Battle for the Board’s Helm

Written by Savannah Blackwell. Posted in News, Politics

Published on December 01, 2008 with 41 Comments

Savannah Blackwell

District Eleven Supervisor-Elect John Avalos Gains Support From Progressive Colleagues
While District Five Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi Courts Conservatives

By Savannah Blackwell

December 1, 2008

Once the final results of ranked choice voting for district supervisors ended three weeks ago and it was assured that progressives had held on to a majority of the board’s seats, discussion turned to which among them should serve as president.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who on Nov. 4 was re-elected to represent District Five (The Haight/Western Addition) without facing significant opposition, had already made it clear he wanted to have the position. Now, John Avalos, who will represent District Eleven (The Excelsior), has decided to seek the post as well.

Eric Mar, who will represent District One (the Richmond), and District Six Supervisor Chris Daly say Avalos is their top choice.

Top choice: District Eleven Supervisor-elect John Avalos

Avalos decided to jump in – largely because the idea of Mirkarimi presiding over board business has not gained much traction among his progressive colleagues. Mirkarimi’s recent move to turn to board members who consistently vote against progressive legislation to seek support (namely District Two Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier and District Seven Supervisor Sean Elsbernd) has furthered progressive opposition to his bid.

“Ultimately what I want to see is a progressive president who represents the progressives and is supported by the board’s progressive majority,” said David Campos, who will represent District Nine (The Mission).

Campos was quoted in the Bay Area Reporter last week saying he was inclined to vote for Mirkarimi.  He has since modified his position.

“My support is contingent on getting support from other progressive board members, and I don’t know that (Mirkarimi) will be able to do that,” Campos said.

Mar expressed a similar sentiment: “I told (Mirkarimi) that if he is going after Alioto-Pier’s and Elsbernd’s votes, he’s not going to get one from me.”

“Avalos is my top choice,” Mar added.

District One Supervisor-elect Eric Mar

Mirkarimi said that he thought trying to “reach out” to supervisors with political leanings different from his was a “smart move.”

“(Elsbernd) and I came into office together. Now that we’re both moving from junior varsity to varsity, it would be a real missed opportunity not to get together and talk. I hope to do that with all my colleagues,” Mirkarimi said. “This is a good time to check in with people, and I think that whoever is interested in the board presidency should talk to everybody.”

Of the four supervisors-elect, Avalos is viewed as having the best handle on the workings and culture of the board. The former labor and community organizer served for three and a half years as an aide to Daly and is familiar with the demands of the board’s top spot. He has won raves from labor and community representatives as well as those who serve the poor, the homeless and tenants for his work staffing the budget committee the past several years.

“I’ve written ordinances, worked with the mayor’s office, the budget analyst, the controller. I understand the way the board works and also the role of the president,” Avalos said.

Though his politics do not jibe with the more moderate and conservative board members, Avalos is said to be well-liked by supervisors and their staff.

“I think I can do a great job,” he said.

The first order of business once the new supervisors take their seats in January will be for the 11 board members to choose their leader. It takes six votes to win the post. If Avalos cannot get six votes, an alternative under consideration is for the progressives to throw their support to David Chiu, who won election to the District Three (Chinatown/North Beach) seat and also campaigned as a progressive.

The San Francisco Labor Council spent $76,000 of the $370,000 in union funds that went to promoting Mar, Chiu and Avalos’ candidacies on swaying voters in Chiu’s district, and he was endorsed by Supervisors Daly, Mirkarimi and Peskin as well as the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee, which currently is controlled by progressives. Chiu is out of the country until mid-December and unavailable for comment. He is said to be receptive to the idea of being the progressives’ back-up candidate for president.

“My hat is in the ring as an option to bring the progressive majority together around a common agenda,” said Avalos, adding that he would be willing to vote for Chiu as well. “I want to make sure that (the progressives) come together behind the same person.”

For his part, Mirkarimi would not say whether he would be willing to support Avalos or Chiu to help one get to six votes, but that he does want “to endeavor for someone from the progressive caucus to prevail.”

