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Political battles raging for the souls of SF and LA

San Francisco’s Civic Center and city hall is the scene of marches and, apparently, great political intrigue.
San Francisco’s Civic Center and city hall is the scene of marches and, apparently, great political intrigue. AP

Los Angeles and San Francisco might be economic and cultural rivals, but politics in the state’s two most important cities are similarly harsh.

Both are dense mélanges of economic, cultural and ethnic “communities” that joust constantly. For those aspiring to elected office, they are minefields laid atop pits of quicksand. Now, both cities are suddenly in the throes of turmoil at or near the top of the local political pyramids.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee died of a heart attack in December and, predictably in a city where politics are blood sport, politicians have been waging guerrilla war over his successor.

Down south, Los Angeles’ police chief and superintendent of schools offered their resignations this month, igniting sharp maneuvering over who will fill two high-profile positions affecting the lives of millions.

Because she happened to be president of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors when Lee succumbed, London Breed became acting mayor, fully intending to run for the job this year.

But the city’s most “progressive” factions – and other would-be mayors – didn’t want her to have the advantage of incumbency. Last week, the board’s left-wingers forged a deal with moderates to bump Breed after scarcely a month on the job and install Mark Farrell, a supervisor and wealthy investment banker, as interim mayor.

Former Mayor Willie Brown, Breed’s most important backer, likened it to “a palace coup” – which is ironic, since Brown has been the master of political ju-jitsu as mayor, speaker of the Assembly and behind-the-scenes San Francisco kingmaker.

Only in San Francisco would Brown be seen as a crypto-conservative, but he and Breed are deemed by those to their left as too cozy with much-despised real estate interests.

Farrell’s win is an indirect boost for former state Sen. Mark Leno, a progressive favorite to become mayor, and the campaign leading up to the June election promises to be brutal.

There are no more fundamental issues for any community than how it is policed and how its children are educated. Both Chief Charlie Beck’s police department and Michelle King’s LA Unified School District have been buffeted by nonstop conflicts over the direction of their agencies in this uniquely diverse city.

As the Los Angeles Times put it, Beck – who came up through the ranks – “shepherded the department through crippling budget woes, a stubborn uptick in crime and a national outcry over police killings of black men.”

King, meanwhile, had been superintendent for just a year, chosen from among the huge district’s administrative ranks after a fragmented school board could not agree on an outside candidate.

King was the ninth superintendent in 20 years, underscoring the difficulty of running a district with immense numbers of poor children and beset by serious financial problems and low academic performance.

The basic issue in both appointments is whether to once again tap insiders who would provide continuity or bring in someone to shake up things. Both agencies have gone through such outsider-led shakeups in the past with very uneven results

Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public-interest journalism venture. Go to calmatters.org/commentary.