Good to be Bad: Chris Daly on the Record

“They cut off Main Street for me and sent me on the back roads,” former supervisor and current Market Street bar owner Chris Daly told CitiReport in a wide-ranging interview last week.

“I couldn’t pass any meaningful legislation, because by the end I knew that (former supervisor) Bevan Dufty would be a fourth vote for any veto,” said Daly. Instead, Daly handed off legislation and policy priorities to his allies on the Board of Supervisors, notably John Avalos, his former City Hall aide.

“I talked to Chiu and agreed to support him for Board President if he would make Avalos the Budget chair,” Daly said of one play to keep his priorities moving forward.

The plan also called for wielding power through the city’s Democratic County Central Committee, which was accomplished with a strong majority in 2008.

“We got creative in 2008,” Daly explained. “We backed Obama, and the result was that we took over the party. It was a great campaign. Maybe not such a great President, but a great campaign. We pulled off a miracle in 2008 and so we always had that voice.”

Getting Things Done

The post-mortems on Daly and “that voice” as he left office was that his departure would bring “civility” to City Hall and while also rejecting “ideological” politics in favor of “getting things done.” Board President David Chiu’s statement on being re-elected Board President on January 7 was a back door valedictory aimed at Daly: “”None of us were voted into office to take positions; we were voted into office to get things done,” Chiu said.

It is Daly, however, who holds the record for getting things done. He authored more legislation that became law than any other supervisor – more than 150 ordinances Daly told The San Francisco Examiner — and wrote more charter amendments (12) approved by the voters than anyone else on the Board.

His accomplishments include forging a way past the stalemates on housing and development, winning safety requirements in residential hotels that have sharply reduced fires and subsequent loss of housing, and forcing action to repair a school that was long promised a major rehab but which continually fell off the list, impacting a student body that was largely Hispanic and African American. In his final months in office, facing a near unanimous consensus to rush headlong into an embrace of Larry Ellison’s America’s Cup demands, it was Daly who pressed questions that forced the city negotiators to rethink what San Francisco needed in the deal.

One measure of Daly’s accomplishments can be found in former mayor Newsom’s grab for credit that the city’s budget delivered services despite reduced revenues. It was Daly who chaired the budget committee for half of his ten years on the board, mitigating Newsom’s cuts to the city’s safety net. Newsom also sought credit for new housing production, particularly affordable housing, but the facts are that Daly crafted the compromise that is delivering nearly 3,000 units of new housing with a high percentage of it at affordable levels.

Trinity, Rincon and CityPlace

“Trinity and Rincon were my effort to show how to come up with a redevelopment agenda,” Daly explained. Trinity, with 1,900 units of housing, and Rincon Hill, with over 700 units of housing, belong in Daly’s credit list as even Chronicle columnist Chuck Nevius noted in an April 2010 column, writing “Next thing you know we’ll be praising Daly for his thoughtful, level-headed negotiating skills.”

“It didn’t have to be Willie’s (Brown) way of fucking over the neighborhood to give the developer everything they wanted, and it didn’t have to be the Sue Hester and Calvin Welch slow growth of opposing everything and then lose,” noted Daly. “How do you deal with the effort to take a percentage of the profit and invest it in the community?”

“Trinity is my proudest accomplishment. It’s an example of a community that otherwise would not have the door open to them at City Hall. We secured rent control units and saved tenants from eviction. From a policy standpoint, we were able to have a development without conceding on matters of principle.”

While the Trinity compromise required the participation of others, from Randy Shaw to Jack Davis, is was Daly who held the levers and the political strength of will to put it over.

In the months before his final term ended, Daly also won plaudits for navigating a compromise on the Mid-Market stretch long considered blighted by deep discount stores and vacant lots.  CityPlace, a five-story multimillion-dollar shopping structure, won unanimous approval at the Board in September following negotiations with Daly. City Hall lobbyist Alex Clemens played an important role in crafting options that would meet the needs Daly saw and the developer’s interests. Nevius, a frequent and harsh critic of Daly, clinched the win for Daly when he wrote “this is the most significant, important and thoughtful project to appear on Mid-Market in decades. It is a testament to San Francisco local government with terrific work by Chris Daly.”

