The next mayor

Pub date November 9, 2010
WriterTim Redmond

By the time a beaming Mayor Gavin Newsom took the stage at Tres Agaves, the chic SoMa restaurant, on election night, enough results were in to leave no doubt: the top two places on the California ballot would go to the Democrats. Jerry Brown would defeat Meg Whitman in the most expensive gubernatorial race in American history — and Newsom, who once challenged Brown in the primary and dismissed the office of lieutenant governor, would be Brown’s No. 2.

It might not be a powerful job, but Newsom wasn’t taking it lightly anymore. “We can’t afford to continue to play in the margins,” he proclaimed proudly, advancing a vague but ambitious agenda. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with California that can’t be fixed with what’s right with California.”

But around the city, as results trickled in for the local races, the talk wasn’t about Newsom’s role in the Brown administration, or the change the Democrats might bring to Sacramento. It was about the profound change that could take place in his hometown as he vacates the office of mayor a year early — and opens the door for the progressives who control the Board of Supervisors to appoint a chief executive who agrees with, and is willing to work with, the majority of the district-elected board.

At a time when the Republican takeover of Congress threatens to create gridlock in Washington, there’s a real chance that San Francisco’s government — often paralyzed by friction between Newsom and the board — could take on an entirely new direction. It’s possible that the progressives, long denied the top spot at City Hall, could put a mayor in office who shares their agenda.

This could be a turning point in San Francisco, a chance to put the interests of the neighborhoods, the working class, small businesses, the environmental movement, and economic justice ahead of the demands of downtown and the rich. All the pieces are in place — except one.

To make a progressive vision happen, the fractious (and in some cases, overly ambitious) elected leaders of the progressive movement will have to recognize, just for a little while, that it’s not about any individual. It’s not about David Chiu, or Ross Mirkarimi, or Chris Daly, or John Avalos, or Eric Mar, or David Campos, or Jane Kim, or Aaron Peskin. It’s not about any one person’s career or personal power.

It’s about a progressive movement and the issues and causes that movement represents. And if the folks with the egos and personal gripes and career designs can’t set them aside and do what’s best for the movement as a whole, then the opportunity of a generation will be wasted.

Folks: this is a hard thing for politicians to recognize. But right now it’s not about you. It’s about all of us.

It’s an odd time in San Francisco, fraught with political hazards. And it’s so confusing that no one — not the elected officials, not the pundits, not the lobbyists, not the insiders — has any clear idea who will occupy Room 200 in January.

Here’s the basic scenario, as described by past opinions of the city attorney’s office:

Under the state Constitution, Newsom will take office as lieutenant governor Jan. 3, 2011. The City Charter provides that a vacancy in the Mayor’s Office is filled by the president of the Board of Supervisors until the board can choose someone to fill the job until the end of the term — in this case, for 11 more months.

So if all goes according to the rules (and Newsom doesn’t try to play some legal game and delay his swearing-in), David Chiu will become acting mayor on Jan.3. He’ll also retain his job as board president.

On Jan. 4, the current members of the Board of Supervisors will hold a regularly scheduled Tuesday meeting — and the election of a new mayor will be on the agenda. If six of the current supervisors can agree on a name (and sitting supervisors can’t vote for themselves) then that person will immediately take office and finish Newsom’s term.

If nobody gets six votes — that is, if the board is gridlocked — Chiu remains in both offices until the next regular meeting of the board — a week later, when the newly elected supervisors are sworn in.

The new board will then elect a board president — who will also instantly become acting mayor — and then go about trying to find someone who can get six votes to take the top job. If that doesn’t work — that is, if the new board is also gridlocked — then the new board president remains acting mayor until January 2012.

There are at least three basic approaches being bandied about. Some people, including Newsom and some of the more conservative members of the board, want to see a “caretaker” mayor, someone with no personal ambition for the job, fill out Newsom’s term, allowing the voters to choose the next mayor in November, 2011. That has problems. As Campos told us, “The city has serious budget and policy issues and it’s unlikely a caretaker could handle them effectively.” In other words, a short-termer will have no real power and will just punt hard decisions for another year.

Then there’s the concept of putting in a sacrificial progressive — someone who will push through the tax increases and service cuts necessary to close a $400 million budget gap, approve a series of bills that stalled under Newsom, take the hits from the San Francisco Chronicle, and step out of the way to let someone else run in November.

The downside of that approach? It’s almost impossible for a true progressive to raise the money needed to beat a downtown candidate in a citywide mayor’s race. And it seems foolish to give up the opportunity to someone in the mayor’s office who can run for reelection as an incumbent.

Which is, of course, the third — and most intriguing — scenario.

The press, the pundits, and the mayor have for the past few months been pushing former Sup. Peskin as the foil, trying to spin the situation to suggest that the current chair of the local Democratic Party is angling for a job he wouldn’t win in a normal election. But right now, Peskin is no more a front-runner than anyone else. And although he’s made no secret in the past of wanting the job, he’s been talking of late more about the need for a progressive than about his own ambitions.

“If the board chose [state Assemblymember] Tom Ammiano, I would be thrilled to play a role, however small, in that administration,” Peskin told us.

In fact, Peskin said, the supervisors need to stop thinking about personalities and start looking at the larger picture. “If we as a movement can’t pull this off, then shame on us.”

Or as Sup. Campos put it: “We have to come together here and do what’s right for the progressive movement.”

Two years ago, the San Francisco left was — to the extent that it’s possible — a united electoral movement. In June, an undisputed left slate won a majority on the Democratic County Central Committee. In November 2008, Districts 1, 3, 5, and 11 saw consensus left candidates running against downtown-backed opponents — and won. In D9, three progressives ran a remarkably civil campaign with little or no intramural attacks.

