Supervisors survey the tricky path to Room 200
Despite the best efforts of Sup. Chris Daly and some of his progressive colleagues to create an orderly transfer of authority in the city's most powerful office, the selection of a successor to Mayor Gavin Newsom will come down to a frantic, unpredictable, last-minute drama starting a few days into the new year.
The board has convened to hear public testimony and consider choosing a new mayor three times, each time delaying the decision with little discussion by any supervisor except Daly, who pleaded with his colleagues on Dec. 14 to "Say something, the people deserve it," and asking, "Are we going to take our charge?"
The current board will get one more crack at making the decision Jan. 4, a day after the California Constitution calls for Newsom to assume his duties as lieutenant governor — although Newsom has threatened to delay his swearing-in so Daly and company don't get to the make the decision.
"I can't just walk away and see everything blow up. And there are a few politicians in this town that want to serve an ideological agenda," Newsom told KCBS radio reporter Barbara Taylor on Dec. 16, two days after praising the board for its "leadership and stewardship" in revising and unanimously approving the city's bid to host the America's Cup.
Newsom and his fiscally conservative political base fear that the board's progressive majority will nominate one of its own as mayor, whereas Newsom told Taylor, "The board should pick a caretaker and not a politician — that's my criteria."
Some board members strongly disagree. "It's not his to decide. Besides, what's not ideological? That doesn't make sense. Everyone's ideological," Sup. John Avalos told the Guardian, a point echoed by other progressives on the board and even many political moderates in town, who privately complain that Newsom's stand is hypocritical, petty, and not in the city's best interests.
The Guardian has interviewed a majority of members of the Board of Supervisors about the mayoral succession question, and all expect the board to finally start discussing mayoral succession and making nominations on Jan. 4.
But whether the current board, or the newly elected board that is sworn in on Jan. 8, ultimately chooses the new mayor is anyone's guess. And at Guardian press time, who that new mayor will be (and what conditions that person will agree to) was still a matter of wild speculation, elaborate conspiracy theories, and backroom deal making.
A majority of supervisors say there's a simple reason why the board hasn't seriously discussed mayoral succession since it unanimously approved the procedures for doing so Nov. 23 (see "The process begins," Nov. 30). Everyone seems to know that nobody has the required six votes.
Avalos said he thinks the current board is better situated to choose the new mayor because of its experience, even though he voted for the delay on Dec. 14 (in an 8-3 vote, with Daly and Sups. Ross Mirkarimi and David Campos in dissent). "I supported the delay because we were not closer to having a real discussion about it than we were the week before," Avalos told us, noting that those who were pushing for Campos "didn't do enough to broaden the coalition to support David Campos."
For his part, Campos agreed that "the progressive majority has not figured out what it wants to do yet," a point echoed by Mirkarimi: "I don't think there's a plan." Sup. Sophie Maxwell, who made both the successful motions to delay the vote, told us, "There's a lot more thinking that people need to do."
"We do not yet have consensus," Chiu said of his reasons for supporting the delay, noting that state conflict-of-interest and open government laws also make it difficult for the board to have a frank discussion about who the new mayor should be.
For example, Chiu is barred from even declaring publicly that he wants the job and describing how he might lead, although he is widely known to be in the running.
The board can't officially name a new mayor until the office is vacant. Sup. Bevan Dufty, who is already running for mayor, told us the board should wait for Newsom to act. "I felt the resignation should be in effect before the board makes a move," Dufty said.
Sups. Sean Elsbernd, Carmen Chu, Michela Alioto-Pier, and Eric Mar did not return the Guardian's calls for comment.
Adding to the drama of the mayoral succession decision will be the new Board of Supervisors' inaugural meeting on Jan. 8, when the first order of business will be the vote for a new board president, who will also immediately become acting mayor if the office has been vacated by then and the previous board hasn't chosen a new mayor.
While Newsom and his downtown allies are clearly banking on the hope that the new board will select a politically moderate caretaker mayor, something that three of the four new supervisors say they want (see "Class of 2010," Dec. 8), the reality is that the new board will have the same basic ideological breakdown as the current board and some personal relationships that could benefit progressives Chiu and Avalos.
Daly said downtown is probably correct that the current board is more likely than the new one to directly elect a progressive mayor who might run for the office in the fall, such as Campos or former board President Aaron Peskin. But he thinks the new board is likely to elect a progressive as president, probably Campos, Chiu, or Avalos, and that person could end up lingering as acting mayor indefinitely.
"They really haven't thought through Jan. 8. Downtown doesn't like to gamble, and I think it's a gamble," Daly said. "There's a decent chance that we'll get a more progressive mayor out of the leadership vote for board president."
Avalos said it "would be a disaster" for the board president to linger as acting mayor for a long time, complicating the balance of power at City Hall. But he wouldn't mind holding the board gavel. "I think I would do a good job as board president, but I'm not going to scratch and claw my way to be board president," Avalos said. "I'd be just as happy to be chair of the Budget Committee again."
Avalos said he thinks it's important to have a mayor who is willing to work closely with board progressives and to support new revenues as part of the budget solution, which is why he would be willing to support Chiu, Campos, or Mirkarimi for mayor, saying "All of them could do a good job."
Given the progressive majority on the board, it's also possible that there will be a lingering standoff between supporters for Chiu, a swing vote in budget and other battles who has yet to win the full confidence of all the progressive supervisors, and former Mayor Art Agnos, who has offered to serve as a caretaker. Some see Agnos as more progressive than the other alternatives pushed by moderates, including Sheriff Michael Hennessey and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission head Ed Harrington.
Moderates like Dufty are hopeful that a couple of progressives might break off to support Hennessey ("From the first minute, he knows everything you'd need to know in an emergency situation," Dufty said) or Harrington ("I could see him stepping in and closing the budget deficit and finding a good compromise on pension reform," Dufty said) after a few rounds of voting.
Mirkarimi is openly backing Agnos. "He has evolved, as I've known him, in the days since being mayor," Mirkarimi said. "I think we've spent too much time on finding the progressive guy to be mayor than on setting up what a progressive caretaker administration would look like." And then there are the wild cards, like state Sen. Mark Leno and City Attorney Dennis Herrera. Herrera's a declared candidate and Leno has made it clear that he'd take the job if it were offered to him.
Given the fact that supervisors can't vote for themselves, it's difficult for any of them to win. "I don't think it's likely that a member of the Board of Supervisors will get enough votes to be mayor," Avalos told us, although he said that Chiu is the one possible exception.
But to get to six votes, Chiu would have to have most of the progressive supervisors supporting him and some moderates, such as D10 Supervisor-elect Malia Cohen (whom Chiu endorsed), D8's Scott Wiener, and/or Chu (who might be persuaded to help elect the city's first Chinese American mayor).
That would be a delicate dance, although it's as likely as any of the other foreseeable scenarios.