How not to choose a mayor

Pub date November 9, 2010

EDITORIAL There are plenty of good arguments among progressives about who would be the best person to replace Gavin Newsom as mayor and how the Board of Supervisors should make that decision. It’s a complicated situation: The next mayor will face a horrible budget deficit, all sorts of tough decisions — and then face the voters in 10 months. And if the board appoints a progressive, that person will face a hostile daily newspaper and several well-funded opponents in the fall.

But we know there are some very bad scenarios, some things the board and the potential mayor contenders shouldn’t do — because in the end, the process needs to be free of any sort of backroom taint.

Here are some basic ground rules for the next two months.

Newsom shouldn’t try to mess around with the selection of his successor. The mayor decided to run for state office with the full knowledge that he would leave behind a vacancy that the supervisors would fill. He has no business playing political and legal games to skew the results. For example, some say Newsom is considering delaying his swearing in, now set for Jan 3, 2011, for a week to prevent the current supervisors from voting on an interim mayor. That would be a bad faith, manipulative move. He made his choice; now he needs to get out of the way and let the City Charter process work.

The current board should have a fair shot at electing Newsom’s replacement. The day after Newsom takes office as lieutenant governor, the current board will meet for one last time — and by law, they should and will have a chance to find a candidate who can get six votes to serve out Newsom’s term. Any parliamentary moves that serve only to delay the vote and push the decision to the new board would be inappropriate.

The idea of a “caretaker” mayor is fraught with problems — and Willie Brown shouldn’t even be on the list. Newsom is pushing the idea of a true interim mayor, someone who won’t run for the job in November and will simply keep the lights on for 11 months. That means ignoring the city’s serious structural problems. A caretaker would have no authority and little ability change things. And the notion that’s being floated around of former mayor Willie Brown stepping in is disgraceful. Brown was a terrible mayor, and a rerun of that nightmare — even of only 11 months — is the last thing San Francisco needs.

Kamala Harris shouldn’t be a player in this game. If Harris, the current district attorney, is elected state attorney general, her job will be open too — and it’s easy to see how Newsom could use that as a plum to get his way. If Harris resigns before Newsom is sworn in, Newsom would get to appoint her replacement — and if that appointee is currently on the Board of Supervisors, Newsom would get to fill a seat on the board too. Harris needs to stay out of that unseemly sort of deal.

All the rules and procedures need to be made public, now. The legalities of this transition are tricky. Could the current board appoint an interim mayor now, knowing that a vacancy will occur, or must they wait until Newsom has actually resigns? Could Newsom delay his swearing in? The supervisors need to get legal advice on every possible scenario — and make it public. The last thing anyone needs in this confusion period is secrecy.

Plenty of people will be unhappy with whatever plays out. But if the process is bad, the result will be a mayor with no legitimacy.