As a younger man, Norman Yee was deeply involved in early childhood education. That is, he worked with toddlers. Now he’s the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
He may yet find this to be a transferable skill.
Yee was elected today by a 7-to-4 tally in the first round of deliberations, a quick flick of the knife that stood in marked contrast to the lengthy public comment that preceded the vote and the months of jockeying and recriminations and acrimony that strained the board’s so-called progressive majority to the breaking point.
And, perhaps, past the breaking point. Now everyone has to work with everyone else (or not). On actual issues. It escaped nobody that Yee required votes from moderate colleagues Ahsha Safai, Catherine Stefani, and Vallie Brown to carry him across the goal line. Nor that, with backing only from newcomers Shamann Walton, Matt Haney, and Gordon Mar, Ronen did not receive a vote from any of her prior colleagues.
City progressives, with an ostensible seven votes on this board, could not count to six — let alone the eight votes it would take to override a mayoral veto. Surely the mayor’s office did not miss this.
“This shouldn’t have been so hard. At the end of the day, the sad thing is, this is an amazing moment. We have the opportunity not just to fight with the executive branch, but say we were elected by progressive constituencies to fulfill a broad public agenda,” lamented a progressive City Hall dweller. “We have to get back to work. We have so much to do. It makes my armpits sweat just thinking about it.”
The knock on San Francisco is that, with broad-stroke agreement on core ideological causes, politicians tear each other down over personality issues. We can all argue about the why — but toxic personality debates set the tone for today’s vote. Supervisor Hillary Ronen and her colleagues Yee, Sandra Lee Fewer, Aaron Peskin and Rafael Mandelman have many fences to mend.
Ronen’s aggressive and very public campaign for the board presidency clearly resonated with her core cadre of supporters; scores if not hundreds of her backers, many of them Missionites, “came out for our hermana,” as speaker Roberto Alfaro put it.
The public comment process took the better part of two and a half hours. Yee was the preferred candidate of Chinese American political groups, and his supporters skewed heavily Asian. But the vast majority of the speakers made heartfelt appeals for Ronen to be elected board president, with many echoing her complaints of a misogynistic campaign mounted against her; she beamed and nodded appreciatively at speaker after speaker.
It did bring to mind the cavalcade of speakers who filed to the podium one January ago to advocate to this very same board to elevate acting mayor London Breed to the mayoral position — with many noting that to do otherwise would smack not only of misogyny but racism.
That board, including Ronen, instead opted to elevate Mark Farrell to the post. And, today, the supes went with Norman Yee. Because, in the end, this isn’t a vote of the people. It’s a vote of the Board of Supervisors.
Aye, there’s the rub.
Ronen and her trio of legislative aides wore matching outfits today: Black T-shirts emblazoned with Pepto Bismol-pink lettering reading “Emotional,” “Temperamental,” “Not Nice,” and, for Ronen, “Difficult.”
This was an overt reference to what Ronen today called “a sexist process,” in which she claimed to be assailed by such terms by unnamed colleagues, and, thereby, not presidential timber.
Online and in-person, Ronen and her allies decried what they described as a misogynistic campaign leveled against her. “I want to create a different version of what leadership looks like,” she told a Nov. 29 standing-room-only crowd at Manny’s on 16th and Valencia. “I never faced this type of misogyny that I faced in becoming an elected official.”
These accusations led to the acrimonious November text-message exchange between city Democratic Party chair and former Mission supe David Campos and Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, with the former accusing the latter of participating in an “organized campaign” against Ronen, the latter indignantly denying this, and both lamenting progressive supervisors’ well-worn tendency to squander legislative majorities via bitter, personal internecine squabbles.
“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.”
These fears were well-placed. Things grew only more fraught during the month of December and, even though Norman Yee is now your board president, that is only the case because three of his moderate colleagues voted to make it so.