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who has held the position for nearly four years, must leave the board at the end of this year because of the 8-year term limit on stints as supervisor. Peskin said he hopes the supervisors choose “somebody who will carry the torch of the progressives and put the board in the best light, somebody who can deal with the vastly changed federal climate, and somebody who can bridge [the political] gaps between the supervisors and the mayor.”

“While having legislative experience is important, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility for a new supervisor to rise to the occasion,” Peskin said.

Outgoing Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin

To ensure a progressive is elevated to the top post, to guide a progressive agenda, Peskin said, “It’s critical that the four new supervisors stick together.”

In the days following the election, sources close to the board predicted that Mirkarimi would not be able to count on the current board members – progressive, moderate or conservative – who are not lame ducks to get him the six votes necessary to win the presidency. Though Mirkarimi is widely supported in his district, his interpersonal relationships with most of his board colleagues have been weak for some time, and some have found dealing with him unpleasant, board members and sources close to the board said. But only Daly has condemned Mirkarimi publicly.

Mirkarimi said his interpersonal relationships with board members may have suffered because of his intense focus on his work.

“I have used my first term to apply my nose to the grind stone in tackling the many issues of the city and the district,” Mirkarimi said. “(Because of that), I have not made time to develop relationships with some of my colleagues.”

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi (right).

Elsbernd confirmed that, at Mirkarimi’s request, he had lunch with the District Five supervisor and that Mirkarimi asked for his support. Elsbernd said he has not made any final decisions yet and is waiting to see how the politics unfold. But word inside City Hall is that Elsbernd is not particularly enthused about Mirkarimi’s bid, and their lunch did not change that. Meanwhile, Mirkarimi has scheduled to meet with Alioto-Pier.

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd

District 10 Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, a moderate who sometimes votes with the progressives and sometimes with the three conservatives (Alioto-Pier, District Four Supervisor Carmen Chu and Elsbernd), has said she’s interested in the presidency. It is both more natural and more likely for her to get the conservatives’ support, according to City Hall insiders. Maxwell’s fellow moderate, District Eight Supervisor Bevan Dufty, told the Bay Area Reporter he will vote for Maxwell. Dufty supported her in 2003 when she, Gonzalez and Peskin all sought the position. Mayor Gavin Newsom, who was on the board at the time, voted for Maxwell as well. He has close ties to Alioto-Pier, whom he chose to succeed him, and Chu, who just won her seat after Newsom appointed her to replace Ed Jew.

Supervisor Sophie Maxwell

There’s been some thought in the mayor’s office that encouraging the five supervisors who frequently or at times vote in line with the mayor to support Mirkarimi might be a handy way to frustrate Daly, sources close to the mayor said. But for that strategy to succeed in getting Mirkarimi to the presidency, he would have to get either some support from progressive board members, or each of the votes of the two moderates and the three conservatives. At this point, the first scenario is unlikely, and the second is even more so.

Considered the second most powerful office in city government (after mayor), the board president appoints members of important commissions – including those that handle planning and police oversight issues, creates the board’s committee structure and assigns supervisors to those committees. In addition, the president decides to which committee an issue should go and often is expected to put together coalitions to both pass legislation and override mayoral vetoes. In the event the mayor dies or must leave office, the board president steps into the job.

Prior to the return of district-based elections in 2000, the presidency went to the top vote-getter in the city-wide races. Since then, supervisors have generally looked for who among them can best stay above the fray and direct the board’s business in a calm and even-handed manner. Currently, there is a feeling among progressive board members that the new president should be one among them who does not have mayoral ambitions – which can complicate his or her political moves. Mirkarimi is considering running for that job as well.

Before Peskin, former supervisor Matt Gonzalez held the position and prior to Gonzalez, Supervisor Tom Ammiano served in that role. Ammiano, who is heading to the state legislature, will be replaced by Campos whom Ammiano and Peskin endorsed.

Though Peskin will no longer be a board member, his influence likely will be felt for some time in board politics as he played a major role in the election of the four supervisors-elect.

There was some thought that Daly should be board president. That certainly would have been a slap in the face to Newsom, with whom Daly has sparred frequently. The pro-Newsom and downtown soft money campaigns seeking to eliminate the board’s progressive majority tried to use association with Daly as a way to sway voters to vote against the progressive candidates. A Daly presidency would have been a very public way to run home that the strategy failed, despite the roughly $670,000 soft money campaign behind it. Daly, however, decided that would not be the best move for the board and progressive causes in general.

