Northside SF
Common Knowledge
No gadfly in City Hall

Live Worms
As mayor, Gavin Newsom enjoyed voter support,
if not supervisor support
photo: Beth Byrne
San Francisco faces a tragedy that no amount of budget scrimping or constitutional tinkering seems likely to change. Simply put, our fair city might lose its place in the national pantheon of political train wrecks.

The new Board of Supervisors that took office in January is, well, boring, if you agree with a recent Bay Citizen report. After years of public sniping and snubbing and wild accusations among certain supervisors and Mayor Gavin Newsom, things have calmed down so much that Dr. Phil would be proud.

With Newsom’s ascension to statewide office and a significant turnover in the Board of Supervisors, things in City Hall have gotten quieter and frankly less weird. The antagonism between Newsom and the progressive bloc that controlled the board made for interesting viewing for the past eight years. In a city where conservatives are largely seen but not heard, the war between a liberal mayor and a leftist board majority mostly devolved into embarrassing tit-for-tat battles. Newsom refused to attend board meetings. The supervisors made city residents vote twice on a rule that would have required the mayor to appear before them on a regular basis, presumably not in chains. The voters finally agreed with the board the second time.

Through most of that time, the mayor coasted along with high public support, and he brushed aside suggestions that the government was broken because of the infighting.

Aaron Peskin
Former Board of Supervisors president
Aaron Peskin took a dim view of Newsom's
popularity with business
When Newsom appeared at The Commonwealth Club in early 2009, KQED radio’s Scott Schafer asked him about his “rocky relationships with the supervisors.” The mayor, who was in the midst of his ill-fated gubernatorial run at the time, said voters don’t care about the “who’s up, who’s down” chatter. He said he got his agenda through “even with all the dysfunction. … I passed every budget unanimously with that Board of Supervisors. What matters more than that document? In fact, I joked; I said we did pass every budget unanimously, even though I’ve had one dissenting vote. But that’s ‘unanimous’ at City Hall.”

Newsom’s chief antagonist for much of the time was the board’s president, Aaron Peskin, who spoke highly of Newsom in a Commonwealth Club appearance shortly after he assumed control of the board. But in an appearance a couple years later, his public attitude appeared to have shifted, and Newsom came in for much more criticism along the lines that the mayor had sold out to business interests.

Peskin said the board’s role is to check and balance the mayor, which might be its highest aspiration within a municipal system organized around a strong mayor’s office. He tipped his hat to Newsom’s popularity, saying that the mayor “has done a reasonable job of balancing the dynamic that is San Francisco, where [former Mayor] Willie Brown said you have 750,000 people and 750,000 ideas.” But Peskin charged that “downtown sources” aided the mayor’s administration with millions of dollars; those sources “constantly berated the board – some supervisors in particular.” Therefore, he dubbed Newsom’s popularity “a juggernaut that did not happen by accident.”

As for which supervisor “in particular” might be the target of these moneyed interests, Peskin later defended gadfly Supervisor Chris Daly, who at the time was still a couple years away from threatening to go all “Donkey Kong” on the board’s leadership, but who had already racked up more than his share of colorful moments. “Many people who have never met Chris Daly, who don’t know him personally, don’t like him,” said Peskin. “That doesn’t mean he didn’t deserve half of it. But … a lot of this [criticism] has been orchestrated in a very conscious way with a lot of money” from conservative business interests.

Today Peskin is long gone from his post, replaced by David Chiu (the board president who was the recipient of Daly’s odd video game threat). Daly himself is now tending bar. Newsom is in Sacramento, and his replacement is a man known for his congeniality on the political stage.

That just won’t do. If San Francisco isn’t going to be laughed off the national political stage, people are going to have to step forward to bring the fun back. We’re up against some pretty strong competition.

Consider the Windy City. In a Chicago mayoral debate, candidate and former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun let loose on an opponent who had questioned her commitment to the African-American community: “Patricia, the reason you didn’t know where I was the last 20 years is because you were strung out on crack. I was not strung out on crack. I don’t have a record. I in fact have spent years of my life working and fighting for this community as the only black United States senator from 1992 to 1998, as the only ambassador. So I don’t want to hear it from you, sweetie.” If you put that dialogue in a movie, people would say it was far-fetched.

If Moseley-Braun’s comment brings to mind former Supervisor Daly’s bizarre claim that Mayor Newsom had an unacknowledged cocaine habit, then you begin to appreciate what San Francisco has lost.

John Zipperer is vice president of editorial and media at The Commonwealth Club of California, E-mail:

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