The Board of Supervisors' new progressive majority won its first big vote, but rougher roads lie ahead
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The historic Jan. 8 vote electing Sup. David Chiu as president of the Board of Supervisors — rare for its elevation of a freshman to the post and unprecedented for a Chinese American — clearly illustrates the ideological breakdown of the new board.
The six supervisors who claim membership in the progressive movement (Chris Daly, Ross Mirkarimi, David Campos, John Avalos, Eric Mar, and Chiu) gave Chiu the presidency after their efforts to give it to Mirkarimi or Avalos fell short, while the other five supervisors voted for Sup. Sophie Maxwell in each of the seven rounds, refusing to support any of the progressive picks.
But there are limits to what a bare majority of supervisors can do in San Francisco, particularly when the mayor is threatening vetoes and the city is wrestling with a budget deficit of gargantuan proportions. Overriding a mayoral veto or approving some emergency measures requires eight votes.
So the first question is whether Mirkarimi and Daly can come together after their split divided progressives and led to Chiu as a compromise candidate. But the second, more important, question for progressives is whether they can attract swing votes such as Maxwell and Bevan Dufty when the need arises.
The answers to those questions could start coming immediately as supervisors consider proposals to close a looming $575 million budget gap, including the proposal for a special election on revenue measures in June. Mayor Gavin Newsom opposes that election, so the board would have to muster eight votes in the next month to move forward with it.
They might even need more than that. A confidential memo to supervisors and the mayor by the City Attorney's Office that was obtained by the Guardian sorts out the complex requirements needed to approve new taxes, including the requirement of unanimous board approval to place tax measures that can be passed with a simple majority vote on the ballot this year.
So President Chiu, who pledges to bring his colleagues together, certainly has his work cut out for him.
Achieving a unanimous vote on anything significant or controversial seems impossible right now. Mirkarimi is unhappy with Daly for thwarting his presidential ambitions; Maxwell and Dufty are unhappy with progressives for keeping her out of their club; and Chiu must quickly learn his new job during a time of unprecedented turmoil.
Chiu told his colleagues that he was "incredibly humbled" by an election that he didn't think he'd win, and said that he is "acutely aware that I am new to the institution and the body." But observers say Chiu's temperament, intelligence, and connections to both the business community and the progressive movement could serve the city well right now.
"I think Chiu is a great choice. He has the humility that will help him," outgoing Sup. Jake McGoldrick told the Guardian.
This compromise pick for president was praised by all sides, from the progressive coalition that feted him after the vote at a party at the SoMa club Temple. Rob Black, government affairs director for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, told reporters that "David seems to be someone who is very willing to listen and willing to ask questions."
"We have a progressive supervisor running the board," Mirkarimi told the Guardian as he walked back to his office following the vote. Or, as Daly told us, "In the end, the progressive coalition stuck together and I'm happy about that."
Walking back to Room 200 after the vote, Newsom told reporters that Chiu was "an outstanding choice" who represents "a fresh air of progress." Asked whether he expects to have a better working relationship with Chiu than with outgoing president Aaron Peskin, Newsom replied, "That's a gross understatement."
"We're looking forward to working with the new Board of Supervisors," Newsom spokesperson Nathan Ballard told the Guardian after the vote. "The mayor has a long relationship with David Chiu. In fact, he was on our short list to be named assessor just a few years ago."
Yet at the progressive party that night, Chiu sounded like a rock-solid member of that group, promising to help Mirkarimi with police reform, Campos with protecting undocumented city residents, Mar with strengthening city ties to the schools, and Avalos with safeguarding progressive budget priorities.
"I think this is the best outcome we could have," Mirkarimi told the Guardian shortly after Chiu was elected. "I was the deciding vote that delivered Sup. David Chiu, the first Asian American president of the board. That doesn't mean that the seasoned experience of Maxwell and myself wasn't hard to pass by."
In fact, both Dufty and Maxwell groused about the progressive bloc's opposition to Maxwell, noting her positions on issues such as public power, affordable housing, and transportation issues. "The people that voted for me did so because they felt I would at least listen to them," Maxwell told us, expressing frustration at not being accepted "by the board's progressive clique" which, she noted, "are all males."
"I think David will be great," Dufty told the Guardian. "Obviously there was a desire to have someone strongly aligned with the progressive movement. I think it's a mystery that Sophie isn't considered part of the progressive movement."
Progressives are going to have to work at resolving those differences if they are going to play a leadership role in the midyear budget cuts and prevent an expansion of the bloc of five supervisors who stuck with Maxwell and often align with the mayor.
"There has been tension between Ross and myself, but also between Sophie and Ross," Daly told us. "Sophie is feeling that she might be a progressive, too. And some of the things we do on the board need eight votes. The rift between Ross and I is little. The real question is, when do we get Bevan and Sophie back?"
