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. 

At City Hall, June 2020. Photo by Laura Wenus

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.” 

Downtown view from the Mission. May 9, 2020, around noon. Photo by Kerim Harmanci.

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. 

Downtown off in the distance. Photo by Guadalupe González

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. 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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53 Comments

  1. Why no mention of the benefits to the people and enterprises in States SF does do business with? It not all negative. Making a ethical or moral stand requires time, patience, and determination. ML constantly promotes “buying local” even though the quality/selection/price of “local” may not be as good as not local. I see little difference that particular States(and countries) are more “local” than others. If we extend Joe’s point of view here just a little bit, sourcing SF’s needs from China, Russia, Syria, North Korea makes sense when the price is right. So those pesky Federal laws imposing International restrictions on products of coerced labor are as misguided as SF’s policies.

    1. I think Joe’s article points to the difference between the federal and international boycotts of Russia and North Korea, which are large enough to get the attention of those countries versus San Francisco’s boycotts which are not likely to make any difference at all to their targets, but still make City purchasing more cumbersome and less efficient.

      1. International boycotts have been spectacularly ineffective in achieving regime or policy change or . To wit: Cuba, North Korea, Syria, and to a lesser extent PRC. Russia isn’t comparable because the US is mindfully waging a “hybrid war” with Russia. That’s very different from targeted US trade policies which are subject to WTO agreements. The very recent Russian sanctions are extraordinary, unprecedented. and totally beyond WTO agreements.

    2. City agencies mostly have no choice, so they procure products they need regardless of boycotts, through vendors with the “right” address. These add a markup to a simple pass-through and don’t warehouse, QC or add anything of value other than keeping up appearances. This means you accomplished exactly nothing, except enriching a handful of outfits that can get on the contract. So no, not one other place, not even Berkeley, are going to join us in rolling this boycott nonsense.

    3. What is kind of odd is the hypocritical nature of some of the boycotts. For instance, Georgia is now banned for implementing voting laws that are LESS restrictive that places like New York. Yet, since NY is another liberal bastion, San Fran through their hypocritical glasses gives them a pass.

  2. On another front has there been any updates on the French outdoor toilet purchase? And, thanks for another revealing look at the thing we call government and governing in San Francisco. Mandates with no accountability, no audits, no sunset clause and the beat goes on….

      1. Maybe, but what does the LAW say? Or not say? Are you conflating two different issues? Are you fabricating a link? Show us the words in the law that support your statement.

        1. Iain — 

          You do know you’re responding to the comment about Gavin Newsom ripping off Paul Kantner?

          JE

        1. Ed — 

          Yes, I know he did. That’s why I wrote the story the way I wrote it and provided the above citations.

          JE

  3. SF is like one of those loud but powerless bullies that are always yelling at people that their on his shitlist…

  4. Local SF politicians love these quick ‘sugar-high’ bills. By focusing on out of state issues, they get in the press, appear important, and distract from their failure locally ?

    1. & SF voters will continue to love them. As with all progressive policy, results are irrelevant. Only the signaling matters

    2. The local equivalent of “wag the dog” governments starting overseas conflicts in order to distract from their failures in their own jurisdictions?

  5. What made San Francisco at one time an economic powerhouse in the entire American west was the freedom to make use of anything which applied and used for the City, the State as well as the Nation. Presently, the core (The working Middle Class and Private Sector Businesses) who in the past were able to create new ideas and novel programs in our City have slowly left due to thirty years of Democratic Party Control which has become restrictive with more taxes and regulations for their expensive social welfare programs and such at the expense of the Taxpayer as well as with bond funds gifted by the State and Federal Government. The fact is our elected and appointed bureaucracy has also become basically self-serving. There is no doubt our City will remain in the same lone position until the financial pinch will continue to hurt. The City will then try to seek out more and more avenues which will no longer provide continued sources of income.

  6. This article is deceptive and untrue when measured by population. In the same way most of the world has boycotted, Russia and Putin, San Francisco should boycott states and businesses headquartered in them that are hostile to San Francisco principles and residents.

