The Guardian hasn't been invited into City Hall's Room 200 for a long time. Former Mayor Gavin Newsom, who frequently criticized this newspaper in his public statements, had a tendency to freeze out his critics, adopting a supercilious and vinegary attitude toward any members of the press who questioned his policy decisions. So it was almost surreal when a smiling Mayor Ed Lee cordially welcomed two Guardian reporters into his stately office Feb. 15.
Lee says he plans to open his office to a broader cross-section of the community, a move he described as a way of including those who previously felt left out. Other changes have come, too. He's replaced Newsom's press secretary, Tony Winnicker, with Christine Falvey, former communications director at the Department of Public Works (DPW). He's filled the Mayor's Office with greenery, including giant tropical plants that exude a calming green aura, in stark contrast to Newsom — whose own Room 200 was sterile and self-aggrandizing, including a portrait of Robert Kennedy, in whose footsteps Newsom repeatedly claimed to walk.
When it comes to policy issues, however, some expect to see little more than business-as-usual in the Mayor's Office. Democratic Party chair Aaron Peskin, a progressive stalwart, said he sees no substantive changes between the new mayor and his predecessor. "It seems to me that the new administration is carrying forward the policies of the former administration," Peskin said. "I see no demonstrable change. And that makes sense. Lee was Willie Brown and former Mayor Gavin Newsom's handpicked successor. So he's dancing with the guys that brought him in."
Sup. David Campos, viewed as part of the city's progressive camp along with Peskin, took a more diplomatic tack. "So far I've been very pleased with what I've seen," Campos noted. "I really appreciate that he's reached out to the community-based organizations and come out to my district and done merchant walks. I think we have to wait to see what he does on specific policy issues."
But while Lee has already garnered a reputation for being stylistically worlds apart from Newsom, he still hews close to his predecessor's policies in some key areas. In our interview, Lee expressed an unwillingness to consider tax-revenue measures for now, but said he was willing to take condo conversions into consideration as a way to bring in cash. He was unenthusiastic about community choice aggregation and dismissive of replacing Pacific Gas & Electric Co. with a public-power system. He hasn't committed to overturning the pending eviction of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council's recycling center, and he continued to argue for expanding Recology's monopoly on the city's $206 million annual trash stream, despite a recent Budget and Legislative Analyst' report that recommended putting the issue to the voters.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who met Lee in 1980 through the Asian Law Caucus, said Lee would be facing steep challenges. "It's a fascinating political karmic outcome that he is now our appointed mayor. He didn't seek it out, as he says, but the opportunity he has now is to focus his efforts on fixing some of the problems that have gone unaddressed for decades, pension reform being one of them. I think he realizes he has a limited time to achieve things of value. The question I and others have is, can he do it?"
Lee identified as a non-politician, patently rejecting the notion that he would enter the race for mayor. In meetings with members of the Board of Supervisors at the end of 2010, he said he didn't want the job.
Yet while vacationing in Hong Kong, Lee became the subject of a full-court press. "When the lobbying and phone calls started ... clearly they meant a lot to me," Lee told us, adding that the choice "was very heavy on my mind." He finally relented, accepting the city's top post.
Although rumors had been circulating that Lee might seek a full term, he told the Guardian he's serious about serving as a caretaker mayor. "If I'm going to thrust all my energy into this, I don't need to have to deal with ... a campaign to run for mayor."
Adachi offered an interesting take on Lee as caretaker: "Somewhere along the way, [Lee] became known as the go-to guy in government who could take care of problems," Adachi said, "like the Wolf in Pulp Fiction."
Sounding rather unlike Harvey Keitel's tough-talking character, Lee noted, "One of my goals is to rebuild the trust between the Mayor's Office and the Board of Supervisors. I think I can do that by being consistent with the promises I make."
Lee's vows to keep his promises, mend rifts with the board, and stay focused on the job could be interpreted as statements intended to set him apart from Newsom, who was frequently criticized for being disengaged during his runs for higher office, provoking skirmishes with the board, and going back on his word.
The new mayor also said he'd be willing to share his working calendar with the public, something Newsom resisted for years. Kimo Crossman, a sunshine advocate who was part of a group that began submitting requests for Newsom's calendar in 2006, greeted this news with a wait-and-see attitude. "I've already put in a request," Crossman said. "Politicians are always in support of sunshine — until they have to comply with it."
Pointing to the tropical elephant-ear plants adorning his office, Lee noted that elephants are considered lucky in Chinese culture. With the monstrous issues of pension reform and a gaping budget deficit hitting his mayoral term like twin tornadoes, it might not hurt to have some extra luck.
Pension reform is emerging as the issue du jour in City Hall. A round of talks on how to turn the tide on rising pension costs has brought labor representatives, Sup. Sean Elsbernd, billionaire Warren Hellman, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, labor leaders, and others to the table as part of a working group.
