It felt like old times the other day when the Rev. Jesse Jackson hit the campaign trail here on behalf of Mayor Willie Brown, running hard for reelection tomorrow.
Seeming to recall better days for urban liberals and connecting Mr. Brown with that past, Mr. Jackson told a crowd on the steps of City Hall that the mayor "has had a sense of the big tent," adding almost wistfully, "it was called liberal."
That is practically a dirty word in big-city politics these days and as San Franciscans ponder whether Brown deserves a second term, this election might also serve to shed light on another question: Is San Francisco the last hurrah for urban liberalism in America?
The national picture would seem to suggest so, say a number of political analysts.
"I wouldn't say liberalism is dead, but cities have certainly taken a half-turn away from that approach," says Fred Siegel, author of "The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A. and the Fate of America's Big Cities."
Indeed, analysts are hard pressed to name any candidates out of the traditional liberal mold that dominated the big cities from the 1960s through the 1980s that are likely to be elected in the medium and large cities choosing mayors this month.
And even here, though Brown is favored to win, his surprising weakness in the polls is seen by many as a sign that he's failed to join the modern mayoral trend of hard-nosed pragmatism and fiscal conservatism that puts quality-of-life issues above all else.
The national transition from liberal to more conservative mayorships was crystallized in New York in 1993 when Rudy Giuliani replaced David Dinkins and the same year in Los Angeles when Richard Riordan succeeded Tom Bradley.
But the trend is broader than just those two cities. This year's president of the US Conference of Mayors, Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, fits the modern more pragmatic mold.
In his inaugural speech in June, he told the nation's urban leaders, "We need to bury forever the old image of mayors with a tin cup and an extended palm asking for handouts to sustain and expand cumbersome bureaucracies."
Looking to Washington and government in general for answers was one of the hallmarks of the 1960s liberals, says Siegel. But it came packaged with goals of broader civil rights and economic opportunity.
It was given voice by the first generation of black mayors in American cities, including Carl Stokes in Cleveland, Coleman Young in Detroit and Marion Barry in Washington, to name a few.
But as some mayors began calling for black nationalism, economic entitlement, and an emphasis on economic redistribution, middle class and business flight accelerated, and urban problems skyrocketed
Reagan-era cutbacks sent a clear message that Washington wasn't the answer, and voters began methodically looking for mayors that could fix things.
Age of the technocrat
Today, technocrats like Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago, reformers like outgoing Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell, and law-and-order zealots like Jerry Brown of Oakland, Calif., rule the roost.
And while many of these new-styled mayors embrace socially liberal views on issues like gay rights and affirmative action, they are far more fiscally conservative than their predecessors and preoccupied with efficient delivery of services to their constituents.
Using a term that would have made 1960s liberals' skin crawl, longtime executive director of the US Conference of Mayors Tom Cochran says mayors today are "more like CEOs than social workers."
City hall and the local business communities, often at war in the heyday of liberalism, are allied as never before. And while the suburbs used to be the enemy, most mayors now seek cooperation and alliances throughout their metropolitan areas as essential to their cities' health.
Quality of life
In short, say a number of analysts, running a city today means focusing on quality-of-life issues rather than overtly ideological agendas.
"People are redefining what a liberal ideology means," says Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution. "There is much more focus on the fundamentals, on the quality of life," he adds.
Of course, liberalism has many shades and San Francisco's political ecosystem has never fit the mold of the Midwestern and Eastern city liberals that built inner-city coalitions on issues of racial and economic grievance.
Fundamentally, the challenge of running San Francisco is about managing growth while the jobs in many older cities have been about arresting decline.
Still, liberalism in its own form thrives here and that in and of itself sets the city apart and makes it either a fascinating anomaly or, in the view of some analysts, a potential seed bed for a liberal revival in other cities around the country.
Brown's brand of liberalism
Brown looks certain to emerge as the front-runner - but not the victor - in Tuesday's vote. His likely runoff opponent on Dec. 14, according to recent polls, is former Mayor Frank Jordan. The other major candidate on the ballot is wealthy political consultant Clint Reilly.
But Tom Ammiano, the openly gay president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, has given the race a jolt by announcing he'll wage a write-in campaign.
Mr. Ammiano is to the left of the liberal mayor and his late entrance in the race has become a rallying force for left wing activists frustrated with Brown's more establishment, pro-development liberalism.
Clearly, liberalism is not a spent force here, only a fractured one.
"Willie Brown represents the old traditions of the liberal mayor," says political scientist Richard DeLeon of San Francisco State University.
But what used to be a fairly cohesive electoral base is now fragmented into several pieces, ranging from organized labor to gays to environmentalists to anti-growth neighborhood activists.
Mr. DeLeon says melding those groups into a single electoral bloc could make liberalism even more dominant in San Francisco than it already is and serve as a model and a spur for other cities. But at the moment, those groups seem to be pulling apart rather than joining forces.
Should Ammiano face Brown in a runoff, an outcome not inconceivable, the liberal fragmentation would likely intensify.
But if he falls short and actively backs Brown in the runoff, the mayor could ride into a second term with one of the strongest liberal mandates of any mayor in the nation.
An election primer
*In US cities with populations over 30,000, there are 295 mayors' races this month. In several of America's largest cities, the incumbent mayor is not running, and the race may be close.
Sam Katz (R)
vs. John Street (D)
Baltimore David Tufaro (R)
vs. Martin O'Malley (D)
Sue Ann Gilroy (R)
vs. Bart Peterson (D)
Dorothy Teater (R)
vs. Michael Coleman (D)
* Two states will elect a governor tomorrow.
Lt. Gov. Ron Musgrove (D) vs. Mike Parker (R)
Paul Patton* (D) vs. Peppy Martin (R) and Gatewood Galbraith (Reform)
*From a ball stadium in the Twin Cities to a water-use system in Tucson, Ariz., voters will consider a short list of ballot measures. Generating the most interest are two statewide ballot questions in Maine - one to ban so-called partial-birth abortion and the other to legalize marijuana for medicinal uses.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society