When 38-year-old David Chiu first accepted the gavel to lead the Board of Supervisors two years ago, he was the freshly elected, political newcomer living in the shadows of his mentor, progressive leader Aaron Peskin.
It was largely thought Peskin orchestrated the ascension of the rookie politician to the board presidency over more veteran members of the board to retain control over the legislative body from the wings.
Two years later, Chiu is emerging as a formidable politician in his own right, making political plays with the best of them, as it appears Chiu has gained the backing of hardened, experienced Chinatown political heavyweights.
In reclaiming the coveted post as leader of San Francisco’s legislative body Saturday, Chiu made an effort to recast his image by condemning the dysfunction and political pettiness of the past.
The representative of the Chinatown and North Beach neighborhoods assumed office two years ago with the strong backing of core progressives, but regained the most powerful post on the board without their votes. The position keeps Chiu in the political spotlight, strengthening his presumed bid for mayor in November.
Chiu was elected in 2008 with the blessing of former board President Aaron Peskin, who is a progressive political power now serving as chair of the Democratic County Central Committee. But since assuming office, Chiu began distancing himself from the far-left progressive movement.
Chiu, who won the post in an 8-3 vote with the backing of moderates unlike two years ago, spoke of a legislative body functioning much differently than under the rule of the Class of 2000 progressives, who came to power a decade ago, ushered in by voters fed up with then Mayor Willie Brown. The remaining members of that class, including Supervisor Chris Daly, were termed out of office Saturday morning with the swearing in of four new members, including Chiu’s longtime friend Jane Kim.
“We are going to have to move beyond the past, move beyond the past oppositional politics of personality, where if the mayor or some members of the board take one position others have to take a position in opposition,” Chiu said. “We were voted into office to get things done.”
Supervisor Eric Mar said the new board represents a “maturing” of progressives, but also signifies “an evolution and change of the progressive movement in San Francisco.”
The big rift between Chiu and progressives came to an explosive head Tuesday when Daly slammed Chiu for supporting City Administrator Ed Lee for interim mayor, which Daly said was the “biggest fumble in San Francisco political history.” He faulted Chiu for essentially turning on the progressive movement and siding with the more moderate political power base, lead by the likes of Gavin Newsom, Willie Brown and Chinatown
political force Rose Pak.
Supervisors David Campos, John Avalos and Ross Mirkarimi, whose roots are strongest in San Francisco’s progressive politics, refused to vote for Chiu on Saturday.
Previous board presidents have attempted to use the post as a launching pad for career advancement with varying success. Peskin was an effective leader of the 11-member legislative body, serving back-to-back terms while steering the board on a course toward more influence and relevance in The City.
Former presidents of the Board of Supervisors include Matt Gonzalez, who came extremely close in besting Gavin Newsom in a race for mayor; Quentin Kopp, who went on to become a state senator; and Tom Ammiano, who is currently serving in Sacramento as an assemblyman.
Among the president’s chief powers is the appointment of supervisors to serve on the Board’s seven committees. The committees, like congressional committees, can advance the career of a supervisor and make them politically powerful. The chairing of the board’s budget committee is an extremely important post, as groups vying for funding often court and curry the favor of the chairman during budget deliberations.
Committees are also significant in that they vet proposed legislation, and proposals can be killed by committees or amended, but a recommendation for approval nearly guarantees passage at the full board. Supervisors who fall out of favor with the board president can find themselves in “Siberia,” as city insiders call it, when a supervisor is appointed to serve on a less-relevant committee.
Several Board of Supervisors presidents have used the position to further their political careers.
1970-1971, 1974-1975, 1978
- Elected mayor of San Francisco in 1979
- Elected U.S. senator in 1992
1976-1977, 1978, 1982
- In 1986, succesfully ran for state Senate
- In 1998, appointed judge in San Mateo County
- Serves on California High-Speed Rail Authority
- Elected to the California Assembly in 1996
- Elected as California secretary of state in November 2002
- Serving as a member of the California Assembly, representing the 13th district
- Narrowly lost to Gavin Newsom in the 2003 mayor’s race
- Ran for vice president as running mate of Ralph Nader in 2008 presidential election