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Who's Got Clout?

Chris Roberts | November 22, 2012 | Story Politics

Ed Lee may ultimately call the shots, but San Francisco’s executive branch doesn’t operate in a bubble—especially not with the Rose Paks and Ron Conways of the world vying with old-guard downtown dealmakers for control of city government. To figure out who has the most juice these days, we asked seven political observers to rank, in ascending order, the San Francisco cohorts with the best seats at the mayor’s table.

7. The Die-Hard Left (Liberal members of the Board of Supervisors, Tenderloin Housing Clinic honcho Randy Shaw, Haight-Ashbury activist Calvin Welch, the Chinese Progressive Association)

Although he’s a proud centrist now, ex–activist lawyer Lee can occasionally be swayed by his former progressive brethren. “Ed Lee’s civil rights background has a way of influencing some of his decisions,” says Joshua Arce, executive director of the environmental advocacy nonprofit Brightline Defense. “That social- justice value isn’t something we had under [Lee’s predecessor Gavin] Newsom.”

6. Organized Labor (S.F. Labor Council head Tim Paulson, UA Local 38’s Larry Mazzola Sr., Building and Construction Trades Council’s Michael Theriault, Police Officers Association head Gary Delagnes, UNITE HERE Local 2, SEIU 1021)

“When labor is united,” says political consultant Maxwell Szabo, “they’re very powerful.” Unfortunately for labor, now is not one of those times. Its main task these days is muscling enough money and jobs into the budget every June to keep its members happy. And the purple-shirted army of SEIU 1021 didn’t do itself any favors by endorsing Lee’s opponents for mayor (or by selecting longtime foe Chris Daly as its political director).

5. The Old Downtown “Jobs” Gang (Bay Area Council, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, Building Owners and Managers Association, S.F. Association of Realtors)

Lee may have committed a gaffe when he called PG&E a “great company that gets it” less than a year after the San Bruno disaster and a day after a Cupertino condominium exploded due to a leaky gas main, but he was merely doing his job—that is, staying chummy with the “downtown coalition.” Still, things aren’t all peachy with big business: “We have a lot of large financial services firms that are nervous about what [Prop. E, Lee’s successful new payroll tax measure] will look like,” says Steve Falk, Chamber of Commerce CEO and President.

4. Big Development (Lennar Corporation, China Development Bank, Golden State Warriors, America’s Cup organizers)

There’s clearly room in the inner circle for anyone who can transform the city’s skyline or waterfront—even if you later decide, as Larry Ellison did with Piers 30–32, that it’s not worth the trouble. Projects like the redevelopment of Treasure Island and Hunters Point Shipyard are guaranteed “to survive the next [tech] bubble,” says Eve Batey, editor and publisher of SFAppeal—which means that the developers underwriting them are, politically speaking, “the real cash-money.”

3. Tech Titans (Angel investor Ron Conway, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, Zynga CEO Mark Pincus, Square CEO Jack Dorsey)

These Boom 2.0 figures provided much of the impetus behind Lee’s tax reforms— they employ a lot of people but sell very few goods, perfect for a gross receipts tax instead of a payroll tax. Conway has bankrolled multiple Lee endeavors (and many other things—see page 94 for the full sweep), and in return has netted favorable policies for portfolio companies. “The big shift [under Lee] has been to Conway and to people in the tech world,” says David Latterman, Principal at Fall Line Analytics. Chris Daly concurs. “Ed Lee likes things that are cool. And right now, tech is very cool.”

2. Willie’s World (Former mayor Willie Brown, mayoral chief of staff Steve Kawa, connected attorney Steven Kay, Public Utilities Commission head Harlan Kelly, city administrator Naomi Kelly)

At Lee’s inauguration, Brown informed him that friends were in the room. Surprise, surprise: Brown’s friends, like Kay and longtime Room 200 gatekeeper Kawa, are now Lee’s friends too, and Kawa may even outlast Lee’s administration. Other appointments nearly guaranteed to live beyond Lee’s term—Harlan Kelly to lead the PUC and Naomi Kelly to lead the Office of the City Administrator—have gone, tellingly, to Brown loyalists.

1. The Chinatown Connection (Rose Pak, CCDC executive director Norman Fong, community organizer David Ho, consultant Enrique Pearce, ex–mayoral staffer and deputy director of CCDC Malcolm Yeung)

There’s plenty of fuel for a conspiracy fire: Friends of Pak bankrolled the “Run Ed Run” campaign, and Pearce, who ran it, continues to win loads of consulting work. Yeung, a neophyte with little governing experience, is nonetheless rumored to be a future supervisor appointee, and Ho’s army of volunteers is frequently deployed to aid Lee’s allies. For Pak, Lee represents something of an endgame: She knows that her sway over the mayor’s office will never be as strong as it is while Lee is its occupant.

Sources: Eve Batey, Editor/Publisher, SFAppeal; David Latterman, Analyst/Lecturer, USF; Chris Daly, Political Director, SEIU 1021; David Waggoner, attorney; Joshua Arce, Executive Director, Brightline Defense; Maxwell Szabo, Consultant; Sharen Hewitt, Former Adviser to Wille Brown and Executive Director, Visitacion Valley Nonprofit.

Read More: Rose Pak is Winning

Originally published in the December 2012 issue of San Francisco.

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