Will infighting hamstring progressive supervisors?
Hilary Ronen in conversation with Manny Yekutiel at Manny's. "I never faced this type of misogyny that I faced in becoming an elected official," Ronen told the standing-room-only crowd. Illustration by Lola Noguer

It was in the middle of a Board meeting when Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer got the first text. It was from David Campos, an erstwhile Mission District supervisor and, now, the chairman of San Francisco’s Democratic Party. He wasn’t happy.

“I’m really disappointed to see what you are doing to Hillary [Ronen], Sandy,” read the Nov. 13 message. “I don’t have the words to express how hurtful it is. It is beneath you.”

Fewer was at a loss for words, too. And, now, she wasn’t happy either.

“Who the fuck have you been talking to? Listening to gossip?” she shot back. Fewer denied being part of an “organized campaign” against Ronen, Campos’ successor as District 9 supervisor and an enthusiastic aspirant for Board president. “Why would I do that? She’s my closest ally.”

While the meeting continued in chambers, Campos and Fewer continued to hammer away at each other through the ether. And, in a sad denouement, they ended up in the same place.

“This is what tears us apart as progressives,” Fewer texted. “This is why progressives never get anywhere.” Campos concurred. “We are our own worst enemies. We self-destruct, which is what’s happening here.”

Well, that remains to be seen. But the precedent is there: San Francisco’s progressive politicians do have a track record of allowing internecine conflicts and interpersonal dynamics to derail governing coalitions and ostracize would-be allies.

Progressives are the team that drives down the field and then fumbles the ball at the 5-yard-line.

And, now, they may not even be waiting for the game to start; the new progressive majority/supermajority board won’t be seated until Jan. 8.

Consider this a locker-room brawl prior to the opening gun.

Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer and former Superivsor David Campos’ heated exchange illustrates the fraught nature of progressive politics in this city.

Fewer’s lament (one she shares with Supervisor Aaron Peskin) is that she’s been receiving phone calls from community members — labor leaders, members of the Democratic County Central Committee, and others — urging her to vote Ronen in as board president.

Ronen doesn’t deny asking her backers to dial up her colleagues. “I’m an organizer,” she says. “This is second-nature to me. When my supporters ask me if there’s anything they can do for me, I tell them that, if they have a relationship with my colleagues, they should call them up.”

And yet, community members contacted by Ronen and asked to make calls on her behalf recounted a more proactive approach than that. They described, in essence, a self-mounted lobbying campaign.

This is not typical. 

It’s also not illegal. It needn’t even be unethical. But is it good politics? We’ll see on Jan. 8. Maybe this will get Ronen elected. Maybe it will, expressly, get her not elected. And maybe it’s one of several factors that’ll splinter and mitigate a progressive majority that ought to be in the catbird seat after heady November victories.

In the short-term, both Peskin and Fewer are irate (though Ronen claims their anger is “a tactic.”). Unlike the mayor, who is mayor of all of us, the board president is an inward-facing position; he or she is the president of the board and selected by only members of the board. An astute board president can leverage the ability to choose committee assignments, introduce legislation, and make appointments into real power. But this is still a highly administrative and internal position.

As such, union leaders dialing up a supervisor to voice their opinions on who should be board president might be asked to consider how they’d respond if a supervisor called them up to voice his or her opinions about who should be leading the union.

Fewer adds that making this an overt, public campaign presents an image of progressive disarray and disunity to the people of San Francisco. An accurate presentation, it would seem.

Campos claims that Peskin can hardly purport to be indignant because he orchestrated an outside lobbying campaign for David Chiu’s board presidency in 2009 (boy, that relationship did fizzle): “I can tell you I was in the middle of that process,” Campos says. “People were calling.”

Fair enough. But former supervisors John Avalos, Eric Mar, Bevan Dufty, Chris Daly, and Sophie Maxwell all told your humble narrator that no outside players were calling them. And Peskin denies doing this.

Ronen isn’t apologizing, because she doesn’t believe she’s done anything wrong. “Why should this not be a transparent process?” she asks.

That’s a fair question, and rarely do you see anyone inveigh in favor of the back-room deal — and board president elections are often back-room deals held in the front room. On the other hand, must every last element of San Francisco politics be reduced to a highly curated plebiscite? Rafael Mandelman also wants to be board president — is it incumbent upon him to marshal the queer community and Noe Valley parents groups to lean on fellow board members? Norman Yee wants to be president, too — should he organize the denizens of Forest Hill to march on City Hall?  

