The Power of “San Francisco Democrats” and the West


Image by Adam Derewecki from Pixabay

“San Francisco Democrats” became a political whipping boy for U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick at a long-ago 1984 Republican Convention.  President Trump has gone after Babylon-by-the-Bay again more than 30 years later.

But the tough politics of San Francisco has produced state and national leaders, one a speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, another a Democratic Vice Presidential nominee with a clear shot at the White House.  A third “San Francisco Democrat,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, has great seniority in the Senate. And California Gov. Gavin Newsom is a former San Francisco mayor.

The “Left Coast” has been a center of resistance to the Trump administration, on matters ranging from immigrant rights to vehicle fuel efficiency standards.  California and Washington have filed or joined in more than 170 lawsuits.  Seattle put 130,000 demonstrators in its streets the day after Trump was inaugurated.

It follows that the West will enjoy great clout should power flip in the 2020 election.  The Democratic Party has become a party of America’s coasts.  Only one thin sliver of the West Coast, in Southwest Washington, is still represented by a Republican, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler.

If Democrats retake the Senate, victories in three Western states – Arizona, Colorado and possibly Montana – will be crucial.  Long-serving Washington senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell will chair committees, as was once the case with Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson.  Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, will chair the Senate Finance Committee. And San Francisco will be the centerpiece of both political and economic power in post-Trump America. It is power developed by tradition, tutoring and practice.

I took a bluff-top walk last weekend in the Ebey’s Landing National Historical Preserve on Whidbey Island, a unique unit of the National Park Service.  It came into being as part of the 1978 “Parks Barrel “ bill crafted by San Francisco’s Rep. Phil Burton.

Burton was the liberals’ tough guy in Congress, a Chesterfield-smoking, Chivas-quaffing deal maker:  He was a great indoorsman, but left his imprint from Ebey’s Landing to California’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Pt. Reyes National Seashore.  Part of Pt. Reyes is protected as the Phil Burton Wilderness Area.

Phil Burton held the U.S. House seat now occupied by Nancy Pelosi.  He was a mentor in politics and Congress to our Rep. Mike Lowry. A bust of Phil sits on the San Francisco waterfront, with a partial saying sticking out of his back pocket. In fighting the timber industry over Redwood National Park, Burton said:  “When you’re dealing with exploiters, the first thing you need to do is terrorize the bastards.”

“Babylon-by-the-Bay” has turned out remarkable leaders.  In October of 1978, our trekking party encountered San Francisco Supervisor Dianne Feinstein at the Everest View Hotel deep in the Khumbu region of Nepal.  She was angry at clouds rising from the Indian Plain and blotting out views of the world’s highest peak.

Three weeks later, dragging a duffel bag through San Francisco International Airport, I watched Feinstein on TV, announcing the murders of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, shot to death by conservative Supervisor Dan White. Feinstein had run for mayor. Now, assassination put her in the office.

“DiFi” would win election to the Senate in 1992 along with another Bay Area politician, Barbara Boxer.  They would serve together for 24 years.  Kamala Harris would succeed the retiring Boxer in 2016. After the death of Phil Burton and wife/successor Sala Burton, San Francisco voters sent Democratic fundraiser Nancy Pelosi to Congress.

Harris was given appointments by a man she once dated, flamboyant California Assembly Speaker, later San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.  She unseated a man she worked for to win election as prosecutor, and later won a tough race to become California’s Attorney General. As well, Willie Brown launched the political career of winemaker Gavin Newsom.

“San Francisco Democrats” have made America’s politics greener and more inclusive, even as the city they come from becomes less affordable in which to live. Phil Burton pushed the House to abolish the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and helped create and expand Redwoods National Park.  Dianne Feinstein crafted the California Desert Protection Act, and the 1994 firearms act that for a time banned sale of assault rifles.  Gavin Newsom married same-sex couples at City Hall before legalization.

Kamala Harris has come under Republican fire for being too tough a prosecutor in San Francisco – particularly for going after parents of school truants – and being the “furthest left” member of the Senate.  Awful hard to be both. But nobody doubts Harris’ talents as an interrogator, and ability to drive a hearing witness into a corner, or find unwelcome corners to pursue.

Joe Biden is a self-described “transitional figure” in the Democratic Party, which puts Harris in line for a presidential nomination in 2024, and as arbiter/mediator of disputes between the party’s assertive left and its more traditional center-left leadership.

Not an easy role.  The West’s Democrats feature figures from the left, e.g. Washington’s Rep. Pramila Jayapal and California Rep. Barbara Lee, and such leaders of the centerist New Democrat Coalition as Washington Reps. Derek Kilmer and Suzan DelBene. Feinstein, Harris and Pelosi are recognized officially as “GentleLadies” in Congress.  But there is nothing gentle in their rise from Babylon-by-the-Bay to the banks of the Potomac.

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


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