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Where Has All the Acrimony Gone?

Members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors seem to get along with each other better than ever. But, some activists are asking, at what cost?

Raise your hand if you'd rather kiss than fight. City supervisors, sworn in to office this January, are less willing to air their dirty laundry in public.

After David Chiu’s unanimous re-election as President of the Board of Supervisors, some City Hall observers have noticed that San Francisco’s politics—though still marked by factional struggles between moderates and progressives— has grown less fiery. Where Board meetings were once a circus of flying F-bombs and exploding personalities, they are now characterized by the bland pallor of general agreeableness. Says former Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who spent several years as ringmaster, “In this age of civility, all the members of the board pretend to get along with each other in public. I think they forget that civil discourse has to involve discourse.”

San Francisco’s Era of Good Feelings extends even to one of the city’s most beleaguered minorities—the party of Lincoln. Harmeet Dhillon, the Chairwoman of the San Francisco Republican Party, says that the SF GOP endorsed supervisor David Chiu in his most recent supervisorial race (an endorsement that she says he asked for) because “he’s demonstrated good leadership, compromise, and reasonability.” Dhillon gives some of the credit to the change in personalities. “Under Aaron Peskin, the Board was contentious, fractured, and out of touch. At least David Chiu answers my phone calls.”

Over the course of his political career, Chiu, who usually finds himself in the middle of the city’s political spectrum—what he calls "the center-left"—has been endorsed by the local organizations of the Democratic, Republican, and even Green parties. He agrees that City politics have grown less outwardly acrimonious, joking that, "San Francisco politicians are not calling each other drug addicts or alcoholics anymore. Except for the nudism activists, it must be a more boring time to be a political reporter."

However, Chiu is only one example of the larger changes that have altered the city's political process. Part of the story is the decline in power of the progressive neighborhood-oriented bloc, which has left the moderate faction in a strong position. Another component is Mayor Lee's low-key vibe.

But does this collective agreeability impose unintended costs?

Some political activists charge that the current group of supervisors is less of a deliberative body and more of an echo chamber. Marc Bruno, a North Beach activist who ran against (and was soundly defeated by) Chiu in 2012, charges that “Chiu has a tendency to feel that if a large developer wants to build at a certain height but the prior limit was for some lower height, that good government is to slip the difference down the middle. He wants to be a referee for two tremendously imbalanced teams. You can’t be a fair ref for a fixed game.”

Local one-named Libertarian activist Starchild (named by SF Weekly as San Francisco's best political activist/bisexual escort) argues that “although it’s convenient for the establishment to portray it as so, not all parties are being brought to the table.” He believes that many local politicians lack “a lot of strongly held core values or convictions.” He wants the Board to open up itself to more public questioning by more prominently publishing its correspondence and ending its practice of submitting questions to Mayor Ed Lee ahead of his monthly “Question Time” appearances. (When asked to defend Question Time, one City Hall insider responded, “We’re stuck with it because Chris Daly hated Mayor Newsom and passed a vague bill. It’s a vestige. Doing nothing might be a better answer.”)

Chiu agrees with critics who say that more recent groups of Supervisors have worked with less open rancor than in the past—a development he applauds. He argues that the Board is more likely to compromise now than in the past. “We aren’t a family that thinks all alike,” he says, "but we still have to collectively move the city forward."

Whether for better or worse, the new public tone has undoubtedly shifted policy. For example, Peskin argues that his board would have struck a harder bargain on behalf of the city during the America’s Cup negotiations, a tactic that a current Board member believes would have scuttled the deal altogether ("quickly"). 

Many, including Chiu, also believe that the successes of the ballot measures last November—ranging from business taxes to affordable housing funds—came from the Board’s new tone. "It was much less likely that the mayor and the board would sit down with stakeholders for six months before an agreement was reached. More often, the old way was complete victory or complete defeat.”

Will the newfound good feelings last long? Only time will tell—but don't bet on it.

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