Looking for San Francisco’s Bill de Blasio? His Name is Ed Lee

by Randy Shaw on December 12, 2013

With New York City’s election of progressive Bill de Blasio as mayor, I hear many ask: when will San Francisco get its own progressive mayor? The answer is that the city already has such a mayor in Ed Lee, whose progressive record de Blasio would be fortunate to match. This week, Lee announced support for raising the city’s minimum wage. Previously, his leadership led to voter approval of a $1.5 billion affordable housing trust fund. Lee is the first San Francisco mayor to prioritize amending the state Ellis Act to reduce evictions, and his economic polices have greatly reduced unemployment. Progressives in NYC will cheer if de Blasio makes similar gains.

But for the primarily white “Bay Guardian progressives,” Ed Lee will never be “their” guy. And the irony is that Bill de Blasio would not meet their standards either. After all, NYC’s new progressive mayor backed the massive Atlantic Yards gentrification and displacement strategy for Brooklyn which bypassed public processes and used eminent domain to enrich wealthy developers. Compared to the sixteen highrises and sports arena (the Barclays Center) that comprises Atlantic Yards, 8 Washington’s impact would have been akin to a one-hour change in a loading zone. The San Francisco progressives unhappy with Lee would also find Bill de Blasio wanting, as they would any politician capable of building the broad support necessary to be elected a big-city mayor.

A Progressive Mayor and City

According to a new poll by the University of San Francisco and published in the San Francisco Chronicle on December 10, 73% of voters approve of Mayor Ed Lee’s performance. And 69% believe the city is moving in the right direction.

These are remarkable numbers for a mayor in his third year. And given they are not based on short-term popularity hikes attributable to a major event (9/11 for NYC’s Rudy Giuliani or the 1984 Olympics for Tom Bradley in Los Angeles), they may be unprecedented for a big city mayor.

For all the criticism in newspaper comment sections, most San Francisco voters feel very good about Ed Lee. And as San Francisco is the nation’s most progressive major city, Lee would not have high approval numbers were he not moving the city in a progressive direction.

Ed Lee’s genius is his ability to broaden the traditional bases of support for such progressive policies as the Housing Trust Fund, the reinvention of public housing, and a $28 million annual increase in new business taxes. Prior efforts to accomplish these actions failed due to the narrowness of the supporting coalitions and their inability to defuse opposition.

When I saw statewide realtors lobbyist Ron Kingston at the very first meeting convened by Mayor Lee for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, I said to myself that the mayor was about to learn a lesson in San Francisco political reality. But to my surprise, Lee got real estate people on board who earn their living sabotaging pro-tenant measures; so it was I who learned what was possible with the right mayoral approach.

Think it’s easy for a mayor to dissolve the SF Housing Authority Commission and take direct control? This week is the 10th anniversary of Matt Gonzalez’s narrow loss to Gavin Newsom in the 2003 mayor’s race. As a Supervisor, Matt Gonzalez courageously tried to impose more city control over the Housing Authority. This was when the Board of Supervisors had its fabled “progressive majority” after the 2000 elections. But he could barely get any support. I think Chris Daly alone backed Gonzalez when the Housing Authority engineered its mass public march accusing the Latino progressive of being “racist.”

Ed Lee got this Public Housing Authority takeover done. Yet some progressives still talk about how he only cares about “the 1%.” Last I looked, the top 1% of earners were not living in the projects.

Lee has brought San Francisco unemployment to record low levels, which used to be an issue all progressives prioritized. And instead of progressives criticizing a mayor for creating primarily low-wage jobs, Lee is attacked for creating too many that are high-paying. Lee’s strategy of using economic improvements to fund progressive measures is exactly the approach Bill de Blasio plans to use in NYC to reduce income inequality in that city.

Lee Not “Our” Guy

The real difference between Ed Lee and Bill de Blasio is not their politics. It’s not even their backgrounds. While some progressives do not trust Lee because he worked for, and was supported by, Willie Brown, de Blasio worked at City Hall for, and was supported by, New York City’s Mayor David Dinkins. The Dinkins Administration was far less progressive than Willie Brown’s on virtually every issue. De Blasio then worked for Bill Clinton, hardly a progressive mainstay.

No, what distinguishes Lee from de Blasio is that the latter ran for mayor as the clear choice of a growing citywide progressive movement. I was living in Brooklyn for two months during de Blasio’s 2009 Public Advocate campaign and it was clear then, as it is now, that he is a savvy progressive leader who will go on to do great things for the city.

Ed Lee was the clear choice of the Chinese-American progressive movement, but unlike New York City, where communities of color are deeply connected to the broader progressive movement, the Bay Guardian progressives are disengaged from, and show little respect toward, these communities.

So Ed Lee is not “their” guy. And regardless of how many progressive actions he takes, they will never see him as a “progressive” mayor.

That’s their loss. And when they see Bill de Blasio making the type of compromises with powerful interests that are often necessary to move a progressive agenda, they may begin to appreciate that San Francisco already has the nation’s most progressive big city mayor.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. Send feedback to rshaw@beyondchron.org

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