The results were impressive. As labor activist Gabriel Haaland put it, “we ran the table.”

But that unity fell apart quickly, as a faction led by Daly sought to ensure that Sup. Ross Mirkarimi couldn’t get elected board president. Instead that job went to Chiu — the least experienced of the supervisors elected in that class, and a politician who is, by his own account, the most centrist member of the liberal majority.

This fall, the campaign to replace Daly in D6 turned nasty as both Debra Walker and Jane Kim openly attacked each other. Walker sent out anti-Kim mailers, and Kim’s supporters charged that Walker was part of a political machine — a damaging (if silly) allegation that created a completely unnecessary rift on the left.

And let’s face it: those fights were all about personality and ego, not issues or progressive strategy. Mirkarimi and Daly have never had any substantive policy disagreements, and neither did Walker and Kim.

In the wake of that, progressives need to come together if they want to take advantage of the opportunity to change the direction of the city. It’s not going to be easy.

“We’re good at losing,” Daly said. “I’m afraid we’re doing everything we can to blow it.”

The cold political calculus is that none of the current board members can count on six votes, and neither can Peskin or any of the other commonly mentioned candidates. The only person who would almost certainly get six votes today is Ammiano — and so far, he’s not interested.

“I know you never say never in politics, but I’m happy here in Sacramento. Eighty-six percent of the voters sent me back for another term, and I think that says something,” he told us.

It’s hardly surprising that someone like Ammiano, who has a secure job he likes and soaring approval ratings, would demur on taking on what by any account will be a short-term nightmare. The city is still effectively broke, and next year’s budget shortfall is projected at roughly $400 million. There’s no easy way to raise revenue, and after four years of brutal cuts, there’s not much left to pare. The next mayor will be delivering bad news to the voters, making unpleasant and unpopular decisions, infuriating powerful interest groups of one sort or another — and then, should he or she want the job any longer, asking for a vote of confidence in November.

Yet he power of incumbency in San Francisco is significant. The past two mayors, Newsom and Willie Brown, were reelected easily, despite some serious problems. And an incumbent has the ability to raise money that most progressives won’t have on their own.

Chiu thus far is being cautious. He told us his main concern right now is ensuring that the process for choosing the next mayor is open, honest, and legally sound. He won’t even say if he’s officially interested in the job (although board observers say he’s already making the rounds and counting potential votes).

And no matter what happens, he will be acting mayor for at least a day, which gives him an advantage over anyone else in the contest.

But some of the board progressives are unhappy about how Chiu negotiated the last two budget deals with Newsom and don’t see him as a strong leader on the left.

Ross Mirkarimi is the longest-serving progressive (other than Daly, who isn’t remotely a candidate), and he’s made no secret of his political ambitions. Then there’s Campos, an effective and even-tempered supervisor who has friendly relationships with the board’s left flank and with centrists like Bevan Dufty. But even if Dufty (who I suspect would love to be part of electing the first openly gay mayor of San Francisco) does support Campos, he’d still need every other progressive supervisor. Campos also would need Chiu’s vote to go over the top. Which means Chiu — who needs progressive support for whatever his political future holds — would have to set aside his own designs on the job to put a progressive in office.

In other words, some people who want to be mayor are going to have to give that up and support the strongest progressive. “If there’s someone other than me who can get six votes, then I’m going to support that person,” Campos noted.

Then there are the outsiders. City Attorney Dennis Herrera has already announced he plans to run in the fall. If the board’s looking for a respected candidate who can appeal to moderates as well as progressives, his name will come up. So will state Sen. Mark Leno, who has the political gravitas and experience and would be formidable in a re-election campaign in November. Leno doesn’t always side with the left on local races; he supported Supervisor-elect Scott Wiener, and losing D6 candidate Theresa Sparks. But he has always sought to remain on good terms with progressives.

All that assumes that the current board will make the choice — and even that is a matter of strategic and political dispute. If the lame duck supervisors choose a mayor — particularly a strong progressive — you can count on the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsom, and the downtown establishment to call it a “power grab” and cast doubt on the legitimacy of the winner.

“But choosing a mayor is the legal responsibility of this board and they ought to do their jobs,” Peskin said.

The exact makeup of the next board was still unclear at press time. Jane Kim is the likely winner in D6 and has always been a progressive on the School Board. She’s also close to Chiu, who strongly supported her. If Malia Cohen or Lynette Sweet wins D10, it’s unlikely either of them will vote for a progressive mayor.

Newsom also might try to screw things up with a last-minute power play. He could, for example, simply refuse to take the oath of office as lieutenant governor until after the new board is seated.

Chiu’s allies say it makes sense for the progressives to choose a mayor who’s not identified so closely with the left wing of the board, who can appeal to the more moderate voters. That’s a powerful argument, and Herrera and Leno can also make the case. The progressive agenda — and the city — would be far better off with a more moderate mayor who is willing to work with the board than it has been with the arrogant, recalcitrant, and distant Newsom. And if the progressives got 75 percent of what they wanted from the mayor (as opposed to about 10 percent under Newsom), that would be cause to celebrate.

But to accept that as a political approach requires a gigantic assumption. It requires San Franciscans to give up on the idea that this is still, at heart, a progressive city, that the majority of the people who live here still believe in economic and social justice. It means giving up the dream that San Francisco can be a very different place, a city that’s not afraid to defy national trends and conventional wisdom, a place where socioeconomic diversity is a primary goal and the residents are more important than the big companies that try to make money off them. It means accepting that even here, in San Francisco, politics have to be driven by an ever-more conservative “center.”

It may be that a progressive can’t line up six votes, that a more moderate candidate winds up in the Mayor’s Office. But a lot of us aren’t ready yet to give up hope.

Additional reporting by Noah Arroyo.