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"But He's Not a Politician!"
Chris A. Smith | Photo: Jim Hughes | November 28, 2013
Mayor Ed Lee wasn't supposed to be a polarizing political figure. Then the economy went berserk, and the old San Francisco fault lines cracked wide open.
It’s not easy to score an audience with the mayor. My efforts include a number of false starts, as dates and times are chosen by his office and then discarded. Finally, on a windless September afternoon, I get the call. I find the mayor in his City Hall office, seated behind a vast wooden desk littered with manila folders.
As an icebreaker, I ask Lee about an anecdote I heard from his public works days. One night, the story goes, Lee went out with a cleanup crew after a storm and was nearly swept away by floodwaters on Junipero Serra Boulevard. He responds with an eight-minute disquisition on the art and science of unclogging storm drains. One of the lanes, he says, was waist deep in water, so he and his crew waded in, using their long wooden “jabbers” to poke into the drains. “It drained so quickly that I was hanging on to a sign or something in order not to get swept in,” he remembers. DPW, he claims, now clears the trouble spots before the rainy season begins.
For a moment, I fear that Lee is going to filibuster me with a primer on sewer maintenance. Then I realize the value of the discussion: It’s a window into the mayor’s technocratic soul. He has enjoyed a remarkable run since his appointment, cutting a path straight down the political middle. There have, of course, been a few setbacks. His dalliance with stop-and-frisk policing—in which cops can stop anyone whom they deem suspicious—died a quick, lonesome death. Many faulted Lee for dithering in his response to the San Francisco Housing Authority’s meltdown, which resulted earlier this year in the firing of its scandal-plagued chief, Henry Alvarez. (The Mayor’s Office is embarking on a complete overhaul of the agency.) The carnivalesque Ross Mirkarimi affair ended with the sheriff still in office and the mayor licking his wounds. And, most recently, voters resoundingly rejected two referendums to allow construction of the 8 Washington development. Lee had campaigned prodigiously in support of the propositions, and their defeat was seen widely as a loss for him.
Mostly, though, Lee has moved from one success to the next, enlisting a collaborative, low-drama approach that contrasts sharply with the divisive style of his predecessors. In keeping with his jobs mantra, many of his wins have been business-oriented, occasionally gilded with a progressive flourish. He helped strike a pension reform deal between the city’s labor unions and the Board of Supervisors, shoring up San Francisco’s finances against ballooning city employee pension costs. And then there’s the so-called Twitter tax break for companies that move to the blighted mid-Market corridor. Critics have decried the measure as corporate welfare—and it is, to the tune of $1.9 million last year—but new businesses, from Dolby to Spotify to a slew of new restaurants, shops, and hotels, are beginning to transform the neighborhood in accordance with Lee’s goals.
Lee’s soft-pedaling style has borne fruit in other ways as well. Last year, the mayor sold the business community—and, more important, the voters—on a change in the payroll tax intended to encourage new hiring. His original proposal, supported by tech titan Ron Conway, would have made the change revenue neutral, meaning that the new tax regime would have brought in no more money than the old one. After prodding from progressives on the Board of Supervisors—a dynamic that has been repeated on a number of issues—Lee changed his mind and helped persuade the old-line Chamber of Commerce businesses to agree to a tax formula that tacked on an extra $13 million annually for affordable and middle-income housing.
The deal that established the city’s permanent affordable housing trust fund illustrates the Lee method in its ideal form. When California governor Jerry Brown abolished the state’s redevelopment program in 2011, he eliminated, with one signature, San Francisco’s most reliable source of affordable housing money. In response, Lee convened a group of more than 50 policy wonks, developers, and affordable housing advocates to hash out a solution. Over the course of months, they met in a large conference room, often breaking out into smaller groups to tackle specific questions.
This assemblage was remarkably diverse, taking in everyone from Oz Erickson, founder of Emerald Fund (one of the largest market-rate developers in the city), to Calvin Welch, the progressive housing activist. The two men have a Hatfield and McCoy relationship, but they describe the process in nearly identical terms. Erickson says, “[Lee] assembled everybody who knew anything about housing. A lot of them didn’t normally talk to each other.” Welch, no fan of the mayor, nevertheless praises his willingness to step in at key points in the negotiations to break logjams.
The result was a fund that promises to funnel $1.5 billion into affordable housing over the next 30 years through a variety of existing tax measures and a new business license fee. “People always say they want everyone at the table, right? That’s the standard line,” says Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, who has been pushing for more low-income housing since the ’80s. “Well, the mayor really listened.”
Lee’s collaborative approach also appears to be reflected in his management style. A City Hall insider tells me that in meetings, it can be difficult to ascertain where the mayor stands on many issues. The insider, who is not particularly critical of Lee overall, thinks that it’s because the mayor “doesn’t have really strong opinions” on most things. “He doesn’t change [with] the weather the way Newsom did,” the staffer says. Others say that that’s just Ed Lee being Ed Lee. As Sam Lauter, a lobbyist who has known Lee since the ’80s, puts it, “He’s not going to stand up and say, ‘It’s my way or get out of the room.’”
Indeed, few insiders recall ever having heard the mayor raise his voice in anger. This may be because he’s truly non-confrontational; but it also could be because he’s outsourced much of the unpleasantness to his deputies, foremost among them his chief of staff, Steve Kawa, a veteran of both the Brown and Newsom administrations. Unlike Lee, Kawa doesn’t hesitate to bring the hammer down. “If you’re getting dragged into the 200 suite for a come-to-Jesus moment,” a former City Hall staffer confirms, “it’s gonna be in Steve’s office. Not the mayor’s.”
When I ask Kawa about his reputation for playing bad cop to Ed Lee’s good cop, the deputy is succinct. “I do my job,” he says in his strong Massachusetts accent. “We all have roles to play.”