The Coastal Post - January 2000

Shots Across the Bow of the 'U.S.S. Globalization'

By Steven Hill

In an otherwise off-political year, San Francisco's mayoral race attracted national media attention in what was described as an "only in San Francisco" story: Willie Brown, the powerful, flamboyant and liberal African-American incumbent vs. Tom Ammiano, the openly gay, former teacher and stand-up comedian president of the Board of Supervisors.

But on the ground, here in San Francisco, the real story was not about race, sexual orientation or who can tell the best jokes, but about that other, seldom-mentioned political dividing line: class. In fact, with the election over and pundits sifting carefully through the political middens, it becomes clearer that Ammiano's surging candidacy, like the WTO protesters in Seattle, amounted to nothing less than a thinly-veiled challenge to neo-liberalism and the rampant process of globalization.

San Francisco, a busy commercial and Internet center riding the surging crest of nearby Silicon Valley, is the poster city for the globalized economy. Local startups, IPOs and surging stock prices are the latest embodiment of the American Dream, dangling the bait before a wide-eyed generation. Signs of hyper-affluence are everywhere, as San Francisco has become a playground for the very rich. Willie Brown, in his Armani suits and wide fedora, has had the flash and political craft to stride across this landscape like a giant.

You'd think San Franciscans would be grateful to Mayor Brown, and his re-election would be a shoo-in. But while some San Franciscans have done very well in the globalized milieu, others are treading water, and too many have been left in the dust of the rocket momentum.

Costs of housing, in a city that is two-thirds renters, has skyrocketed, driving some low and moderate-income people out of the city. "Poor people's" transportation-public transit-has been allowed to greatly deteriorate. Great numbers of homeless still wander the streets, and most people can't afford to attend a 49ers or Giants game. A glance at advertisements for New Year's Eve parties must make most San Franciscans wonder who the heck can afford these high roller affairs.

In short, to significant numbers of San Franciscans, Brown and his brand of politics have come to represent the worst sides of neo-liberalism and globalization. He represents the perks of power, of those who are on the inside track, and those who know how to make the new global system work for them. Most portentous, perhaps, he represents a trickle-down system where, for all too many, the connection between hard work and a decent standard of living is being severed.

Into this breach, Tom Ammiano stepped elegantly and cleverly. Ammiano championed open honest government, campaign finance reform, neighborhood-based politics, public transit, compassion for the homeless, and a successful voter initiative banning the big banks' ATM fees. He's that all too rare species in American politics-a progressive-left leaning populist that actually wins elections.

To many San Franciscans, the Ammiano campaign gave hope, not only to those who have been left out of this economy, but also to those who have gotten a piece of it but are troubled by the direction it's heading-secretive WTO proceedings at the international level, fast-track NAFTA deals at the national, and Silicon Valley-funded machine politics locally. There is a verticality to the system that can feel frightening, causing citizens from all partisan sides to feel surrounded by something akin to a high wall, where some are invited to the party on the inside, while others are kept out.

How well does Ammiano's class-tinged, little guy vs. big guy brand of politics play with the powers that be? Consider this: Willie Brown, during his two decade tenure as Speaker of the California State Assembly, was the vilified poster boy of the Republican Party. His deft maneuvering and backroom politics contributed to a backlash in California that produced eight years of Gov. Pete Wilson's brand of politics, including the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209. When California voters passed term limits for state legislators, many labeled it the "Willie Brown Retirement Act."

Despite this bitter history between Republicans and Willie Brown, the San Francisco Republican Party held its nose and actually endorsed Brown! Not only that, leading Republicans like former Gov. George Deukmejian and even Wilson himself doffed their cap in support of their old nemesis. Reagan's Secretary of State, George Shultz, endorsed Brown, as did the Democratic Party establishment, including Pres. Clinton. The leadership of organized labor, after having its arm twisted by the Brown machine, caved in and endorsed Brown a year and a half before the election, despite heated opposition from the rank-and-file who supported the more labor-friendly Ammiano. Yes, organized labor-the bosses of labor anyway-and the Republican Party were on the same page for a change.

These globalized times are funny indeed, making for strange bed fellows. Protests like that in Seattle and like Tom Ammiano's insurgent campaign may be a harbinger of the coming backlash against globalization. Time will tell if this is the beginning of a new era of class-tinged politics in the United States.

[Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. He is co-author of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon Press, 1999). He lives in San Francisco. For more information, see or write to: PO Box 22411, San Francisco, CA 94122.]

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