Chiu has done some good things, but he's still very new - and in this case, he didn't stand up to the mayor
It was not what you'd call a banner day in the big leagues. On May 12, the progressives who celebrated sweeping victories in last fall's election lost three significant battles, leaving me more than a little nervous about the upcoming epic fight over Mayor Newsom's 2009-10 budget.
In separate votes, with different members going the wrong way each time, the Board of Supervisors sided with Newsom on a private deal to build a solar-power project in the Sunset District, then approved his Muni service cuts and fare hikes.
And while the final Muni vote was going on at City Hall, the School Board was meeting nearby and voting to restore a military recruiting program to the public high schools.
This is not what any of us had in mind during last fall's campaigns.
The vote to approve the Recurrent Energy project came early in the day and left me shaking my head. The idea was fine build solar panels on the Sunset Reservoir but the contract the mayor's Public Utilities Commission put forth was full of serious problems. For starters, nobody was ever able to explain why the city never looked seriously at a way to build the project itself instead of giving the land to a private, for-profit company that will charge very high rates for the power. It was the kind of deal you'd expect the fiscal conservatives to wince at, but no: Sean Elsbernd was all in favor.
That left Ross Mirkarimi and David Campos to raise the questions about this use of public resources and public money. The problems should have been hammered out in committee, and the deal amended before it ever came to the board. But to my surprise, John Avalos voted with Carmen Chu to pass it out of Budget and Finance.
Then, again to my surprise, Eric Mar broke with the progressive bloc and sided with the Newsom camp to approve the thing.
I wasn't thrilled with the outcome, but you can't win 'em all and I figured that at least the Muni fare hikes were going down. After all, Board President David Chiu had done an outstanding job of challenging Muni on its assumptions and its spending on plans, and was leading the charge to reject the budget. Six other supervisors signed on to his move.
Then the backroom talks started right in the middle of the board meeting. The Mayor's Office offered a few tidbits, but insisted that the fare hikes and service cuts had to be passed or the entire city budget would be out of whack. And to my surprise, in the end, Chiu blinked. He voted to table his own resolution, effectively approving the Muni plan.
What was missing in all of this, I think, was visible progressive leadership. Chiu has done some good things, but he's still very new and in this case, he didn't stand up to the mayor. I think that's partially experience, learning how Newsom plays the game and realizing that you can't let him threaten you or push you around, that compromise is fine and open communications are great, but that in the end, the supervisors have to call their own shots.
And there's nobody else on this board stepping into that role right now.
The progressive majority on the board is fractious, but that's always going to be the case. The reason there's no left-wing "machine" in San Francisco, and never will be, is that people on the left are always too independent and too unwilling to be herded. There's still room, though and now, a desperate need for leadership, for someone who can be the majority whip and make sure the six votes are there when we need them.
If the progressives can't stick together on Newsom's budget, it's going to be a long, and painful, year.
I wish Mark Sanchez had decided to stay on the School Board instead of running for supervisor. He would have been re-elected, and either Jill Wynns or Rachel Norton would have lost, and this whole JROTC fiasco would never have happened.
There are plenty of problems in the schools, plenty of issues for the board to work on, and with the deep budget problems, it's going to be important for the members to work together. The decision by Wynns and Norton to dredge up a done issue and drag it back before the board was needless and wrong.
I'm way against JROTC in the schools, but even some of the people who ended up supporting it like board member Norman Yee never wanted to see it back before the board again. Now we're going to be fighting over this for months to come. There may be litigation, and it didn't need to happen.
Now any hope of finding an alternative leadership program that doesn't involve the military is gone for at least the next two years, and we're stuck with the Army as part of our high school curriculum.
Not a banner day, folks. Not a banner day. *