In any other city, the elevation to mayor of the first Asian-American in history would be a cause for celebration for liberals. But to listen to them somberly speak on Jan. 11, minutes before unanimously approving Ed Lee as San Francisco's 43rd mayor, you'd have thought someone just died. "There has been a significant change in City Hall ... progressives no longer control the Board of Supervisors," said a dour-looking Supervisor David Campos, who, with other lefties, bemoaned the "identity politics" that helped select Lee.
Whatever the cause, most progressives agree that they've missed their shot at landing one of their own in the mayor's office, the prime goal for more than a decade. And it's their own damn fault, Chinatown activist Rose Pak tells SF Weekly, for supporting old white men like Art Agnos, Tom Ammiano, and Michael Hennessey rather than a person of color like Lee. "They had a plantation mentality," Pak says. "They were acting like a white man's club." (Though, to be fair, the only white men on the board today are decidedly moderate.)
There were warning signs well before this that the former kingmakers — Chris Daly, Aaron Peskin, or whoever — needed to adjust their focus or face peril. When the Dalys and Peskins of the world opposed Jane Kim in her bid for District 6 supervisor, Asian community leaders complained that the city's progressive establishment was stifling a movement for Asian-American empowerment. It appears that the progressives made the same mistake again in December and January with their support for non-Asians, and left an opening for Gavin Newsom and Willie Brown to swoop in and seize the moment with their support for Lee.
"It became about personalities," says Chinatown organizer David Ho, who notes that Lee supports left-leaning policies like local hiring and should have been a fine choice — and, indeed, is supported by white liberals like Tenderloin Housing clinic honcho Randy Shaw and Haight-Ashbury activist Calvin Welch. Yet he was opposed. "Now they're trying to say that we're a bunch of Chinese nationalists?" Ho says, noting that former board president "Matt Gonzalez built coalitions. But they just assume [Lee supporters] are part of the whole downtown power structure."
Whatever lefty movement that emerges from the power vacuum — "Frankly, I don't even know who the progressive leaders are anymore," Ho says — needs to not make the same mistake thrice. As for the plantation mentality allegation: "A lot of work has to be done to bring back trust and get things back on track," says Supervisor John Avalos, a former Daly legislative aide. "Without the progressive kingmakers all around giving heartfelt mea culpas, we'll never even lay the groundwork for unity. Mods up — progs down."