Credit Mayor Lee for San Francisco’s Optimism About Future

by Randy Shaw on February 29, 2012

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce reports that its recent poll of 500 voters found that 58% of San Francisco residents feel the city is going in the right direction, double the number that felt this way in 2010. Chamber President Steve Falk attributes this shift to people feeling better about the economy and the city’s future, while former Mayor Gavin Newsom points to San Francisco’s success at attracting high-tech jobs. But there is another reason for San Francisco’s optimism: ongoing confidence in Mayor Ed Lee. At a time when public confidence in politicians is at historic lows, Lee’s approval numbers have risen to 68%. And only 16% disapprove of his performance. These figures refute the frequent claim that San Francisco is hopelessly divided, and show that Lee’s collaborative approach is working.

In 2010, only 29% of San Franciscans felt the city was moving in the right direction; 51% felt it was on the wrong track. These numbers improved to 44% – 32% in Ed Lee’s first year as mayor, and are now at 58% right direction, 25% wrong track in 2012.

Yes, the local economy is growing. And high-tech businesses would be expanding somewhere regardless of who was mayor of San Francisco. But talk to anyone connected with the high-tech sector and they will tell you that many of these companies either moved to the city or expanded here due to confidence in Mayor Lee.

It’s also worth acknowledging that the San Francisco Police Department is enjoying a remarkably high approval of 72%. I think this has a lot to do with the leadership of Police Chief Greg Suhr, who Lee appointed.

Collaboration v Confrontation

Lee’s continued popularity shows that, contrary to common perceptions about San Francisco, most people prefer collaborative problem solving to a confrontational, winner take all approach.

Some activists and politicians mistakenly confuse such collaboration with surrendering core principles, a stance used to justify ongoing confrontations. Others have a psychological need to transform policymaking into winner-take-all fights. And then there are those for whom every policy fight is “personal,” with the assumption being that the struggle really isn’t about the particular issue but instead involves “other agendas.”

Ed Lee doesn’t play such games. And when you have a mayor committed to collaborative problem solving, those demanding confrontation have a hard time proceeding without an opponent.

Sometimes people have significant ideological difference that collaboration cannot bridge. But as the Mayor often points out, you can disagree with people on many key issues but still move forward where you do agree.

A History of Unnecessary Mayoral Conflict

When I look back at some of the strongest confrontations that impacted city politics, many did not involve substantive policy issues.

For example, the biggest conflict of Art Agnos’ mayoralty involved the 1990 criminal prosecution of political consultant Jack Davis and others in a case that became known as the “Ballpark 5.” Agnos charged the group with illegally concealing political donations to defeat a Giants stadium measure on the November 1989 ballot.

Agnos took the measure’s defeat personally, and Davis felt the same way about his criminal prosecution. The result? Davis and his co-defendants got off, and he then devoted his life to defeating Agnos for re-election – which he did by running Frank Jordan’s 1991 campaign (For details of the prosecution, see People v. Lukenbill (1991) 234 Cal. App. 3d 1797)

More recently, Gavin Newsom engaged in a number of high-profile confrontations with Supervisors Chris Daly and Aaron Peskin that was great for the media but often had little to do with substantive policy differences. These divisive struggles made collaborative problem solving near impossible during the Newsom years, and while the media got a lot of great material out of it, the public was less pleased.

Mayor Lee is too concerned about getting things done to engage in such personal conflicts. And San Franciscans appreciate his approach.

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