    1. Samuel — 

      This is a silly comment and a bewildering takeaway.

      The world’s *collective* action against Russia has cratered the Russian economy. You couldn’t come up with a less germane comparison to San Francisco’s solitary action — which has done nothing to economically hamper bad actors and has also done nothing to affect their bad acting.

      The critique that boycotting 28 of the 49 other states in move that has turned out to be both ineffective and self-harmful is somehow logical — and that this action was well thought-out — because most of the people of the United States live in the other 21 states is inane.

      Yours,

      JE

  7. Forty-four years ago, former Wisconsin Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus ( may God rest his soul) declared “Madison is 30 square miles surrounded by reality,”

  8. Yet another instance of the “get woke, go broke” phenomenon. San Francisco, and by extension California shows the Nation what happens when “wokeness” becomes rule.

  9. Would be a 100% solid piece if you hadn’t misrepresented Florida’s education bill. You could not have read it. Thus, you have amplified SF’s and California’s bent on artificial biases.

  10. San Francisco should thank it’s lucky stars that it is not boycotted by those parts of the country that disagree with how it runs the city. What if Exxon decided that the city’s green policies were over the top and refused to ship in gasoline? What if Target decided the city’s movement to allow thousands of drug dealers to live on and shoot up city streets was odious and horribly unfair to regular San Franciscans and closed all its stores? Or maybe Walgreens will get fed up with the city encouraging mass shop lifting and simply shutter all its stores and leave? Considering that last action is happening on some scale should scare the hell out of SF, but it appears to me local government officials and the majority of the residents are so delusional that they don’t understand the danger.

  11. I’m boycotting San Fransicko for its treatment of normal, non-homosexual people. May it implode in its woke madness.

  12. The only thing that might destroy San Francisco faster than it is doing on its own would be another earth quake. Breed and Boudin, quite a pair.

  13. It’s a curious pretext in thinking the city itself is moral or righteous, when it’s entirely the opposite. It’s the butt of the rest of the civilized country’s jokes. Its backwards approach to governance and good order are the model for how to not run a city.

  14. Where in the world is Mayor London Breed ? She’s out shilling for private business in Europe. City Departments are struggling to buy Toilet paper and the mayor is on a junket for the hospitality industry. Someone needs to get priorities straight

  15. What a thoughtful and well-written article. While I don’t agree with 100% of the content, it is a pleasure to read insightful comments backed by logic and research, and expressed in a tone that is not designed to raise the blood pressure. Too rare nowadays.

  16. I looked back to a memorable quote I read in August 27, 2021, in The Economist from Joe Eskenazi: “San Francisco’s problems aren’t liberalism. They’re incompetence and corruption.” At the time, this made me laugh because I completely agreed with the statement after living here for 22 years. I wonder what happens when California makes SF’s blacklist? Then the city won’t buy anything within the state? It seems like the city and its government behaves like a drug addict or an alcoholic who is in complete denial of everything you see around it. There are 1300 people dead of drug overdoses in two years, there is garbage everywhere in the streets, petty crimes are rampant and quality of life is palpably worse. Most people just want to go to work, take their kids to school and go out to eat without being mugged, having their car windows smashed, or take the Muni train without waiting for 40 minutes on a platform. On homeless encampments, remember Leilani Farha, UN special rapporteur on adequate housing saying, “There’s a cruelty here that I don’t think I’ve seen.” The city has the GDP of Greece yet focuses on pronouncements, proclamations and distractions while its house is burning.

    1. Dan — 

      You’re not going to be surprised but I agree with myself.

      The problem isn’t that San Francisco objects to insidious behavior. And the problem isn’t that San Francisco is “intolerant” — as if objecting to bigotry is on the same plane as bigotry. The problem is that San Francisco has chosen to make its statement in an ineffective and even counter-productive manner that does nothing to dissuade bad actors, sweeps in regular people with impunity, is riddled with nonsensical loopholes and, in the end, retards San Francisco’s productivity and governance.

      That’s the problem. It’s not liberalism. It’s incompetence.