Gabriel Haaland, who works for SEIU Local 1021, sounded a positive note on Lee. "He's an extraordinarily knowledgeable guy about government. He seems to have a very collaborative working style and approach to problem-solving, and he is respectful of differing opinions," Haaland said. "Where is it going to take us? I don't know yet."
Lee emphasized his desire to bring many stakeholders together to facilitate agreement. "We're talking about everything from limiting pensionable salaries, to fixing loopholes, to dealing with what kinds of plans we can afford in the health care arena," he noted. Lee said the group had hashed out 15 proposals so far, which will be vetted by the Controller's Office.
A central focus, Lee said, has been "whether we've come to a time to recognize that we have to cap pensions." That could mean capping a pension itself, he said, or limiting how much of an employee's salary can be counted toward his or her pension.
Since Lee plans to resume his post as city administrator once his mayoral term has ended, he added a personal note: "I want to go back to my old job, do that for five years, and have a pension that is respectable," he said. "At the same time, I feel others who've worked with me deserve a pension. I don't want it threatened by the instability we're headed toward and the insolvency we're headed toward."
If pension reform is shaping up to be the No. 1 challenge of Lee's administration, tackling the city budget is a close second. When Newsom left office, he passed Lee a budget memo containing instructions for a 2.5 percent reduction in most city departments, part of an overarching plan to shave 10 percent from all departments plus another 10 percent in contingency cuts, making for a bruising 20 percent.
Lee said his budget strategy is to try to avert what Sup. David Chiu once characterized as "the typical Kabuki-style budget process" that has pitted progressives against the mayor in years past. That means sitting down with stakeholders early.
"I have opened the door of this office to a number of community groups that had expressed a lot of historical frustration in not being able to express to the mayor what they feel the priorities of their communities are," Lee said. "I've done that in conjunction with members of the Board of Supervisors, who also felt that they weren't involved from the beginning."
Affordable-housing advocate Calvin Welch said Lee's style is a dramatic change. "I think he's probably equaled the total number of people he's met in six weeks with the number that Newsom met in his seven years as mayor," Welch said.
Sup. Carmen Chu, recently installed as chair of the Budget & Finance Committee, predicted that the budget will still be hard to balance. "We are still grappling with a $380 million deficit," Chu told us, noting that there are some positive economic signs ahead, but no reason to expect a dramatic improvement. "We're been told that there is $14 million in better news. But we still have the state budget to contend with, and who knows what that will look like."
Sup. John Avalos, the former chair of the Board's powerful Budget Committee, said he thinks the rubber hasn't hit the road yet on painful budget decisions that seem inevitable this year — and the outcome, he said, could spell a crashing halt to Ed Lee's current honeymoon as mayor.
"We are facing incredible challenges," Avalos said, noting that he heard that labor does not intend to open up its contracts, which were approved in 2010 for a two-year period. And federal stimulus money has run out.
Asked whether he supported new revenue measures as a way to fill the budget gap, Lee initially gave an answer that seemed to echo Newsom's inflexible no-new-taxes stance. "I'm not ready to look at taxes yet," he said.
He also invoked an idea that Newsom proposed during the last budget cycle, which progressives bitterly opposed. In a conversation with community-based organizations about "unpopular revenue-generating ideas," Lee cautioned attendees that "within the category of unpopular revenue-generating ideas are also some that would be very unpopular to you as well."
Asked to explain, Lee answered: "Could be condo conversion. Could be taxes. I'm not isolating any one of them, but they are in the category of very unpopular revenue-generating ideas, and they have to be carefully thought out before we determine that they would be that seriously weighed."
Ted Gullicksen, who runs the San Francisco Tenants Union, said tenant advocates have scheduled a meeting with Lee to talk about condo conversions. Thanks to Prop. 26's passage in November 2010, he said, any such proposal would have to be approved by two-thirds of the board or the voters. "It's pretty clear that any such measure would not move forward without support from all sides," Gullicksen said. "If anyone opposes it, it's going to go nowhere."
Gullicksen said he'd heard that Lee is willing to look at the possibility of significant concessions to renter groups in an effort to broker a condo conversion deal, such as a moratorium on future condo conversions. "If, for example, 1,000 TICs [tenants-in-common] became condos under the proposal, then we'd need a moratorium for five years to minimize and mitigate the damages," Gullicksen explained.
More important, some structural reform of TIC conversions may be on the table, Gullicksen said. "And that would be more important than keeping existing TICs from becoming condos."
Gullicksen acknowledged that Lee has the decency to talk to all the stakeholders. "Newsom never attempted to talk to tenants advocates," he said.
