Chiu's choice

The man who presided over the end of the Progressive Era at City Hall needs to decide whose side he's really on

David Chiu became the first Chinese American to represent SF's Chinatown in his "meteoric" political rise

For 10 years — from 2000 to 2010 — progressives controlled the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It was a defining era in city politics, with the left-leaning board not only providing a check on the power of downtown-backed mayors Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom but producing a long list of important reforms that, generally, sought to level the playing field between the haves and have-nots.

It wasn't the most harmonious decade. Battles between the legislative and executive branches of government often got nasty, particularly when the political and economic stakes were high — and after the national recession and fiscal conservativism left various constituencies fighting over shrinking public resources.

But San Francisco's modern progressive era was still a decade of unprecedented responsiveness at City Hall to the interests of workers, renters, immigrants, the poor, bicyclists, environmentalists, communities of color, and the other component groups of the city's progressive movement.

It was a decade in which San Francisco adopted one of the nation's highest minimum wages, when most employers were required to provide employee health insurance or pay into an expanded city clinic program, when it became far more difficult for landlords to evict their tenants, and when developers knew they wouldn't get their projects approved without significant concessions to the progressive constituencies.

Then suddenly, just as that decade ended and 2011 began, everything changed. And the person who presided over that change and did more to usher it in than any single individual was Board President David Chiu, who is now running for mayor.

Chiu was elected as a supervisor and then president in 2009 with progressive support, yet he now distances himself from the progressive wing and casts himself as playing the central role in a new political reality.

"Clearly, I'm at the center of the board," he told the Guardian. "My goal as president of the board is to try to figure out how to bring our colleagues together to coalesce around values that move our city forward with our shared progressive values. And I think I've done a good job at that."

Yet the left-leaning members of the board feel as if they've been pushed to the margins, particularly after Chiu created a committee structure that elevated the moderate supervisors who kept Chiu in the president's seat. To many progressives, Chiu's shift has allowed powerful interests to move forward while progressive constituencies fall behind.

"There's been a palpable shift to the middle at City Hall," said Sup. John Avalos, whose own mayoral campaign has galvanized progressives. "David has shifted to the center. He's become more comfortable representing himself as a centrist — before, he wouldn't have done that."

There's more to the story. While it is true that Chiu essentially switched sides — elected president by board progressives in 2009 and then reelected by its fiscal conservatives in 2011 — it is also true that there were other powerful players working behind the scenes to help sabotage the progressives and create a new political alignment.

But while Chiu talks constantly about representing the city's "shared progressive values," he's a very different type of politician than the activists who ran the board after the first district elections. Supervisors like Tom Ammiano, Matt Gonzalez, and Aaron Peskin saw themselves as fighters, engaged in an ongoing epic struggle to organize and protect the less powerful against the wealthy, entrenched interests that have controlled the city for decades. That's not Chiu's style or inclination; he seems much more interested in making the system work than in changing it.

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