Hennessey or Harrington On Track to Replace Newsom

by Randy Shaw on December 20, 2010

There is growing consensus that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors will pick a caretaker Mayor, with the choice between longtime Sheriff Mike Hennessey or SFPUC head and former Controller, Ed Harrington. Both are popular choices that would offend no major political constituency. The Board’s shift from appointing a progressive who could win in November to a non-candidate mayor follows a bizarre campaign by Tom Ammiano supporters to push the popular Assemblymember into a position that he repeatedly said he did not want; the pressure forced Ammiano to issue a press release announcing he was not a mayoral candidate. So after all the hubbub it makes no political difference whether the current or new Board picks the next mayor, though it serves various political agendas to argue otherwise.

For all the controversy over the timing of the appointment of Mayor Newsom’s successor, it appears that San Francisco will end up with an interim mayor who will satisfy most everyone. Sheriff Mike Hennessey may well be the city’s most popular elected official – he’s faced no strong opponent since his 1979 election – while PUC chief Ed Harrington earned a reputation for competence and integrity during his long run as city Controller.

The Downside of Caretaker Mayor

Before assessing their relative strengths let’s dispel the most popular argument for a caretaker mayor who won’t run in November: that they can make the “hard” budget decisions that someone accountable to voters will not.

“Hard” decisions usually means proposing major cuts in longtime sacred cows of the San Francisco city budget like the Fire Department. Some hope that a mayor not accountable to voters will slash city employee benefits and staffing across the board.

But it takes eight votes to pass a budget, and supervisors recently elected with the support of the firefighters union are not going to vote to seriously cut the Fire Department budget. This is true regardless of who is interim mayor.

And a politically unaccountable caretaker mayor will not have any leverage to convince progressive supervisors to cut vital health and human service programs strongly backed by their supporters. No caretaker will have greater capacity to attempt major budgetary changes than Gavin Newsom, who, let’s not forget, won re-election virtually unopposed and had high poll numbers during much of his tenure.

A caretaker Mayor will actually have less ability to impose unpopular cuts. Unlike newly elected Governor Jerry Brown, who, as I wrote on November 29 would “shake things up soon after taking office,” a caretaker Mayor with no public mandate cannot do anything but punt the city’s budget problems down the field.

Brown will announce dramatic budget cuts on January 10, and challenge progressives to win more revenue through tax increases in an upcoming special election. San Francisco’s caretaker mayor lacks a similar popular mandate for such action.

Hennessey v. Harrington

So given realistic expectations of what a caretaker mayor can accomplish, San Francisco is fortunate to have two widely respected choices. I have had my differences with both on specific issues, but one would be hard pressed to find anyone who doubts their outstanding character and integrity (though this is guaranteed to change once one becomes interim Mayor.)

I moved to San Francisco in 1979, and soon began volunteering for Mike Hennessey’s initial campaign. Since his election, pundits have often written that Hennessey saw the Sheriff’s post as a stepping-stone to higher office; but he has remained in his job for over thirty years, and this comes as no surprise to anyone who knows Mike’s commitment to being a great Sheriff.

Hennessey’s great advantage as caretaker mayor is that he is a politician who voters have overwhelmingly supported for decades. He has a level of political credibility lacking in an unelected, non-politician like Ed Harrington.

Hennessey is also San Francisco’s best-liked politician. He would enter the mayor’s office with a huge store of goodwill, and without anyone accusing him of having any agenda other than doing what’s best for San Francisco.

Harrington’s great advantage is that, unlike Hennessey, he is an expert on the city’s budget. He will be supported by those who prioritize such expertise, and who fear that Hennessey does not have time to get up to speed on the intricacies of departmental budgets.

While Harrington has never won elective office in San Francisco, he has not survived at City Hall through multiple mayoral administrations without strong political skills. Harrington would technically become San Francisco’s first gay mayor, though his non-election to the post would likely not make this factor critical to the Board’s decision.

Hennessey’s Edge

If Harrington faced Hennessey in a citywide mayoral race, Hennessey would win in a landslide. The main reason is that Harrington would be perceived as a highly professional bureaucrat, while Hennessey has the larger presence that comes from decades of winning elections.

Further, the caretaker Mayor must do more than finalize a budget. Unless San Franciscans want everything else in the city to remain on hold for a year, the caretaker mayor must also fill key Commission slots, sign or veto laws, and get involved in major city development projects, such as CPMC’s proposed new hospital.

The caretaker Mayor will confront many currently unforeseen issues that require a leader with ample experience dealing with the public, and with meeting with the city’s diverse political factions.

I was surprised to hear that Mike Hennessey would be willing to serve as caretaker mayor, which would certainly cap off a great life of public service to San Francisco. Of the two highly regarded leaders that have emerged as the top choices for the current or new Board, our longtime Sheriff appears the best choice.

If you are looking for hope and inspiration in these trying times, try Randy Shaw’s Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. Shaw is also the author of The Activist’s Handbook.

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