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.
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?
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?
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.”