Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
The Illusion of San Francisco Liberalism
On Dianne Feinstein's death, and what came before
Few cities in America have defined the national mood as much as San Francisco. No single city has done so with less than a million people; the quirks of our culture allow San Francisco, with barely 800,000 people, to consume far more of the popular imagination than Jacksonville (pop. 971,319) or Charlotte (pop. 874,579). The fortunes of the city are constant fodder for left and right-wing media alike. Its political elite are actually elite. Nancy Pelosi is a San Franciscan. So is Kamala Harris and Gavin Newsom. The story of Dianne Feinstein, the trailblazing senator who died on September 29, is inextricably bound up with the city itself.
Most Americans knew Feinstein as a creature of Washington. She had been a senator from 1992 until her death. Liberals, over time, would find decisions to abhor. Feinstein voted for the Iraq War and supported George W. Bush’s early efforts to slash taxes. An institutionalist to the core, she embraced Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, after the conclusion of Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings. Feinstein was, on most issues, a reliable Democratic vote—she was from California, after all. She led the charge for an assault weapons ban, backed the Affordable Care Act, and later supported the closure of Guantanamo Bay. Her most admirable work, perhaps, was helping to expose the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program.
Before all that, Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco. Obituaries have all noted the horrific circumstances of her rise to power without saying much about the men who were killed. In November 1978, Feinstein was the president of the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco’s version of the city council. She was 45, a twice failed mayoral candidate, ready to retire from politics. The man who had last defeated her, George Moscone, had campaigned explicitly to her left; Moscone had been an early proponent of gay rights and helped create a school lunch program when he was in the State Senate. The San Francisco of that era, as my friend Lincoln Mitchell has written, was defined by ideological and sociological clashes between real estate and business interests downtown and the working class of the surrounding neighborhoods. San Francisco was not a very rich city and it was experiencing much of the same deindustrialization that had battered eastern cities. A mecca for the gay movement and the counterculture, San Francisco’s political scene was, nevertheless, always more complicated than it seemed. Homophobia and racism reared up plenty. Reactionaries lurked. And so did violence—from the far left, the far right, and the nihilistic nowhere. Jim Jones had been a Moscone supporter before decamping to Guyana to slaughter his flock. The Zodiac killer might have emerged from the fringes of the gun-toting, anti-communist right.
Moscone was unlike most of the men who had ever been elected mayor of San Francisco. From 1912 until 1964, only Republicans governed the city. Joseph Alioto, Moscone’s longtime Democratic predecessor, had been enough of an insider to deliver the nominating speech for Hubert Humphrey at the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention. Moscone, with a coalition of working class, Black, and gay voters, narrowly won the mayoralty in 1975, promising more input from neighborhood interests and a municipal government that would reflect San Francisco’s diversity. There were parallels between Moscone and John Lindsay, the dashing liberal mayor of New York who, a decade earlier, had won a campaign on a promise to explicitly support civil rights at City Hall. But Moscone and Lindsay differed in a crucial way, and this was what perhaps marked the new mayor for stardom: Moscone was a genuine product of the working class. The patrician Lindsay was, in the acid phraseology of Jimmy Breslin, too tall for New York. A native of Cow Hollow, then an enclave of Italian immigrants, Moscone grew up humbly as the son of a correction officer. He was a high school basketball star, attending college on a scholarship before eventually becoming a lawyer. He wasn’t so different than another famous Italian American liberal, a minor league ballplayer from Queens named Mario Cuomo.
Feinstein did not reach the runoff in 1975. Her constituency was wealthier, smaller, and she lacked Moscone’s gift for coalition-building. She also faced obvious obstacles as a female politician. As mayor, Moscone appointed a liberal police chief to pursue reforms of the department, stocked his administration with women and minorities, and helped prevent the San Francisco Giants from moving to Toronto. On Nov. 27, 1978, Feinstein, believing her career had run its course, told City Hall reporters that she intended to quit political life. There would be no third mayoral campaign for her.
Two hours later, gunshots rang out down the hall from her office. She ran to the sounds immediately. Moscone and Harvey Milk, a close ally of the mayor and the first openly gay member of the Board of Supervisors, were dead. It was up to Feinstein, as Board president, to break the news and tell the horrified public that the chief culprit was a man named Dan White, a disgruntled former supervisor. The crisis elevated Feinstein; she was the calm, authoritative presence the city craved. The Board of Supervisors, empowered to choose Moscone’s successor, anointed her, and she would go on to win a mayoral election in her own right. History was set on a new course. Feinstein was a gutsy, hands-on executive, frequently seen at the scenes of fires, water-main breaks, and other disasters. She supported gay rights and developed programs to fight AIDS, but vetoed domestic partnership legislation. She was much less concerned with tenant issues than Moscone and aligned herself, fully, with the business interests of the city. One of her crowning achievements was a two-year, $60-million rebuilding of the cable car system, finished just in time for the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. Before selecting Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale had considered Feinstein for his ticket.
The mayors to come, absent the one-term liberal Art Agnos, would be cut from Feinstein’s cloth. They would be socially liberal, corporate-friendly, and wary of the progressive left. When the tech boom came for San Francisco, Silicon Valley moguls could find eager allies in men like Ed Lee and Gavin Newsom. When a reformist progressive, Chesa Boudin, was elected district attorney in 2019, the sociological ills of the city could be blamed on his office because the new mayor, London Breed, wanted it that way. Boudin was recalled in 2022, but it was notable that he never lost to an actual candidate—it was a yes-no vote, and the “no’s” were far greater. Boudin didn’t differ much from the wave of left-leaning, Democratic district attorneys elected nationwide in the late 2010s, but he made for an easy enough scapegoat. Unsurprisingly, drug addiction, homelessness, and carjackings plague San Francisco more than a year after his ouster. Who knew a single prosecutor wasn’t, in fact, the source of problems that had, in some instances, festered in the city for decades?
There is no single person or interest group to blame for what ails San Francisco, an otherwise very lovely city. Progressives, in the media at least, bear the brunt of criticism, and it was no accident Boudin was driven from office. But Boudin was, for his brief time as DA, a rarity: an overtly progressive Democrat who won citywide in San Francisco. Harris, during her own stint as San Francisco DA, was an establishment Democrat who oversaw a truancy program that led her to charge parents with a misdemeanor if they let their children miss 10 percent of the school year without a “valid” reason. The mayors and DAs of San Francisco, along with majorities on the Board of Supervisors, have been these kinds of Democrats. They have presided over all that they now revile. San Francisco is their city, whether they like it or not.