"Glocalization," Regionalism and District Elections

Reflections on San Francisco Politics in the Year 2000

Urbanist Article February 1, 2000

The Challenge of Glocalization

The recent "Battle in Seattle" exposed the contradictions between the globalization of capital and the devolution of political power. San Francisco labor union members, environmentalists, and consumer advocates joined thousands of other activists to protest the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle. They demanded greater public access to the WTO's elite decision-makers and insisted that human rights and social justice be given the same priority as property rights in making trade liberalization agreements. The WTO (like NAFTA, GATT, and other supranational regulatory authorities) was created by national governments at the behest of multinational corporations and financiers to promote and enforce free trade. Not only did that act of creation require a partial surrender of national sovereignty, it imposed restrictions on state and local governments inclined to meddle with the new world order. At the same time, the federal government has moved to divest itself of power and responsibility by dismantling or privatizing federal programs or by devolving the burdens and benefits of managing them to state and local governments. National problems might still be national problems, but they will no longer be federal problems under this new "devolution revolution" regime.

The process of glocalization means that San Francisco and other U.S. cities must brace to fend for themselves in the context of a newly emerging international governing structure and an increasingly impotent, indifferent and vestigial nation-state. For a few advantaged cities, the process of glocalization, at least in the short run, will create new opportunities for asserting local autonomy and controlling their own economic destiny. San Francisco, in particular, has pushed the envelope of local governing power in such areas as equal benefits for domestic partners, growth controls, rent controls, neighborhood preservation, affirmative action, needle exchange programs, living wage proposals, and foreign policy initiatives in the form of bans, boycotts, and proclamations. The visionary rhetoric of new "city states" is now in vogue, and talk about "The People's Republic of San Francisco" is no longer tongue in cheek. For most cities, however, glocalization is bad news: bigger problems, fewer resources, no help from the feds, increasingly vicious intercity competition, and the dwindled status of powerless places dominated by the placeless power of global business and finance. And in the long run, acting in isolation and lacking an effective adaptive response, even San Francisco will find itself hobbled by the grip of glocalization. (If the U.S. Supreme Court should decide later this year that trade restrictions imposed by state and local governments infringe upon the federal government's foreign policy-making authority [Natsios vs. National Foreign Trade Council, 99-474], that grim scenario may come true sooner rather than later.)

The Challenge of Creating a Regional Government

The second major challenge facing San Francisco in the years ahead is to forge consensus among Bay Area leaders on a feasible plan for metropolitan regional governance and a political strategy for persuading the average citizen to accept it. Lacking some kind of effective and democratically accountable regional government, San Francisco and other Bay Area cities, under the pressures of glocalization, will be wracked and depleted by destructive competition at just the time when greater cooperation, collaboration, and coalition-building on a regional scale are most essential. In a recent SPUR newsletter (Report 378, September 1999), articles by Peter Lydon and Gabriel Metcalf and an interview with Joe Bodovitz recapitulate the many strong arguments favoring Bay Area regional government. They also review, with admirable clarity and candor, the history of failure in mobilizing support for regional governance in the state legislature and among the Bay Area's 100+ cities and countless special districts. Despite good grounds for pessimism that a regional government can be formed, San Francisco's leaders must try to find a way that moves beyond piecemeal deals, crisis management, and meaningless declarations of regional interdependence. In making that attempt, they can draw support from the recent upsurge of writings by political scientists (David Rusk, Cities without Suburbs; Myron Orfield, Metropolis: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability), legal experts (Gerald Frug, City Making: Building Communities without Building Walls), urban journalists (Neal Peirce, Citistates: How Urban America Can Prosper in a Competitive World), and race intellectuals like john powell ("What We Need to Do About the 'Burbs: An Interview with john powell," in Colorlines, Fall 1999) on the need for local thinking, planning, and action on a regional scale. A major new theme in much of this literature-a theme that will add fuel to grassroots reform efforts-is the dawning realization among former critics that regional government offers the only viable solution to the worsening problems of central city-suburban disparities, urban poverty and homelessness, spatial apartheid, and environmental racism.