And, on the third hand — the practical hand — does it make sense to hold a public campaign for what is, in essence, a private position? Does it make sense to leverage your shared community relationships against your colleagues — the very colleagues who’ll vote for you or against you? Board presidents, in the past, have often been chosen because of their compatibility and ability to unite disparate politicians (and their egos). The avuncular Yee and the self-styled centrist Mandelman fit this mold.

If this is the route you’re going to go, it doesn’t make much sense to jam your colleagues (or overtly get other people to do it). Clearly this is not the route Ronen wants to go.

Ronen doesn’t seem to be the type of leader to gauge where the center of gravity is among her fractious group of colleagues and build consensus. Rather, she would figure to aggressively pursue a progressive agenda — the sort of agenda that would ostensibly please the voters who overwhelmingly chose progressive candidates this past election.

Ronen is viewed by her colleagues “as someone who doesn’t want to be nice. She wants to get things done,” says a fellow supervisor. “She wants to lift up the most marginalized among us. There’s no time to waste. And if that requires pissing off some of her colleagues, so be it. I respect that.”

Will this colleague be voting for Ronen for president?

No.

Supervisors Norman Yee and Rafael Mandelman both fit the mold of affable, get-along, compromise-seeking board presidents. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

When asked who has her vote for president, Sandy Fewer has a rehearsed answer: whoever can articulate a coherent progressive agenda and explain how he or she will get it done. Well, that’s just what Hillary Ronen wants to do. So everything’s hunky-dory, right?

Right?

During a Nov. 29 conversation at Mission District gathering spot Manny’s, Ronen told the audience “I want to create a different version of what leadership looks like. … I never faced this type of misogyny that I faced in becoming an elected official.” 

“You’d be shocked,” she continued, that women tell her, “‘I’m not sure you’d make a great president of the board because you’re so passionate about things. And I love your passion but it’s also your Achilles heel and it’s also what would make you ineffective as president.’”

Ronen said she would listen, stupefied, while thinking, “Are you saying I’m too emotional? Did you really just say that to me?”

Yes, they had. And perhaps that too is a part of the current dynamic.  

Progressive unity will be tested in the weeks to come. It always is. 

It’s already deteriorating. It always is.

It remains difficult to impose top-down order on a bottom-up movement. And just wait until decisions involving millions — even billions  — of dollars have to be made. 

“A majority male board is never going to hand me power and a leadership position if I don’t mount a strong campaign and fight hard,” says Ronen. She has votes lined up from incoming supervisors Gordon Mar and Matt Haney and, she says, may yet be the most viable progressive candidate. 

And if she fails? Ronen laughs. “There are no permanent friends nor permanent enemies.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. “Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior...

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31 Comments

  1. Seems like a lot of people want to bend your ear these days Eskanazi. Maybe if Sandra Lee Fewer doesn’t care for outside forces becoming a part of the inward facing election she shouldn’t be sharing her texts with Mission Local. I call shenanigans.

  2. Respect for what Sandra Fewer.
    Personally, I’m afraid of Mandelman is following the Scott Wiener script. Get elected sounding progressive, then shift into a big money, paternalistic smart guy who knows better then the plebs politician.

  3. I really enjoy having Mannys on the corner of 16th and Valencia…. Hope we can get Mandelman there next. And then a debate with MEDA vs Maximus Real estate. oooh. such a good forum for lots of juicy local politics.

  4. Wow Joe, you’re showing a significant anti-progressive editorial slant in this article and you are publishing falsehoods.

    “Board President is a largely inward-facing position. An astute board president can leverage the ability to choose committee assignments, introduce legislation, and make appointments into real power. But this is still a highly administrative and internal position.”

    Nonsense! Board President is a crucial check on Mayoral power. Perhaps most importantly, the Mayor is hard-pressed to set a budget without approval of the board president. We can only assume you are understating the importance of this position because you don’t want a progressive check on Breed’s pro-business “centrist” policies.

    “…union leaders dialing up a supervisor to voice their opinions on who should be board president might be asked to consider how they’d respond if a supervisor called them up to voice his or her opinions about who should be leading the union.”

