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A San Francisco standoff a comedian would relish

In a place where 'moderate' means left and 'progressive' means far left, a spat between the factions leaves San Francisco with two mayors, Gavin Newsom and Ed Lee.

January 08, 2011|By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times
  • Gavin Newsom, a moderate in San Francisco terms, refused to step down, fearing the more leftist lame-duck Board of Supervisors would name a "successor mayor" before the less-left-leaning new board was seated.
Gavin Newsom, a moderate in San Francisco terms, refused to step down, fearing… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)

Reporting from San Francisco — The self-proclaimed City That Knows How is beginning to look like it might not — at least when it comes to governing itself. Words like "unprecedented" and "shenanigans" are being tossed around, along with "byzantine," "maneuvering" and "finagling."

Mayor Gavin Newsom, California's duly elected lieutenant governor, will not leave town. It doesn't matter that the bulk of state government chose Jan. 3 to move along. Newsom remained ensconced under City Hall's ornate dome at least in part so his political enemies could not replace him with someone less moderate than he is.

Yes, moderate. This is where a language lesson comes in handy. In San Francisco, the mayor who champions universal healthcare and brought the nation gay marriage is called a moderate. His enemies — those more liberal than he — are progressives.

As political consultant Alex Clemens describes this "one-party town": "Our moderates would be burned as witches in Indiana. Our progressives would be burned as witches while people shouted, 'Hippie!' in Indiana."

In what has been described as a power grab designed to thwart the city's progressives, Newsom will not leave until a new Board of Supervisors is sworn in. That ceremony is scheduled for noon Saturday. Newsom's inauguration as lieutenant governor is scheduled for Monday.

The four incoming members of the Board of Supervisors are considered a little less left-leaning than the outgoing ones and are expected to dilute the board's current progressive majority. Although there has been much handwringing here about the death of the left, the outgoing ones aren't going out quietly.

In sessions punctuated by at least one tantrum that made its way onto YouTube, they tried all week to pick what is described as a "successor mayor." Even though the city still has a mayor. As of Friday, for all intents and purposes, San Francisco has two mayors — Newsom and a mayor-in-waiting, City Administrator Ed Lee.

"What's happening here is indeed unprecedented," mourned progressive Supervisor David Campos during an eight-hour meeting Tuesday in which the board members tried and failed to replace Newsom, a task they took up again Friday.

Only it's not unprecedented, because this is San Francisco. Back in 1907 the city had four mayors in the space of a month. Twice during that brief stint, it had two at a time, one of whom was in jail. The case went all the way to the state Supreme Court, and it makes today's "shenanigans" seem downright mild.

In a widespread corruption investigation that tainted at least 16 of the then-18 supervisors, Mayor Eugene E. Schmitz was convicted of extortion and jailed. The law said that once convicted of a felony, a mayor had vacated his office. But there was no good candidate to replace him.

So, guided by prosecutors, the board picked one of its own members to be acting mayor, Supervisor James L. Gallagher. From county jail, Schmitz ordered that a policeman be stationed at the door of the mayor's office so Gallagher could not enter. The officer had to be forcibly removed.

When Schmitz was sentenced to five years in San Quentin, it was time to pick a formal successor, but the prosecution still wasn't ready, so the supervisors elected yet another of their own members, Charles Boxton. Schmitz insisted he was still mayor and sent a group of supporters to again block the mayor's office. Boxton lasted a week.

Newsom's actions, in comparison, have been much more mayoral. This week he presided over a celebration of the America's Cup coming to San Francisco. He announced a financial life-preserver for the beleaguered Asian Art Museum. He stayed away from the supervisors' meetings, but then, he always does.

He just didn't leave.

The Schmitz debacle came up at Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting, as the city's outside attorneys instructed the board about legal precedents. Normally, City Atty. Dennis Herrera would have done the job, but he has announced he is running for mayor himself in November.

The bottom line: Until Newsom takes the oath of office, the board was told, he is not lieutenant governor, and there is no vacancy in Room 200 of City Hall. If there is no vacancy, anyone elected by the board to be "successor mayor" is not.

The progressives' response?

First, they pushed. Campos to attorney Orry P. Korb, who is advising on the succession: "Is there a possibility that a court could have a different opinion than yours?" Korb: "Reasonable minds can differ."

Then they proceeded to vote for a Newsom replacement. At first it looked like Sheriff Michael Hennessey — beloved of the board's most left-leaning members — might get the nod, but he could only muster five out of 11 votes. In a second round of voting, City Administrator Lee, a Newsom favorite, also got five.

After much drama, Supervisor Bevan Dufty pledged to support Lee, potentially giving him a sixth vote. Just as the board appeared poised to approve Lee, it stopped short.

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