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'Tis the Political Season in City Hall

San Francisco City Hall
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San Francisco City Hall
SF politicians maneuver and strategize over mayoral succession, the most popular game in town

Updated Dec. 6, 2010 at 5:40 p.m.

With less than a month until Mayor Gavin Newsom and four outgoing supervisors vacate their offices, the question of who will next occupy Room 200 has electrified San Francisco City Hall during a lame duck holiday season when the gears of government would ordinarily be grinding to a halt.

In recent weeks, the 11-member Board of Supervisors has been juggling leftover bits of legislation, transitioning into a new session with four new colleagues, huddling over the interim mayoral appointment and, in the case of Supervisor Eric Mar, enjoying the national spotlight for his successful initiative to ban toy-laden McDonald’s Happy Meals from the city.

Just beyond the Christmas tree cheerfully greeting visitors on the second floor landing of City Hall are corridors buzzing with behind-the-scenes politicking that ranged from the predictable to the surreal.

Supervisor Chris Daly, for example, scheduled two hours out of one recent Wednesday for an “Interim Mayor Strategy,” session, which involved a chalkboard grid with Xs and Os.  This was squeezed into a full day of public transportation-related business, according to his November calendar, released last week under a routine Sunshine Ordinance request.

Board President David Chiu met individually with supervisors-elect Malia Cohen, Mark Farrell and Scott Weiner, who will soon be his allies on the board; an urban gardening activist; a labor union political director; and, during a personal trip to Los Angeles, a prominent Democratic strategist — all in the course of one week in mid-November.

But among the small constellation of City Hall staff, aides, reporters and assorted courtiers, the real action is in the most high-stakes game in town: picking the next mayor.

In the back room of Supervisor John Avalos’s suite is a dry eraser board where staffers have compiled a tongue-in-cheek list of mayoral appointments under the heading: “If Chris Daly Were Interim Mayor”—a possibility that would likely bring an icy response from the city’s wealthier residents, not to mention the sitting mayor, who despises the ultra-liberal firebrand.

According to Avalos’ board, Daly’s appointments would include political consultant Alex Clemens as the Mayor’s Liaison to the Board and Wearer of Kevlar and Helmet — “because they get bashed a bit,” an Avalos staffer explained. And Trent Rhorer, Newsom’s head of the Department of Human Services and the brain behind his Care Not Cash program, would become editor of Street Sheet, the newspaper hawked by homeless vendors.

(Avalos’ aides, who were largely responsible for the list, added that they did not work on it during public working hours.)

Some supervisors, exasperated by the seeming intermission from governance, have rejected the notion that it is throwing a wrench into serious work.

“There are major pieces of legislation and a lot going on,” Supervisor Sean Elsbernd said, citing Avalos’s local hiring bill and the city’s bid for the America’s Cup that have kept him occupied.

“I’ll be sitting on the budget committee,” Elsbernd said soberly. “And reviewing this stuff. And having various meetings with people to get support for it.”

As he strolled down the corridor last week, Elsbernd was intercepted by a reporter who asked, for the umpteenth time, who he thought would be the next mayor.

He sighed.

“Nothing’s going to happen until January,” he said, and disappeared into his office.

Daly, though, has pursued the mayoral succession issue with a deadly seriousness, repeatedly calling it the most important issue of his 10 years in office. He is term-limited out of his job as of January.

Nonetheless, Daly produced the latest bit of drama last week when he circulated a petition to make a last-ditch attempt urging Assemblyman Tom Ammiano to return from Sacramento and take the reins as interim mayor. Ammiano, a former supervisor from District 9, has unquestioned progressive bona fides and perhaps the six votes needed to be appointed — but only if he agrees to do the job.

Ammiano has in recent weeks repeatedly denied any interest in the mayor’s job to both close friends and reporters.

Daly has not been deterred.

"He knows the gravity of the situation," Daly said. "I think if he has the opportunity to let that sink in a bit he might change his mind."

An online petition posted by Daly on the website change.org had dozens of signatures, including Gabriel Haaland, political director of the union SEIU; Harry Britt, the former supervisor; Tony Kelly, Rafael Mandelman and Debra Walker, former supervisorial candidates; and liberal activists Marc Salomon and Brian Basinger.

More significantly, after complaining for weeks about runaway “back-room dealing,” Daly’s move has awkwardly forced his colleagues, some of whom have mayoral ambitions, to show their hands as well.

As of Monday, Daly said he had signatures from Avalos, Mirkarimi and Mar. Daly said that Supervisor Bevan Dufty, a mayoral candidate, might lend his support, but he had not yet signed the document. Campos had not signed it yet, either.

The signatures were not an indicator that Ammiano would fall short of six votes, Daly said, arguing that he was limited by laws restricting undisclosed meetings between officials.

"I can't get any more than five signatures because of the Brown Act," Daly said. “We’re getting close to the point of getting six votes. Tom’s a politician, and he sees that.”

Daly set the ball in motion last Thursday, when he sent an aide scampering through City Hall to collect signatures from supervisors in blue or green marker pen.

"I think that's the only copy of the letter," said April Veneracion, a Daly aide, looking somewhat anxious as she handed the petition to Jeremy Pollock, a Mirkarimi staffer.

The two then stopped to gossip about the palace intrigue.

Moments later, a camera operator from Comedy Central, who was filming an interview by Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi with Supervisor Mar about the Happy Meal ban, stuck his head out of Mar's office to berate the staffers for chattering too loudly.

“Keep it down please, we’re filming in here,” the man yelled from down the hall.

Venaracion winced. Pollock shrugged.

"Yeah," Pollock said, "it's pretty crazy around here."


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