Politics: As goes San Fran, So May Go the Rest of Us

(EN ROUTE FROM SAN FRANCISCO) – I didn’t get a glimpse of it, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

A blanket of clouds beneath my jet obscured from view the city of New Orleans, the coast of Louisiana, and the beleaguered Gulf of Mexico now under the savage and unrelenting onslaught from the BP oil spill, and so I didn’t see, from that high up, the black sludge coating the sea below.

Returning last weekend from a conference in San Francisco, I knew our trajectory would take us over the disaster region in the Gulf, so I made a special effort to keep awake for the point in the flight when we would be overhead.  It looks like an otherwise serene planet when you’re tens of thousands of feet above it.  However, from that altitude, you can’t easily make out the critical condition it is in from all the crap we and our human stupidities have done and continue to do to it.

I was visiting a state on the cusp of its June 8 primary this week, one in which the Democrat heavily favored to vie for the right to succeed the “Governator” is former two-term ’70?s guv – and San Francisco native – Jerry Brown.

How’s that for politics?  Here, in this eco-friendly state, they even recycle governors.

The nostalgia for a return to more economically-robust and wishfully less-complicated times is fueling a desire among many Golden Staters to see the man once lampooned then as “Governor Moonbeam” for his progressive, ahead-of-his-times agenda and ideas, returned to Sacramento.  Since he left the job in his mid-forties over a quarter century ago, he’s gone on to serve as mayor of Oakland and, currently, is the state’s attorney general.

SF Weekly, an alternative paper in the mold of our own Miami New Times, wrote in its endorsement of him last week – “We wish we knew which Jerry Brown we’re voting for:  the crazy young man who used to run California, or the crazy old man who just won’t go away.  Either way, we’re in.”

By the time you read this, Brown will likely have won the primary and advanced to the chance – now, at age 72 – to win the top job all over again in November and attempt to revive a state desperate for revival.

Gavin Newsom, the charismatic boy wonder of S.F. politics, may be his generation’s answer to Jerry Brown, having been elected the city’s mayor seven years ago at the tender age of 36.  His name is also on the June 8 primary ballot, for lieutenant governor.

Newsom’s up-and-coming career was nearly deep-sixed and given up for dead after an extramarital affair with an aide while he was in the thick of a divorce came to light in 2007.  But the shelf life of that scandal has long since expired and receded into the wood work as old news, and Californians appear inclined to resuscitate his possible future ambitions for higher office (the Senate?  the White House?) with a victory on Tuesday the 8th.

Ah-nold leaves office at year’s end with a mixed record of success.  The one area in which most can agree to award him credit is for having drawn the spotlight to environmental issues, such as improving auto fuel efficiency standards (California leads the nation) and capping greenhouse gas emissions (he signed the nation’s first).

The oil spill in the Gulf has hit home the urgency of safeguarding the environment to an extent that no other crisis in recent memory has managed to do.  It is why the country is now squarely forced to contemplate questions it has stubbornly and stupidly avoided for too long and must no longer ignore.

And it’s why San Francisco – and California overall – is poised to be a pivotal trendsetter for the rest of the nation in dragging us, by tooth and by nail if necessary, to confront our oil-gluttonous, resource-squandering, energy-wasting habits and the stark future consequences that await us if we don’t change.

Green is the “in” word, the “in” concept.  Room signs here ask hotel guests to help conserve water by requesting bed linens and towels be laundered only when needed rather than everyday.  Compact sidewalk sweeper mobiles – “green machines” – sweep up litter from city walkways.  Public trash receptacles sit side-by-side with ones for plastic bottles and other recyclables.

Critical Mass, the urban bicyclist movement cropping up all over the country, including here in Miami, has been a part of the San Fran scene since 1992.  I overheard a native say that Mass cyclists as much as “take over” the city streets on Fridays.  Hmm.  Gives new meaning to the old TV title, “The Streets of San Francisco.”

This spring, the Board of Supervisors expanded the city’s 1994 smoking ban with a prohibition that now includes lines at ATMs, movie theaters, and nightclubs; farmers markets; building entrances; and common areas of residential buildings, such as courtyards.  Smoking bans in outdoor dining areas of restaurants take effect in October.

The city knows something of its own about oil spills:  A container ship struck the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in a fog in November 2007, spilling 53,000 gallons over a 150-square-mile area, closing more than 50 public beaches, affecting fisheries and killing 2,500 birds, and incurring $70 million in cleanup costs.

Last week, as the nation’s attention was riveted on underwater video of BP arduously attempting to cap the Deepwater Horizon leak, the California Assembly passed legislation prohibiting grocery and convenience stores, pharmacies, and liquor stores from dispensing plastic shopping bags free of charge.  If The Schwarz signs it into law, California would be the first state to impose such a ban.

It’s one more sign, supporters of this law attest, that California is geared up to lead the nation and world on yet another significant conservation issue.  And from whom did the state take its lead on this?

In November 2007, San Francisco became the first major city in the country to ban the  bags.  City officials estimated that prior to the ban, 180 million plastic bags were being used annually, and blamed them for littering streets, clogging storm drains, harming wildlife, and jamming recycling machines.

The climate change deniers and neo-cons who have made San Francisco out to be the poster child for what’s wrong with America will find no safe refuge here for their neanderthalic recalcitrance on climate change.  Franciscans’ feelings for them is largely mutual.  The city and county, combined, tilted a lopsided 83% for Obama vs. 13% for McCain in the 2008 election.

San Francisco for too long as been famously put down for its liberal-progressive bent, for a politics and lifestyle culture other Americans deem too radical, or too bohemian, or too looney, or too tolerant for their white-picket-fence, Fox News-viewing, don’t-rock-the-boat sensitivities.  But now, as the chickens of environmental consequences come home to roost, the City by the Bay should be having the last laugh – if only our environmental fuck-ups were worth laughing about.

Instead, the city so many like to insult and roll their eyes at has become the metropolis americana that may yet show us the way out of this wilderness of environmental Armageddon.  But only if we quit being such dummies, wisen up, and follow her lead.

Time is not on our side.  It is one commodity whose flow man and all his machinery are powerless to cap.

About Charles Branham-Bailey

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