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Fresh Face in a Shadowy Place

Scott Lucas | April 24, 2013 | Story Politics

Getting an audience with a City Hall politician usually involves a frustrating choreography. You show up at her office, only to find a front-desk staffer who pretends that she’s never heard of you. Then there’s a phone call to said politician, and you sit around for a while until another staffer shows up to escort you to the back office—where the pol makes you wait again while she finishes up an oh-so-important phone call.

But Katy Tang, the newly appointed supervisor for District 4, doesn’t play those games. When I arrive at her new office in City Hall, she practically sprints out to greet me. She’s loose and friendly and has a quick, infectious laugh. Her entrance, in fact, pretty much sums up her whole, short career in office—fast out of the gate and untroubled by rigmarole.

Just six days after being sworn in, Tang introduced her first ordinance: a technical cleanup of the language in the Planning and Administrative Code. (In contrast, it took Tang’s board colleagues an average of 44 days to introduce a bill.) She sounds humble when asked about it—“I have to say that the Planning Department did most of the work”—but the accolades, nevertheless, rolled in. Even before it went up for a vote, Board president David Chiu told her ‘Congratulations, Katy, you’ve passed your first bill. I wanted to be the first to tell her.”

It’s easy to pull for Tang on the basis of her personality alone, a local-girl-done-good from the Sunset. She’s close to her parents, who live in the district, and she loves yoga, the family dogs, movies about Paris, and running at Lake Merced. You get the sense that if she were ever in one of those mythical smoky back rooms where political horses are traded, she’d be opening windows and passing out biodegradable napkins.

Also refreshing is the fact that, unlike certain appointees by mayoralties past, Tang is well qualified for the post. She did two summer internships at City Hall in college, and her first job out of school was with Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Office of Public Policy and Finance. Then she spent more than five years as a legislative aide to Carmen Chu, working on a wide range of issues from constituent concerns to the city budget. “She was the right pick for the right reasons,” says David Latterman, a political researcher at USF, of Mayor Ed Lee’s decision to name her supervisor. “Not only do legislative aides know the issues, but they’re also the gatekeepers. Carmen didn’t answer the phones all day. It was Katy.”

Still, like anyone selected by the executive branch rather than elected by the citizenry, Tang walks a razor-thin line. If she votes in lockstep with Lee, she’s a lackey, a yes woman. But if she strays too far, she’s a turncoat. Indeed, the specter of Lee’s previous supervisorial appointee, Christina Olague, has loomed in every corner of City Hall since Tang was selected. Though many officials don’t seem to want to mention Olague by name (they studiously dodge the topic every time I bring her up—Lee refers to her only as “that particular supervisor in District 5”), the mayor’s first board appointment, and arguably his most egregious political mistake, is clearly on everyone’s mind. When Olague bucked Lee on several issues, particularly the crucial vote to keep Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi in office, Lee and his inner circle turned their backs on her, then worked actively to unseat her. Last November, Olague became the first incumbent to lose her spot on the board since the return of district elections in 2001.

So how does Tang avoid becoming another Olague? Watching her answer this question is a little like watching Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear turn back into plastic when a human enters the room. She leans back stiffly from the table and speaks slowly and carefully. “Whether you’re appointed or elected, your job is to serve your constituents in the best way you possibly can.” Does she feel any pressure to vote with the mayor? “Weighing all sides is the most important part of making decisions.” The message is clear: Olague’s fate plays no role in Tang’s thinking—or at least none that she’s willing to acknowledge.

When I ask Mayor Lee whether Tang should be worried, he says no—that compared to the ex-supervisor who shall not be named, Tang has much more community backing. “District 5, I have to admit, is the doughnut hole of city politics,” he tells me. “There are a lot of different voices there—from Haight-Ashbury, Hayes Valley, and Japantown—and it was confusing to make a decision. It still boggles me.” In contrast, he says, when he met with residents of District 4, “there was a consistency to what everybody was saying.” Adds Yumi Sam, president of the Taraval Parkside Merchants Association: “The whole community wanted Tang.”

Of course, the best thing Tang has going for her, politically speaking, is that she’s solidly on Team Lee. She considers herself a pro-business fiscal conservative, and she uses phrases like “trickle down” without self-consciousness. She supports the 8 Washington project, the mid-Market tax break, and the America’s Cup funding agreement that could put San Francisco on the hook for cost overruns. In other words, the mayor probably won’t need to twist her arm much. “She and Lee are going to be natural allies most of the time,” says Latterman. “Lee’s power base is middle- and upper-income Chinese families. That was who Chu represented, and that’s who Tang is going to represent.”

Even if Tang does take issue with her patron from time to time, sparks aren’t likely to fly. In fact, we could be in for a very low-key tenure with this appointee—which is just as Lee would have it. “From a political standpoint, Katy is the most obvious, no-brainer pick ever,” says Latterman. “She’s low drama—and nobody wants drama.”

Originally published in the May 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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