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Ed Lee: Slouching Toward City Hall

The mayor is booed heartily at his inauguration. And now the fun begins.


Mayor Ed Lee was inaugurated today and the only people who seemed excited about the event were the protesters who crashed the party. It’s not often a city witnesses a mayor limping into his third swearing-in.

But that’s the life of Edwin Mah Lee, always an extremely challenged politician who now finds himself in the midst of an extremely challenging stretch in the city’s history. Lee’s popularity is plummeting, his coalition is fragmenting, and the city’s once-flush budget is now leaking to the tune of $100 million. Like a parched man on a life raft, he finds himself adrift in a sea of money, with not a drop to appropriate. And all this despite the vanishing unemployment, a parodic real-estate boom, and, no joke, a joint hawking a $100 pizza coated in gold.

The tasks awaiting Lee on the cusp of his third term are herculean: Solve a housing crisis that has, thus far, resisted the city’s construction efforts; end a homeless crisis that feels increasingly like an out of control wildfire; and soothe increasing rancor over police use-of-force following the killing of Mario Woods. Whether Lee will be able to mitigate any of these situations—or, as his critics constantly bemoan, will instead align his priorities with those of his wealthy tech backers—is the multibillion dollar question. As is, more fundamentally, this: What Ed Lee are we going to get?

“Anyone who knew Ed Lee before he became mayor is pretty confident he can bring people together and find consensus,” says a longtime City Hall insider. “People who only know Ed Lee as mayor might have more doubts.”

Actually, even those who propelled Lee into power are expressing their doubts. His onetime patron Willie Brown kindly labeled him “a lame duck” in his Chronicle column. Longtime booster turned bitter enemy Rose Pak has told anyone who’ll listen that Lee is a prisoner of the palace, cloistered and controlled by his top aides (a message she recently told him to his face).

And this is all coming after what should have been a crowning achievement in Lee’s career: A rousing reelection after a campaign in which he barely had to break a sweat. But November’s electoral victory, and the passing of several measures supported by the mayor, masks what has otherwise been a disastrous swoon for the administration. In truth, Lee’s finest moment in the past year and change may have come last winter, when the city’s political consultants and big-dollar donors successfully spooked state senator Mark Leno into skipping a mayoral run. After that, Lee bumbled through his subsequent coronation as citywide discontent grew, tallying an unimpressive 56% win against a motley troupe of underfunded protest candidates, and watching his handpicked appointee for District 3 supervisor, Julie Christensen, get thumped by Aaron Peskin.

As a result, Lee took his oath of office today a badly wounded politician, flanked by a newly reinvigorated and adversarial board, helmed by his ablest critic—a man whom he needlessly and hubristically goaded back into political office. Glum predictions of today’s ceremony posited by Lee’s City Hall colleagues all came true: loud and embarrassing protests, awkward embraces, and listless readings of platitudes off of a teleprompter. 

Those hoping for bold new steps to combat this city’s ailments can’t be pleased with Lee’s response to a newly announced $100 million budget deficit—he’s ordering across-the-board 1.5% departmental cuts, the most reductive of reactions. “That’s what politicians do when they want to avoid a lot of fights,” says San Francisco State political science professor Jason McDaniel. But that’s not going to save Lee from channeling Ronda Rousey’s punching bag. The masses—and those elected to lead them—are growing feistier. Across-the-board cuts require a belief that all departments are created equally. Well, guess what: They’re not. Would it make sense to cut resources to, say, the Treasurer or Department of Parking and Traffic, which would then employ fewer tax collectors or parking control officers? How does that square with the administration earlier gifting specific industries with tax breaks? Not well. “I think,” says McDaniel, “it is very legitimate to criticize the mayor on tax breaks and the spending side.”

Even more worrisome for the mayor is the fact that he may now be assailed by market forces vastly beyond his control. Lee takes his oath today as China’s stock slide has grown so extreme that the nation simply curtailed its stock trading. If worldwide markets dampen this city’s pension-investment returns, the difference must  be made up out of the general fund. That means more cuts at a time when the city is in no mood for austerity measures.

Regardless of what happens to the economy, the collegiality that marked the mayor’s early days—allowing consensus measures such as pension reform—will be difficult to reprise now. Asked to predict the events of the coming days and weeks, a longtime city politician offered a heartfelt desire that we’d see a Lee more like the one who, long ago, protested on City Hall’s steps, rather than the politician skewered by today’s City Hall protesters. “Ed," this politico reminded us, "has a good soul.” 

That, and $100 million, will keep his administration from further floundering.

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