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Behind-the-Scenes Power Politics: The Making of Ed Lee

How three heavyweights propelled a civil servant to the precipice of power

Ed Lee
Luke Thomas/<a href="http://www.fogcityjournal.com" target="_blank">Fog City Journal</a>
Ed Lee
Luke Thomas/<a href="http://www.fogcityjournal.com" target="_blank">Fog City Journal</a>

On Sunday afternoon, former Mayor Willie L. Brown Jr. made an urgent call to Rose Pak, his longtime political ally and the powerful head of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. Word had trickled out that San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors had narrowed the list of interim candidates to replace Mayor Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor-elect.

But the contenders — Sheriff Michael Hennessey, former Mayor Art Agnos and Aaron Peskin, the chairman of the city’s Democratic Party — were deemed too liberal by Pak, Brown and Newsom, who are more moderate.

With momentum fizzling around Pak’s favored candidate, David Chiu, the board president, Pak and Brown decided to pool their efforts on behalf of another Asian-American official: Edwin M. Lee.

Over the next 48 hours, Pak, Brown and the Newsom administration engaged in an extraordinary political power play, forging a consensus on the Board of Supervisors, outflanking the board’s progressive wing and persuading Lee to agree to become San Francisco’s first Asian-American mayor, even though he had told officials for months that he had no interest in the job.

“This was something incredibly orchestrated, and we got played,” Supervisor John Avalos, a progressive, said in an interview. “I’m still trying to figure out what happened. I don’t know what the game was about, except that it was to muscle someone into office.”

Barring another last-minute development, the board is expected to ratify Lee’s appointment Friday in its final session. The incoming board, to be sworn in on Saturday, is expected to vote to install Lee next week — the last step needed for him to become interim mayor, until the election in November.

The behind-the-scenes drama was a stark reminder of the enduring power of Pak and Brown and their ability to influence city politics at the highest levels, even seven years after Brown left office.

In separate interviews, Pak and Brown described Lee as a committed liberal Democrat, and they emphasized the importance of the symbolism of an Asian-American mayor.

“This was finally our moment to make the first Chinese mayor of a major city,” Pak said. “How could you let that slip by?”

Brown said progressives should be “ashamed” of “subtle biases” in their opposition to Lee, a former civil rights lawyer who in 1978 led city tenants in the first rent strike against the State Housing Authority.

“To present an opportunity to a person of color, well-credentialed and well-qualified, ought to be one of the tenets of the progressive movement,” Brown said. “That’s genuine progressivism.”

Progressive supervisors said that they did not question Lee’s credentials or his politics. A career bureaucrat, Lee — who was appointed to his current post as city administrator by Newsom in 2005 — has a reputation among insiders as one of most competent public officials at City Hall. Rather, the progressives bristled at how his candidacy was engineered by Brown and Pak, whose bare-knuckled style of politics they have come to resent bitterly.

“I like Ed Lee, and I’ve always been open to him,” Supervisor David Campos said. “If they had given us an opportunity to have the conversation with Ed Lee and consider it, maybe we wouldn’t have had those issues.”

The last-minute push to install Lee involved political maneuvering, as well as misdirection and some luck, according to people involved in the effort.

For months, a number of supervisors had asked Lee if he was interested in being interim mayor, but he had always said no.

The critical stumbling block for Lee, several people said, was his concern about a rule in the city charter that prohibited elected officials from taking appointed positions within a year of leaving office. Lee, who is putting two daughters through college, was confirmed to a new term as chief administrator in December. He told officials he did not want to risk forfeiting the remainder of his five-year contract as city administrator, worth $1.25 million.

pak, newsom, brown

Rose Pak, left, Gavin Newsom, center, and Willie Brown were behind Ed Lee's emergence as the Board of Supervisors' pick for interim mayor (Credits: Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen, Getty Images)

As his anxieties became clear, Newsom’s staffers asked the office of Dennis Herrera, the city attorney, to begin quietly drafting a charter amendment to allow Lee to return to the administrator’s post after he served as mayor, according to several City Hall officials. The amendment still needs board approval. On Monday morning, Chiu, the board president, joined Supervisor Sean Elsbernd and others in pushing Lee as a candidate among the board members. But Lee remained deeply ambivalent about the nomination as late as Monday evening.

“I am tremendously reluctant,” Lee wrote in an e-mail to Pak as he prepared to leave Hong Kong for the hot springs of Yangmingshan National Park in Taiwan.

“But Newsom would like to take care of as many concerns that I have, including the exemption from work prohibition after serving,” the e-mail continued.

Lee asked Pak for guidance, writing: “As you know, I love serving my city. Would this be the best way?”

Pak was fortunate to connect with Lee shortly before he boarded his flight to Taiwan — and an area with spotty cellphone service — and urged him to consider becoming the first Chinese mayor of San Francisco. It was only then, less than 24 hours before the board vote, that the Lee camp persuaded its candidate to accept a nomination.

On Tuesday, just hours before the board was to consider nominations and vote for an interim mayor, Newsom and his allies knew they needed a single vote more to push through Lee.

Newsom turned to Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who had initially favored Lee but had signaled to progressive stalwarts like Chris Daly, Campos and Avalos that he would back Hennessey.

The mayor summoned Dufty and another supervisor, Michela Alioto-Pier, a supporter of Lee, to his office shortly before the board meeting.

According to Dufty, Newsom urged him to support the “consensus candidate.”

When Dufty went to the board chamber that evening for what turned into an eight-hour session, he told Campos that he “felt good about Hennessey,” Dufty said. That led progressives to nominate their favored candidate, Hennessey, in an effort to lock up his appointment.

But their plan was thrown into chaos when Dufty refused to vote for Hennessey, leaving the sheriff one vote shy of the six he needed to secure the nomination.

Dufty then called for a recess and met with Supervisor Sophie Maxwell and Steve Kawa, Newsom’s chief of staff, in Kawa’s office, with Newsom on speakerphone. In an interview, Dufty said he wanted to confirm Lee’s positions on immigration before voting for him. He denied that he brokered a deal with Newsom.

“I could just see the waters shifting around Hennessey,” Dufty said.

Shortly before 10 p.m., Dufty emerged from Newsom’s suite to declare that he was ready to vote for Lee.

Daly was enraged. He had spent months working to install someone he hoped would be the first truly progressive mayor in 30 years, and that dream had been blown apart. He sharply criticized Dufty and vowed revenge on Chiu, who he had believed would side with the progressives, and who could have provided the sixth vote for Hennessey.

Chiu, who was mentioned as a possible candidate for interim district attorney (to fill the position vacated by Kamala Harris, the new state attorney general), announced Thursday that he was taking himself out of the running. Chiu is expected to run for mayor in the fall.

“I will haunt you,” Daly told Chiu on Tuesday night. “After this vote, I will politically haunt you. It’s on, like Donkey Kong.”

Twice, he muttered “30 years,” then slammed his fist against a banister and stormed out of the chamber.

Across town, Pak gleefully watched the proceedings from a bar at the New Asia Restaurant.

She was in a boastful mood the next day, several hours before she planned to have celebratory drinks with Brown at the Chinatown Hilton.

“Now you know,” she told a reporter, “why they say I play politics like a blood sport.”

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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