Chiu: centrist compromiser, effective legislator, or both

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David Chiu

At the start of this year, when I wrote a Guardian cover story profile of Sup. Scott Wiener (which SF Weekly and San Francisco Magazine followed shortly thereafter with their own long Wiener profiles), he seemed like the one to watch on the Board of Supervisors, even though I noted at the time that Board President David Chiu was actually the more prolific legislator.

Now, it's starting to seem like maybe we all focused on the wrong guy, because it is Chiu and his bustling office of top aides that have done most of the heavy legislative lifting this year, finding compromise solutions to some of the most vexing issues facing the city (ironically, even cleaning up some of Wiener's messes).

The latest example is Wiener's CEQA reform legislation, which the board unanimously approved on July 23, a kumbaya moment that belies the opposition and acrimony that accompanied its introduction.

That effort comes on the heels of Chiu's office solving another big, ugly, seemingly intractable fight: the condominium lottery bypass legislation sponsored by Wiener and Sup. Mark Farrell. To solve that one in the face of real estate industry intransigence, Chiu showed a willingness to play hardball, winning over swing vote Sup. Norman Yee to get six votes using some hostile amendments.

In the end, Chiu won enough support to override a possible veto by the waffling Mayor Ed Lee, who has always echoed Chiu's rhetoric on seeking compromise and consensus and "getting things done," but who lacks the political skills and willingness to really engage with all sides. For example, it was Chiu — along with Sups. Farrell and David Campos — who spent months forging a true compromise on the hospital projects proposed by California Pacific Medical Center, replacing the truly awful CPMC proposal that Lee readily accepted.

"It's been a very long year," Chiu told the Guardian. "It's been important for me to not just to seek common ground, but legislative solutions that reflect our shared San Francisco values."

Next, Chiu will wade into another thorny legislative thicket by introducing legislation that will regulate the operations of Airbnb, the online housing rental corporation with a problematic business model.

After posting the preceding analysis of Chiu on the SFBG.com Politics blog on July 23, we heard lots of back channel concerns and complaints from progressive San Franciscans (and even some from moderates and conservatives who consider Chiu a raving socialist for helping suspend the condo lottery).

Nobody really wanted to speak on the record against Chiu, which is understandable given the powerful and pivotal position that he's carved out for himself as a swing vote between the two ideological poles and on the Land Use Committee, whose makeup he personally created to enhance that role.

The main issue seems to be that Chiu allows both progressive and anti-progressive legislation to be watered down until it is palatable to both sides, empowering the moderates over the progressives. That's a legitimate point. It's certainly true that Chiu's worldview is generally more centrist than that of the Guardian and its progressive community, and we've leveled that criticism at Chiu many times over the years.

The fact that he ends up in a deciding role on controversial legislation is clearly a role that Chiu has carved out from himself, no doubt about it. And that's certainly why he played the pivotal role that he has this year. But when he uses that role to empower and support tenant groups, as he did on the condo lottery bypass measure, I think that's something worth noting and praising.