    If the Board President has authority over the City Budget, it makes perfect sense for SEIU, for example, to lobby to have a Board Prez that will best represent city workers in budget negotiations. This is literally a constituent representation issue. Constituents contact their reps to ask for representation on issues that affect them. Board president is one of them. Makes total sense to me. You bet your ass tech companies and developers are lobbying supes for their preferred candidate. Why aren’t you reporting on those calls?

    I value much of the hyper-local reporting on ML but y’all really need to start labeling some of your articles “OPINION” because you’re losing journalistic credibility with articles like this.

    1. “We can only assume you are understating the importance of this position because you don’t want a progressive check on Breed’s pro-business “centrist” policies.”

      Andy, it’s a real sign of intellectual laziness to assume that everyone who disagrees with you is on the take. (You are, additionally, overstating the authority of the board president and, for good or ill, underestimating the power of the mayor in San Francisco’s system.

      I also feel it’s a sign of intellectual laziness to concern troll about how people can’t tell what’s a reported column and what’s a straight news article. People can tell. It’s a knee-jerk reaction against something you don’t agree with and, frankly, wish to edit and marginalize. Certainly I didn’t get such missives from you when I was writing critically about the mayor’s position on Prop. C.

      Best,

      JE

      1. Joe, this piece is heavily biased, but I never suggested you are on the take. Tom Ammiano has a bit of cred in regards to how the game is played and he says just below that what you are reporting on is totally standard practice, it’s called “accountability.” Why no reports about lobbying from tech industry or developers? Surely that’s going on as well. I’ve been reading Mission Local since the beginning and don’t appreciate the one-sided sensationalizing of pieces like this.

  5. I was president of the BOS twice and of course people lobby and lobby hard its called accountability nothing new there.The same people whining about this in the article know better no matter what they say, Ronen has the grit and the record in my book hope the votes go her way, if not for all of them time to get to work.

    1. Hey Mr. President,

      You did more than anyone to advance Progressive politics in SF.

      From ‘Briggs’ to our local ‘Healthy SF’ or whatever that Newsom stole
      credit from you for.

      Thanks.

      This is another example of Peskin climbing the same BOS Prez peak
      from another slope.

      Remember in 2002 when Aaron drove you from the top seat by teaming
      with Maxwell and she double-crossed him leaving the prize to Matt?

      Don’t let Peskin play you, Joe.

      Ronen for prez.

      I love Aaron but he will sell out and Hillary will not.

      Go Giants!

      h.

  6. Supervisor Fewer said it best: run on a platform of issues or agenda. Certainly would be more productive than the personality or individual power driven politics of the last few BOS presidents

  7. This was an unnecessarily long article! To make matters worse, you can almost hear the writer’s conservative arrogance.

  8. Joe, I believe that it is a false equivalency to compare an elected body’s management with that of a private, member driven organization. Everyone in S.F., by virtue of residency, has a stake in the functioning of the Board of Supervisors. As such, they have a right to make their opinions known to members of that body. A labor union is only answerable to its paid members.

  9. https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10156579275160552&id=559835551

    “Rebecca Solnit
    3 hours ago
    Oh look, a woman has been energetic on her own behalf and people are upset! Ladies should be seated? Seen and not heard? I remember some quite energetic and visible campaigns for board president in years past, but now a ladyperson is doing it, and somehow that is not, according to this curious piece, “normal,” or it is divisive, because it is always divisive for women to seek power? Or what?

    I posted a Harvard study below I’ve cited before: “If a woman is merely perceived as having the intention to gain power, even if she does not actually have any power herself, people are likely to make a wealth of inferences about her character and judge her accordingly. Specifically, the intention to gain power may signal to others that she is an aggressive and selfish woman who does not espouse prescribed feminine values of communality. Although as of yet absent from the research literature, some popular press management books have exposed workplace norms whereby women who merely verbalize their desire for power are disliked by others and are likely to become targets of workplace bullying (Heim & Murphy, 2001).

