The past month has witnessed an extraordinary transformation in San Francisco’s political life. The closest parallel in my experience was the first month of the Agnos Administration in 1988 following nearly a decade of Dianne Feinstein, though Willie Brown’s first month on the heels of the Jordan Administration comes close. But the transformation in 2011 is not a function of new department heads or mayoral staff, but rather by the dramatic stylistic and to a lesser extent ideological differences between Ed Lee and Gavin Newsom. When added to this mayoral change is less volatile personalities on the Board of Supervisors, the results are evident: significantly better Mayor-Board working relationships, overdue legislation to help tenants displaced by fire, landmark legislation to help two economically weak neighborhoods, and an end to the ego-driven conflicts that provided spicy material for reporters but distracted from problem solving.
Ed Lee has been mayor for a month. I have yet to come across a single person who deals with City Hall who has a negative word to say about him. To the contrary, many people who never met with Gavin Newsom in the mayor’s office during his seven-year tenure have already had such a meeting with Mayor Lee.
Since his days at the Asian Law Caucus, Ed Lee has been a problem solver who never cared about publicity or credit for himself. Lee’s sense that he just wants to get things done permeates City Hall, and is the leading cause of the Glasnost-like mood
that now prevails.
We saw in negotiations around the payroll tax exemption for Mid-Market and the Uptown Tenderloin that the mayor’s office was not concerned about getting credit or retaining “ownership” of the issue. Nor were mayoral and city staff seen as pursuing Ed Lee’s political agenda, instead of promoting policies that were best for San Francisco and which strongly reflected supervisors’ input.
Lee has made it clear that collaboration rather than confrontation is the goal. And he has told this to his staff, department heads, and business interests accustomed to having the mayor automatically on their side.
Less Volatile Supervisors
The tone at City Hall has also changed due to less volatile supervisors.
The class of 2000 brought such highly volatile personalities to the Board as Chris Daly, Aaron Peskin, and Jake McGoldrick. In 2004 the extremely volatile Michela Alioto-Pier joined them.
In retrospect, we should have realized that if you put those four personalities in a room, there’s going to be a lot of shouting, name-calling and finger-pointing – both in and outside the Board chambers.
The replacement of these four by Jane Kim, David Chiu, Eric Mar and Mark Farrell –
none of whom are high-strung – has lowered tension levels. And the difference in personalities is not ideological – the ever-polite Mar is to the left of McGoldrick while retaining the respect of those with whom he disagrees, while Farrell’s political views are similar to his predecessor.
Wiener Helps Displaced Tenants
A sign of the new spirit in San Francisco is legislation introduced last week by District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener to help rent-controlled tenants displaced by fire.
If I had been asked at the start of the year which Supervisor would first introduce important rent-control legislation for tenants, Wiener would not have come to mind. Landlord groups backed him in his election campaign, while one of his opponents, Rafael Mandelman, won tenant endorsements.
Yet in the wake of the Castro district arsons, Wiener conceived legislation that is so important and so long overdue that it is hard to believe that it has not already been enacted.
The legislation enables landlords willing to act as “Good Samaritans” for fire displacees to offer rents for housing for up to two years at no more than 10% above what they paid on their former premises. So a tenant who was paying $700 for a one-bedroom could get a temporary unit for $770 rather than the nearly $1500 which is current market rents.
In exchange for this deal, the tenant’s unit will not be covered by rent control. This ensures that landlords acting as “Good Samaritans” do not have to rent a below-market unit beyond one year (the second year is by mutual agreement). This is a trade-off that everyone benefits from, and Wiener – who got a reputation for a strong work ethic during his campaign – put together the legislation within days of the Castro fires.
Wiener constantly consulted with Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenants Union and myself in drafting the legislation. He also agreed to include in the legislation a Rent Board regulation I wrote back in 1989 that ensures tenants displaced by fires or non-natural disasters have the right to return to their former housing at the same rent (unfortunately, I did not think to address the issue covered by Wiener’s legislation).
Tenants displaced from a rent-controlled unit who suffered terrible economic and social consequences due to their inability to afford a comparable temporary unit. Yet it took Wiener’s leadership and ability to work with both sides to get this legislation drafted and moving.
Wiener’s measure should pass unanimously, which would enable it to qualify for emergency legislation and to take effect in three rather than thirty days. This would be quite an achievement, as I don’t recall any pro-tenant legislation affecting rent control passing the Board in the Newsom era. And as I read the measure, it would cover tenants displaced by fires prior to the measure’s enactment, which will greatly help many who have been struggling for months.
Storm Clouds Brewing?
Some believe that the new spirit at City Hall is a false spring, and that battles over the budget will return bickering and petulance. I disagree.
In recent years, Supervisors besieged by constituent anger over proposed budget cuts were frustrated by Mayor Newsom’s seemingly digging in his heels to save his own pet spending programs, such as his five press aides, his Community Justice Center, or his duplicative Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services.
I don’t think Ed Lee has any “pet” spending agendas that he wants to battle the Board over, particularly when he knows that many of the city’s cuts will impact vital services to those in need. Mayor Lee may have some different budget priorities than the Board, but Supervisors will not feel, as they did with Newsom, that he is using the budget to build a resume for a future statewide run.
I continue to be surprised and disappointed by comments from nonprofit groups that seem oblivious
to the desperate budget times we face both locally and in Sacramento. I do not know which tax increases if any San Francisco voters would pass – last Friday State Senator Mark Leno again introduced his local vehicular license fee
that would raise $44 million for the city and seems the most likely measure to win at the polls – but none will come soon enough for the budget year starting July 1.
So those bashing Mayor Lee for “promoting” cuts that he has no choice but to make will find little public support. But avoiding bitterness and anger during this worst of all budget years will not be easy, and will be the steepest test of Lee’s vaunted skill at collaboration.
For hope and inspiration in these trying times, read Randy Shaw's Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. Shaw is also the author of The Activist’s Handbook.