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.


The progressive era is dead and David Chiu made it happen. Any progressive up for re-election next year is in deep trouble, and it's just too bad that the Guardian isn't man enough to admit, that after 10 years, it's like the post-Brown era never happened.

The fact y'all are pwned, Willie and Rose call the shots, and you don't understand it since it pre-dates your arrival into town. Time for some change at the BG, I think.

Posted by Hard Working Private Employee on Jan. 12, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

The SFBG will never, ever abandon the rigid progressive dogma of the dogmatic progressive sect no matter how many times it fails.

Until the Guardian and nonprofit sectors have a necessary conversation amongst themselves, this is going to get worse before it gets better.


Posted by marcos on Jan. 12, 2011 @ 7:33 pm

nicely done article Steve. I got bored with the process and lost interest in it but wanted to understand the process, which you did a great job describing here. Lets see what is going to happen...............

Posted by Guest on Jan. 12, 2011 @ 2:20 pm

"People of color," ha ha ha ha!!

They believe the city workers whose pensions are about to get stolen are white?!?

Posted by Guest on Jan. 12, 2011 @ 8:40 pm

Daly engaged in tenacious, in-your-face politics, and as a result, got more done for this city's lower income and disadvantaged residents than any other Supervisor who served along side him; perhaps more than any other supervisor who ever served, period.

The -Chronicle- and -Examiner- -reported- these successful tactics as 'antics' in order to diminish their impact and demonize Daly; in an all too successful psy ops campaign to hamstring Daly's success and popularity against the Downtown machine.

It is galling to see an SF Guardian piece parroting the Orwellian newspeak spun by the corporate and developer controlled press.

Your piece get the facts straight. But 'antics'? Milk was pretty in your face. Does history accuse -him- of engaging in 'antics'? No.

Let's not let our minds and our journalism be co-opted by PR firms' Big Brother style manipulations, and manufacturings, of the very terms through which we think, and dialog with each other.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Jan. 12, 2011 @ 11:33 pm

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