Swan Song on the Eve of Mayoral Transition

Written by Julian Davis. Posted in Opinion, Politics

Published on January 06, 2011 with 13 Comments

Julian Davis. Photo by Grace Kao.

By Julian Davis

January 6, 2011

Even as Supervisor Daly intoned how much things had improved since progressives opened the doors of City Hall ten years ago, the institutional actors they had come to challenge had the last laugh Tuesday evening with characters old and new playing their roles to perfection at the final regularly scheduled meeting of the termed out Board of Supervisors. The mayoral succession drama lasted well into the night breaking finally after 10pm with a continuance until a special meeting on Friday.

Somehow, to the surprise of many baffled on-lookers, City Administrator Ed Lee is now poised to be San Francisco’s next mayor. How and why did this transpire? What are the consequences for San Francisco politics?

City Administrator Ed Lee

Perhaps the most profound aspect of the outcome of the board’s mayoral succession vote is that, despite all the talk and intentions about an open and transparent process, back room dealing is still the primary modus operandi at City Hall in San Francisco. This couldn’t have been more apparent than when Supervisor Bevan Dufty announced his support for Sherriff Michael Hennessy but abstained from voting for a few rounds to see how the votes were landing and then promptly absconded to the Mayor’s office.

Dufty, a declared mayoral candidate actually said “I may not be the smartest Supervisor…” before requesting to recess the meeting while he literally walked into the backroom for 20 minutes and emerged converted to the cause of Ed Lee. If Supervisor John Avalos had not requested a second recess after the board reconvened, Ed Lee might be Mayor already. During the second recess, Avalos and Supervisor David Campos negotiated a continuance until Friday.

Supervisor Bevan Dufty

While Dufty can pretend that his brain is no more powerful than that of Forest Gump, it is this kind of political wheeling and dealing that makes most common people sick to their stomach and uninterested in actively participating in the political process. Earlier in the evening, while the four outgoing Supervisors said their goodbyes and received a combination of sincere and half-hearted honors from their colleagues, Bevan Dufty admitted what everybody already knows, that he has been a constant swing vote. But with the way the voting process had been laid out and in the fast moving political eddies of the successor mayor tidal pool there simply wasn’t enough time to “hold out” effectively, so Dufty was forced to unceremoniously flip-flop instead.

So who was in the backroom Tuesday night? There were a number of power brokers who were not literally in room 200 during the fateful vote but who were in the proverbial “backroom.” To start with, it’s pretty clear that the Newsom regime has no intention of losing its grip on local power.

The Board meeting ensued in the public shadow of Newsom’s delay of his swearing in as Lieutenant Governor. In a stunning act of political irresponsibility and blatant admission of the irrelevancy of his new office, Newsom has decided to let Republican Abel Maldonado remain Lieutenant Governor for the time being while he broodingly remains in the Mayor’s office, hatching schemes about who can be found to replace him despite an ostensible progressive majority on the Board of Supervisors.

Dufty’s delay was in fact a well-orchestrated mechanism to flush out who among the potential successor mayors had progressive support so that any objectionable results could be nipped in the bud before they came to fruition. Unfortunately, most of the progressives took the bait by putting the bulk of their support behind Sherriff Michael Hennessy. Mayor Newsom tagged Sherriff Hennessy as an acceptable interim caretaker pick along with Ed Lee and PUC general manager Ed Harrington.

By nomination time, Sheriff Hennessy was the flavor of the month because he has solid relationships with progressives and the progressive Supervisors felt that by selecting someone on Newsom’s in list they could disarm the effect of Newsom’s unseemly delay and give him a good reason to skip town.

The issue is that by accommodating Newsom’s conditions ,the progressives let the hard-core Newsom accommodationists control the dialogue and shape the ultimate outcome. Ed Lee seemingly also fits the bill of someone on Newsom’s in-list with progressive contacts. By accepting this paradigm it became impossible to marshal any resistance to the treachery of Bevan Dufty that delivered Ed Lee’s votes. So the progressives were left pleading for a chance to talk to Ed Lee, conservative Supervisor Sean Elsbernd’s nominee whom they have not yet vetted, before he presumably gets confirmed on Friday. Sheriff Hennessy would make a fine mayor, but sadly he was used by the Newsom Camp to lure progressives into a dire trap.

In the final analysis however, Bevan Dufty would not be able to work his sinister machinations without the ultimate enabler and progressive turncoat Supervisor David Chiu’s complicity. A man of extraordinary ambition, David Chiu’s unpopularity must stem from his haughty assumption that he is entitled to be Mayor or D.A. after just two years as Board President, a post he almost accidentally achieved when the internal ire of progressive Supervisors Chris Daly and Ross Mirkarimi reached unbridgeable heights in 2008.

