Gavin Newsom likes to say that San Francisco is 49 square miles surrounded by reality. Well, okay then. In reality, he’s actually ripping off a line from Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner.
In reality, if you walk west, north, or east in San Francisco, you’re going to get wet; we’re actually surrounded by water. If you walk south, you’ll find yourself in San Mateo. Is San Mateo reality? Perhaps: They do have a Dunkin’ Donuts there.
All of which is to say: San Francisco is a small place, and not self-contained. The American Can Company at Third and 20th streets isn’t clanking and banging 24 hours a day anymore, with workers piling in for three shifts. San Francisco can’t forge the parts it needs to keep its buses running, fix its buildings or run its computers. It has to buy things, lots of things, from elsewhere.
San Francisco makes this hard. It makes it expensive. A March 4 memorandum from City Administrator Carmen Chu reveals that San Francisco will not enter into contracts with businesses headquartered in most of the United States — 28 states in all. Official travel to those states is also forbidden. And this list includes some surprises: Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Wisconsin.
As a result of this vast boycott, San Francisco is constraining the number of businesses it can ink deals with, which all but certainly inhibits quality and drives up costs. It also adds onerous time constraints to the contracting process, which leads to poor outcomes and also drives up costs.
“It limits our ability to procure products and receive services and contract services we need to run,” explains Chu. “It limits competition for our work.”
Why would we do this? As is the case with so many San Francisco misadventures, it all started with the best of intentions.
In 2016, then-Supervisor Scott Wiener passed an ordinance making San Francisco the first city to ban travel to states with repressive anti-LGBT laws or contract with businesses headquartered there. Separate and apart from a larger message or a social and economic end game, the travel element makes some intuitive sense; you do not want to send city employees, who may be LGBT, to places where their rights or their significant others’ rights can be impinged upon.
The contracting, though — that makes less sense. San Francisco’s law is very broad brush, and does not contain carve-outs for equitable businesses. The contracting partners we’re barring in the name of LGBT rights could well be owned and operated by LGBT people; our law makes no distinctions.
And, in the ensuing years, we’ve broadened this law (collectively “Chapter 12X of the Administrative Code”). In 2019, the city expanded it to states with repressive anti-abortion laws. And, last year, we expanded it again, to encompass states engaging in voter suppression. And that’s how, for the first time, we found ourselves boycotting and forbidding official travel to most other states. Which is wild. Mind-boggling, even.
None of which is to say that the underlying motivation is not good or right. Anti-LGBT discrimination is insidious. Limiting women’s reproductive health is insidious. So is voter suppression. There’s no doubt about that. But are San Francisco’s measures helping? About that, there is much doubt.
Including from Wiener, the man who started it all.
“I’ll be honest, over time I have come to have mixed views on the approach,” says Wiener, now a state senator. “On the one hand, I believe in using our dollars to express our values. When you have a state like Florida right now, which is about to enact its horrific ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law, the idea of spending our public dollars in Florida is an affront.”
“But on the other hand,” Wiener continues, “we know that an awful lot of Floridians, maybe the majority, don’t support that law. There is a huge LGBTQ community in Florida, including many LGBTQ-owned businesses. We are sweeping in an entire state, and sweeping in businesses owned by people who are trying to help. So, it’s complicated and I have become very conflicted and I argue with myself.”
“It is fundamentally not as straightforward an issue as I once believed.”
While Wiener’s thinking has grown more nuanced, the law he initiated has not.
San Francisco may or may not be 49 square miles surrounded by reality (not quite 47 square miles, really), but the reality outside our borders is definitely getting worse. So, there’s no reason to think Administrative Code 12X couldn’t be appended to include states engaging in aggressive immigration policies or incarcerating low-level drug offenders or any number of schemes that have successfully made the leap from talk radio to statehouses nationwide. There are still 21 more states to boycott, after all.