The Challenge of Electoral Reform: Some Doubts About District Elections

The shift from at-large elections to district elections for the Board of Supervisors in November 2000 will have a major structural impact on San Francisco politics. As reflected in the last mayoral campaign, the anticipation of district elections has already had a shaping influence on public discourse, agenda-setting, and maneuverings designed to advance political careers. And with the publication of David Binder and Wade Crowfoot's marvelous two-volume District Elections Guidebook (David Binder Research, District Elections Guidebook: Charting San Francisco's New Political Landscape), worried incumbents and aspiring politicians have the bible they need to remap their thinking about San Francisco politics and learn the new rules of the political game. On net, I think district elections will be good for the city, at least in the short run. There are some serious drawbacks to district elections, however, that are almost certain to obstruct or retard the city's response to the challenges of glocalization and regionalism in the long run. I also believe there is a "third way" to elect supervisors (choice voting, a form of proportional representation) that is superior to both district and at-large elections. San Franciscans rejected this alternative (Proposition H) in 1996. A round or two of district elections might persuade some disappointed voters to give this alternative a closer second look.

On the positive side, I think district elections will:

(1) Make winning easier and campaigns cheaper, thus encouraging greater numbers of talented candidates to run for a seat on the Board.

(2) Increase the likelihood of representation for population groups that are geographically concentrated within districts.

(3) Weaken the link between corporate money and political power, especially if combined with meaningful campaign finance reform that limits the expenditure of "soft" money by independent political action committees.

(4) Make it harder for the leaders of any political machine to dictate Board policy or manipulate political careers.

(5) Compel newly-elected supervisors (and also, indirectly, city department heads and leaders of the city's many political clubs, community-based organizations, and nonprofits) to be more responsive to neighborhood-level issues, problems, and concerns.

(6) Revitalize local democracy, at least in the short run, by increasing the level of civic engagement, political participation, and voter turnout.

On the negative side, I also think district elections will:

(1) Make winning easier and campaigns cheaper, thus encouraging greater numbers of ideologues, extremists and wackos to run for a seat on the Board.

(2) Decrease the likelihood of representation for population groups that are spread more evenly throughout the city.

(3) Impose new artificial dividing lines on an already fragmented political universe-lines that will need to be redrawn every ten years, starting in 2002.

(4) Further fracture political discourse and obstruct the formation of citywide coalitions and alliances.

(5) Foster one form or another of neighborhood parochialism, making it even less likely that supervisors will give needed attention to citywide problems and regional issues.

(6) Shrink voters' potential scope of influence from eleven supervisors to one, effectively disenfranchising political minorities within a district by wasting their votes.

It bothers me that so many San Franciscans have restricted their thinking about electoral reform to the choice of district versus at-large elections. Some form of proportional representation is a real alternative, particularly choice voting (also called "preference voting" and single transferable vote). Choice voting is a modified at-large system that simply requires voters to indicate their rank-order preference (1, 2, 3, and so on) among candidates they know when casting their ballots for the Board. Some critics have argued, condescendingly, that preference voting is "too complicated for average voters to understand." But the 1, 2, 3 method certainly seems less complicated to me than asking voters to suppress their true preferences and vote for candidates they really don't much like (the "lesser evil") just because they seem more electable under the district or at-large system. Further, choice voting is as American as apple pie. During the Progressive Era, twenty-two U.S. cities, including Cleveland and Cincinnati, used choice voting to elect local legislators. They might still be doing so if the urban political machines of that time hadn't forced repeal everywhere except Cambridge, Massachusetts, where choice voting is still used today. Choice voting was a good idea 75 years ahead of its time. I believe it is still a good idea, one that San Franciscans should add to their menu of choices beginning in the year 2002. (For more information about choice voting, see the website of the Center for Voting and Democracy at http://www.fairvote.org.)

In conclusion, I'm concerned that the city's reversion to district elections might turn out to be a giant step backwards in its institutional development at the worst possible time. I am not a fan of the current at-large system. But by rejecting what I believe was a better reform alternative, San Francisco voters may now have to endure thinking small again before they can rescale their political vision to fit a changing world.SPUR logo

About the Authors: 

Dr. Richard E. DeLeon is professor and chair of the Political Science Department at San Francisco State University, where he has taught since 1970. He is the author of Left Coast City: Progressive Politics in San Francisco, 1975-1991.

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