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How the Happy Meal ban explains San Francisco 

Wednesday, Jan 19 2011

Page 4 of 5

"You have a very attentive political population that has a lot of turnover," USF's Cook notes. "That creates an environment whereby elected officials are constantly being expected to perform." San Francisco politicos "constantly need to remind the voting population about the issues — and that they're working on them. They have to gravitate toward constantly being perceived as being active on an issue."

While conservatives may be thrilled to take away other people's civil liberties, only liberals are enthusiastic about taking away their own. SF State professor Jason McDaniel says as San Franciscans have grown more affluent — with many poorer minorities leaving town — "lifestyle politics issues" have caught on: "I think these kinds of constituents like these kinds of issues — the plastic bag ban, water bottle type issues."

In San Francisco, those are the issues that are left. A lot of the liberal heavy lifting here has already been done. Are there substantive battles to ensure gay rights this city has not yet fought? We already have restrictive zoning laws; we have programs to give homeless people free housing; we're leading the nation in support services for people with HIV. Commission on racism? Got that. Animal Welfare Commission? Done. Peak Oil Task Force? Naturally. Ranked-choice voting, public financing of elections, and an ethics commission? Check. Citywide health care plan? We've got one.

Certainly more can be done, and sometimes what has been done needs drastic improvement — the city has famously sunk billions into helping the homeless, but can't quantifiably say it has made things that much better. Essentially, the low-hanging fruit has been picked. If you want to address progressive priorities meaningfully at the city level at this point, that means toiling away on accurate homeless counts, bus-only lanes, or developing measurable criteria for city-funded nonprofits to meet. These are all necessary incremental steps in complicated issues that are slow to move — which, to many voters, can look like a politician is not working at all.

Going after symbolic targets, on the other hand: People notice that. According to McDaniel, waging war against Big Tobacco, plastic bags, or Happy Meals "is a win-win situation for politicians who advocate these things. You don't have to mobilize large interest groups; you don't have to get a lot of feet on the ground in campaigns; you don't have a lot of money to bear. You don't risk losing votes and you tend to not risk turning off your allies."

Also, and perhaps most importantly, you don't have to solve the problem you're addressing, or even make progress on the issue. You just have to be "active" on it.

Today's San Francisco legislators are not incapable of authoring substantive laws — Supervisor David Campos' spirited defense of the city's sanctuary policies, Tom Ammiano's establishment of Healthy SF, and Ross Mirkarimi's re-entry legislation for ex-offenders are all examples. But the pressure to churn out legislation — to be "proactive" — can lead to the path of least resistance: inconsequential and flashy laws. And in San Francisco, we like flashy.

Until progressives and Mary Poppins moderates know they can be voted out of office for not being substantive enough, we can expect more Happy Meal bans. Even if the most effective step the city could take to fight childhood obesity — improving school lunches — is one that doesn't actually expand the role of government at all.

A government doesn't have to be progressive to pass a largely symbolic law — or a stupid one. Recently, Oklahoma passed a ballot measure banning the use of Islamic Sharia law in court — even though it never has been and, according to the U.S. Constitution, never could be. The state of Arizona's immigration law mandating that police demand possible illegal immigrants' papers is also a case of a jurisdiction supersizing itself.

But these tend to be one-offs. Having passed a stupid, and arguably illegal, law about immigration, Arizona won't next demand to negotiate treaties with the European Union. Muslim-baiting in Oklahoma may be the voter-pleasing equivalent of McDonald's-bashing in San Francisco — but only the Sooner State's lunatic fringe would suggest that this is just the beginning of a governmental movement to lock Muslims out of civic life. In San Francisco, liberal politicians don't see themselves as passing one-off laws. They see themselves as part of a movement to fundamentally change the role of city government in your lives. No legislator has yet said, "We've gone far enough." No one is even sure what "too far" would be.

Asked whether he was planning a next step, Mar said, "We're looking at a number of different issues, from the sugar-sweetened drinks and sodas to the zoning of fast food and businesses that people feel don't contribute to a healthy environment." He isn't limiting his options.

When asked if there was anything he saw as not being government's business, a line into "personal" or "private" lives it should not cross, the man who wanted the government to step in and help him with his daughter's food choices seemed surprised by the concept. "I'm not sure where I would draw the line. I think that's an important question," he said, leaving the distinct impression he hadn't given it much thought. An aide then abruptly yanked Mar out of the interview for an undisclosed reason before its scheduled end.

Campos, too, was stymied for a moment when asked what boundaries government shouldn't cross. Unlike Mar, however, he tried to find the line: "I have focused on the issues and the problems that impact my constituency, whether that's District Nine or the city as a whole. And sometimes there are issues that have a national scope."

The trouble is that rationale can be used to justify anything. In fact, it already has; San Francisco's city activism has always been rationalized by the idea that it affects local people. That may be a line, but everything is on one side.

About The Authors

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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