“Other than Peskin, I have passed the most legislation, taken on some of the toughest fights, won one of the hardest re-elections (in 2006), yet I am not the best choice for board president,” Daly said. “I think it’s a safe assumption that if that happened, papers would be drawn immediately to get rid of district elections.”

Supervisor Chris Daly says he will not seek the board presidency.

Daly added that in a time of great political change, it was appropriate that the president be “one of the new guys.” Characterizing Mirkarimi as “not a family man,” Daly said he would not support Mirkarimi for president because Mirkarimi did not support his efforts to appropriate supplemental affordable housing funds in last year’s budget. Additionally, it did not go unnoticed that compared to the daily, hands-on efforts of Peskin and Daly that went into electing Mar, Chiu and Avalos, Mirkarimi’s involvement was relatively minor, according to political observers and the candidates.

“It’s pretty clear who was behind the work that really made the difference,” said one of the supervisors-elect, who asked not to be named. “I think Ross means well, but the votes (for board president) just aren’t there for him.”

Savannah Blackwell

Savannah Blackwell

Savannah Blackwell spent 14 years covering government and politics for various newspapers -- more than half of that time at the San Francisco Bay Guardian -- before enrolling at UC Berkeley's School of Law in Fall, 2006. After earning a masters in journalism from Columbia University in 1992, she worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer -- moving on to the Tallahassee Democrat in 1994. Following a brief stint at the Valley Times, part of the Contra Costa Times chain, she joined the Bay Guardian in 1996 where she covered City Hall and devoted herself to exposing the wheeling and dealing of former mayor Willie Brown. She also represented the Bay Guardian weekly on the SF Newshour cable television show. After Mayor Gavin Newsom was inaugurated in Jan. 2004, she became the editor of the and in late 2005 went to work for the Daily Journal, which covers legal affairs. Since earning her J.D. and passing the California Bar examination, she has worked in the offices of the San Francisco and Solano County Public Defender and handled First Amendment litigation in federal courts. She currently researches and writes briefs and appeals for criminal defense attorneys.

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Comments for Battle for the Board’s Helm are now closed.

  1. I am surprised that our progressive Supervisors and Supervisors-elect are not lining up behind Ross Mirkarimi. I think they should be. Ross has a long history of progressive legislation and activism.
    He sent his campaign volunteers to work in the swing districts; I am therefore puzzled when the article says his involement in districts 1, 3, and 11 was “minor.”
    Avalos is great, but Ross has earned the post. He would accomplish a lot and help improve the Board’s image.
    That said, perhaps the real focus for progressives now should be: What is our agenda? What legislation do we want passed?

  2. As someone who supported all four candidates in Districts 1, 3, 9 and 11 – from my vote as an SEIU member and a Labor Council member, to giving money and holding events – I am outraged! With all due respect to Avalos and Daly, I do NOT WANT A NOVICE to hold the most powerful seat on the BoS. It is a matter of respect to the citizens of San Francisco to support the most qualified and experienced progressive to the post. I note quite a bit of arrogance and as one of the female Labor Council delegates that was criticized for not supporting any female candidate, it is beginning to appear that male ego is ruling supreme over the best interest of San Franciscans!

    I live in Ross’s district, I am sorry if sky-rocketing homicide rates, school closures, and other issues made him too busy to schmooze and hang out with those that do not face our problems, but as a constituent, it is clear that Ross has worked creatively and tirelessly for his district and the whole city would benefit from his intelligence and dedication. As for Ivan Miranda and his family, I think it is petty and disrespectful to not put San Franciscans first!

    I implore all the nubies to do the right thing and support Ross. This will be my deal breaker for ever supporting any of you again! This is directed to the three that Ross endorsed and are now putting personal ambition ahead of the public benefit!

  3. JACOB, there are many other flavors of democracy than single member district, winner take all representative democracy.

    The fact that only one person holds a seat, sometimes by a bare majority as in D1, means that we are not all in it together and that significant minorities are often excluded.