As such, to some extent, Campos and Fewer’s fears did indeed come to pass. Despite a so-called progressive supermarjority, the moderates turned out to be relevant after all. They may yet continue to be so.
Ronen’s supporters can argue whether or not her progressive colleagues were entitled to be irritated that she enlisted allies to lobby them on her behalf — which, they complained, felt like a pressure campaign and was a poor substitute for a personal conversation.
But they were irritated. They were also irritated by the nebulous allegations of misogyny (none more so than Sandra Lee Fewer — intimations of a sexist cabal at work in City Hall would require her to either be a misogynist or too dim to realize she was being played by misogynists. Which is, when you think about it, a misogynistic thing to say.).
By the time Ronen recently announced that, if she was unable to obtain the necessary votes for president, she’d back Supervisor Shamann Walton — the mayor’s preferred candidate — it felt like a break had taken place and an iceberg was floating away from the ice sheet.
Ronen claims Walton, who represents the city’s underserved southeast, is a true progressive. And yet, her preference of a legislator with no track record at the board level as the most progressive option was taken by her colleagues as a kamikaze negotiating tactic, a self-serving move — and an extreme slap in the face.
It was also seen as validation for their initial consternation over her campaign for the board presidency.
Ronen and Yee apparently have different views of what it is to be a board president. For Ronen, a self-described organizer, this position would have offered her the opportunity to not only serve as a check on Mayor Breed, but address an activist agenda for the city’s most put-upon. “I feel a sense of urgency to make change,” she said today. In the past, she’s been described by colleagues as someone “Who doesn’t want to be nice. She wants to get things done.”
But her colleagues did not see this as a binary decision.
A deft board president can wield great power via selecting committee assignments, getting a leg up on legislation, and making commission appointments. But a great deal of the job remains inward-facing. Yee, like his predecessors, will figure to spend time massaging egos and settling disputes.
Yee is 69 years old. In two years’ time, he’ll matriculate to full-time grandpa status. Like Jerry Brown, this will be his terminal position; his leadership will not be focused on individual political advancement. But, if his avuncular style does indeed enable a cohesive board, he may well enable his younger colleagues. Perhaps even Ronen.
We are told, incidentally, that Mayor London Breed’s priority for board president was “anyone but Hillary Ronen.” Breed, city politicos explain, is someone who can be baited into a political misstep, and Ronen would have certainly been stoking those fires. But Norman Yee is the second-worst outcome for the mayor. Despite his affable exterior, Yee can be a stubborn man who is not easily swayed from his positions. “He will be a tough guy for her to negotiate with,” predicts a city power broker.
Yee is a person who moves at, to put it politically, a deliberative pace. How well his board presidency meshes with a 21st-century speed-it-up world remains to be seen.
Multiple sources have told me that Yee did not make any deals to get his three moderate votes, and made no promises to anyone — about committee assignments, endorsements, anything.
And he was rewarded for that, it seems. Just as Haney, Mar, Walton, and Stefani triumphed because they ran the most traditional, boots-on-the-ground, person-to-person campaigns in the general election, Yee has apparently come out on top in by doing the equivalent with his internal campaign for board president.
The outcomes of today, and the January 2018 meeting in which Mayor London Breed was demoted by the board, offer a stark lesson on the value of public comment.
And yet it was hard to ignore the support and love flowing Ronen’s way during that 150-minute, marathon public-comment period. This may have been an organized turnout, a stocked pond of supporters — but they sure did have nice things to say. Hillary Ronen may not be board president, but she isn’t going anywhere. The groundwork has been done for her to claim the mantle of the leader of this city’s left-leaning base.
It remains to be seen how Ronen fits into this new board. Will Ronen and her newcomer allies form their own clique of sorts? Will alliances come and go based on the issues? Time will tell. Every supervisor has professed a desire for togetherness but, with this group, togetherness remains aspirational.
“Today,” notes a City Hall observer, “marks the outcome of how people thought they wanted things in January of 2019. But people do change.”