SF's new political era

What Mayor Lee and a new board mean for the city

Luke Thomas/Fog City Journal


You can argue about what the word "progressive" means, and you can argue about the process and the politics that put Ed Lee in the Mayor's Office. And you can talk forever about which group or faction has how much of a majority on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, but you have to admit: this city has just undergone a significant political realignment.

Some of that was inevitable. The last members of the class of 2000, the supervisors who were elected in a rebellion against the sleaze, corruption, and runaway development policies of the Willie Brown administration, have left office. Gavin Newsom, the mayor who was often at war with the board and who encouraged a spirit of rancor and partisanship, is finally off to Sacramento. For the first time since 1978, the supervisors will be working with a mayor they chose themselves.

For much of the past 15 years, progressive politics was as much about stopping bad things — preventing Brown and then Newsom from wrecking the city — as it was about promoting good things. But the "politics of anti," as San Francisco State political scientist Rich DeLeon describes is, wasn't a central theme in the November elections, and this generation of supervisors comes into office with a different agenda.

Besides, one of the clear divisions on the board the past seven years was the Newsom allies against the progressives — something that dissipated instantly when Lee took over.

But the realignment goes deeper.

Until recently, the progressives on the board had a working majority — a caucus, so to speak — and they tended to vote together much of the time. The lines on the board were drawn almost entirely by what Newsom disparagingly calls ideology but could more accurately be described as a shared set of political values, a shared urban agenda.

There are still six supervisors who call themselves progressives, but the idea that they'll stick together was shattered in the battle over a new mayor — and the notion that there's anything like a progressive caucus died with Board President David Chiu's election (his majority came in part from the conservative side, with three progressives opposing him) and with Chiu's new committee assignments, which for the first time in a decade put control of key assignments in the hands of the fiscal conservatives.



The progressive bloc on the board was never monolithic. There were always disagreements and fractures. And, thanks to the Brown Act, the progressives don't actually meet outside of the formal board sessions. But it was fair and accurate to say that, most of the time, the six members of the board majority functioned almost as a political party, working together on issues and counting on each other for key votes. There was, for example, a dispute two years ago over the board presidency — but in the end, Chiu was elected with exactly six votes, all from the progressive majority that came together in the end.

That all started to fall apart the minute the board was faced with the prospect of choosing a new mayor. For one thing, the progressives couldn't agree on a strategy — should they look for someone who would seek reelection in November, or try to find an acceptable interim mayor? The rules that barred supervisors from voting for themselves made it more tricky; six votes were not enough to elect any of the existing members. And, not surprisingly, some of the progressives had mayoral ambitions themselves.

When state Assemblymember Tom Ammiano — who would have had six votes easily — took himself out of the running, there was no other obvious progressive candidate. And with no other obvious candidate, and little opportunity for open discussion, the progressives couldn't come to an agreement.

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