    “Thus, in the current research, we hypothesize that the per- ceived power-seeking intentions of female politicians will have interpersonally penalizing effects. Specifically, we assert that seeking political office because of an intention to gain power is inconsistent with female gender prescriptions of communality, leading to an implied communality deficit for power-seeking female politicians. Moreover, this lack of communality will elicit negative affective reactions, specifically moral-emotional reactions of contempt and disgust that implicate the prescrip- tive nature of the beliefs. In turn, these reactions manifest themselves in a decreased willingness to support the power- seeking female politician in the polls. In contrast, the belief that a male target seeks political office to gain power will not lead to negative affective reactions or a lack of voter support.”

    1. Ms. Solnit,

      A friend took me by a bookstore near my house and
      told me to choose any book and I said that I’d read your
      columns but no books because no one everyone threw them
      away and I got an autographed copy of ‘Shadows’ and I’m
      running out of high-lighters.

      Your autograph signature has to be the most beautiful
      piece of art of any signature ever.

      No matter the content of your work.

      Your autograph stands alone.

      h.

      1. Hi,
        sfbulldog, you could click the link and message Ms. Solnit your lovely message. I bet she would appreciate it.

  10. I would select Hillary with no hesitation. I want someone who will do whatever it takes politically. That’s the trouble with this Town. People smile and knife you in the back. I want an in your face, honest political fighter.

  11. Ronen is viewed by her colleagues “as someone who doesn’t want to be nice. She wants to get things done,” says a fellow supervisor.

    These (so-called) “progressives” are absolutely feckless and pathetic — and Ronen is definitively the worst of the bunch.
    These folks aren’t progressive, they’re all reactionaries for the status quo — San Francisco style.

    Ronen doesn’t get anything done. Ronen’s forte is not getting things done. In fact she actively works against getting things done.

    Ronen’s core campaign promise was to get 5000 units of (so-called) “affordable” housing built in her District within 10 years.

    Q: How many units of affordable has she been responsible for even just initiating — much less actually getting built — in the 2 years since she taken office?

    A: Zero.

      1. The project was initiated prior to Ronen’s promise to create 5000 units of housing and prior to becoming supervisor.

        She had absolutely nothing with any of the Mission District affordable housing projects currently in the pipeline and she has no provided no strategy or program for achieving her promised 5000 units — Nothing.

        Meanwhile I know of 8 deeply affordable housing units (@ 50% AMI) that she was instrumental in thwarting — Robert Tillman’s project at Mission and 25th.

    1. Ms. Kraus,

      She got something done for me and my block.

      She got the entire maze of crosswalks at the intersection
      of 14th and Valencia repainted 18 days after my requests
      thru 311 when they told me to call back in 30 days if nothing
      had happened.

      The intersection is major and the eastern side is in Hillary’s
      district and the western (where I live) is in Rafael’s.

      I followed up with Supervisor Ronen as Mandelman did
      not reply.

      Told her school started in 2 weeks and how dangerous it
      was.

      She had a crew out there a day later.

      So, I live in Mandelman’s district and Ronen is the one
      who follows up and get’s the job done?

      Guess which one I’m supporting for BOS prez?

      Go Giants!

      h.

  12. Campos guilt tripping Fewer is way more uncouth than Ronen openly campaigning to be board prez. I wouldn’t dream of telling someone that something is “beneath” them.

    The article does cast a lot of doubt on Ronen; I’d say pretty harsh considering the reported aspects here. I hope she gets the nod in the end.

    1. I disagree. I read the article to pretty much reflect the power playing at City Hall. Good luck with that. Ronen’s desire seems more transparent and hungrier for the job than her colleagues. I saw her at Manny’s and this is her style — open, passionate, articulate and clear. Probably has its pros and cons with a number of City Hall denizens. Personally, I hope she gets it, though we all realize that in the constellation of political power, the President of the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco emits more light than heat.

      1. There was a quick touch on a “fair question” made by Ronen (“Why should this not be a transparent process”), but it didn’t give that line of thought much credence or bandwidth. The article cast Ronen as having made a faux pas.

        I’m anxious to read an Eskenazi piece on SB 50. Respectfully, I found this one a little sensational.

        Good luck to you too.

  13. Ahh, I see, it’s a nuanced criteria for credit you’ve got going.

    Just because a project is in the pipeline doesn’t mean our supervisors aren’t needed to plunge them through. As you are well aware, these projects take years, and plenty of collaboration.

    Breed recently got a lot of credit for landing the step-up housing at the Bristol Hotel. I don’t have a problem with that, but all she did was make a phone call. That’s how it goes.

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