Personalities

Home of the San Francisco Giants

By Jennifer Blot

Pacific Heights may be lined with streets that pay tribute to the country’s presidential past — Jackson, Washington, Fillmore, to name a few — but the neighborhood is clearly on the road to earning its own unparalleled place in political history, if it hasn’t already.

It’s long been a hub for hometown politicians, but today, more than ever, the area’s famous residents — and former residents — are basking in the national spotlight. This month, Jerry Brown, who once lived in the Victorian firehouse on Washington Street, is capping (at least for now) his political career by turning over governance of the world’s fifth-largest economy to Pacific Heights’ former district supervisor Gavin Newsom; neighborhood darling Dianne Feinstein is California’s high-profile senior U.S. senator and Nancy Pelosi is on track to become the Democratic House speaker — again. And though three of the four are of the “silent generation,” they’re speaking passionately to millions via Twitter feeds and our era’s 24/7 news cycle. 

Illustration by Russell Tudor.

The fact that one relatively small San Francisco neighborhood provides so many paths to Sacramento and D.C. seems to be a combination of hard work, serendipity and six degrees of separation. 

In Pacific Heights, one block — or even one building — can make a difference in the world of politics. Take 2500 Steiner Street. The luxe 1920s co-op is home to California’s newly elected lieutenant governor, Eleni Kounalakis, who caught the eye of voters with an endorsement from Barack Obama in the November election. Kounalakis not only was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Hungary under President Obama in 2010, she’s greeted him many times her in own building, thanks to fundraisers thrown by her top-floor neighbor Susie Tompkins Buell, noted friend of Hillary Clinton.

Ted Bartlett, a star real estate agent with Compass, sold a fifth-floor condominium at 2500 Steiner a few years ago. While he was reluctant to cite political provenance as a selling point for the building, he deemed the property “San Francisco living at its best.” 

“In Pacific Heights, 2500 Steiner represents high-rise living with classic San Francisco architecture anchoring the corner of Alta Plaza Park. It is no coincidence given the neighborhood’s history and the building’s location with 360-degree views that it plays host to some of our most distinguished leaders,” Bartlett says. 

And you can bet that while former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama may or may not know St. Francis Wood or Golden Gate Heights, they surely remember the picturesque views and passionate support from Pacific Heights. As for Republican candidates, they’ve seen the views, too: Both Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush have been feted at fundraising dinners in the neighborhood. 

The late columnist Herb Caen, who resided in Pacific Heights at different points in his life, summed up the exclusive enclave in the 1967 book San Francisco City on Golden Hills: “It is the city’s power and sometimes glory, the Northern Lights and the Southern Cross, the day-and-night repository of all that is gilded and glamorous about San Francisco.” 

Political strategist P.J. Johnston admits, “Pacific Heights is one of the most beautiful residential neighborhoods in the world, so it makes sense that prominent and wealthy San Francisco families would make their homes there. And, of course, for most of the city’s history, it was the prominent and wealthy who were most active in politics.” 

Johnston, whose resume includes working as press secretary for Mayor Willie Brown and campaign communications director for the late Mayor Ed Lee, adds, “These days, politicians come from all sorts of neighborhoods, but virtually every successful San Francisco politician knows his or her way around a Pac Heights fundraiser.”

San Francisco historian and author Charles Fracchia puts it bluntly: “Where there’s money, politicians will be there sucking it up.” 

But by all accounts, this dramatically understates the unique position Pacific Heights occupies in the world of contemporary American leadership. Which other neighborhood in the country — especially one as small as Pacific Heights — wields as much influence by virtue of the leaders it has helped to produce? 

In January, Newsom will take the helm of the Golden State, along with its nearly $3 trillion GDP and the expectations of its 39 million residents. Newsom will have allies in D.C., including Feinstein — ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of the Senate’s longest-tenured members — and Pelosi, a seasoned political warrior likely reassuming the House speaker’s gavel from the retiring Paul Ryan.

Veteran political consultant Ace Smith, a partner at SCRB Strategies (formerly SCN Strategies) who’s worked on numerous high-profile Democratic campaigns, including Newsom’s campaign for governor, has his own theory. He believes the national figures linked to the neighborhood benefited from what he calls San Francisco’s “political Marine Corps training ground.” 

“There were a lot of people who came out of the neighborhood, but to succeed they had to succeed in this larger environment. Why did Gavin Newsom, Kamala Harris, Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi become so successful? Coming of age politically in San Francisco was one of the toughest places. They learned to become masters at their craft, literally by walking through what amounted to fire. You had to do two to three debates or forums every night. There were multiple publications. You’d hone skills you’d never hone anywhere else. That’s why those folks emerged with so much talent.”

Going forward, San Francisco likely will continue to provide a tough, and ultimately invaluable, training ground. With a historic midterm voter turnout in November and the passionate social media presence of well-known hometown political supporters, the city’s — and Pacific Heights’ — voices are now being heard around the country.

“People always have tended to underestimate people from San Francisco statewide for decades,” said political observer Smith. “Guess what? They always emerge, and they always win.” 

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