Former Assemblymember Tom Ammiano remembers his biggest beef with Steve Kawa, chief of staff to Mayor Ed Lee, who just announced his retirement. Kawa had proposed scaling back Healthy San Francisco, The City’s universal healthcare program, within a year of the Affordable Care Act’s passage.
“I came back from Sacramento [to meet] with the mayor, who [was] basically new, and Steve,” Ammiano said. “I said, ‘Hands off this, it doesn’t need to be fucked with.’”
But Kawa argued the ACA’s passage made Healthy SF redundant, which Ammiano said was “bullshit, bullshit, bullshit,” because many people fell between the cracks of President Barack Obama’s grand health care plan.
Ammiano noted how Lee faded away from the discussion.
“It became Kawa’s meeting, and the mayor became a bit of an ornament.”
That’s something I frequently heard from many wary of angering the mayor’s right hand: Pull back the curtain, and Kawa often takes center stage while the mayor sticks to the sidelines.
The Mayor’s Office declined requests for comment Monday.
Many speculate — often in whispers — that Kawa was the link keeping Mayor Willie Brown’s pro-downtown, often fiscally conservative ethos alive in Room 200 (the Mayor’s Office) as a “Shadow Mayor.” Others described Kawa as the Mr. Hyde to Lee’s Dr. Jekyll.
To wit: Though Lee frequently describes his style as heavy on consensus, and publicly backs away from insults and sharp battles, behind the scenes Kawa rewards politicians who play ball, often during budget negotiations, and freezes out those who don’t.
“Steve Kawa has built a moat around the mayor and drowned out everything,” Rose Pak, the political organizer, told me before she died last year.
Both she and Kawa battled for the mayor’s ear, of course. Yet many sources on background described Kawa as the mayor’s cudgel, who would beat back supervisors, unions and more.
Some argued that power was used for good: His stewardship cut the fat from budgets that otherwise may be stuffed by supervisors’ pet requests, and when former Mayor Gavin Newsom increasingly flew on autopilot as he eyed future office, Kawa ran The City.
Still, Pak said his power was fear, “inflated” by his reputation. But as far as she was concerned, Kawa was a failed strategist, like the Jed York of local politics.
One of Kawa’s worst bets, she said, was the appointment of Julie Christensen for District 3 supervisor, which led to now-Supervisor Aaron Peskin coming out of retirement to clean Christensen’s clock for the seat — and also to a resurgent band of progressives.
He also notably bungled labor negotiations with the union of Muni operators in 2014, and needed Brown to take over and save the day.
Despite his long stint behind the scenes, no San Franciscan ever voted for Kawa.
“I think most San Franciscans would be surprised to know that city government for [nearly] 20 years has been run by this Machiavellian figure,” said former Supervisor David Campos. A source close to the matter voiced uncertainty that Kawa would have been mayoral candidate and former state Sen. Mark Leno’s pick for chief of staff, should he become mayor.
So did Kawa read the tea leaves, and split? It’s hard to say. Also, a quieter final two years in Lee’s term gives progressives a less controversial figure to attack in a future mayoral run.
One last note on Kawa:
People often accuse Mayor Ed Lee of being “controlled” by one person or another, from billionaire and major tech-ally Ron Conway, to Kawa, Brown or even Pak.
I like to give Lee a little more credit. Personally, I think his leadership style is to partner with louder voices or boisterous personalities when he believes in their mission — and to drift from them (as he did with Pak) when he disagrees with them.
Either way, there’s no doubt Kawa was influential. What we may see now is Lee unchained from his notoriously iron-fisted advisor.
I’m curious to meet that mayor.