San Francisco’s Most Effective Board of Supervisors Ever

by Randy Shaw on July 19, 2010

I’m not sure this statement has been made very often, but here it is: the current San Francisco Board of Supervisors is doing a remarkable job. In recent weeks it skillfully handled the worst budget crisis in city history, and had the political courage to take a tough vote on Lennar’s controversial Bayview-Hunters Point development – when previous Boards might have sought delay and political cover. Not content to just cast votes on issues that come before it, the Board initiated vital new revenue measures, showing a vision that Supervisors are often accused of lacking and defying the conservative line that district-elected supervisors ignore citywide concerns. Although credit for the Board’s success crosses ideological lines, its control by a progressive majority has left persistent Supe-bashers even more irate, as each Board success further discredits their anti-district election arguments.

When you look at how San Francisco avoided the budget chaos plaguing most cities, its hard to believe that three of the Supervisors shepherding the budget process – John Avalos, David Chiu and David Campos – had never served in elected office until winning in the November 2008 elections. In only their second year in office, this 2008 group and their colleagues have shown a more sophisticated understanding of the city budget than any Board of Supervisors in history.

No More Board of “Stupidvisors”

San Franciscans have bashed the Board of Supervisors since the city charter created the institution. But these attacks increased and took on an ideological tone when district elections was implemented in the 1970’s, because the new system brought non straight-white males into elective office.

If you doubt this, go back and check the San Francisco Chronicle’s coverage of the original election of Carol Ruth Silver, Harvey Milk and others to the Board. The district-elected Supes were treated like a circus freak show, as the downtown elite liked its all male, nearly all-white (don’t forget Terry Francois!) Board that would back corporate San Francisco in all votes.

After district elections were abolished in a controversial summer special election, downtown interests recognized that it needed a more diverse cast to win citywide contests and promote its interests. Progressives had great success in 1994 and other citywide elections, but it was clear that downtown and real estate interests would largely control the Board until district elections returned in 2000.

Recall Mayor Willie Brown’s famous line reported in the New Yorker in 1996 (I was with Brown when he said it) describing the Board as “mistresses to be served.” Downtown interests wanted Supervisors controlled by a powerful Mayor, and while some conservatives lambasted Brown for such comments, few disputed that the Mayor was accurately describing the consequences of electing Supervisors citywide.

The return of district elections in 2000 only heightened attacks on the Board’s skill level. While 2000 brought the Board skilled hands like Matt Gonzalez and Aaron Peskin, it also gave us Jake McGoldrick, who became an easy target for Supervisor bashers.

Chris Daly, likely the most influential Supervisor in modern San Francisco history (Daly-haters don’t like to hear this but its true), gave Supe critics even more ammunition. His public tantrums and obscene language left him a poster child for the folly of district elections, and his incredible success in the legislative and political arena caused critics to redouble efforts to attack him (and district elections, which they argued he symbolized).

Impact of 2008 Elections

But the 2008 elections changed the face of the Board, paving the way for its historic accomplishments of 2010.

These elections brought the highly respected and professional Eric Mar to replace McGoldrick. It brought in two Harvard Law School grads, Campos and Chiu, in to replace the highly competent but more controversial Tom Ammiano and Aaron Peskin (much of the controversy around Peskin is attributable to conservative anger at his success at running the Board, which undermined their framing of the Supervisors as “dysfunctional.”

Harvard Law grads are not necessarily highly professional, intelligent and competent, but both Campos and Chiu fit this bill. And when hard-working John Avalos replaced the less hands-on Gerardo Sandoval in District 11, the Board of Supes had four new members who added a can-do mentality to the current mix.

And that mix includes Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, one of the Board’s most respected members even though he is usually on the other side of the progressive majority. And nobody is more professional and widely regarded from all sides as Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi.

Supervisor Bevan Dufty also preceded the Class of 2008, and his conduct in office has drawn widespread plaudits. Originally elected by more moderate groups skeptical of district elections, Dufty has proven that a Supervisor can skillfully perform both citywide and district responsibilities.

Keeping Priorities Straight

Top to bottom, the current Board is the most talented in San Francisco history. And the Supervisors have remained focused on the city’s top priorities, avoiding distractions that hurt the Board’s image in the past.
At the end of 2009, everyone said that the upcoming 2010-11 budget would be a nightmare. We were told that the onetime fixes of the past were used up, and there was no avoiding draconian cut in critical city services.

Mayor Newsom reached the necessary labor deals to avoid this scenario, but left some heavy lifting for the Board. And the Board avoided what was supposed to be an inevitable budget bloodbath and left San Francisco much better positioned than anyone dreamed just six months ago.

Several Supervisors took the lead in pushing for new revenue, and while many progressives oppose Supervisor Elsbernd’s Muni reform measure, it emerged in response to significant public clamor on the issue. I recall many years when Supervisors looked to the Mayor or various constituencies to address longterm revenue needs; the 2010 Board has seized the initiative and run with it.

Four of the key players in the budget process – Avalos, Campos, Chiu and Mirkarimi – will still be around to get the city through the next budget year. Let’s hope voters elect Supervisors in November that meet the high standard they and the 2010 Board have set.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. Follow him on Twitter at @RandyTHClinic.

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