Way back in 1986, Tom Hsieh Sr., an architect and one of the most conservative members of the Board of Supervisors, called his colleague Harry Britt by all accounts the most liberal supervisor and asked for a meeting. The way both men described it to me at the time, Britt was a little mystified; why would someone who was on the opposite end of the political spectrum want to be pals?
Well, it turned out that Hsieh had a message for his colleague. "Someday," Hsieh told Britt, "the gays and the Asians will be running this town, and we might as well get along."
It’s taken a while, but Hsieh (whose son is a moderate-to-conservative political consultant and activist) was prophetic. One of the little-noticed facts about this supervisorial election is that the majority of the members of the next Board of Supervisors will be either Asian or gay. And the odds are pretty good that the person in the Mayor’s Office in 2012 will be Asian (David Chiu, Leland Yee, Phil Ting) or gay (Tom Ammiano, David Campos, Mark Leno).
I mention that bit of interesting history as a sort of a prelude to the fascinating historic challenge facing progressives in San Francisco today. At a time when the rest of the country seems to be drifting (at least for the moment) to the right, San Francisco has a chance to go to the left. There hasn’t been a mayor the progressives supported in this town in at least 20 years (and that’s if you count Art Agnos, which is a bit of a stretch). With Gavin Newsom (will he be San Francisco’s last straight white mayor?) leaving early in his term, the supervisors could profoundly change the direction of the city.
And they could also duck, punt, or make a terrible mistake.
If the board wants to appoint someone who’s going to promote a progressive agenda, that person not only needs to be able to get six votes in January, but hold on to the seat until November when the competition will be intense. And any progressive mayor will be vilified by the local daily papers, mocked by the national media, and held to an almost impossible standard by his or her constituents.
You wonder why anyone would want the job.
But taking on that insane challenge is also about history, and about proving that this city is (still) different. And the person in the job is going to need a whole lot of help and support. I have to believe that we’re up to it.