Board President David Chiu and Supervisor Bevan Dufty.

Instead of patiently serving the constituency that elected him, David Chiu is now vying for his political future by making a Faustian pact with the Newsom administration. How far the Harvard-trained attorney is willing to descend is not yet clear, but he has already gone far enough for most progressives. By the end of the week Chiu could be D.A. and Joe Alioto, his foe in 2008, could be District 3 Supervisor, undoubtedly tipping the political scales of the Board of Supervisors decidedly to the right.

David Chiu’s evolving deal with Newsom is now getting teased out of the shadows. Installing Ed Lee as Mayor is the first piece. David Chiu has been angling for Mayor and D.A. for months. As his chances for the interim appointment faded, he turned his attention to a run for Mayor in the fall or a D.A. appointment now. If Ed Lee is selected on Friday, do not be surprised if he endorses David Chiu for Mayor in the fall. Chiu would run with a glut of campaign cash from Rose Pak and Willie Brown (the other players bunkered in the proverbial backroom).

Or, Mr. Chiu can give up his Mayoral ambition for now and angle for D.A., the full Faustian bargain that may prove once and for all that the man has no shame. From the tea leaves, it is clear that Ed Lee will preserve the status quo in the Mayor’s office and likely retain Newsom Chief of Staff Steve Kawa, the scourge of progressive policy makers. For the deal, David Chiu’s future political career is bank-rolled by the Brown-Pak cash machine ,and potentially attached to the coattails of Lieutenant Governor-elect Newsom.

Newsom Chief of Staff Steve Kawa, a holdover from the Willie Brown administration.

Sadly, it was the influence of Rose Pak that prevented David Chiu from joining his progressive colleagues in supporting former Mayor Art Agnos for interim caretaker Mayor. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi is decidedly vindicated by his steadfast support for Agnos whom the other progressives at varying degrees failed to realize was their best shot at challenging the paradigm Newsom had established for his successor.

When Agnos was Mayor he made the wise planning decision not to rebuild the Embarcadero freeway thus opening up the Ferry Building and the eastern waterfront to Market Street, South Beach and Downtown. The area is now a gem of San Francisco’s attractive atmosphere and aesthetic charm. But the decision was not one that sat well with Rose Pak and the merchants of Chinatown who wished to see the vehicular artery rebuilt to maintain a direct freeway connection to their shops and institutions. Though Chinatown’s business did not ultimately suffer, the episode unleashed an ugly vendetta that was a major factor in Agnos’ failed re-election attempt and has not withered with the passage of two decades.

Art Agnos was San Francisco’s last progressive Mayor. He led the city through the crisis of the Loma Prieta earthquake. His compassion for the homeless was another major factor that cost him his re-election and he was succeeded by a series of elitists (Jordon, Brown, and Newsom) who regularly put the interest of the rich and well-healed above those of the poor and of everyday people. That he was unable to garner enough support from the progressives to pressure Chiu into going along with his colleagues on the board is more a testament to the fractious nature of the progressive bloc than his foreshortened tenure as Mayor.

Former Mayor Art Agnos.

Inexplicably, progressive stalwart John Avalos voted no on Art Agnos on multiple rounds of voting after representing to people that Agnos would have his support. The reasons for this are still unclear. Once Hennessy did not have 6 votes, Avalos was free to vote for Agnos on the same round but failed to do so. Others, like Supervisors David Campos and Eric Mar, were more astute.

Ultimately though Agnos could not get 6 votes without the support of David Chiu. So, instead of backing Agnos, Avalos and Campos decided to back Hennessy and were unfortunately left requesting face time with Sean Elsbernd’s nominee Ed Lee before David Chiu orchestrates his ascension on Friday. They would have been denied even this minor courtesy but for the mercy of Supervisor Maxwell who joined the progressive bloc and graciously stayed the execution for a few days. Were it not for this last minute continuance that passed 6-5, Ed Lee would have been approved without being vetted by the progressives on the board at all. They will now presumably have a chance to court Lee despite his utter lack of need for their support.

This is how a small slice of the “progressive” Asian-American community lined up in coalition with the Newsom regime and the board’s conservatives to hand the keys of the city over to our personable City Administrator who, despite some progressive history, has absolutely no accountability to the broader progressive movement at this time and can be counted on to preserve the status quo in Room 200 for the next year.

David Chiu’s failed bid to quash the continuance until Friday is what has progressives acknowledging his hypocrisy and betrayal. Why would a man who had preached prudence, patience, restraint and fidelity to the law for the last month suddenly turn around and try to ram an unvetted nominee through the selection process at the 11th hour unless he had made an unsavory deal with the other side?

