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STEVE SEBELIUS: What we can learn from San Francisco

It’s so easy to revel in the ironies emerging from San Francisco last week, as three members of the school board who moved to erase the names of now-politically incorrect people from school buildings were recalled.

And not just recalled, but trounced: One trustee was ousted with 79 percent of the vote, two others with more than 70 percent each, the political equivalent of, “Oh, hell, go!”

The list of the modern-day unworthy to be a school’s namesake included Dianne Feinstein, California’s senior U.S. senator; Catholic mission founder Father Junipero Serra; Francis Scott Key, who wrote the national anthem; “Treasure Island” author Robert Louis Stevenson; former congressman and Secretary of State Daniel Webster; and former Presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Herbert Hoover.

Cesar Chavez survived the purge, but give it 10 years or so, and we’ll see if he’s still in.

It is impossible to expect the right not to howl that the tide of political correctness has finally broken, in the unlikeliest of places. And yes, we all would be better off if the nagging scolds of history would take a long vacation to Venezuela.

But there’s more to this story, an important lesson to be learned. As Joe Garofoli, the San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer explains, the outrage began with far more basic concerns: parents upset that the board was more concerned with the names on the outside of school buildings than getting children back inside them following the COVID-19 pandemic.

And it didn’t help that the board did away with merit admissions to one of the city’s best high schools.

“The voters of this city have delivered a clear message that the school board must focus on the essentials of delivering a well-run school system above all else,” Mayor London Breed said in a statement. “San Francisco is a city that believes in the value of big ideas, but those ideas must be built on the foundation of a government that does the essentials well.”

Or maybe just does the essentials at all.

That’s the message politicians should learn from the Great Purge of Politically Correct School Board Members of 2022. Voters, most of whom do not follow politics, just want a government that works.

It’s a good lesson for the Clark County School Board, which spent a lot of time recently firing, and then un-firing, its superintendent, in the process unveiling some trustee behavior that would be considered childish by most of the district’s fourth graders.

Spoiler alert: Parents in the district care a lot less about whose name is on the door in the administrative office than whether their kids learn to read, write and count by the end of their high school years. And while it’s symbolically important to have an anti-racism policy, it’s pragmatically more important to have an effective pro-reading and pro-math teaching policy.

The San Francisco example is also a good lesson for people such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who lamented the potential end of democracy in an interview with The New Yorker recently. In that very same interview, Ocasio-Cortez urges Biden to make greater use of his executive power to accomplish liberal goals that have stalled in Congress, which is kind of the opposite of democracy.

Polls show that people like the things in the $3.5 trillion social spending package that has hit a wall in the Senate. But they’d probably like one of those things in practice — say a real child-care tax credit that carries an honest, 10-year accounting of its cost — than the entire package in theory.

These are desperate times for Democrats. Biden’s job approval is upside down, 53 percent to 41 percent nationally, according to the Real Clear Politics average. The temptation is to do something, anything, the bigger and bolder the better, so as to convince voters you are accomplishing things and justifying your re-election. It’s times like these that the institutional barriers to big and bold in American government chafe the incumbents the most — and that’s by design.

Instead of big and bold, maybe the Democrats now in power should focus on doing the essentials well, showing the public that they are more interested in solving what real problems that they can, rather than instituting sweeping dramatic changes. If they don’t, those San Francisco recalls may not be the last unsurprising surprises to happen at the ballot box this year.

Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.

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