    We’ve seen that power corrupts at every level, and if we don’t try to figure out ways to check that corruption, we will continue to see bad decisions made and have to deal with electeds who are driven to mania by the seductive, corrupting lure of power to which few are immune.

    Part of that is nurturing a proactive base whose presence can serve as a counterbalance to the corrupting pressures, and part of it involves reconfiguring our democracy to be sure that a diversity of opinion and dilution of power backs us up.

    I’m not the first to note this, and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is not the first body to suffer the consequences of how power effects otherwise honorable people.

    Democracy is not some relic to be preserved in a museum.


  4. Yesterday I missed this paragraph in Savannah Blackwell’s piece, while enjoying all the juice about palace intrigue:

    “Considered the second most powerful office in city government (after mayor), the board president appoints members of important commissions – including those that handle planning and police oversight issues, creates the board’s committee structure and assigns supervisors to those committees. In addition, the president decides to which committee an issue should go and often is expected to put together coalitions to both pass legislation and override mayoral vetoes. In the event the mayor dies or must leave office, the board president steps into the job.”

    So as to better understand recent years, what’s coming, and what’s really at stake here, I’d like to read a piece on the consequence of Matt Gonzalez and Aaron Peskin’s commission assignments, committee structures, and committee assignments.

    Maybe some palace insiders could share their viewpoints on that. I’d like to know what Matt Gonzalez and Aaron Peskin had in mind when they appointed commissioners and made committee assignments, and what their consequences were.

    Does anyone know what we might expect, in the way of commissioners and committee assignments from any of those now vying for presidency of the Board? How important is this, really? Maybe we should hear from Ross Mirkarimi, John Avalos, and other contenders.

    What’s at stake, really, aside from a heightened profile and a springier springboard for one politician or another? I’m going to take a leap of faith and assume that aspirants, or at least a few of them, want to become Board President to advance principles and issues.

    I remember a little controversy about Matt Gonzalez’s commission appointments, and very faintly remember Chris Daly in limbo, still awaiting a committee assignment from Board President Aaron Peskin, before he joined Sean Elsbernd and Michela Alioto Pier on Budget Audit and Oversight.

    I’m not even sure whether committee assignments are stable during a Board President’s term, who all’s on what committees now, and what the consequence of those assignments might be.

    All that said, I’ll be equally glad, and relieved, to see either Ross Mirkarimi or John Avalos become Board Prez, though with this much uncertainty and intrigue in the air, I started wishing Eric Mar, despite being new to the Board, might step up to the plate and settle this, since he seems most likely to win a board majority.

    However, people far closer to the inside than I tell me that Eric prefers to argue his issues as forcefully as he can, without being called upon to mediate, so I don’t want to urge Eric or the Board to dilute a voice as principled and articulate as his with the pressures of diplomacy.

  5. Actually, Luke, I think that Matt Gonzalez has three excellent options were he to run for public office:

    1.) Public Defender, where he can be in charge of his old stomping grounds. It would probably be a relatively easy transition for him.

    2.) City Attorney

    3.) District Attorney, where he would be able to go after white-collar criminals and police brass.

  6. Mirkarimi is human.. he has ambition and wants to keep moving. Let’s quit the cheap gossip — we need to work together, not put each other down.

    “.. the weight on any given elected is that much less and to elect members by a mixed system to ensure diversity in representation.”

    this is called democracy. it only works well when we’re all in it together.

  7. Luke,

    Who is Matt Gonzalez? Oh, yeah, the guy who got twelve votes in one SF precinct.

    The problem here is the corrupting force that power has even on good people. If it were just one supervisor who had succumbed to this, then it might be an anomaly, but it appears to be the general case.

    Without an organized, mobilized base to keep these people accountable, we will see even more shenanigans masquerading as politics and governance.

    But the sick part is that when folks see electeds they help put into office going south on a power trip, it alienates the base, removing any checks on the mania of power.

    One way to solve this is to enlarge the Board of Supervisors so that the weight on any given elected is that much less and to elect members by a mixed system to ensure diversity in representation.