The point, again, isn’t that these things aren’t terrible, or that San Francisco should turn a blind eye to them. Rather, we have to question whether the way we’ve chosen to do that — and have been doing for years — is helping. At all.
It will come as little surprise to anyone familiar with the M.O. of San Francisco government that we have no tests nor audits nor analysis nor methodology to determine if our travel bans or boycotts are making any difference for the good.
One thing that would help would be to win over more cities to our cause. San Francisco has an outsize budget. But, on the national scale, our buying power is so diffuse that we, alone, could never bring about the desired social outcomes.
You could argue that, in 2016, San Francisco put itself in the vanguard of a movement. But, in the ensuing six years, nobody else has joined up.
“No city has reached out to say they want to mirror our rules,” confirms Chu.
In order to have a chance at success, San Francisco needed to inspire a mass movement. Instead it finds itself as an elite cadre.
Insofar as they’re aware that San Francisco is boycotting them, do our ideological allies in blacklisted states welcome this? Are they happy about it? Do they think this is productive?
Certainly, across 28 states, someone must be happy. Nobody I talked to was.
On the contrary, on-the-ground organizers and activists told me San Francisco’s move was high-handed, unwelcome and wrong-headed
“This is definitely not anything we want,” said Emily Persaud-Zamora, the executive director of the Nevada voting rights group Silver State Voices.
Persaud-Zamora was dumbfounded that Nevada would be punished by San Francisco for its voter access stance. Nevada last year adopted permanent vote-by-mail access, with the goal of expanding voter access. In 2019, it passed AB 345, which enabled same-day voter registration; initiated an automatic registration law; and expanded both early and absentee voting. In 2019, Nevada also passed AB 431, which made it easier for formerly incarcerated people to vote. Persaud-Zamora was able to rattle off several more bills, all of which made it easier to vote, not harder, and expanded the voting pool. “This will be the first election beyond the pandemic where every active voter will receive a mail-in ballot with paid postage,” she says.
But Nevada is, nevertheless, on San Francisco’s naughty list. That’s due to last year’s Senate Bill 84. Perasud-Zamora found this baffling. This bill was introduced by a Democratic state senator, passed 60-0 in Nevada’s (Democratic majority) Legislature, and was signed by Nevada’s (Democratic) governor. It raises the maximum number of people who can be in a precinct from 3,000 to 5,000. This bill’s intent, Perasud-Zamora said, was not to disenfranchise minorities but, rather, to ensure that large apartment complexes wouldn’t be confusingly split into multiple precincts.
Why did San Francisco make its move? “According to the criteria in the City’s legislation,” explained Elections Department director John Arntz, “increasing the number of people in a precinct reduces the number of potential polling places and ‘restricts general voting.’”
But that didn’t sound right to Persaud-Zamora: “We work on voting rights bills all the time,” she said. “If any bill were to be discriminatory, it would be on our radar.”
This one wasn’t. Regardless, San Francisco has made its decree and official travel to Nevada is verboten, as is contracting with businesses headquartered there, even if they’re equitable, minority-owned, and in every way representative of what we’d like to call San Francisco values.
And, you know, offer us better stuff for cheaper.
San Francisco does not measure the positive impacts of Admin Code 12X. But it also doesn’t measure its costs to this city. That’d be hard: You can never know how many bidders would have bid, but didn’t. You can never know how much more we’re paying, for potentially shoddier products.
But, rest assured, we are paying more. One city department head told me about a contract in which the majority of bidders were disqualified due to the companies being headquartered in banned states. And when San Francisco obtains products from companies in blacklisted states through a third-party vendor, it both drives up costs and mitigates any possible impact of the boycott.
At a time when San Francisco needs to spend less on overhead, we’re spending more. At a time when we need more agility, we have less.
In San Francisco, it can take a year to execute a relatively low-dollar contract. It can take nine months to hire for a single position. These, too, have become San Francisco values.
That’s sad. That’s reality.