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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

How Could Progressive Coalition Shatter? Let Us Count the Ways

Posted By on Wed, Jan 14, 2009 at 8:40 AM


Will it be the House of Harmony or the House of Pain? The answer is: Yes.

Progressive Supervisors banded together last week to elect a compromise-candidate Board President, which raises a crucial question: "Since when have progressives compromised on anything?"

In a town that views compromise as moral weakness (No Justice, No Peace), the fact that progressives were willing to make concessions to the people they hate most - each other - shows how concerned they are about their coalition fracturing, and the lengths to which they will go to hold it together.

As of last week, it seemed to be working: At a host of post-election events, progressive Supes went out of their way to make nice, and several Supes told me they'd already put it behind them.

But this week, there are signs that the wheels are coming off the love train. (That's public transit for 'ya) Reports say that Sophie Maxwell is, in fact, bitter at not getting a single progressive vote despite her fairly strong record of progressive voting; Ross Mirkarimi is said (contrary to what he told me) to be nursing a grudge too; and yesterday the Guardian's comments section lit-up with an online shouting match between Chris Daly, Tim Redmond, and Bruce Brugmann that implies wider schisms to come.

(As an aside, Daly's contention that he and Redmond should keep their disagreements quiet is tactically correct but still hilarious. Does he know Redmond manages a newspaper?)

This may not mean anything: Some degree of blowback was inevitable. Former Board President Aaron Peskin said he thinks all this will die down in a few weeks ... or months, tops. He gave are two reasons: First, it's the nature of these things to pass ("other stuff comes up") and second, there will be tremendous pressures keeping the progressive Supes in lockstep, and not just the severity of a budget situation which sincerely frightens them.

"They were all elected by the same people, by labor and the Democratic party and the tenants," Peskin said. As long as that coalition is walking in mostly the same direction, the pressure on the progressive Supes to march together will be intense. "Ross and John [Avalos] got a lot of kudos from the left, I think the left will coalesce pretty quickly."

Mirkarimi agreed.

"We'll have to work together," Mirkarimi said. "With this situation, we'll just have to. There isn't really a choice."

Fair enough - and for what it's worth, I hope they're right. But in the meantime, here are some fault lines to watch out for:

Sophie's Choice: Sophie Maxwell has every right to be insulted. If being an African-American woman with a liberal voting record doesn't make you a progressive, what does? Yet despite these credentials, she wasn't deemed a member of the club.

It would have been one thing if the progressives had immediately lined up behind Mirkarimi - a colleague with as much experience - and she'd lost a 6-5 vote. There's honor in that. But instead, she was effectively told that ANYBODY on the progressive side was preferable to her.

Wouldn't you be pissed?

The story that Sophie is telling herself to ease her wounded pride (according to reports) is that the progressives are a tight little "clique" who won't let one of their own in. That's ... that's not actually true, though.

Ah, geez, how to say this nicely ...

Maxwell has many fine qualities, and is well-liked by her peers - despite the way things went down. But she doesn't like using computers, she doesn't like using a cell phone, and no one thinks of her as a dynamic, 21st-century leader.

Basically, the progressives were looking for someone with a BlackBerry.

The question of how much offense Sophie takes to this is key, because if she decides that the mayor is really her friend after all, she likely takes the progressive agenda with her: The progressives have six (relatively) solid votes, and need 8 to override a veto. Sophie is critical, and the best reason for progressives to have elected her board president might have been to make sure she was happy with them.

Chiu's Cheatin' Heart: The best recommendation for David Chiu, on the other hand, may be his ability to prosper amid treacherous egos.

Chiu threw his close friend and former benefactor Scot Wiener under the bus in July to vote for Peskin as president of the Democratic County Central Committee , who then endorsed Chiu to replace him as a supervisor and later pushed him as a "consensus candidate" for Board President. (Hey, Eric Mar coulda' been a "consensus candidate.") Turned out well for Chiu.

