Behind today's unanimous vote for Chiu

Newly elected and re-elected supervisors take their oath of office.
Steven T. Jones

For all the high-minded talk about diversity and working together on behalf of the public – and the relentless praising of their political colleagues and supporters – today's unanimous re-election of David Chiu as president of the Board of Supervisors once again demonstrated that much of the people's business is done behind closed doors.

As most of the supervisors acknowledged publicly or in comments to the Guardian, in recent days there was a flurry of meetings about the president vote among the supervisors, despite the prohibition in the state's Brown Act against “seriatim meetings,” in which elected officials have serial meetings with each other until an quorum of supervisors has illegally discussed some topic.

How else could Malia Cohen, Jane Kim, and Scott Wiener – all hopefuls for the president's seat who withdrew themselves from consideration before a vote was cast – have all known that Chiu had the votes he needed to win an unprecedented third consecutive term? But they did know, as they all told the Guardian.

“The reality was the support wasn't there,” Cohen told reporters after the vote when asked why she withdrew her nomination just before the supervisors were about to vote, just after Kim had done the same thing, leaving Chiu as the sole nominee.

I asked whether she was promised anything in return for withdrawing from consideration, and Cohen said, “There's always negotiations involved in everything, from committee assignments to appointment to regional bodies...The full story will come out later.”

Cohen even obliquely suggested that Chiu – who is known to have his sights set on Tom Ammiano's Assembly seat, which comes open in two years – may not serve his full two years as president and that was part of the backroom discussions. In the more immediate future, Cohen said she wants to serve on the Land Use Committee, so don't be surprised if Chiu appoints her as chair of that powerful body.

“It may seem like a small setback today, but it sets the stage for greater conversations going forward,” Cohen said of her decision to voluntarily step down.

Kim also told reporters that she knew Chiu had the votes – saying “we know there was broad support for David for another term” – and that the decision that she and Cohen made to nominate one another was mostly symbolic, intended to make a point about the need for women of color to be in leadership positions: “I thought it was important that we put the dialogue out there.”

Kim said she really appreciated the opportunity to speak with more fellow supervisors privately in the last few days than she had before. “All of this was last minute. There were really only discussions in the last three days,” Kim told me. “I got a good sense of people's policies and priorities.” As for Kim's priorities, she said she wants to serve on the Budget Committee, so don't be surprised when Chiu names her as chair.

Wiener also told me that he realized a couple days ago that he didn't have the votes but that Chiu did. “It would have been an honor to serve as board president, but it wasn't in the cards,” Wiener said.

Some of what the cards showed was made clear as the nominations for president opened today and new Dist. 7 Sup. Norman Yee spoke first and nominated Chiu, thus making it clear that Kim probably didn't have the six votes she needed. As former Sup. Chris Daly, a veteran vote counter, told me, “Norman Yee and Eric Mar could have made Jane Kim board president. They were the deciding bloc, but it would taken both of them.”

Yet Mar told us that he was caught off guard by how the voting unfolded today. “I was surprised that people dropped out before the vote,” he told me.

Yet he acknowledged that it was perhaps a smart move by the progressive supervisors, who voted against Chiu two years ago and were punished with bad committee assignments, to instead get behind Chiu now and hand him a unanimous victory.

“I think that was the hope when people dropped out. It would have been hard if they didn't, but these negotiations [with Chiu over committee assignments] will go on over the next few days,” Mar said, noting that he will push for strong representation by supporters of labor and other progressive constituencies on key committees.

Asked about his negotiations with fellow supervisors, Chiu would only say, “My conversation with everyone was very consistent.” As for his pending decision on committee assignments, he told me, “We have a board that is very diverse and we'll have committees that reflect that.”

During his speech in Board Chambers, Chiu talked about running the board in a way that would let each supervisor have her/his moments in the spotlight to provide leadership on issues they care about, comparing it to the San Francisco Giants and the contributions that so many players made to their World Series sweep.

“They took turns making the big plays,” Chiu said, going on to tick off the list of how he'll help his colleagues shine. “Whether it's Sup. Mar advocating for a healthy environment, Sup. Farrell addressing out looming health care costs, whether it's Sup. Chu disciplining our budget, Sup. Breed getting the jobs that young people need, Sup. Kim making sure that all our kids graduate, Sup. Yee making sure that small businesses succeed, Sup. Wiener fighting for better transportation options, Sup. Campos fighting against wage theft, or Sup. Cohen curbing gun violence, and Sup. Avalos delivering on local hire, by the end of our season, if we're going to help each other succeed in getting these things done, we are all going to win.”