Sunday, June 21, 2009

Meet The New Mayor, But First, A Cautionary Tale

HONGISTO: Long-serving Sheriff, Short-serving Chief, force of nature.

As our Absentee Landlord runs for Governor, one of the burning questions on the minds of those interested is who will succeed him. There are a number of people who are actively posturing like they want the job right now, but the most likely successor is someone who hasn't made himself noticed much recently - and that is something that people should be talking about.

But first, we have a cautionary tale for George Gascon, who as of late July, will be our new police chief. As big city police manager with experience in the quantitative performance school of police management pioneered in New York, Gascon represents one of the few substantial campaign promises that the Absentee Landlord has followed thorough on. It certainly took long enough, too.

While Gascon's main selling point is his experience being part of the Bill Bratton management regime in Los Angeles, many are also capitalizing on his recent exposure to - and survival in - the often surreal world of Arizona politics, which occasionally comes up with some real pieces of work - like Evan Meacham, and more to the point, the ever-entertaining Joe Arpaio. But dealing with Arizona's right-wing buffoons may pale in comparison to the demagogues on both the extreme left and right that a police chief must deal with in San Francisco. And this is where our history lesson begins.

Not with Charles Gain, the hyperpoliticized troll who was appointed by George Moscone and mostly did himself in by listening to Joe Freitas a little too much. For some reason Gain keeps getting trotted out as the object lesson in SFPD political mismanagement. Unfortunately, there is a much more germane - and recent - example. The best object lesson in how the city's political establishment can eat a police chief alive - even when that chief comes from that very same establishment - is Richard Hongisto.

Dick Hongisto eventually became a sort of rennaissance man of San Francisco government, serving as police officer, elected Sheriff, member of the Board of Supervisors, and as Assessor, before becoming police Chief under Mayor Frank Jordan as part of political appointment shuffle. Appointing Hongisto as Chief allowed Jordan to move Doris Ward to the Assessor's office, and Annemarie Conroy to the Board of Supervisors. It also allowed Hongisto, who made his name as a progressive activist street cop and founder of Officers for Justice, and as an equally progressive and popular Sheriff, to realize his own vision for SFPD as a progressively-run force which still emphasized respect for the law.

But Hongisto soon found himself under attack by both the hidebound police union and his former Progressive allies. Earlier as Sheriff, Hongisto burned bridges with some Progressives by being compelled to enforce the law: after spending time in jail for refusing to carry out the court-ordered mass eviction of the International Hotel, which was home mainly to indigent Filipino retirees, he finally carried out the order. In 1978, Hongisto was appointed as police chief in Cleveland by progressive mayor Dennis Kucinich. He was soon sent packing once he proved to be more popular than his boss. Now at the helm of SFPD, he would soon find himself in a similar position again, along with the burden of conservative opposition within his own rank and file.

Soon after his appointment, Chief Hongisto faced a major challenge: in the wake of the Rodney King Trial, riots in Los Angeles were soon mirrored by civil unrest in San Francisco. Fears that the deaths and massive property damage in Los Angeles would also manifest in the City prompted Jordan and Hongisto to react strictly to demonstrations - any that resulted in property damage or injury, or which deviated from agreed routes would be shut down. Local progressives didn't care much for that - they went ahead and crossed the established line of conduct, and the result was mass arrests. Additionally, Hongisto took measures, such as declaring the local jails full and processing and releasing rioters at the Santa Rita Jail across the Bay, which effectively took the wind out of the sails of any further organized unrest. Progressives were incensed, and looked for any opportunity to get Hongisto fired. They, with help of the right-wing leadership of the Police Officer's Association, would soon find that opportunity.

In response to police action against the demonstrations, a local LGBT publication, The San Francisco Bay Times, ran a cover which featured a satiric, demeaning caricature of Hongisto. Faced with continuing dissension in police ranks due to public reaction to the mass arrests, Hongisto asked a narcotics detective based out of Mission Station, Gary Delagnes, who was also vice president of the police union, to get some copies of the Bay Times and distribute them to his membership "to show them what kind of heat he was taking." Delagnes apparently misinterpreted the request - perhaps deliberately - as an order to seize over 2,000 copies of the paper out of public newsracks. Soon afterwards a "little bird" complained about missing newspapers and investigators found the papers being stored in a basement at Mission station.

The resulting hearings before the Police Commission were nothing if not a Soviet-style show trial par excellence. Hongisto was fired, and Delangnes and some other cops got off with suspensions and warnings. Indeed, after a public face-saving interregnum under moderate President Chris Cunnie, Delagnes now heads the police union.

As the new SFPD chief, George Gascon will likely have less emotional involvement and political baggage then Hongisto had. But unfortunately, the hazards faced are still the same.

Meanwhile, back to our next Mayor. An inordinate number of local politicos are acting as if Newsom is going to be the next Governor – despite the fact that his chances in that race are slim to none. Anyone with half a brain knows that either Jerry Brown or Tom Campbell will end up winning that one.

But let’s say he does win. Or, alternatively, he ends up having to leave office because one of his Caligulesque personality tics finally does him in with the public. Has anyone considered the fact that in such a scenario, our next Mayor will most likely be Aaron Peskin?

PESKIN: "So, how long do I have to wait for my closeup?"

Yep. You see, although the former Supervisor and Board President will have been out of the public eye for the better part of two years by the time he would be appointed, he is the most favored candidate for Mayor should Newsom leave office early.

Under the City Charter, the succession plan works like this: if the Mayor leaves before the due expiry of his office, then the President of the Board becomes Acting Mayor. But the Acting Mayor doesn’t get to keep the job for any specified time; unless the vacancy occurs within 120 days of a regularly scheduled election, the Board of Supervisors gets to nominate and then appoint, by majority vote, a new mayor. And they can appoint anyone.

Looking at who is on the Board now, and who will likely be elected to the Board by 2010 (Janet Reilly in District 2; Debra Walker in District 6; Carole Migden in District 10), a majority of them owe significant political favors to Peskin – including David Chiu, the current Board President and Peskin’s anointed successor on the Board.

Now before we start imagining horror scenarios of Aaron Peskin, emerging from the shadows like Pol Pot to forcibly migrate Downtown San Francisco to rural reeducation camps on Treasure Island, you may want to consider that of the last three mayors, the most effective and ultimately most true to a centrist agenda was Willie Brown – who initially ran from the Left with significant Progressive support. As Board President, Peskin ran the agenda like a Swiss watch, and has often shown a pragmatic side. But then again, that pragmatism may be put in abeyance when he is able to gain the power of incumbency as Mayor without a truly public vote.

It’s something to think about.

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