Progressives Stick Together to Keep Control of Board

by Paul Hogarth on January 9, 2009

There are many theories as to how David Chiu, a freshman Supervisor at his first Board meeting yesterday (and who arguably has the least City Hall experience), got six votes to become Board President. You could explain it as “sometimes, the nice guy finishes first” – as Chiu rose above many personal fights to have no real enemies. Others joked afterwards that it proves that, to be on everyone’s good side among San Francisco progressives, it pays to leave town for a while (Chiu was in Bali for several weeks – while others stayed around to jockey for the position.) All of which is amusing to speculate, but this year’s election of Board President had little to do with David Chiu – and more about keeping progressive unity in the legislative branch during tough fiscal times. It didn’t really matter who won the top spot, just as long as the Left didn’t self-destruct and hand the Board Presidency to the Mayor’s allies. As the Board looks ahead to upcoming fights (including a June special election over the budget), progressives managed to survive another personality death match – giving us hope for 2009.

For weeks, politicos fixated on the question whose answer was anyone’s guess – who would be the next Board President? Progressives had swept the three hotly contested races in November to keep their Board majority, but there wasn’t a clear consensus about who ascend to the Presidency. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi appeared at least on paper a logical choice, while Supervisor Chris Daly admitted his own elevation could risk the end of district elections. But Daly also made it clear he would not support Mirkarimi. With Sophie Maxwell having secured 5 votes out of 11, progressives had no room for error if they were to maintain the “loyal opposition” to Mayor Newsom.

Yesterday’s Board Inauguration was the most tense in six years – the last time there was a spirited fight for the Presidency (between Maxwell, Peskin and eventual winner Matt Gonzalez.) In that instance, Peskin famously dropped out and let Gonzalez ascend to the top spot – which helped pave the way for his own election two years later. As yesterday’s crowd shuffled in the Board chambers, I wondered if we’d see another repeat of this scenario.

After Superior Court Judge James McBride swore in the newly elected (and re-elected) members, Clerk Angela Calvillo opened the floor to nominations for Board President. Chris Daly was the first to make a motion, and we all expected the start of a big show-down.

To virtually everyone’s surprise, Daly nominated himself – despite having made public his preference for District 11 Supervisor John Avalos. I text-messaged a friend who was also watching the proceedings. “Chris can’t be serious,” I said in disbelief. But we all knew there would be multiple rounds of voting, and it was clearly a strategic bluff.

Bevan Dufty then nominated Maxwell, and David Campos nominated Mirkarimi. David Chiu then nominated John Avalos, who promptly returned the favor by nominating him. Who would win was still just about anyone’s guess. While Maxwell had five votes from the moderate camp (Sean Elsbernd, Michela Alioto-Pier, Carmen Chu and Dufty), now four of the six progressives were “in the running.”

On the first ballot, Mirkarimi got four votes (himself, Campos, Chiu and Mar), Avalos got two (himself and Daly) and Maxwell got five. It looked like – at least on first impression – that Daly’s opposition to Mirkarimi was more bark than bite. But on the second ballot, Chiu and Mar switched their votes to Avalos – giving him an edge among progressives over Mirkarimi.

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd then suggested that anyone who failed to get any votes on the first two ballots should withdraw (i.e., Daly and Chiu.) Daly replied he’d do so, but only if all but the top two vote-getters agreed to fold – which implicitly included Mirkarimi. If such a scenario occurred, the vote would have come down to Maxwell vs. Avalos.

But Chiu said he wasn’t ready to drop out. “I had agreed to be a consensus choice if no one else gets six votes,” he said. The third and fourth ballots continued with similar results as the first two. Avalos maintained the edge, but still no progressive had six votes.

Increasingly, the idea of a “consensus choice” had strong appeal. Progressives had been sniping for weeks about going for Mirkarimi or Avalos, with speculation about how much was political – and how much was personal. A third progressive who had played no role in this conflict (especially if he’d been out of town during much of the brouhaha) sounded like an attractive choice.

David Campos, Mirkarimi’s only colleague who had stuck with him on all four ballots, then announced he would vote for Chiu. “He has the qualities to bring people together,” said Campos. Mar seconded the motion, saying we need to “break the gridlock” – and cited the appeal of a Chinese-American Board President (the first in San Francisco history.) The Class of 2008 was finally going to take the matter into their own hands – which was a beautiful thing to watch.

On the fifth and sixth ballots, the four freshman Supervisors all voted for Chiu – while Daly and Mirkarimi each voted for themselves. At that point, Avalos announced he was going to withdraw his candidacy. On the seventh ballot, the six progressive Supervisors all voted for Chiu. When Mirkarimi cast the final vote, the room erupted in applause.

“This is a little unexpected,” said Chiu. “I would have been honored to serve under any of my colleagues.” Chiu later told me that he never campaigned for the job.

But despite all the intrigue and suspense, seven ballots is not very long for competitive Board President races. As Mayor Gavin Newsom noted after the balloting, the infamous 2003 showdown had thirteen rounds of voting. Moreover, the six progressives on the Board continuously stuck together on ballot after ballot – eventually putting aside differences to elect someone who had hardly been talked up during the weeks of machinations. They may be a dysfunctional family, but their eyes are firmly on the prize.

“We need a new tone of civility, unity and cooperation,” said Chiu. “We don’t have time for the politics of personality, while our budget deficit grows exponentially, our homicide rate goes up and our small businesses struggle.” Chiu meant these words in the context of working with the Mayor’s Office, but they applied just as well for the sake of progressive unity.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In the last election season, Paul Hogarth volunteered on David Chiu’s campaign for District 3 Supervisor in his spare time – but had no idea at the time that he was helping to elect the next Board President. He regrets missing last night’s Inaugration Festivities, as he was home nursing a bad cold.

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