Does Ed Lee's recent flip-flop signal a return to the bad old days of City Hall?
EDITORIAL Mayor Ed Lee and his supporters owe San Franciscans some answers to troubling questions that the reporting of local journalists from at least four different media outlets has been raising this summer. That work — by the Guardian, Bay Citizen, San Francisco Chronicle, and San Francisco Examiner — has painted a picture of a corrupt political machine, built largely with public funds, that is acting in naked self-interest to keep Lee in Room 200.
In short, what we're seeing is a return to the bad old days of the patronage politics that was the hallmark of former Mayor Willie Brown — a key supporter of Lee — when downtown powerhouses from the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce to Pacific Gas & Electric called the shots in City Hall.
Lee needs to be honest about why he decided to run for office, something we saw no signs of during his Aug. 8 speech to journalists citing his supposed accomplishments as a reason for breaking his word. "I have been part of changing the way city government is run...Because of that change, I changed my mind," Lee said. (For video of his remarks, see the SFBG.com Politics blog).
While it is true that City Hall has been less acrimonious since the departure of former Mayor Gavin Newsom — whose combative style and a solid progressive majority on the board led to some epic conflicts — it's not like things have gotten any better for the average San Franciscan.
Today, with the progressive movement weakened by a stubborn recession and political betrayals, big business sets the agenda at City Hall more than ever. Whether it's Twitter's tax break shakedown, Oracle's seizure of prime waterfront real estate for the America's Cup, Parkmerced's demolition of rent-controlled apartments, CPMC's refusal to pay for its housing and hospital project impacts, or the relentless cutting of city services, corporations have been getting their way every single time.
Yet this very track record is cited by Lee as the reason why he broke his word and stayed in office. Both the flip-flop and its rationale should be a key campaign issues this year. But in order to have an honest public discussion about how business in being done under the dome, Lee needs to come clean about the role he's been selected to play.
Now that he's running for mayor, Lee must stop pretending that he's not connected to the recruitment effort by his closest political allies. It's illegal for him to be coordinating with the supposedly independent Progress for All group that has been waging the deceptive "Run, Ed, Run" campaign, and his blanket denials of knowing what was happening on his behalf just aren't credible. He has allowed a rising tide of sleaze to envelop the Mayor's Office.
Progress for All was coordinated by the same people who orchestrated Lee's ascension to Mayor's Office in December: Brown, Chinatown power broker Rose Pak, political consultant David Ho, and various figures associated with Chinatown Community Development Center, including its director, Gordon Chin, the leader of Progress for All.
These people are Lee's political base, people that even he admits to being in regular communication with, people whose power derives from access to the mayor and whose organizations thrive on the millions of dollars in city contracts that Lee helps steer their way. In turn, they have been turning out droves of supporters (including many who rely on CCDC for housing and services) to help put him in office and keep him there.
What we're seeing appears to be straight-forward political corruption, of the same type and involving many of the same players that we saw under Brown's tenure as mayor, corruption that was aided and abetted at the time by Lee in his capacity as public works chief and later as city administrator.
Board President David Chiu, the swing vote for putting Lee in the Mayor's Office in December (based on Lee's pledge to be a "caretaker mayor" who wouldn't run for a full term) was also a prime enabler of this coup, so there is some poetic justice in the fact that it turned on him and sabotaged his chances of becoming mayor.
It shows bad political judgment that Chiu and the other supervisors-turned-mayoral-candidates — Bevan Dufty and Michela Alioto-Pier — put Lee into office and naively ignored warnings from the Guardian, then-Sup. Chris Daly, and many others that the feel-good move was actually a corrupt power play.
Politics can be a blood sport, and we're under no illusions that politicians are noble creatures. But the simple fact is that Lee broke trust with San Francisco, gained a huge political advantage in doing so, and he now faces an uphill battle in restoring his credibility. Because the new politics he brought to City Hall look a whole lot like the old politics that the progressive movement spent the last decade trying to counter.