As if to verify the proposition that nothing momentous ever seems to happen in San Francisco public life, the highest-stakes battle in this city's recent history was waged last week over which bureaucrat — the jailer or the dogcatcher — should serve a short stint as interim mayor.
Members of the Board of Supervisors hollered, paced, traded insults, and engaged in mysterious acts of political intrigue over whether to appoint city administrator Ed Lee, a longtime functionary whose obscure office oversees scattered departments such as the county clerk and animal control, or give the job to chief jailer Michael Hennessey. Hennessey is popular and does his job well, according to passionate endorsements voiced by his supporters on the board. Equally misty-eyed partisans effused that Lee is also admired and competent.
The dogcatcher's appointment represents "the biggest fumble in the history of the progressive movement," according to outgoing liberal Supervisor Chris Daly. Why? Because Lee isn't outspokenly "progressive."
As farcical as this all may seem to outsiders, there was actually much at stake: taking control of billions of dollars' worth of city revenue and assets.
There's no real "left" and "right" in liberal San Francisco, but we do have interest groups competing for resources, and we've invented names for them. "Progressive" is a word we use for politicians allied with some unions representing lower-tier city employees, antipoverty nonprofits that get city money, and "activists" who often hold day jobs with one of the two aforementioned types of organizations. "Moderate" is a term taken here to mean politicians supported by larger developers; elite labor unions representing cops, firefighters, and plumbers; and politically connected investors with stakes in city-permitted projects. This second faction is the one that backed Lee.
Both Lee and Hennessey appeared attractive to their corresponding camps because they seemed like the type of people who'd want new government jobs once their brief terms were up. Craving continued employment, neither seemed like they'd do much to piss off their patrons.
What San Francisco really needs, however, is a functionary-in-chief answerable to neither progressives nor moderates, because both groups have driven the city toward ruin. If a independent George Soros–like billionaire would step forward and give Lee a post-2011 sinecure, Lee might do what's right for the city without having to worry about where his future paycheck comes from.
A thus liberated Lee might terrify palm-greasers by renegotiating political-juice–based land deals, close the spigot that pays incompetent nonprofits to perform city services, and chase politically connected miscreants from the temple of public agencies. Then he could take on the rest of the city's problems.
San Franciscans might fondly remember this episode as Ed Lee Gone Wild.
Anyone who has seen Vaclav Havel's writing concerning the inanities of Soviet-era bureaucracy knows a diehard functionary's fondest dream is of the day he shakes off his unprincipled politician-overseers and is allowed to get his job done. Nobody knows what would happen if this came to pass, because it has never occurred in world history.
But if Ed Lee were given a chance, a miracle might take place.
While public debate in San Francisco usually involves topics such as Happy Meals, significant things hang in the balance. San Francisco has an annual budget of $6.5 billion. Worth many billions more are other city-controlled assets in play, such as former military bases at Treasure Island and the Hunters Point shipyard; golf courses and parks; and huge swaths of dormant industrial land. Meanwhile, homelessness and other social problems continue unabated. Public housing is a mess. This is a horrendously expensive place to live, and government services are some of the most ineffective in America.
If somebody were to come up with the money needed to free San Francisco's caretaker mayor of political obligations, we might see wonderful occurrences in a number of areas.
Former Military Bases
For years, San Francisco battled over whether to put housing and commercial developments on old Navy property at Hunters Point and Treasure Island. The debates have abated, but little has been built, perhaps thanks to politics. In the mid-2000s, when a deal was being put together to grant Hunters Point development rights to the Lennar Corporation, Laurence Pelosi — Mayor Gavin Newsom's cousin and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's nephew — was a senior executive of the company.
On Treasure Island, a group that includes political consultant Darius Anderson, Democratic Party patron and Los Angeles billionaire Ron Burkle, and the Lennar Corporation has advanced similarly grandiose development plans. But for all its finesse with local politics, Lennar never really proved it had the financial backing to complete either project.
Liberated from cronyism concerns, Lee could force Lennar to prove its mettle. The recession-crippled company will fail that test. Next, Lee can seek a less-politics-driven development team to finish the job.
When Newsom became mayor seven years ago, he was faced with a quandary: He campaigned on a promise to end homelessness, yet had no serious plan to do so. Any steps toward reform promised backlash from leftists. In a political masterstroke, he handed much of his antihomelessness policy to left-wing political broker Randy Shaw, who ran a nonprofit whose main pre-Newsom activity was handling benefit checks for indigent people. The left was politically paralyzed from seriously criticizing the mayor on the issue.
But Shaw was no property manager or social service provider, and he made an expensive mess of efforts to house the indigent.
Given wings, Lee could scotch the city's politically compromised antihomelessness programs and build a system run by competent professionals like himself.
San Francisco, a rich city, hosts grisly public slums. That's because the Housing Authority Commission has served for years as a dumping ground where annoying political graspers are shunted off to a little-noticed, yet large and critical bureaucracy. With neglect has come dysfunction. Some tenants' associations have become fiefdoms, ready at a moment's notice to mau-mau against reform. Plans to rebuild decrepit buildings languish. Thousands of tenants simply don't pay rent. Criminals turn up on maintenance and other Housing Authority payrolls. Union work rules have been so dysfunctional that facilities are routinely in dangerous disrepair. Low-income families are condemned to humiliating conditions.
A free Ed Lee could be honest about the venality that's kept this organization an abyss. He would purge scoundrels, and install commissioners and managers in the competent-bureaucrat mold.
Wouldn't that be wild?