Power and pragmatism

Pub date January 11, 2011


After an epic week at City Hall, the political dynamics in San Francisco have undergone a seismic shift, with pragmatism replacing progressivism, longtime adversarial relationships morphing into close collaborations, and Chinese Americans as mayor and board president.

It was a week of surprises, starting Jan. 4 when City Administrator Ed Lee came out of nowhere to become the consensus choice for interim mayor, and ending Jan. 9 when Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed Police Chief George Gascón to be the new district attorney, Newsom’s last official act as mayor before belatedly taking his oath of office as lieutenant governor on Jan. 10.

In between, the outgoing Board of Supervisors held a special final meeting Jan. 7, at which progressive supervisors fell into line behind Lee, some of them reluctantly, and accepted the new political reality. The next day, the new Board of Supervisors took office and overwhelmingly reelected David Chiu as board president, with only the three most progressive supervisors in dissent.

After Chiu played kingmaker as the swing vote for making Lee the new mayor, the board and Mayor’s Office are likely to enjoy far closer and more cooperative relations than they’ve had in many years. And the sometimes prickly, blame-game relations between the Police Department and D.A.’s Office should also get better now that the top cop has switched sides. But what it all means for the average San Franciscan, particularly the progressive voters who created what they thought was a majority on the Board of Supervisors, is still an open question.

One thing that is clear is the ideological battles that have defined City Hall politics — what Chiu called the “oppositional politics of personality” during his closing remarks on Jan. 8 — have been moved to the back burner while the new leaders try a fresh approach.

Newsom — with his rigid fiscal conservatism and open disdain for the Board of Supervisors, particularly its progressive wing — is gone. Also leaving City Hall is Sup. Chris Daly, a passionate and calculating progressive leader whose over-the-top antics caused a popular backlash against the movement.

In a way, Newsom and Daly were perfect foils for one another, caustic adversaries who often reduced one another to two-dimensional caricatures of themselves. But they were each strongly driven by rival ideologies and political priorities, despite Newsom’s rhetorical efforts to turn “ideology” into a dirty word applied only to his opponents.

“This year represents a changing of the guard, a transition,” Chiu said, pledging to continue pushing for progressive reforms, only with a more conciliatory approach, a theme also sounded by Sups. Eric Mar and Jane Kim, who each broke with their progressive colleagues to support Chiu over rival presidential nominee Sup. John Avalos.

“I will always support policies that will make our city more equitable and just,” Kim said after being sworn in to replace Daly, although she also made a claim about the new board with which her predecessor probably wouldn’t agree: “I think we have a lot more in common than we don’t.”

With a focus on diversity and compromise, “respect and camaraderie,” Mar said, “I think this new board represents the evolution of the progressive movement in San Francisco.”

If indeed City Hall is enjoying a “Kumbaya” moment, the path to this point was marred by backroom deal-making and old-school power politics, much of it engineered by a pair of figures from the previous era who are by no means progressives: former Mayor Willie Brown and Rose Pak, head of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce.

Pak was seated front and center — literally and figuratively — during the board’s Jan. 7 vote for Lee and its Jan. 8 vote for Chiu, following media reports that it was she and Brown who persuaded Lee to take the job and city leaders (particularly Newsom, Chiu, and outgoing Sups. Bevan Dufty and Sophie Maxwell) to give it to him.

It all seemed sneaky and unsettling to board progressives, who questioned what kind of secret deal had been cut, even as they voiced their respect for Lee’s progressive roots and long history of service to the city. The sense that something unseemly was happening was exacerbated on Jan. 4 when Dufty abandoned a pledge of support for Sheriff Michael Hennessey — who five progressive supervisors supported for interim mayor — and left the meeting to confer with the Mayor’s Office before returning to announce his support for Lee.

Sups. David Campos, Ross Mirkarimi, and Avalos pleaded with their colleagues for time to at least talk with Lee, who was traveling in China since he reportedly changed his mind about wanting the interim mayor job. Maxwell was the only Lee supporter in the 6-5 vote for delaying the interim mayor item by a few days so the supervisors could speak with Lee by phone.

Pak and other Chinatown leaders put together a strong show of force by the Chinese American community at that Jan. 7 meeting, where the board voted 10-1 for Lee, with only Daly in dissent. Afterward, some of Lee’s strongest supporters — including the Rev. Norman Fong and Gordon Chin with the Chinatown Community Development Center — admitted that the process of picking Lee was flawed.

“Part of the problem was Ed’s because he couldn’t make up his mind. The process was bad,” Fong told the Guardian after the vote. Although Fong said he knows Lee to be a strong and trustworthy progressive, he admitted that the way it went down raised questions: “Some people were concerned about who he’ll listen to.”

Specifically, the concern is that Lee will be unduly influenced Brown and Pak, who each represent corporate clients whose interests are often at odds with those of the general public. And both operate behind the scenes and play a kind of political hardball that runs contrary to progressive values on openness, inclusion, and accountability.

“If there is a phone call from Willie Brown to Rose Pak, Ed Lee is going to go along with it,” predicted a knowledgeable source who has worked closely with all three, recalling the way they did business during Brown’s mayoral administration. “There was no real discussion of issues. The fix was always in.”

But Pak insisted that there was nothing wrong with the process of selecting Lee, and that all concerns about the nomination were driven by anti-Asian racism. “You have a plantation mentality,” Pak told the Guardian as she held court in front of a crowded press box before the Jan. 8 meeting. “The Bay Guardian has never given people of color a fair shot.”

While Newsom, Chiu, and Pak-allied political consultant David Ho all insisted “there was no deal” to win support for Lee, Pak seemed to revel in the high-profile role she played, with Bay Citizen reporter Gerry Shih labeling her “boastful” in his Jan. 6 article “Behind-The-Scenes Power Politics: The Making of Ed Lee,” which ran the next day in The New York Times.

“This was finally our moment to make the first Chinese mayor of a major city,” Pak reportedly told Shih. “How could you let that slip by?”

Chiu downplayed Pak’s influence, telling the Guardian that Lee was his top choice since November, and telling his colleagues before the Jan. 7 vote, “Ed is someone who does represent our shared progressive values.” But he also made it clear that helping the city’s progressive movement wasn’t what drove his decision.

“This is a decision beyond who were are as progressives and who we are as moderates. It’s about who we are as San Franciscans,” Chiu said. “This is a historic moment for the Chinese-American community,” calling it “a community that has struggled, a community that has seen discrimination.”

The next day, shortly after being elected to a second term as board president, Chiu acknowledged the “very real differences” in ideology among the supervisors, “but leadership is about working through those differences.” Ultimately, he said, “none of us were voted into office to take positions. We were voted into office to get things done.”