Understanding Steve Kawa’s Legacy

by on May 31, 2017

Steve Kawa’s retirement announcement last week led many to repeat some  misunderstandings about his role as chief of staff to San Francisco’s last three mayors. A “shadow mayor”? A “powerbroker”?  An “enforcer”? Someone who “builds the power of moderate mayors”? The “political muscle behind Mayor Lee”?

I could go on and on with this nonsense. Better to explain what Kawa actually did and how he so effectively served San Francisco.

Kawa’s early SF years

I met Steve Kawa when he began working for Supervisor Tom Hsieh in 1991.  Those were the days when tenant advocates like myself were regularly meeting with supervisors trying to get their votes. Kawa always made it clear that there was little chance that Hsieh would take the tenants’ side but Steve enjoyed discussing the issues.

Kawa’s intellectual curiosity was one of his strengths. He loved talking issues and enjoyed playing Devil’s Advocate. Some people thought that Steve’s arguing a particular position meant that he was backing it; all he was doing was testing the strength of respective arguments.

When Mayor Willie Brown hired Kawa, it made perfect sense. Try as he might, Willie could not be everywhere. He needed someone to keep an eye on everything that he did not have time to personally handle—Kawa was that guy.

Nobody familiar with those years could accurately call Kawa Willie Brown’s “shadow mayor” or a “power broker.” There was room for only one mayor and power broker in those days and that was Willie Brown.

Steve clearly understood this.

Was Willie Brown a “moderate” mayor? Not by any real world standard. Nearly every San Francisco labor union (including UNITE HERE Local 2) endorsed him for re-election. He signed the most far reaching tenant legislation in his first term of any mayor. He funded the public sector like never before.

And Steve Kawa was with Willie Brown as he made these progressive policies happen.

The Newsom Years

Kawa took on a larger role with Gavin Newsom. He did so not because he wanted to “seize power” but rather by default. Newsom was not a hands on mayor.  He saw himself as a mayor of big ideas who left the implementation to others.  Kawa cut the deals that Newsom wanted cut and killed agreements Newsom wanted killed.

Since Newsom was a very politically moderate mayor, this pattern led  progressive supervisors to wrongly blame Steve for Gavin’s policies.

It was under Newsom that Kawa created the role of “bad cop” that made him so valuable to mayors. Politicians do not like to say no to constituencies. Mayors particularly do not like saying no as they see constituents all the time and want to avoid uncomfortable situations.

So smart politicians use their chiefs of staff to tell groups why their program can’t get fundedor why their idea won’t be implemented. The group’s anger is focused on the person who said no—in this case Steve Kawa—rather than the mayor.

Kawa played this role so expertly that even politicians familiar with the “bad cop” role blamed him for decisions he was simply implementing for Mayor Newsom. The left’s exaggeration of Kawa’s political influence hit a high point when Newsom was leaving office and supervisors were picking a replacement. At least one supervisor told Ed Lee that he would back him if he agreed to fire Kawa. Lee refused, despite Kawa telling him he would resign if that was necessary to make Lee mayor. Lee became mayor anyway.

The Ed Lee Years

My late friend Rose Pak used to blame and denounce Kawa and Tony Winnicker for allegedly moving Mayor Lee in a too moderate direction. My efforts to convince Rose that the buck stopped with the mayor and that his staff was simply supporting his interests went nowhere. Rose would be happy to learn that both Tony and Steve have left the mayor’s staff.

Did Kawa turn Ed Lee into a “moderate” mayor? I guess that depends how you define “moderate” and “progressive.”

If you base the term as do many posting on Facebook, Twitter, and in newspaper columns, “progressive” is defined irrespective of what actual politicians have done in office. Using this idealized standard Ed Lee is a “moderate” along with every big city mayor in the United States—and every mayor in San Francisco history. If you define “progressive” by the actual records of those in comparable positions—and by the first term of self-identified progressive New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio or by any prior San Francisco mayor—than Ed Lee is clearly a progressive mayor.

How do we reconcile Lee’s progressive record with Kawa’s alleged agenda of turning those he works for into moderates? Maybe that interpretation of Kawa’s impact is wrong.

Kawa focused on helping mayor’s implement their agendas. He needed a strong character and flexibility to serve three mayors with very different personalities. It may be a testament to Kawa’s skills that all three were easily re-elected.

Jason Elliott’s Challenge

New Chief of Staff Jason Elliott has a tough act to follow.  Now that the media has declared Kawa as holding the steady hand keeping the Lee Administration afloat, any misstep will be blamed on his successor.

I expect Elliott to use a more collaborative style and to follow Kawa’s example of keeping out of the limelight. He has worked closely enough with Kawa to know how the chief of staff role works. Kawa did him a favor by retiring after this year’s often rancorous budget decisions were made.

It’s hard for me to imagine Steve Kawa riding off into the sunset and no longer paying attention to what the media writes about Mayor Lee. At age 55 he’s got plenty left in the tank. Should Gavin Newsom become Governor he might recruit Kawa for a top staff position—and after an 18 month break Steve Kawa might be ready for a second act.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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