Daly, as expected, sees these accomplishments in terms of the people who will live, work and shop in San Francisco. Trinity’s tenants became friends through the process and Daly says his young son knows them by name because of the time they have spent together. The new CityPlace shopping center with its compromise on parking is measured by Daly by the ability of a parent with a child being able to shop conveniently, or for someone to carry away a purchase too large for public transportation.

Budget as Ground Zero

There are always choices involved, where one weighs who benefits from “getting things done” and it is here that charges of ideology are levied. The budget committee is Ground Zero.

“Give police and firefighters everything they want – that’s mainstream,” notes Daly. “In District Six, you are representing the central city who rely on services that are life and death. AIDS and HIV for example. Every year it has been about standing up to cut proposals that would have cost lives. It’s real people who I know who are in the balance.” One result: “I voted against the cops’ contract.”

Daly’s insistence at looking down the road to see what impact today’s decision will have on tomorrow’s city is one reason he is labeled as ideological. What works at City Hall is to take issues in small bites, and stepping back to see what is left of the pie is unwelcome.

Consider the past six years as City Hall has pieced off its waterfront from Candlestick Point around the northern waterfront to Treasure Island. Under two mayors, City Hall focused on meeting the demands of developers and entrepreneurs on the assumption that the ultimate result would bring jobs and private capital that the city could not muster on its own.

Lennar won rights to develop the former Hunters Point shipyard, including the right to obtain half of the city’s only state park to build luxury condos on the waterfront to improve its profits.

Larry Ellison hardballed his way into an unprecedented contract that turned over two northern waterfront piers for 66 years, added options for two more northern waterfront piers for 66 years, and gave development rights to a seawall parcel across from the Embarcadero.

At Treasure Island, Lennar won development rights while a partnership including San Francisco’s most prolific lobbyist won rights to build a marina on the island.

For Daly, the critical point in these deals was the return for the city and, more particularly, whether there would be an investment that benefited the city’s remaining lunch bucket workers whose wages push them to the margins of available housing.

Lennar, in a February 18, 2011 Bloomberg article, indicated that Hunters Point sales will start with prices at $525,000 for as many as 12,000 homes and that Treasure Island’s estimated 7,000 homes will average $800,000 and some may reach $2 million.

Daly sought to win support but failed to up the commitment for affordable housing at Hunters Point and Treasure Island, noting that in Hunters Point the price levels far exceeded what residents there could afford.

“It’s the last frontier,” Daly told CitiReport. “Politicians took advantage of these communities by promising to provide jobs that never materialized. The affordability levels are disconnected from the people who live there. Basically it is massive gentrification. If they can run out the rest of African Americans from San Francisco, then ‘eureka.’”

Daly tried a two-headed approach, seeking development terms that increased the percentage of affordable housing while also seeking to pass a citywide measure to fund affordable housing. Both efforts lost, with the Hunters Shipyard measure facing the biggest war chest ever put into play in a San Francisco election up to that time.

Daly was attacked for raising policy issues in what backers claimed was a simple development strategy. His temperament also became a flash point as critics suggested it reflected a lack of sober-minded green eyeshade analysis. That such a charge could gain credence suggests how much politics has shifted in a city that was once the fiefdom of Phil Burton and that still respects John Burton, both well-known for preferring a blunt instrument where others would use a scalpel and both of whom have more than a passing acquaintance with four-letter words to describe their opponents.

