Backroom Ed Lee mayoral deal raises suspicions

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Last night’s dramatic eight-hour Board of Supervisors meeting, at which six supervisors suddenly came together around naming City Administrator Ed Lee to succeed Gavin Newsom as mayor, was a classic case of backroom dealing making, the full results of which the public still doesn’t know. And it is those unknowns that have progressives rightfully pissed off and distrustful of the choice.
On the surface, both Lee and the progressives’ preferred pick, Sheriff Michael Hennessey, are similar figures who fit Newsom’s demand for a nonpolitical caretaker mayor. He has publicly said both would be acceptable, and both have some impressive progressive credentials as well.
Lee was a civil rights attorney who help run the Asian Law Caucus before being hired by then-Mayor Art Agnos as an investigator for whistleblower complaints, and he’s worked for the city ever since, serving as executive director of the Human Rights Commission and director of the Department of Public Works. Newsom moved him in the powerful post of city administrator in 2005 and he was recently approved for a second five-term for that job, unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors.
Sup. Bevan Dufty and other supervisors had even talked to Lee about being interim mayor, and he has consistently said that he didn’t want it – until a couple days ago. That’s when Newsom and the fiscal conservatives on the board suddenly coalesced around Lee, who apparently changed his mind while on a trip to China, from which he is scheduled to return on Sunday, although that might be moved up now that the board has delayed the vote choosing him until Friday afternoon.
That delay was won on a 6-5 vote, with moderate Sup. Sophie Maxwell heeding progressive requests for an opportunity to at least be able to speak with Lee before naming him the city’s 43rd mayor. “I don’t think we should make such a decision blindly,” Sup. John Avalos said.
It was a reasonable request that neither the fiscal conservatives nor Board President David Chiu, the swing vote for Lee in what his progressive supporters angrily call a betrayal, would heed. And the question is why. What exactly is going on here? Because it’s not just progressive paranoia to think that a deal has been cut to maintain the status quo in the Mayor’s Office, as Newsom’s downtown allies have desperately been seeking.
Just consider how all of this went down. Sources have confirmed for the Guardian that Chiu met with Newsom at least twice in recent days, and that Newsom offered Chiu the district attorney’s job, hoping to be able to put a fiscal conservative into the D3 seat and topple a bare progressive majority on the board. Chiu reportedly resisted the offer and tried to influence who Newsom would name to succeed him, and we’ll find out as soon as today who the new district attorney will be.
Closed door meetings also apparently yielded Lee as Newsom’s choice for successor mayor, with both Chiu and Sup. Eric Mar initially inclined to back Lee, who would be the city’s first Chinese-American mayor. After pushing his colleagues for weeks to name a new mayor, Daly tried to thwart the Lee pick by initially seeking a delay, then finally persuading Mar to go with Hennessey as his first choice.
“Politically, he will work for the other side, my progressive colleagues,” Daly said at the hearing, calling it “the biggest fumble in the history of progressive politics in San Francisco.”
As the deliberations began, Mar called Lee his mentor at the Asian Law Caucus and someone whom he respects, but that he preferred to keep Lee in his current post and to support Hennessey, who got five votes on the first round, while Lee got four, including Chiu.
Dufty – who said that he would be supportive of Hennessey for mayor – and Sup. Sophie Maxwell abstained from voting for anyone during the first round. On the second round, Maxwell went with Lee, leaving Dufty as the kingmaker. But rather than decide, he asked for a recess at 8:45 pm, and he and Maxwell went straight to Room 200 to confer with Newsom.
When the board reconvened, Dufty announced his support for Lee. Dufty denies that Newsom offered him anything, but he did confirm that Newsom indicated a preference for Lee and a willingly to help Lee return to his current post next year, which requires some tricky maneuvering around city ethics laws. Similarly, Chiu denies that his support for Lee was anything less than his unconditional preference.
But it’s hard to know. After weeks of Newsom playing games with leaving the Mayor’s Office to assume his duties at lieutenant governor (a stand egged on by his downtown allies and Chronicle editorial writers), it seems likely that Lee has given them some kind of assurance that he won’t rock the boat or side with board progressives on key issues.
Some progressives aren’t ready to accept that Lee will be our next mayor, believing that Chiu, Dufty, or Maxwell can still be shamed into changing their minds, but that seems unlikely. Instead, progressive Sups. John Avalos, David Campos, and Ross Mirkarimi just want to talk to Lee and they hope to be convinced that he’ll work cooperatively with the board and not simply be a Newsom puppet.
“I have been open and I remain open to supporting Ed Lee,” Campos said in support of the motion to continue the meeting to Friday at 3 pm, the day before the new Board of Supervisors is sworn in.
But he and the other progressives are openly questioning the Lee power play. After all, Campos said, his nomination of Hennessey was already an olive branch to Newsom’s side, saying he wasn’t the progressives’ first choice but simply the most acceptable from Newsom’s list. “It was in the spirit of one side of the political spectrum saying to the other side, ‘We want to come together,’” Campos said.
Instead, it was a backroom political deal with carried the day, a deal that Chiu went along with.
“I feel amazingly betrayed right now,” Jon Golinger, Chiu’s campaign manager, told us after the meeting. “It’s a shock…Process-wise, Ed Lee came out of nowhere.”
And that’s antithetical to the progressive values on transparency and public process. So now, it’s up to Lee, Chiu, and the other involved in this deal to fill in a few of the many blanks, and to assure the public that this choice is in the best interests of the whole city.