Interim Mayor Drama Rocks City Hall

by Paul Hogarth on January 5, 2011

Were Progressives Played – or Did Partisan Proxy Fight Blind Policy?

The Board of Supervisors met last night for over 8 hours without picking a new Mayor, and it’s easy to conclude from the result that progressives got played. While progressives have a majority on the Board, it appears they were outmaneuvered by Gavin Newsom and his moderate allies – with City Administrator Ed Lee having six votes to be Interim Mayor. But the acrimony that has plagued Board-Mayor relations for seven years blew way out of proportion what was ultimately a choice between two policy wonks with impeccable credentials – and support from across the political spectrum. Can we really say that Sheriff Mike Hennessey would be a “more progressive” Mayor, just because he was the choice of five progressive Supervisors? Some are now branding David Chiu a “sell-out” for picking Ed Lee, and the circumstances around how Lee – who is currently in Hong Kong – emerged as a last-minute choice is enough to raise suspicion. But the Board’s postponement of a vote until Friday now gives Supervisors a chance to reach out to Ed Lee, and fairly assess whether he is worth supporting on his own merits.

With all the passion surrounding this historic choice, it is difficult to forget that virtually anyone the Supervisors pick would be an improvement over Gavin Newsom. The Mayor has repeatedly snubbed the Board for years, refusing to meet with them and undercutting their clout and authority through the budget process – and on top priorities like immigration policy. After a seven-year abusive relationship, it’s easy for progressive Board members to be skeptical of anyone who the Mayor’s allies are pushing to become the Interim Mayor.

Throw in the fact that Newsom antagonized them by taking the legally unprecedented move of delaying his inaugural, so the Board doesn’t appoint someone he finds unacceptable. Earlier in the meeting, David Campos grilled legal counsel about whether Newsom is still the Mayor, if the state Constitution says his term of Lieutenant Governor started January 3rd. “How long can Newsom wait to take the oath of office,” he asked. “Can he wait a month? Two months?” Apparently, the answer is Newsom is still the de facto Mayor.

But the ultimate choice for Interim Mayor came down to two picks – two long-time city officials who would each pledge to serve as a “caretaker” for the last twelve months of Newsom’s term. Mike Hennessey has been the City’s elected Sheriff for over 32 years. Continuously re-elected with little opposition, his low-key demeanor and innovative policy record has made him universally respected. Many progressives claim him as one of their own, but he has also endorsed moderates like Mark Farrell and Rebecca Prozan.

City Administrator Ed Lee has likewise worked for the City for decades, having headed the Human Rights Commission and the Department of Public Works – after a long career at the Asian Law Caucus. (In 2007, when the Housing Authority had some problems, this publication recommended that Mayor Newsom hire Ed Lee to head the agency.) Just like Hennessey, no one knows Ed Lee’s politics – because he has support across the spectrum.

But for progressive Supervisors exhausted after seven years of Newsom – and skeptical of the Mayor and his allies – what mattered was cobbling a majority of at least six votes for an Interim Mayor. And the fact that moderate Supervisors Sean Eslbernd, Michela Alioto-Pier and Carmen Chu had all endorsed Ed Lee – who was not even seriously considered a choice until 48 hours before the meeting – fueled suspicion that he was a “stalking horse” for Newsom. They were careful to say how much they respected Ed Lee, but it wasn’t about Ed Lee – it was about making sure the “other side” doesn’t win.

After Bevan Dufty (who had expressed support for Hennessey) asked for a thirty minute recess, he and Sophie Maxwell were then seen walking into Room 200 to meet with the Mayor’s people. When the Board re-convened, Dufty announced that he would switch his support to Lee – after having been told that Lee was willing to take the job after all.

The tables were turned, as now Hennessey did not have six votes – and Chris Daly was furious. But his anger was not directed at the “swing” Supervisors Dufty and Maxwell, but instead at David Chiu – a progressive who voted for Lee. “We are about to witness the biggest fumble in the history of progressive politics in San Francisco,” he shouted, “and the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of David Chiu. I will haunt you. I will politically haunt you for the biggest fumble in history. It’s on, like Donkey Kong.”

Some progressives believe David Chiu “sold out” to the Mayor’s people – in exchange for a deal to be appointed District Attorney to replace Kamala Harris. If Chiu gets that appointment (and the Mayor then appoints his replacement in District 3), I would have good cause to concur. But until that happens, it’s likely that Chiu supported Lee for his credentials – and because it would make him San Francisco’s first Chinese Mayor. It means that Chiu puts a lower premium on the solidarity of a “six-progressive bloc” – which is heresy to Chris Daly and other progressives, but it’s certainly not corrupt.

Ed Lee was not selected Mayor last night, because Sophie Maxwell joined the five Hennessey supporters to continue the item until Friday, January 7th. At that time, some of the progressive Supervisors implied that they could be inclined to eventually support Ed Lee – but not when he was out of the country, and had not been seriously considered as a candidate until that meeting. “Let Ed Lee demystify for us what his plans and intentions are,” said Ross Mirkarimi. “This was really rocketed in the last 24-48 hours.”

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