Power and pragmatism

City Hall gets a new mayor and D.A., an empowered board president — and a new political reality

A Jan. 7 dinner in Chinatown honoring Sup. Jane Kim
Luke Thomas/Fog City Journal


After an epic week at City Hall, the political dynamics in San Francisco have undergone a seismic shift, with pragmatism replacing progressivism, longtime adversarial relationships morphing into close collaborations, and Chinese Americans as mayor and board president.

It was a week of surprises, starting Jan. 4 when City Administrator Ed Lee came out of nowhere to become the consensus choice for interim mayor, and ending Jan. 9 when Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed Police Chief George Gascón to be the new district attorney, Newsom's last official act as mayor before belatedly taking his oath of office as lieutenant governor on Jan. 10.

In between, the outgoing Board of Supervisors held a special final meeting Jan. 7, at which progressive supervisors fell into line behind Lee, some of them reluctantly, and accepted the new political reality. The next day, the new Board of Supervisors took office and overwhelmingly reelected David Chiu as board president, with only the three most progressive supervisors in dissent.

After Chiu played kingmaker as the swing vote for making Lee the new mayor, the board and Mayor's Office are likely to enjoy far closer and more cooperative relations than they've had in many years. And the sometimes prickly, blame-game relations between the Police Department and D.A.'s Office should also get better now that the top cop has switched sides. But what it all means for the average San Franciscan, particularly the progressive voters who created what they thought was a majority on the Board of Supervisors, is still an open question.

One thing that is clear is the ideological battles that have defined City Hall politics — what Chiu called the "oppositional politics of personality" during his closing remarks on Jan. 8 — have been moved to the back burner while the new leaders try a fresh approach.

Newsom — with his rigid fiscal conservatism and open disdain for the Board of Supervisors, particularly its progressive wing — is gone. Also leaving City Hall is Sup. Chris Daly, a passionate and calculating progressive leader whose over-the-top antics caused a popular backlash against the movement.

In a way, Newsom and Daly were perfect foils for one another, caustic adversaries who often reduced one another to two-dimensional caricatures of themselves. But they were each strongly driven by rival ideologies and political priorities, despite Newsom's rhetorical efforts to turn "ideology" into a dirty word applied only to his opponents.

"This year represents a changing of the guard, a transition," Chiu said, pledging to continue pushing for progressive reforms, only with a more conciliatory approach, a theme also sounded by Sups. Eric Mar and Jane Kim, who each broke with their progressive colleagues to support Chiu over rival presidential nominee Sup. John Avalos.

"I will always support policies that will make our city more equitable and just," Kim said after being sworn in to replace Daly, although she also made a claim about the new board with which her predecessor probably wouldn't agree: "I think we have a lot more in common than we don't."

With a focus on diversity and compromise, "respect and camaraderie," Mar said, "I think this new board represents the evolution of the progressive movement in San Francisco."

If indeed City Hall is enjoying a "Kumbaya" moment, the path to this point was marred by backroom deal-making and old-school power politics, much of it engineered by a pair of figures from the previous era who are by no means progressives: former Mayor Willie Brown and Rose Pak, head of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce.