Ed Lee has been mayor for six weeks. Does his administration represent a change — or more of the same?
The Guardian hasn't been invited into City Hall's Room 200 for a long time. Former Mayor Gavin Newsom, who frequently criticized this newspaper in his public statements, had a tendency to freeze out his critics, adopting a supercilious and vinegary attitude toward any members of the press who questioned his policy decisions. So it was almost surreal when a smiling Mayor Ed Lee cordially welcomed two Guardian reporters into his stately office Feb. 15.
Lee says he plans to open his office to a broader cross-section of the community, a move he described as a way of including those who previously felt left out. Other changes have come, too. He's replaced Newsom's press secretary, Tony Winnicker, with Christine Falvey, former communications director at the Department of Public Works (DPW). He's filled the Mayor's Office with greenery, including giant tropical plants that exude a calming green aura, in stark contrast to Newsom — whose own Room 200 was sterile and self-aggrandizing, including a portrait of Robert Kennedy, in whose footsteps Newsom repeatedly claimed to walk.
When it comes to policy issues, however, some expect to see little more than business-as-usual in the Mayor's Office. Democratic Party chair Aaron Peskin, a progressive stalwart, said he sees no substantive changes between the new mayor and his predecessor. "It seems to me that the new administration is carrying forward the policies of the former administration," Peskin said. "I see no demonstrable change. And that makes sense. Lee was Willie Brown and former Mayor Gavin Newsom's handpicked successor. So he's dancing with the guys that brought him in."
Sup. David Campos, viewed as part of the city's progressive camp along with Peskin, took a more diplomatic tack. "So far I've been very pleased with what I've seen," Campos noted. "I really appreciate that he's reached out to the community-based organizations and come out to my district and done merchant walks. I think we have to wait to see what he does on specific policy issues."
But while Lee has already garnered a reputation for being stylistically worlds apart from Newsom, he still hews close to his predecessor's policies in some key areas. In our interview, Lee expressed an unwillingness to consider tax-revenue measures for now, but said he was willing to take condo conversions into consideration as a way to bring in cash. He was unenthusiastic about community choice aggregation and dismissive of replacing Pacific Gas & Electric Co. with a public-power system. He hasn't committed to overturning the pending eviction of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council's recycling center, and he continued to argue for expanding Recology's monopoly on the city's $206 million annual trash stream, despite a recent Budget and Legislative Analyst' report that recommended putting the issue to the voters.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who met Lee in 1980 through the Asian Law Caucus, said Lee would be facing steep challenges. "It's a fascinating political karmic outcome that he is now our appointed mayor. He didn't seek it out, as he says, but the opportunity he has now is to focus his efforts on fixing some of the problems that have gone unaddressed for decades, pension reform being one of them. I think he realizes he has a limited time to achieve things of value. The question I and others have is, can he do it?"
THE RELUCTANT MAYOR
Lee identified as a non-politician, patently rejecting the notion that he would enter the race for mayor. In meetings with members of the Board of Supervisors at the end of 2010, he said he didn't want the job.
Yet while vacationing in Hong Kong, Lee became the subject of a full-court press. "When the lobbying and phone calls started ... clearly they meant a lot to me," Lee told us, adding that the choice "was very heavy on my mind." He finally relented, accepting the city's top post.