  8. Luke Thomas

    Hey Marc, are you hinting that Matt Gonzalez should run for City Attorney? Hmmm…. now that would be interesting.

  9. Really wish things hadn’t devolved to this low point, as I supported Ross for years, thinking he’d make a great addition to the Board and also become a good board prez. Alas…
    Seems to be the concensus that he is ill-suited to the task. Seems like he’s managed to alienate a lotta people who should have been on his side. Seems to be only one person to blame for this result: Ross. Hopefully something will be learned from this experience. Hope springs eternal.

  10. I have to say, though, it is truly tragic that it has reached the point where Ross is so pathetic that he would actually be trolling and kissing up for conservative votes just so he can move one more rung up on the ladder to spiritual and ethical oblivion. It’s kind of like The Lord of the Rings. He should have learned this lesson from Tom Ammiano. And kudos to Eric Mar for calling Ross on his shit.

    Anyway, this piecemeal process of selling out little by little is precisely the reason NOT to become a politician. Clearly Ross’s ambitions are getting ahead of his better judgement and, if he continues down this road, he will likely just end up seeking higher office for the sake of seeking higher office. I always thought he would be one of the good ones that would pull through. Willie Brown was a progressive at one point, wasn’t he?

  11. Luke Thomas

    It’s a lizard, Matt, with only one head.

  12. What is that thing John is holding in his hand? It has to be either a bird or a lizard. It also looks like it has two heads. Weeeiiiiirrrrrd!

  13. Early xmas gift for Ross! What a bunch of weasels and disingenous “family b.s.” He should stay independent. Daly’s behavior is inexcusable of late, but certainly not a surprise. Let them take all the heat for whatever mess they create.

  14. This is juicy,; I’m amused, but as Marc said, this is drama.

    Could you, Savannah Blackwell, please explain what’s at stake? Just what sort of power does the Board President have, besides setting the agenda, and banging the gavel on homophobic public commenters, if and when rules allow.

    I tried to talk Aaron Peskin into replacing the HONK!!! reminiscent of the Gong Show, sounded at the end of each and every hardworking citizen’s attempt to participate by showing up for public comment, and he said he’d think about it, but I still got the HONK!!! again, last time I made time to show up at City Hall.

    Sp I do hope that our next Board President, whoever they may be, will exercise one form of power entrusted to them, the power to replace the HONK!!!! with a more melodious thank-you-for-blowing-your whole-afternoon-for-a-two-minute-audience-with-the-San-Francisco’s-Board-of-Supes.

  15. “put the needs of everyday San Franciscans” that will be a first.
    Everyday San Franciscans are the first to be over looked when local politicians clamber to show they are more progressive than the next guy.

  16. This battle has already caused enough damage to the progressive project.

    At this point, I support John if there are not the votes for Ross. He is the most knowledgeable of the incoming supervisors, a solid progressive whose politics are beyond reproach, and not prone to destructive conduct unless you consider yelling “WHOSE CITY?.”

    What is needed now is for cooler heads such as Avalos and Mar to prevail and for Daly and Mirkarimi to stand down for a moment and let folks who are known for being grounded and centered progressives set the tone for cooperation and productivity in these tough times.

    Enough with the drama already.


  17. Chris Daly

    To be clear, I do not intend to publicly condemn Ross Mirkarimi. I respect Ross’s many individual accomplishments over the past 4 years.

    With that said, I don’t think that being progressive is qualification enough to be Board President. The next Board President should put the needs of everyday San Franciscans and the progressive family first. That’s why I’ll be voting for John Avalos for the post.

  18. Speculation or not, it is a reality that impacts the next four, or more, years. Interesting to hear what is going on behind the scenes.

  19. Can I get a snap back and forward in to reality?

    This story is akin to real estate speculation.

  20. Hey Savannah, good piece, one correction, though, is that the Board President is not the second most powerful office in San Francisco government, rather the third.

    Depending on who the Mayor and City Attorney are, either of those two offices are much more powerful than the Board President.

    We need a progressive City Attorney more so than we need a progressive Mayor as the CA sets limits on what the Mayor can do. What a twist it would be if Herrera slinks into Room 200 and a progressive City Attorney crimps his hand!


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