No surrender, no retreat

Bellicose rhetoric masks real differences over budget priorities
Gavin Newsom and SF Firefighters
Union Local 798 head John
Hanley at a June 16 budget rally

The dueling budget rallies that preceded the June 16 Board of Supervisors hearing on the city's spending priorities officially ended the conciliatory approach offered by Mayor Gavin Newsom — a rhetorical political gambit that the Mayor's Office never really put into practice.

The emotionally charged police and fire workers' rally — where Police Officers Association President Gary Delagnes riled up the crowd by ridiculing supervisors as "idiots" and "carpetbaggers" — featured Newsom as the guest of honor at an event overseen by Eric Jaye, the political consultant running both the firefighters' union budget offensive and Newsom's gubernatorial campaign.

On a stage lined with American flags and burly public safety workers, Newsom condemned the progressive supervisor's proposal to amend his budget over a blaring sound system. "They're asking us to retreat," Newsom said, in full battle cry mode, "and we're not going to do that."

Across the street, city employees from the Department of Public Health held a competing rally, flying a banner that read "No Cuts to Vital Services!" It was painfully obvious that in a squabble between city employees, the mayor was positioning himself on the side of well-paid, powerful union members who got raises instead of layoffs, rather than the public health workers and advocates for the poor whom Newsom's budget cut the deepest.

But before progressive supervisors challenged Newsom's proposed budget — which ignored the supervisors' stated priorities, despite Newsom's December pledge to work closely with the board on it — the rhetoric was quite different. "We work through our differences and ultimately try to look at the budget as apolitically as possible," Newsom said during a June 1 event unveiling his budget. "It'll only happen by working together."

Six months earlier, when the mayor made a rare appearance at a Board of Supervisors meeting to announce the unprecedented budget shortfall of more than $500 million, he adopted a similar tone. "We have the capacity, the ingenuity and the spirit to solve this," Newsom told the board in December. "It's going to take all of us working together. It's in that spirit that I am here."

The mayor's proposed budget has spurred outrage from poor people and progressive supervisors, who charge that his decision to cut critical services while simultaneously bolstering funding to the police and fire departments is morally repugnant.

Sups. John Avalos, David Campos, and David Chiu responded by passing an amendment in committee to slash $82 million from the public-safety budget in order to restore some of the cuts to public health and social services. After that move, the spirit of "working together" quickly eroded, and seemed to be replaced by the bare knuckles politics of fear and division.

After the rallies, which even spilled indoors and devolved into shouting matches between the two camps, supervisors finally got to work on the budget. And they didn't ask Newsom to retreat, they just asked him to listen and work with them.

The $82 million dent in the public-safety budget was described as a symbolic gesture to get the mayor to take progressive concerns seriously. "For many of us, it was the only way we felt we could have a seat at the table — a seat that was real, where the discussion was going to be meaningful," Campos said.

"I do not think that this budget is bilateral. It is a unilateral budget," Chiu noted at a Budget and Finance Committee meeting.

This year's budget battle is especially intense because of the unprecedented size of the deficit, as well as the dire economic conditions facing many San Franciscans.