The agenda for Mayor Lee

Pub date January 11, 2011

EDITORIAL San Francisco has its first Chinese American mayor, and that’s a major, historic milestone. Let’s remember: Chinese immigrants were among the most abused and marginalized communities in the early days of San Francisco. In 1870, the city passed a series of laws limiting the rights of Chinese people to work and live in large parts of the city. Chinese workers built much of the Transcontinental Railroad — at slave wages and in desperately unsafe conditions that led to a large number of deaths. The United States didn’t even repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act (an anti-immigration law) until 1943, and for years, Chinatown was one of the poorest and most neglected city neighborhoods.

So there’s good reason for Asians to celebrate that the last door in San Francisco political power is now open. And Mayor Ed Lee comes from a civil rights background; he got his start in politics working as a poverty lawyer and tenant organizer.

Unfortunately, his path to Room 200 was badly marred by some ugly backroom dealing involving Willie Brown, the most corrupt mayor in modern San Francisco history. Even Lee’s supporters agree the process was a mess and that it undermines Lee’s credibility. So it’s important for Mayor Lee to immediately establish that he’s independent of Brown and his cronies, that his administration will not just be a Gavin Newsom rerun, and that progressives can and should support him.

He has a tough job ahead. We urge him to make a clean break with the past and set the city in a new direction. Here are a few ways to get started.

Clear out the Newsom operatives and bring some new people with progressive credentials into the senior ranks. Newsom’s chief of staff, Steve Kawa, has been a shadow mayor for the past year while Newsom was on the campaign trail, and is the architect of much of what the outgoing administration has done to sow political division and cripple city government. Lee needs his own chief advisor.

Show up for question time and work with the district-elected supervisors. Newsom was openly dismissive of the board and refused to take the supervisors seriously as partners in city government. Lee should appear once a month to answer questions from the board in public, should meet regularly with all the supervisors and appoint a liaison that the board can work with and trust. He needs to make his administration as transparent and open as possible and ensure that everyone at City Hall follows the letter and spirit of the Sunshine Ordinance.

Make it clear that the next city budget includes substantial new revenue. Newsom offered nothing but Republican politics when it came to city finance; his only solutions to the massive structural deficit involved service cuts.

The deficit will be even worse than projected this year, since Gov. Jerry Brown wants to transfer much of the state’s responsibility for public safety and public health back to local government — and there won’t be enough state money attached to handle the new burden. Lee needs to publicly call on Brown and the Legislature to give cities more ability to raise taxes on the local levee. Then he should start planning for a June ballot package that will raise as much as $250 million in new revenue for the city.

A substantially higher vehicle license fee on expensive cars, a congestion management fee, a significant annual transit impact fee on downtown offices, a restructured business tax, and a progressive tax on income of more than $50,000 a year would more than eliminate the structural deficit.

There are plenty of other revenue ideas out there; not all can or would pass on a single ballot. But Lee needs to make it clear that revenue will be part of the solution — and that he will use all the political capital he can muster to convince the voters to go along.

<\!s> Get serious about community choice aggregation. Newsom loved to talk about his environmental agenda, but when it came to challenging the hegemony of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and its dirty power portfolio, he ran for cover. His hand-picked Public Utilities Commission director, Ed Harrington, has been an obstacle to implementing the city’s CCA plan. Lee needs to get rid of Harrington or direct him to cooperate with the supervisors and get San Francisco on the path to clean public power.

<\!s> Establish a real affordable housing program. The city plans to build housing for as many as 60,000 new residents in the southeast neighborhoods — but only a fraction of them will be affordable. This city is already well on its way to becoming a high-end bedroom community for Silicon Valley; only a clear policy that limits new market-rate condos until there’s a plan for adequate affordable housing will turn things around.

<\!s> Support Sanctuary City and quit helping federal immigration authorities break up families. Newsom was just awful on this issue; Lee needs to work with Sup. David Campos to implement more humane laws.

<\!s> End the demonization of homeless people and public employees. Newsom came to power attacking the homeless (with Care Not Cash) and went out attacking the homeless (with the sit-lie law). Lee ought to tell the Police Department not to aggressively enforce the ordinance.

<\!s> Take on the sacred cows of the Police and Fire departments. The biggest salary and pension problems in the city are in the two public safety departments. The Fire Department budget has been bloated for years. If everyone else is taking cuts, so should the highest-paid cops and the overstaffed fire stations.

Some of Lee’s supporters insist he’s a solid progressive and that we shouldn’t hold the details of his selection — or the fact that he was chosen by people who are openly hostile to the progressive agenda — against him. We’re open to that — but the progressive community will judge him on his record. And he has to start right away.