When Chris Daly - for reasons no one but Chris Daly really understands - decided that his "closest ally" on the Board, Mirkarimi, shouldn't be president because they once argued over something, sometime, Chiu again came out smiling.

This man has an incredible ability: The bigger the egos at war, the softer David Chiu lands. On the one hand, he's clearly someone who can negotiate with Gavin Newsom. On the other hand, that's not actually a skill that says "team player." Has David Chiu ever taken one for the team? Has he ever put his own priorities aside to support a larger mission?

Couldn't tell 'ya. No voting record's a bitch that way. (Chiu did not return a call for comment). But I can say that Chiu is going to face enormous pressure to put the breaks on the coalition that elected him president ... or at least not solve their differences. Who knows: a war between Daly and Mirkarimi ... or Daly and Sophie Maxwell ... or Daly and Bevan Dufty ... might get David Chiu appointed to something really nice in two years.

Bevan Dufty Sat On a Wall: Speaking of Dufty and pressure, the progressives had better start showing Dufty the love soon, because you can just bet downtown will.

Dufty, let us remember, is one of the leading "moderate" candidates for mayor in two years: and while he's often voted with the progressives before, he has the most to lose if they look like they're closing ranks around somebody else. Ironically, the more unified the progressives are, the less incentive Dufty has to vote with them - and the more incentive he has to make sure the coalition that elected Gavin Newsom is solidly behind him. This is a problem for the progressives because any road they take to reach eight override votes will almost certainly go through Dufty. Dufty can likely be kept happy, but everything he asks for might not go over so well with progressives like Daly. Getting Dufty on their side without losing progressive votes may be a needle the progressives can't thread when it counts.

The House that Peskin Built: The talk is hot and heavy that Peskin will really be calling the shots for the new board - and nobody is more dismissive of that theory than the man himself.

"The truth is that if you're not in that building 10 hours a day, you're inevitably out of the loop," Peskin said, making what is, frankly, a very good point. "Six months from now I'll be knee deep in the next phase of my life, and hopefully paying for my health insurance."

Even so, both as the chairman of the DCCC and as a respected elder statesman, Peskin is likely to be approached as either a peacemaker or a war leader at some point during the intra-progressive negotiations. He's right to say he can't lead the voting block anymore - but he could be a Hail Mary pass in tough negotiations.

He's also (to mix metaphors) a wild card: What does he want to do next? He'll likely preserve real moral authority if he has no interest in staging a comeback ... but if he does dream of getting back in the action, then he'll have his own agenda - and party unity will be only so useful to him. Until we know, Peskin's a hard drinkin' question mark.

A Million Little Pieces: All of this assumes that the only thing pulling the supervisors apart are personality and politics - but what if the progressive activists start zigging while their non-profits zag?

Under normal circumstances, that wouldn't be too likely: but in a time of massive budget cuts, it's almost inevitable. At some point the progressive Supes are going to get into a full-blown ideological argument about what is "essential" and what is "optional" for a city to do ... and even if they agree on the broad outlines, like "healthcare" and "education," their different constituencies will push them towards different interpretations of those ideals.

In some ways, the severity of the situation will have the opposite effect by pushing them closer together. That's why they're all working so hard at playing nice.

The trouble is that the budget will put bread-and-butter constituent issues against one another, and constituents who are saying "play nice" today will scream "save my program for homeless runaway polygamists with a drug habit - no matter what!" tomorrow. Daly's feud with Mirkarimi, after all, is said to go back to a time when Ross stopped Daly from cutting law enforcement budgets to pay for public housing. If lack of funds forces a similar debate this time around, and David Campos' constituents really want money for immigration issues while Mar's constituents really want money for education - will the battle be any less fierce? Can a coalition survive it?

I guess we'll find out. It may very well be, though, that the degree to which they can keep it together depends on the degree to which we can.

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Benjamin Wachs


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