Lee's two children are in their early 20s, and the mayor said he takes seriously the goal of being proactive on environmental issues in order to leave them with a more sustainable San Francisco. He trumpeted the city's green achievements, saying, "We're now on the cutting edge of environmental goals for the city."
Leading bicycle activist Leah Shahum of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition had praise for Lee on bike issues. "I'm really encouraged by his very public support of the new green separate bikeways on Market Street and his interest and commitment to creating more," she said. "I believe Mayor Lee sees the value of connecting the city with cross town bicycle lanes, which serve a wide range of folks, including business people and families."
Yet some proponents of green causes are feeling uncertain about whether their projects will advance under Lee's watch.
On the issue of community choice aggregation (CCA), the ambitious green-energy program that would transfer Pacific Gas & Electric Co. customers to a city-run program with a cleaner energy mix, Lee — who helped determine rates as city administrator — seemed lukewarm. "I know Mr. [Ed] Harrington and his staff just want to make sure it's done right," he said, referring to the general manager of the city's Public Utilities Commission, whose tepid attitude toward the program has frequently driven him to lock horns with the city's chief CCA proponent, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi.
Lee noted that CCA program goals were recently scaled back. He also said pretty directly that he opposes public power: "We're not in any day getting rid of PG&E at all. I don't think that is the right approach."
The controversial issue of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council Recycling Center's pending eviction from Golden Gate Park still hangs in the balance. The Recreation and Park Commission, at Newsom's behest, approved the eviction despite overwhelming community opposition.
Lee said he hadn't looked at the issue closely. "I do know that there's a lot of strong debate around the viability, what that operation attracts and doesn't attract," he said. "I had the owner of HANC here along with a good friend, Calvin Welch, who made a plea that I think about it a bit. I agreed that I would sit down and talk with what I believe to be the two experts involved in that decision: Melanie Nutter at the Department of the Environment and then Phil Ginsburg at the Rec and Park." Nutter and Ginsburg supported HANC's eviction.
Welch, who is on the board of HANC, noted that Lee could be swayed by his staff. "The bunch around Newsom had old and bad habits, and old and bad policies. In dealing with mayors over the years, I know how dependent they are on their staff. They're in a bubble, and the only way out is through a good staff. Otherwise, Lee will come to the same conclusions as Newsom."
HANC's Jim Rhoads told the Guardian he isn't feeling reassured. "He said he would keep asking people about it. Unfortunately, if he asked his own staff, it would be a problem because they're leftovers from Newsom."
Speaking of leftovers, Lee also weighed in on the debate about the city's waste-management contract — and threw his support behind the existing private garbage monopoly. Campos is challenging a perpetual waste-hauling contract that Recology has had with the city since 1932, calling instead for a competitive-bidding process. When the Department of the Environment recommended awarding the city's landfill disposal contract to Recology last year, it effectively endorsed a monopoly for the company over managing the city's entire waste stream, at an estimated value of $206 million per year.
The final decision to award the contract was delayed for two months at a February Budget & Finance Committee hearing. Campos is contemplating putting the issue to the voters this fall, provided he can find six votes on the Board.
"I know that Sup. Campos had given his policy argument for why he wants that revisited," Lee said. "I have let him know that the Recology company in its various forms has been our very dependable garbage-hauling company for many, many decades. ... I feel that the company has justified its privilege to be the permit holder in San Francisco because of the things that it has been willing to do with us. Whether or not we want to use our time today to revisit the 1932 ordinance, for me that wouldn't be a high priority."
In the last week of 2010, Avalos pushed through groundbreaking local-hire legislation, without the support of then Mayor Gavin Newsom or his chief of staff, Steve Kawa, who wanted Avalos to back off and let Newsom takeover the task.
With Lee now in Room 200, things appear to be moving forward on local hire, in face of misleading attacks from Assemblymember Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), who wants to make sure no state money is used on local-hire projects, presumably because the building trades are upset by it. And Kawa, whom Lee has retained as chief of staff, doesn't really support the legislation. Indeed, Kawa's presence in the Mayor's Office has his detractors believing that the new boss in Room 200 is really the same as the old boss.
"I feel like things are moving forward in the right direction around local hire, though a little more quietly than I'd like," Avalos told the Guardian. Avalos noted that he is going to hold a hearing in March on implementing the legislation that should kick in March 25.
Welch said he believes that if Lee starts replacing staff wholesale, it could indicate two things: he's a savvy guy who understands the difficulties of relying on Newsom's chief of staff Steve Kawa for a budget, and he's not ruling out a run for mayor.
"If I was in his position, the first thing out of my mouth would be, 'I'm not running.' I think he's very focused in the budget. And it's going to make or break him. But if he starts overriding Kawa and picks staff who represent him ... well, then I'd revisit the question of whether he's contemplating a run for mayor, say, around June."