Prosperity recasts urban politics

San Francisco mayoral runoff shows new prominence of quality-of-life

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In this city's working-class, Latino Mission district, residents and merchants see an ugly side to the booming economy. As new wealth squeezes out longtime residents, there is anger that a piece of the city's heritage is seeping away.

And just as those concerns animate San Francisco's mayoral election Tuesday, pitting write-in candidate Tom Ammiano against incumbent Willie Brown, the race itself may offer a glimpse of how record prosperity is recasting America's political agenda.

Instead of the more traditional campaign concerns like jobs, taxes, and crime that dominated politics in the 1980s and early '90s, many political races today are turning more to quality-of-life issues - traffic, housing prices, and suburban sprawl.

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In fact, Fred Siegel, who teaches urban history at the Cooper Union in New York, says San Francisco is "at the forefront" of what he calls "post-materialist politics" in the United States.

The idea is not just that a booming economy has washed away many of the standard issues. It's that prosperity is creating a whole new set of concerns.

"They're the kind of issues you worry about when you can afford to," says William Schneider, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Here in San Francisco, for instance, a major complaint is that prosperity is not an unqualified success - even for its participants. It can bring social and personal aggravations that more and more voters want politicians to fix.

Mayor Brown, widely regarded as one of the most astute American politicians in modern times, has alternately seemed befuddled and annoyed by the crosscurrents of prosperity.

"Get a clue," he told the city early in the campaign as criticism of his tenure mounted despite a glowing economic record of low unemployment, booming development, and a city budget that has turned from deficit to surplus under his watch.

The emerging lifestyle concerns are one reason for the remarkable success of Mr. Ammiano, who shocked the political establishment by forcing a runoff with Brown in last month's primary.

While Brown is still favored to win Tuesday, the race may hold lessons for America's changing political agenda.

Indeed, quality-of-life themes have clearly emerged in the presidential campaigns, from Democrat Al Gore's early emphasis on seemingly local issues like sprawl to Republican George W. Bush's insistence on attaching "compassionate" to his brand of conservatism.

For many analysts, Mr. Bush's "compassionate" label is meant to convey that quality-of-life concerns are as important to him as rigid ideology.

But the San Francisco race, as is often true of local politics, has made some of these emerging issues concrete and voters' sentiments palpable.

From his blue-and-green striped headquarters in the heart of the Mission district, Board of Supervisor president Ammiano has declared war on gentrification, corporatization, and all the other forces of prosperity that his followers say have run out of control in San Francisco. A trip across the street from Ammiano's offices offers a tangible example.

The Bay View Bank building has over the years developed into something of a community center for the Mission district. Community-service nonprofit organizations and Spanish-language media populate the nine-story building.

On its top floor, Luis Granados has not only a commanding view of the city but a set of economic circumstances that would be the envy of most of his peers in the field of economic development.

"Frankly, right now the overall economy is at a place where it doesn't need improvement," says Mr. Granados, executive director of the Mission Economic Development Association. Still, Granados is not happy and neither are the local merchants and residents he serves.

The problem: A booming economy has made this working-class neighborhood, with its relatively affordable housing and commercial space, an attractive buy for technology start-ups as well as the young upwardly mobile workforce looking for a fashionable place to live.

Indeed, the Bay View Bank building itself was sold earlier this year and all its tenants were told they must move out by June 2000. The offices will be taken over by an Internet company.

"The whole issue of jobs and growth, which used to be enough for a neighborhood like the Mission, has to be rethought. It has to be refined down to what kinds of jobs and what impact they have on the neighborhood. That's the filter we now use," says Granados.

In a partisan sense, some analysts believe the politics of prosperity favor the left because the issues increasingly important to voters seem more aligned with traditional Democratic concerns. "The whole agenda of the country has shifted to the left because of this era of prosperity," says Schneider.

But that still leaves room for a fight, assuming Republicans and independents simply offer different routes to the same goals.

San Francisco is certainly not a typical American city. Old-style urban liberalism has evaporated in most large cities, replaced by tight-fisted technocrats who run their fiefdoms more like corporate CEOs.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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