With the America’s Cup bid package, Daly was almost alone in raising questions on whether the deal was as good for the city as it was for Ellison – or even close to being as good. The more Daly raised questions, the greater became the public awareness that questions needed to be asked. He might not be the lone demonstrator facing down tanks in Tiananmen Square, but Daly certainly put himself squarely in front of a steamroller that was moving fast. The outcome was a change in the city’s proposal that caused Ellison to flirt with abandoning San Francisco and to try to find another, more willing, suitor. In the end, Ellison accepted the altered terms but with Daly headed out the door, negotiated further unspecified refinements with City Hall that have yet to be disclosed.

Talking a Blue Streak

Daly’s record and his political values are overshadowed by the public perception that he is a boor whose behavior falls far short of the etiquette expected at a Pacific Heights tea party. Manners matter but for Chris Daly not so much.

Even in leaving office, Daly’s public explosion at the Board meeting that determined the selection of the interim mayor again gave ammunition to those who wanted to see Daly as uncivil so that they could dismiss his political values and agenda. In the process, it also obscured the degree to which Newsom’s own departure, as well as the corps of acolytes around him, would alter an atmosphere poisoned by invective and insult coming from the mayor and his staff.

The future, particularly the near-term future of this year’s election for a full four-year mayor, concerns Daly.

Sitting in a lounge area in his bar, he leans forward, his body an exclamation mark on the points he makes in the interview. This is a quieter area, past the room with the long bar and the tables along the opposite wall, past the walk-in cloak room that houses pinball and arcade machines. The bar has not yet opened, but it is clear that Daly is down with the details, cajoling more beer deliveries as his customer base outgrows that of the prior owner, taking a press call or two about plumbers’ union official Larry Mazzola’s call for a boycott of a San Francisco business because Daly owns it.

“After the experience of the past decade, we have come too far to fade back into the shadows,” Daly says of the work he and other progressive allies did. “Progressives will put forward a high-profile candidate for mayor. We have to decide which of us that will be.”

“I am one of five, probably the least good of five,” Daly says. “The negatives are not insignificant.”

“The realignment at City Hall has been devastating for progressives,” says Daly. “We need to answer back. Our opportunity is this year.”

Invigorating the Progressive Agenda

Daly suggests that incorporating issues such as political corruption should refresh the progressive agenda, referencing the heightened influence of Willie Brown and the role of Rose Pak, among others.

Daly sees San Francisco’s ethics system as currently allowing for influence peddling when it comes to multi-million dollar contracts and key appointments while penalizing underfunded grass roots community groups that are politically active.

“Our ethics system really does penalize small and medium-sized groups over bookkeeping errors or listing a post office box, while the big boys can just choose to pay the fine” at little cost to themselves.

“If we can adopt this to our issues, then we can have a spirited run-off” in a mayoral election, says Daly.

Under circumstances favorable to Daly and progressives, the agenda of “getting things done” is easily understood to mean facilitating the interests of some of San Francisco’s most powerful and influential interests. The fact that they find a ready open door at City Hall doesn’t require much more than to count the number of lobbyist visits to Board President David Chiu last year (by CitiReport’s count, they totaled 159 lobbyists visits among those registered with the Ethics Commission).

Daly’s vision of including corruption – or at least influence peddling – as a significant part of a progressive agenda resurfaces in a new context a familiar progressive concern. It is an issue of class and wealth, and that democratic institutions are the best remedy to give voice to those without power, denied the ability and capacity and opportunity to participate in the decisions that affect their lives.

“We can not wait to advance the case,” says Daly. “We need that kind of showing.”

“Otherwise,” Daly says of the progressive spirit that feeds him and his allies, “we’ll have a good bar but I’m not sure what else.”


2 Comments on “Good to be Bad: Chris Daly on the Record”

  1. Clemens says:

    I just want to ensure credit is given where credit is due – the CityPlace lobbying effort was a testament to the power of teamwork, and the folks at HMS Associates did the lion’s share of lobbying work on that project.

  2. patmonk says:

    Waiting for Brother Thelonious. Will he ever come ?


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