      JE

      1. The problem is exactly that (in addition to its liberal officials’ incompetence) San Francisco is intolerant. There is nothing inherently bigoted in doing what the rest of the world does in requiring identification to ensure that the person voting is who s/he claims to be. On this basis, why does SF not boycott the UK (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/voter-identification-faqs)? There is also nothing bigoted about asking someone with male genitals to use the men’s room: I know this is controversial in SF, but in most other places the point of view that the ladies’ room is for females is at least defensible (in my mind, logical and respectful of the rights of a huge majority of the persons who would like to use such facilities–sorry for the mild social embarrassment it causes to .0001% of the male population for being required to use the men’s room). The bigotry of SF is such that its immoral leaders shut down democratic discussion and debate and substitute in their place rigid doctrine. Nuance and opposing viewpoints are ruthlessly quashed in the totalitarian Pyongyang on the Bay. ‘Conformity or boycott’ is the watchword for SF’s little dictators like Scott Weiner. That the city has become a festering dump is the logical result of these attitudes.

  17. Let’s not neglect to mention that they are boycotting all of the states with the highest black population except Maryland. If systemic racism is any policy that disproportionately affects people of color, then this policy is very racist per that definition.

  18. So Scott Weiner has obviously not read Florida’s commonsense education bill–or is lying when he calls it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill–“voter suppression” seems to be a euphemism for voter empowerment laws, and “repressive anti-LGBT” is probably referring to some sort of restriction on biological boys participating in girls’ sports. Maybe some or all of those abhorred rules are functioning better than the ones in San Francisco, since most of the blocked states aren’t knee-deep in human feces. SF: from the world’s most beautiful city to hellscape in one generation. Thanks, Scott Weiner. YOU did that.

    1. John —

      Glancing out my window here at Mission and 21st and the only piece of shit I see is the author of your comment.

      Best,

      JE

      1. Why is it, that the truth makes lefties loose their shit and move directly to personal attacks or just flat out cursing out ppl?

        SF has serious and increasing societal problems.
        The ones John Wisdom mentioned is just a few, but still they are significant ones.

    2. Your last name, Wisdom, is a good one. Apparently you have more wisdom that the other person who replied to your comment. Everything you said is 100% true. One item: The “Don’t Say Gay bill” has a lot of people commenting negatively on something they haven’t even spent the time to read. Frankly, I don’t believe any school, EVER, should speak to kids that young about sexuality. I mean, hell, kids that young have been PROVEN to be “color-blind” when it comes to race, sexuality, gender… UNLESS their ideology has been imprinted by horrible POS parents that are raising them. Any school should NOT be trying to coerce children to a specific mindset, especially when they’re that young… hence the use of the term “imprinted.”

  19. I wonder when, if ever, the left will understand, or at least admit, that the cancel culture is just destructive.
    And it shows off a authoritarian, one-sided and immature mindset.
    There have never been good solutions from silence and refusal of dialogue.

    It’s fine that each stat makes their own decisions, but every state is part of the same national economy, so by this “cancellation over political differences”, the leftist states are hurting everybody including themselves.

    Do they, at all, understand what they are promoting, and the consequences if the Republican did the same?

    The left is cheering on a total segregation if they don’t get things their way.
    It’s contra-productive and childish.

    In a society you sometimes have to compromise or even agree to disagree! You can’t cancel everything you don’t like!

    1. The Republican states are doing the same! Texas will no longer sell bonds through Citibank because Citibank will pay for its Texas employees to get abortions out of state. Georgia went after Delta because it objected to voter suppression. And did you hear what Florida just did to Disney because it objected–very reluctantly–to the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.

  20. Imperial San Francisco must be more than 49 or 47 square miles. It includes Treasure Island, Yerba Buena and even a tip of Alameda Island, and Newsom lives on none of these lands. May he never return!

  21. The main failure is the hubris associated with the assumption that one can write a rules-based approach that can discern and punish the intent of legislation drafted in other jurisdictions, as the Nevada example shows. Second, the status quo ante is taken as a baseline, so that New York’s fairly stringent voter laws get a pass while Georgia’s similar ones attract a ban since they were passed more recently.

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