The challenges for President Chiu

Pub date January 13, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL The ascension of Sup. David Chiu to the presidency of the Board of Supervisors gives a relative political newcomer considerable power. It also puts Chiu in position to carry on the legacy of Aaron Peskin and lead the opposition to Mayor Gavin Newsom’s pro-downtown, pro-Pacific Gas and Electric Co. agenda. Chiu, obviously, lacks the experience Peskin brought to the job, so he needs to move carefully at first. But he also needs to show that he’s more than a compromise candidate and that he has the ability to lead the board and promote the progressive agenda.

Let’s remember: Chiu was elected president entirely by the six progressive supervisors. The way the vote went down, five people, including Newsom’s closest allies, stuck together as a solid bloc and repeatedly voted for Sup. Sophie Maxwell. Maxwell had come down to the Guardian office a few days earlier to tell us that she was a solid progressive, but we saw the future of the board playing out when the votes were counted. Maxwell and Sup. Sean Elsbernd, who both have voiced concerns about the prospect of an inexperienced person taking the top job, could have broken with their bloc and voted for Sup. Ross Mirkarimi — that would have put him over the top. But through seven votes, as the progressives moved around trying to find a candidates all six could support, the Newsom Five stuck together. (Of course, if it hadn’t been for Sup. Chris Daly’s ill-conceived antics, Mirkarimi would have been able to get six votes, and we would have had an experienced leader in place).

Although Chiu talks (as he should) about bringing everyone together, he needs to keep in mind from day one that he is now the most visible member of a six-person board majority that can control the agenda and the set the tone for the city — if none of the six starts to drift toward the squishy center.

It’s going to be a rough, brutal year. The mayor has already made clear through his comments that he doesn’t even want to look at new revenue measures; he intends to solve the city’s half-billion-dollar budget crisis with cuts — deep, bloody cuts — alone. Chiu will have to stand up to him, publicly and privately, and make clear that a cuts-only budget isn’t going to fly in San Francisco.

And while Chiu will need some time to develop a leadership style and become familiar with the often-complex workings of the board, he should do a few things right away to show that he’s prepared to take on the difficult tasks ahead:

Support Peskin’s proposal for a special election in June. The proposal to allow the voters to consider raising taxes instead of just cutting is going to need a lot of help and support. The mayor opposes it, and some of his allies may oppose it too. But it’s absolutely crucial that San Francisco refuse to follow the lead of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s crucial that the progressives, while acknowledging that cuts will have to happen, also insist on looking at fair revenue ideas. Chiu needs to take the point on this.

In fact, now that the mayor and his allies on the board have made this a central battleground — and in effect have made this a litmus test for Chiu’s new presidency — it’s even more important that every one of the six progressive supervisors stands up to this challenge.

We’re not sure which of the dozen-odd tax proposals floating around is the right one. But it would be the worst kind of foolishness to take the whole idea off the table.

Put good people on the key committees. The Budget Committee at this point looks good, with Mirkarimi, Sup. John Avalos, and Elsbernd. When that panel expands to five members (and it should, soon) Chiu should make sure that either David Campos or Eric Mar joins the committee, keeping a progressive majority. The Land Use committee will be crucial as the Eastern Neighborhoods plan is implemented; Chiu needs to appoint a progressive chair and majority.

Save LAFCO. The Local Agency Formation Commission is the only board committee that has public power and energy policy as its primary agenda. Budget-cutters (spurred by PG&E, which more than any other company is responsible for the budget crisis) have made LAFCO a target; Chiu needs to make it clear immediately that LAFCO will remain in place, with strong appointments and a chair committed to making community choice aggregation work and pursuing public power as the largest potential new revenue source for the city.

Chiu has promised to work with the mayor, which is fine. But first he needs to show the progressives who elected him that he’s also ready to do battle.