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Simplistic narratives at play in red-hot SF board president vote

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Supervisor Hillary Ronen speaks with her staff after her loss to Supervisor Norman Yee for President of the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

On Guard column header Joe

In the least surprising outcome in many moons at City Hall, the Board of Supervisors has a new president at its helm: Supervisor Norman Yee. The votes were largely counted weeks ago, and readers of this column will know the outcome was foreseen by many for quite some time.

Yee was elected amid an outpouring of defiance from the Mission community, who came out by the dozens to support Supervisor Hillary Ronen. But as with much in life, there were many twists in the convenient narratives the politicians told on Tuesday in the name of their election.

Yes it is true, nearly every public speaker in the nearly three-hour-long hearing was a Mission resident or activist, many were women, and many also spoke Spanish only, requiring translators to make their voices heard. That’s empowering.

But left out of the mouths of Ronen’s supporters, at least, was another community: San Francisco’s Asian Pacific Islander population and Chinese residents, who on Monday were buzzing about Yee’s prospects.

At the New Asia Restaurant on Pacific Avenue in Chinatown Monday night, dinner-goers mostly ignored the colorful, jumping red lions. The talk of the room was the impending board president vote, which was viewed mostly as a lock for Yee. That was welcome news for a community that once called a prominent mayor, Ed Lee, as one of their own, and that has seen its ranks in city commissions dwindle in recent years.

It’s also probably why I noticed political fixer Dave Ho with Supervisor Ahsha Safai of late. Ho helps campaigns, ostensibly on behalf of Chinatown, and Safai was one of the three moderate supervisors, along with Vallie Brown and Catherine Stefani, to push for Yee over Ronen.

“What it means to have a Chinese American board president at this time, at this moment, is what weighs so heavily for me,” Safai told the board Tuesday.

I’m sure the community reminded you of that plenty, too, Ahsha.

And yes, as Ronen’s supporters have pointed out, it is also true that at least one member of the progressive board wing made references to Ronen’s tenor, her so-called “emotional” nature, when trying to convince his colleagues not to vote for her.

That’s some straight-out sexist bullcrap, and it shouldn’t stand. The progressives need to live the truths they espouse, or they can get the hell out.

The accusation spurred Ronen and her aides to triumphantly, defiantly march to the board room Tuesday wearing t-shirts adorned with slogans like “not nice,” “temperamental,” and “difficult.”

But the progressive men weren’t the only ones backing Yee, and it is a convenient narrative to blame it all on sexism. Supervisor Sandra Fewer, an ardent advocate for the Chinese community, was incensed at the accusation.

You see, though the public often credits Supervisor Aaron Peskin as an omniscient mastermind pulling all the strings, to my understanding Yee and Fewer largely stumped for the win. Fewer strongly believed Chinese representation was at stake.

As the supervisors discussed the vote for president, she was visibly livid.

“This is not about individual power,” Fewer said, “this is clearly about collective power.”

It may have been a not-so-veiled attempt to call out Ronen’s ego. There’s a rabbit hole’s worth of backstory to infighting between the so-called Peskin camp and Tom Ammiano camp of progressives (Comprised of Ammiano, former supe David Campos, and Ronen). It’s an ongoing feud, an open sore that Tuesday was ripped open for all to see.

But Fewer’s comments may have also been a critique of Ronen’s ability to coalesce votes, one of the many echoes of a similarly momentous vote nearly a year ago.

It was January 23, 2018, when acting mayor London Breed walked into those very same board chambers, much like Ronen did Tuesday, without the votes in her pocket to come out a victor.

Breed lost her mayorship, for a time. Ronen lost the board presidency.

Neither exercised the skills to organize their colleagues’ votes behind the scenes, a skill perhaps not as important for a mayor, but vital for a board president.

It was clear by Christmas, at least, that Ronen didn’t have the votes. So why organize hours-long testimony by your constituents in a blazing fireball spectacle, despite knowing that you didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell?

She walked into City Hall with most insiders knowing she’d lose. Surely, she must have as well. This clearly occurred to her colleagues, who danced around the issue Tuesday.

“It is about the issues. We are legislators. We are lawmakers. That is the measurement we should judge ourselves by,” Peskin told the board just before they nominated Yee. Yet during this vote there have also been “narratives around gender, narratives around race, narratives around age, and experience.”

He could’ve been talking about the vote for mayor too.

Only a year ago, as the Board of Supervisors sat poised to choose its next mayor, Ronen made a now infamous, impassioned speech:

“So far, the dominant narrative about our vote today has centered on the identity of London Breed – that an African American woman who has overcome tremendous adversity should be chosen as interim (mayor),” she said. “I also want to say that I take identity and representation very seriously and think they are tremendously important in this race.”

But billionaire venture capitalists pushed the board on Breed’s behalf behind the scenes, Ronen argued. It wasn’t about racism, she said, but class and justice.

The roles were flipped: A year ago it was Ronen and her progressive allies facing accusations of racism, much as Ronen called out sexism against her own board presidency on Tuesday.

A year ago, Ronen voted in a white male venture capitalist, Supervisor Mark Farrell, to replace a black woman as mayor. That’s the convenient narrative, at least. Much like today.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

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