In fact, little is remembered or known about Ed Lee among many progressives outside of the Asian-American community. This is largely because his potential nomination was kept under the radar so effectively that progressives did not have a chance to vet Lee before declaring on Tuesday that they would probably support him if they had a chance to talk to him first.

In fact some of the most blatant ethical violations of the Brown era occurred in Ed Lee’s DPW where he allowed the unbridled electioneering and corrupt political practices of his No. 2, Willie Brown protégé Mohammed Nuru, to persist without regulation. Nuru was infamous for misappropriating city funds and for simply ignoring rules for the proper use of public resources. Nuru’s “clean up” crews ran rough shod over the homeless but were popular with merchants and homeowners who could be counted on to rally to his defense. Nuru was Ed Lee’s top aide but many believed that in fact Nuru held the real power in DPW because of his unchecked abuses.

Apparently, this history was enough to convince Supervisor Eric Mar to hold off on Lee on the first round of voting despite his long relationship with him born of progressive Asian-American political circles. Ultimately though, sensing a shift to Lee in the wake of Dufty’s chicanery, Mar followed David Chiu into the abyss. But this should not be a fait accompli. In a world in which Faustian bargains reach the light of day in enough time for the demos to react it should be possible for David Chiu to resurrect himself and reverse the potential disaster that awaits if he signs the final contract on Friday.

The smell of sulfur made Daly's eyes water.

Supervisor Mar is unlikely to reverse his support for Lee if Chiu does not. As conservative Carmen Chu has already pledged her support for Ed Lee, Mar would then be the only Chinese-American on the board to oppose the rise of the first Chinese-American Mayor of San Francisco – not a likely scenario. So, David Chiu is critical.

But the consequences are too dire and the outcomes too foreboding for the board’s progressives to accept the fate of Ed Lee’s mayoralty without an effort before Friday to reverse the tide. There is a reason that long time progressive stalwart Chris Daly became apoplectic at the end of Tuesday’s board meeting and stormed off stage in frustration only to return to the audience section of the board chamber for the final act.

An apoplectic Supervisor Chris Daly.

After accusing David Chiu of the biggest fumble in the history of progressive politics, Daly’s voice could be heard interrupting the cheerful comments of conservative Supervisor Alioto-Pier who seemed delighted at the prospect of the City’s chief bureaucrat getting the appointment over the objections of her long-time nemesis. As Daly hollered “you represent the rich,” Sherriff Hennessy, hardly the Sheriff of Nottingham, looked on ignoring Alioto-Pier’s anxious attempts to silence Daly with the threat of arrest.

Robin Hood must leave the board after 10 years representing District 6, but he won’t be leaving San Francisco. And while we can all acknowledge that his protestations may at times employ means both ineffective and self-destructive, there can be no questioning the righteous content of his convictions.

The appointment of Ed Lee without a doubt preserves the status quo grip of the City’s power elites on the office of San Francisco Mayor. At this time, in 2011, the progressives should be realizing our dream of capturing the Mayor’s office after 7 years of King John under the gilded dome. We are far from that goal and have already compromised tremendously after it was clear that we would be unable to appoint anyone with ambition to remain in office. However, there is a limit to how much we can compromise. The nominee of the conservatives should not be allowed to get the interim mayor appointment.

Rather than acquiesce, Supervisors John Avalos, David Campos, and Ross Mirkarimi ought to have a sincere intervention with David Chiu – one that is more sophisticated than the chest pounding and haunting of Mr. Daly and yet obviously stronger than the mere requests for courtesy that ensued before the clock was paused on Tuesday night.

The Supervisors should seriously consider pressuring Chiu into making an about face and rejoining his brethren before he jumps off the deep end. There is still time for David Chiu to save his soul, and if he were to step away from the brink, many of us would be willing to forgive his improprieties.

Agnos is still the best pick for progressives because he is not the choice of the power-elite, he has not been stamped and approved by the Newsom regime and he has proven over many years that he cares about we care about, shares our sense of justice and equity, and has the experience to lead us through the wreckage of the financial earthquake we are now experiencing.

Julian Davis

Bio: Julian Davis is a Bay Area native and has been living and working as an organizer and activist in San Francisco for the past eight years. He has worked in government and the non-profit and legal sectors on civil rights, community development, social justice, and environmental causes. He is a board member of numerous community based organizations including the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center (where he serves as board president), San Francisco Housing Development Corporation, San Francisco Tomorrow, and the Osiris Coalition. He has a Master's degree in philosophy from Brown University and is currently earning a J.D. at U.C. Hastings College of the Law.

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