Rejecting entreaties from his longtime Chinatown supporters that he appoint Planning Commission President Cindy Wu, Mayor Ed Lee instead selected Julie Christensen to fill David Chiu’s District 3 seat. Christensen has done no work in Chinatown. Her selection represents a major victory for the real estate industry, which vigorously backed her while mobilizing against the pro-tenant Wu.
I explain below why the Mayor made this appointment. He is likely to regret this choice.
As I stated in my December 15 article urging Lee to appoint Wu and in my political predictions piece this week, Wu was the only Lee appointee who could win in the fall election. I previously assumed that any other choice would lose to Peskin ally Jon Golinger. But now Aaron Peskin himself plans to run against Christensen, and will formally announce his campaign as early as Friday.
Yes, it’s true. By appointing Christensen, Lee resurrected the political career of the San Francisco Chronicle’s go-to guy for negative quotes about the mayor. Lee has also done what previously seemed impossible: he has reconnected Chinatown tenant activists to a former supervisor (Peskin) whose opposition to the mayor had alienated him from his onetime Chinatown base.
That’s what’s called a lose lose for a mayor who in a single day unleashed opposition political forces that had lain dormant since Mark Leno’s announced withdrawal from the mayor’s race.
Peskin immediately becomes the favorite to win in D3. He has the backing of 8 Washington opponents (D3 strongly opposed the project) as well as nearly all voters concerned about protecting tenants.
D3 has roughly 29,000 tenant voters and 7000 Chinese-American voters; Cindy Wu’s strength among both constituencies made her the clear favorite in a fall campaign against Peskin or any other candidate. But many of these Chinese-American and tenant voters who would have been with Wu will now back Peskin against Christensen.
Christensen was a vocal opponent of Prop G, which sought to stop speculator evictions. If she has ever worked to pass tenant ballot measures or pro-tenant legislation, that’s news to me.
In contrast, Aaron Peskin was a strong tenant advocate on the Board. He was a very close ally of the late Ted Gullicksen and other tenant activists during his eight year term. Regardless of how Christensen votes in the next ten months, Peskin will be the candidate who tenant voters in D3 most trust.
Peskin also had a solid record representing Chinatown’s interests. While Mayor Lee remains hugely popular in Chinatown, those believing the strong Lee re-election margin in November will spill over to elect Christensen are in for a surprise. Peskin should defeat Christensen both in D3 and in the neighborhood where the mayor got his start.
So those patting themselves on the back for convincing Mayor Lee to bypass Wu for Christensen can soon take credit for returning the mayor’s most politically savvy opponent to the center of power in San Francisco.
Why Lee Picked Christensen
Lee chose Christensen for one overwhelming reason: loyalty. After being burned when his D5 appointee voted to reinstate Ross Mirkarimi, the mayor wanted to make 100% certain that his D3 appointee would back him on key issues.
I have no problem with such loyalty demands of appointees. Nor did Cindy Wu. While her views sufficiently coincide with the mayor’s that a difference on key issues was unlikely, she completely accepted that should a difference arise she was obligated to vote as the mayor sought. After all, she would be serving without being chosen by voters.
But this pledge was apparently not sufficient to meet the curious loyalty test imposed by the mayor’s backers. And this leads to the question of why Lee felt that Christensen would be more loyal to him than Wu.
After all, Wu is a product of the Chinatown community that gave Ed Lee his start. The Chinatown community where his efforts ultimately propelled him into the mayor’s office.
Both Lee and Wu passed up the high salaries and perks of the private sector to work in the community. This community service led to Lee’s elevation to head the Human Rights Department under Mayor Art Agnos.
Cindy Wu has earned the same trust of the Chinatown tenants and broader Chinatown community that Ed Lee used to propel his own career. But in her case, Lee became convinced that this record of community trust was a negative, as if it put her loyalty to him in doubt.
Unlike Ed Lee and Cindy Wu, Christensen has spent her career in the corporate sector. According to the mayor’s press release, Christensen has done product development for such companies as Corningware, Gillette, KitchenAid, Maytag, Proctor & Gamble, Pyrex, and Samsung. I am surprised that the mayor saw this corporate background as meaning that Christensen would be more loyal to him than Wu, whose background and post-college history was so similar to his own.
Wu’s opponents portrayed her as another Christina Olague, even though the latter never worked in Chinatown. I told the mayor point blank that he should reject this sexist and racist stereotyping of two women of color, yet Olague’s vote for Mirkarimi remained a constant theme in attacks on Wu’s loyalty.
Opponents also focused on the Chinatown Community Development Center’s (CCDC) support for Supervisor Kim’s housing metering proposal last spring. I agreed with the mayor in opposing the measure, which never moved forward and then found the parties all working collaboratively behind the successful Prop K.
Does Wu’s having held any opinion different from the mayor’s in the last four years make her disloyal? I don’t know where Christensen stood on a range of issues, but its curious that whether she and the mayor always saw things identically never became an issue.
This appointment reminds me of Mayor Willie Brown’s choice of Juanita Owens to what would become the District 5 Supervisor’s seat in 2000. Loyalty, not political skills, was the benchmark for all of Brown’s appointees. He appointed the loyal Owens despite her having no chance to win election in 2000. Matt Gonzalez defeated her in a landslide.
I share Mayor Lee’s belief in the importance of political loyalty. But loyalty between politicians and constituencies has to go both ways. Cindy Wu’s Chinatown supporters are the people who got Ed Lee the votes he needed to become interim mayor. They were the ones who were falsely attacked in the SF Chronicle during the 2011 mayoral campaign, and threatened with criminal prosecution. They were the ones who spent day and night ensuring that voters would make Ed Lee the city’s first elected Chinese-American mayor.
What about the mayor’s loyalty to them? I didn’t see Julie Christensen risking her future for Ed Lee’s political career, and now we are told that she is more loyal to the mayor than Cindy Wu.
No wonder this is a hard pill for the mayor’s Chinatown supporters to swallow.
And for those who say the mayor sought Christensen as a more “moderate” choice, on what upcoming issue did Wu disagree with the mayor? I have extensively discussed this with Wu and could not identify a single one. The irony is that the real estate opponents of Wu who backed Christensen included those picketing in opposition to the mayor’s Ellis Act reform bill—yet this break from a key Lee priority had no negative impact on Christensen.
Chinatown activists will move forward despite this setback. But their confusion as to the mayor’s agenda is understandable.
Many wonder why a mayor whose activist career began in Chinatown, whose Board votes to become mayor were gathered by Chinatown activists, whose core political base has been Chinatown, and who has drawn strong political support from this neighborhood would replace the Chinese-American David Chiu with a white D3 appointee that has no record of participation in Chinatown affairs.
Julie Christensen’s record of public service does not come close to that of Cindy Wu’s. For a mayor who has long promoted Chinatown empowerment and social justice, Julie Christensen was the wrong choice.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.San Francisco News