Questions Surround Newsom Firing of Leal

by Randy Shaw on December 7, 2007

When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom spoke of changing personnel for his second term, few if any thought that PUC chief Susan Leal would be impacted. After all, Newsom appointed Leal to the post, encouraging her to give up her position as the city’s elected Treasurer. Although many questioned Leal’s qualifications for the job—much as they did when Newsom appointed Supervisor Tony Hall to head the Treasure Island Authority—there has been little, if any public complaints about her performance. And as with the mayor’s subsequent termination of Hall, Leal’s departure will cost the city money; her contract gives her $500,000 if fired without cause. Here’s our sense of what was behind Newsom’s action, which involves more than Leal’s support for public power.

Mayor Newsom’s announcement that he would replace Susan Leal as PUC chief must have sent shockwaves through his Administration. After all, Leal was never considered to be on the chopping block and seemed politically secure for many reasons.

First, Leal is politically popular, having won citywide elections to the Board of Supervisors and to the Treasurer’s office.

Second, she is a woman appointee of a mayor who has publicly called for increased female leadership. With the Mayor’s termination of former Redevelopment head Marsha Rosen, Port Director Monique Moyer’s imminent departure, and the likely replacement of Police Chief Heather Fong, the Mayor’s firing of Leal would raise questions about whether his rhetoric about promoting women leaders is matched by actions.

Third, Leal gave up a likely lifetime position as Treasurer to take the PUC job, and presumably would not have done so without strong assurances for her job future from the mayor.

Fourth, Leal’s $500,000 buyout if fired without cause looks bad when the Mayor is calling on departments to cut staff due to an alleged budget shortfall. Many will question why her performance suddenly became so poor that an expensive buyout is in her best interest (as compared to Housing Authority Director Gregg Fortner, who has remained in charge despite a performance level that Newsom himself has publicly condemned.)

Finally, the Mayor gains no political benefit from canning Leal. While she was never popular with many working at the PUC—who justifiably questioned why a person with no experience in the field was suddenly put in charge—I am unaware of any strong internal push at the PUC that led to the mayor’s action.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi believes Leal was removed due to her support for public power. He told the San Francisco Chronicle, “a move like this is strictly in PG&E’s best interest, and it’s a serious blow to everything the mayor has stood for as it relates to advancing anything related to public power.”

Until I read Mirkarimi’s quote, I had no idea that Leal was a strong public power advocate. But I have since learned that PG &E was unhappy with her efforts to promote public power, and the Bay Guardian and others believe that the giant utility pushed Newsom to remove her.

But Leal never tried to rally support for the PUC commission to back public power, and is not widely identified with the cause. If Newsom wanted to make a stand against public power, firing Susan Leal is a very indirect route.

So why did Newsom ignore all of the negative political consequences and proceed to fire Leal? The most likely answer can be found in the many other political relationships that the Mayor has abruptly ended.

Unlike former mayors Art Agnos and Willie Brown, Gavin Newsom has not maintained a group of core staff towards whom he is fiercely loyal. Doubts about Newsom’s political loyalty were publicly expressed during the Ruby Rippey-Tourk scandal, in which the mayor was seen as disloyal to his former campaign field director and City Hall chief of staff, Alex Tourk.

But Tourk is just one of many onetime close allies of the Mayor who did not last through the first term. City Hall insiders could name dozens of people who worked hard to elect Newsom, felt they had a strong bond with the mayor, and then found themselves on the outs.

Many attracted to work in the Newsom Administration soon notice this lack of loyalty, which is why there has been such turnover among those hired by the Mayor during his first term.

Susan Leal no doubt believed that she would be an exception to this trend.

After successfully navigating the stormy waters of San Francisco politics for nearly two decades, Leal understandably believed that Mayor Newsom would stand by her. But instead she joins a line of elected officials—from Assessor Dick Hongisto leaving to become Frank Jordan’s Chief of Police to Supervisor Tony Hall’s ill-fated move to Treasure Island—whose new jobs were terminated by the Mayor who appointed them.

One can only wonder how many other department heads and staffers serving at the Mayor’s pleasure are now wondering about their own relationship to Newsom, while waiting for the next shoes to drop.

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