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Steve Kawa, Mayor Ed Lee’s chief of staff and longtime City Hall power broker, to retire

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San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s Chief of Staff Steve Kawa plans to retire from his post at the end of June. (Mike Koozmin/2014 S.F. Examiner)

The man who has acted as City Hall’s most influential behind-the-scenes power broker for three consecutive San Francisco mayors is stepping down from his post at the end of June.

The retirement of Steve Kawa, 55, often referred to as the shadow mayor, was officially announced by Mayor Ed Lee in an email to his staffers on Thursday afternoon.

“It has been a great honor to work on behalf of the city I love for so many years,” Kawa said in a statement. “Above all, I am proud of our collective efforts to make this city an inclusive, fair and just place for San Franciscans.”

Kawa rose through the ranks of city government to become a top aide for Willie Brown soon after Brown was elected mayor in 1995. In 2003, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom hired Kawa as his chief of staff. Lee has kept Kawa in that same post since he was appointed interim mayor in 2011.

In 1991, Kawa, from Lowell, Mass., got his first job at City Hall working as a legislative aide for then-Supervisor Tom Hsieh.

Kawa, whose annual salary is $211,700, is retiring as his husband, Dan Henkle, is also retiring from his job at Gap Inc.

Lee praised Kawa’s accomplishments around labor negotiations, pension reforms and The City’s budget in a statement Thursday. “Steve has helped shape the policies and the values of this city for the better,” the mayor said.

Named as Kawa’s successor is Jason Elliott, who has been serving as the mayor’s deputy chief of staff. Elliott first joined the Mayor’s Office in 2009 as Newsom’s policy advisor, after working for Newsom’s failed campaign for governor, and stayed on to work in Lee’s administration.

For the Lee administration, Kawa marks the latest high-ranking staffer to call it quits as the mayor, who was re-elected in November 2015, is serving out his final years in office. The next mayor elected in 2019 will likely bring in his or her own team.

Olson Lee, the Mayor’s Office of Housing director, announced his retirement effective June 1 last week. In April, one of Lee’s top advisors, Tony Winnicker, resigned from the administration.

Winnicker and Kawa were both mocked by the late Rose Pak, a Chinatown community leader, as the “two baldies” as she lambasted the pair for controlling the mayor as a “puppet” while catering to the tech community at the expense of the interests of communities like Chinatown.

Kawa’s influential position to build the power of moderate mayors often made him the target of criticism by San Francisco’s progressive politicians.

During a September editorial meeting with the San Francisco Examiner, Supervisor Aaron Peskin went so far as to suggest Kawa should retire.

“I think he has helped create this kind of politics of embattlement,” Peskin said at the time. “It’s not an open, gregarious administration. It’s not like they want to partner with people or work with people. It’s very guarded, it’s very insulated.”

Political consultant Jim Ross said in September that City Hall operated largely on relationships and that over the years Kawa has forged many of those.

“So many people know [Kawa]. He has an ability to get things done that would be hard to replicate in any other staffer,” Ross said. “When it comes to implementing policies, there’s nobody better.”

BART Board of Directors member and former Supervisor Bevan Dufty met Kawa early on in his career and the two became good friends. Kawa called Dufty Thursday to tell him the news.

Dufty, reflecting on Kawa’s legacy and drive, said that Kawa came to San Francisco to be an openly gay man and pursue his interest in a political career, something he thought wouldn’t be possible in Massachusetts.

Dufty suggested that Kawa’s success in San Francisco, which included marrying his husband and adopting two children, was part of Kawa’s inspiration for the decades-long service.

“I think he’s always wanted to repay that,” Dufty said.

Dufty specifically praised Kawa for helping to establish the San Francisco LGBT Community Center.

Many on Thursday were left wondering what the loss of the powerful captain of the political ship, who applied considerable pressure on members of the Board of Supervisors, will mean.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who represents the Mission, said that with no longer having the “man behind the mayor for decades” at City Hall, “San Francisco right now is at a crossroads and I think a new direction is exactly what we need.”

Ronen said she looked forward to meeting with Elliott to discuss the big needs of her district, including affordable housing and addressing homelessness.

Supervisor Ahsha Safai said the news of Kawa’s retirement took him by surprise. He assumed Kawa would have stayed on to the end. “He’s been a great public servant,” Safai said. “I think he will be missed.” Safai said Kawa often knew more about city departments than the department heads themselves.

Former Supervisor John Avalos, who served for eight years representing District 11 that includes largely working class neighborhoods like the Excelsior, and before that as a board legislative aide, said Kawa “fought hard to maintain Room 200’s [the Mayor’s Office’s] allegiance to the most powerful economic players and interests.”

Avalos said that Kawa used a “cautious” approach when running city government and “that left bolder efforts that could have made a difference on San Francisco’s growing inequality off the table.”

Avalos added, “He’s been the political muscle behind Mayor Lee and it’ll be interesting to see what becomes of Mayor Lee after Kawa retires.”

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