After fending off a progressive challenger in his reelection bid two years ago, Dufty seemed to move to the left, only to return to Newsom's centrist faction — which mixes social liberalism with fiscal conservatism — in the last year. He prevented progressives from being able to override a mayoral veto of their decision to cancel $1 million in funding to Newsom's Community Justice Center. And on Jan. 6, the old board delayed a vote on a mayoral veto of an ordinance that amends the Planning Code to require Conditional Use hearings and permits for any elimination of existing dwelling units through mergers, conversions, or demolitions of residential units, something sought by the tenant groups that are an important part of the progressive coalition.
Those issues, and the thicket that is the budget debate, illustrate what Daly admitted to us last week: "We can't run this city with six votes."
The most pressing problem facing the new board is the budget, which requires $125 million in midyear cuts for the current fiscal year and will be an estimated $575 million out of balance for the fiscal year that begins in June. Chiu's first move to deal with it — one lauded by progressives — was to name Avalos as budget chair.
"John Avalos has more experience on budget issues than me," Daly, who chaired the Budget Committee for two years, said of his former board aide. But even Avalos was awestruck by the tsunami of bad budget news hitting the city, telling us, "I was visibly shaken."
Mirkarimi and Elsbernd, the Budget Committee's two other current members, also admit they face a daunting task.
"We can't put a Band-Aid on the problem," Elsbernd told the board last week. "This is not just about San Francisco now, but about San Francisco 20 years from now. We need to think about the next generation."
Mirkarimi agrees with Elsbernd, at least in terms of the enormity of the problem.
"We cannot be incrementalist. We can't dance around the edges," Mirkarimi told his colleagues, shortly after making the surprise announcement that he's expecting a child in April with Venezuelan soap opera star Eliana López, who he's dated since meeting her last year at a Green Party conference in Brazil. Elsbernd and his wife are also expecting their first child.
Progressives strongly argue that such a large budget deficit can't be closed with spending cuts alone, so one of Peskin's final acts was to create legislation calling a special election for June 2 and having supervisors hold hearings over the next month to choose from a variety of revenue measures, but Newsom and the business community opposed the move.
"Basically, it's not fully baked. It will take a citywide coalition (à la Prop. A) to win something like this and the coalition just hasn't been built yet," Ballard told the Guardian. Even Mirarimi echoed the sentiment, telling the Guardian, "I'm not opposed to a June election, but you can't put something on the June ballot that's half-baked because I doubt we could win in November if we put something half-baked on in June. My preference is that we work harder to create alliances to assure a healthy chance of getting something on the ballot and delivering a victory."
Yet many progressives and labor leaders say it's important to bring in new revenue as soon as possible, particularly because the cuts required by the current budget deficit would slash about half the city's discretionary spending and devastate important initiatives like offering health coverage to all San Franciscans.
"For Healthy San Francisco to survive, the Department of Public Health has to have a minimum level of funding," said Robert Haaland, a labor representative with the public employee union SEIU Local 1021. "Given the cuts that have been proposed, it's not going to survive."
While Peskin was criticized for acting prematurely, the City Attorney's Office memo indicated that he couldn't have waited and still allowed supervisors to play the lead role in determining what ended up on the June ballot. The memo was requested by Daly.
"In response to your specific inquiry about maximizing the amount of time a committee could deliberate the underlying measures and ensuring that the Board would have enough time to override a Mayoral veto, the emergency ordinance and the resolution calling for the special election should be introduced today," the City Attorney's Office wrote Jan. 6, the day Peskin introduced his revenue package.
Even then, supervisors would need to vote to waive certain election procedures, such as the 30-day hold for proposed ballot measures, and to move expeditiously forward with hearings, selection of the tax measures, and preparation of findings related to the special election and declaration of fiscal emergency.
The City Attorney's Office wrote that the package needs final approval by Feb. 17. "We recommend that to meet this deadline, the Board adopt the resolution at its January 27 meeting and that the Mayor sign the resolution no earlier than February 2," they wrote.
But Newsom has indicated that he would veto it, thus requiring eight supervisors to override. "Aaron had the right to do what he did, but in some ways he rushed the discussion, so it's been a bit rockier than it otherwise might have been," Dufty told us, noting that he's still open to supporting a June ballot measure. "There is no way to avoid spending cuts, and we need more revenues and more givebacks from public employees ... I think labor is spending a significant amount of time with the mayor, and he's making a strong effort to work with the board. I'm trying to encourage us all to work together to the maximum extent possible."
In fact, San Francisco Labor Council director Tim Paulson told the Guardian he couldn't talk about the tax measures yet because of intense ongoing discussions. Ballard said Newsom might be open to tax measures in November, telling the Guardian, "Ideally we could do it all by streamlining government, reducing spending, etc. But the mayor lives in the real world and so he is open to the possibility of a revenue measure with a broad base of support."
So, can the new board president help coalesce the broad base of support that he'll need to avoid cuts that would especially hurt the progressive base of unions, tenants, social service providers, affordable housing activists, and others who believe that government plays an important role in addressing social problems and inequities?
"In light of the global meltdown, national slowdown, local crisis, and largest budget deficit in history, I believe this board understands the importance of unity and working together," Chiu told his colleagues. "We don't have time for the politics of personality when we have the highest murder rate in 10 years, when businesses are failing, and the budget deficit grows exponentially."