A Congressional Race That (Almost) Sums Up Northern California


Californians, and especially San Franciscans, have a knack for embracing politicians who are larger than life. We’ve elected Jerry Brown (“Governor Moonbeam”), veteran state Senator John Burton (the flamboyant foul-mouth), and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown (“Slick Willie”), to name a few. Now we’ve got the Governator in Sacramento and Gavin the Playboy in City Hall. And there are always mayoral also-rans such as Cindy Sheehan, the peace mom, and Josh Wolf, the jailed vlogger. These politicos are as much policy wonks as cultural figures who embody the fears, dreams and excesses of their times–a reflection of the fact that politics and culture are unusually conjoined in the Golden State.

Even in light of this history, voters should brace themselves for the upcoming election to replace the recently deceased Congressman Tom Lantos. It’s a race that simultaneously evokes San Francisco’s pre-hippie past, touches upon the rise and decay of the counterculture, and speaks to an uncertain future in which technology, political idealism, and ego form a volatile mix. It could be a wild ride. I’ll explain after the jump.

Let’s start with Lantos, an anti-Nazi resistance fighter in Hungary, a Holocaust survivor, and a 14-term Congressman from San Francisco and San Mateo County–a great man and, to be sure, a larger-than-life figure. Culturally, Lantos bridged the Greatest Generation and the Hippie Generation; he was progressive on gay rights and the environment but a staunch anti-fascist and (somewhat understandably) an early supporter of the Iraq war.

The politician endorsed by Lantos to fill his congressional seat embodies a different sort of cultural transition and the legacy of a different sort of war. State Sen. Jackie Speier was a member of the fact-finding delegation that traveled to Guyana in 1978 to investigate Jonestown, the quasi-socialist creation of San Francisco cult leader Jim Jones. The cult’s security guards fired on the group, killing a U.S. Congressman and four others. Speier was shot five times, waited nearly a day for help to arrive, and survived. Elected to county-level office two years later, she has served as a high-profile reminder of (and antidote to) the culture wars of ’70s.

As the culture wars in the Bay Area gave way to gentrification wars, artists and activists watched the rich and fratty sap San Francisco of charm, snatch up the affordable flats, and, though it went mostly unsaid, steal their girlfriends. They opposed Mayor Gavin Newsom as suspiciously pomaded and wealthy. When it was revealed that Newsom had been sleeping with the wife of his deputy mayor, Alex Tourk, they weren’t bothered so much by Newsom’s infidelity as the power dynamics of the whole thing: even though Tourk had been a major fundraiser and a key architect of Newsom’s big policy ideas, he was earning a meager $50,000 salary. You don’t cuckold a wage slave. Men saw themselves in Turk. And now he’s Speier’s campaign director.

Today, in the Wall Street Journal, open-source guru Lawrence Lessig announced that he’s weighing a run against Speier. For most of the past decade the Stanford law professor and Internet maven has toured the globe to speak out against the stifling effects of copyright, but, a few months ago, gave up the fight to focus on corruption in politics. He could use Lantos’ old seat to advocate for freedom online and more restraints on campaign finance and political gifts in Washington.

So there you have it: the broad strokes of Northern California politics. The Greatest Generation gives way to the Progressive Generation. The Culture War gives way to the Gentrification War. Throw in some sex. Throw in the Internet. Throw in a crusade against corruption. Top it off with some egos. Not bad for a single race for Congress.

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