunch of right-wing nuts. People here are left with the impression that you have to leave San Francisco's borders to find the ignorant: those who still believe in family and religion. They've cast the Republican Party as everything they hold in contempt."

But the cliches about the city being radically out of step with the rest of America may not ring as true as they did when Jeane Kirkpatrick, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, coined the sneering "San Francisco Democrat" phrase at the 1984 Republican convention. It was an epithet that many saw as a thinly veiled slur against the city's large gay population.

"My sense is that San Francisco doesn't have the same stigma it used to have," said Binder.

Carnegie Mellon scholar Richard Florida in his book, "The Rise of the Creative Class," rates San Francisco as the most dynamic stronghold of a new economy dominated by ideas, not production.

"Diversity is a powerful force in the value systems and choices of the new work force, whose members want to work for companies and live in communities that reflect their openness and tolerance," Florida concluded

Working with Washington, D.C., Urban Institute demographer Gary Gates, Florida even developed a correlation between vibrant gay populations and the high-tech industry.

It's not that the creative people in that industry are disproportionately gay, Florida said.

"It simply represents a leading indicator that a place is open and tolerant," he said. The communities with the lowest gay tolerance rating were those with traditional working-class, industrial economies.

Other cities have taken San Francisco's cue on domestic partner legislation, needle exchanges and methadone maintenance programs.

"We are a city that prides itself in taking risks that would initially seem inappropriate in other cities," said San Francisco Supervisor Gavin Newsom, who is running for mayor next year. "This leads to a lot of press coverage and eye rolling. But many of the things that seemed extreme at the time are becoming the norm over time."

Newsom also pointed to what he called San Francisco's "staid and pragmatic" side. He cited the recent defeat of a local public power initiative favored by progressives and the overwhelming support for his own initiative cutting cash payments to the city's homeless.

Rated 100% by ADA

San Francisco does tend to vote on the liberal Democratic side on most issues. Pelosi, for example, has a 100% rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. Recently she spearheaded unsuccessful efforts in Congress to restrict President Bush's powers in waging war against Iraq.

Yet, as liberal as she is, Pelosi has won elections in San Francisco without help from the city's most left-wing elements, notably the Bay Guardian, the city's most prominent progressive newspaper. It has refused to endorse Pelosi, saying she sold out the city to developers in her plan to turn the former Presidio Army post into a national park with some private development to help defray the cost.

Pelosi has been bucking the Bay Guardian and like-minded voters for most of her 15-year career in Congress.

She has won -- taking almost 80% of the vote in recent elections -- through her tireless efforts as a party fund-raiser and her loyalty to the city's Democratic machine, created by the late Rep. Phil Burton, whose widow Pelosi succeeded in Congress.

Pelosi became a champion of AIDS funding and gained a solid base in the large Chinese American community with her public leadership on behalf of human rights in China, joining with conservative Republicans in the attempt to deny China most-favored nation trade status.

"San Francisco breeds a kind of political leader who has to survive in a diverse, highly volatile environment," said San Francisco State political scientist Richard DeLeon. "It develops skills of adaptation and leadership that you can't find in a homogeneous white suburb. It can be an incubator not only for gay politics but for women in politics."

Many of those who initially opposed Pelosi have come around to her camp.

School counselor Roberto Rodriguez, 61, and his partner, Bob Van Horn, 54, recalled voting for gay activist Harry Britt when he ran against Pelosi in her first congressional race in 1987.

"But I've been happy with Pelosi," Rodriguez said. "She's been pretty liberal without going overboard. I'm certainly supporting her now."

Even Republicans are known to voice occasional praise.

"She seems to have her ego very much under control," Bruzzone said.

"She's hard-working, and she's smart. Before long, I think that San Francisco label will probably just dislodge itself."

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