Will San Francisco Game of Thrones oust police commissioner?

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Three Game of Thrones characters at the infamous "Red Wedding" scene. Spoiler: it doesn't end well for them.
Image courtesy of HBO

Police Commissioner Angela Chan did not pay fealty to the proper lords and houses, sources say, and in a true to life Game of Thrones, she may now lose her office. The throne in question is a seat on the Police Commission, which Chan may be reappointed to by the Board of Supervisors today [Tues/29], but her chances don’t look good. 

In a political tussle reminiscent of House Lannister’s schemes against House Stark, political machines far larger than the idealistic Chan are churning to keep her from regaining her political office. The forces of Chinatown community leader Rose Pak and her fellow power brokers are backing potential replacement police commissioner Victor Hwang, whose sudden candidacy took many off guard. 

As first reported by Tim Redmond of 48hills.org, Pak’s political pushers dialed every supervisor and marshalled their armies, hellbent on unseating Chan. 

They may win, but not because Chan was a bad commissioner. Actually, the problem might be that she was too effective, and now people in power want her out.

Expanding the mayor’s power

In a Rules Committee meeting Apr. 17, backers of both candidates wore their house sigils, green or white buttons meant to support their chosen candidate, both of whom are seemingly very qualified.

On the one side, Hwang is an ex-assistant district attorney, ex-public defender, ex-nonprofit attorney, and advocate with over 20 years of experience holding police to task for their wrongdoing. He’s fought human trafficking and litigated against out-of-control cops. 

But the incumbent, Chan, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, has many similar qualifications. She also has a proven track record on the Police Commission: she crafted the Crisis Intervention Team, tasked with de-escalating standoffs with mentally ill offenders; advocated language access in the police force; helped to revise rules protecting children at school facing arrest; and opposed arming police with tasers.

Both candidates have an extensive list of backers. District Attorney staffers, the Anti-Defamation League, advocates from the Chinatown Development Center, and Randy Shaw of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic all wrote to supervisors backing Hwang. The Guardian even named him a “local hero” in our Best of the Bay issue in 2004.

But the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco Women’s Political Committee, members of the Central Americans Resource Center, Board of Education President Sandra Fewer, the local NAACP, and even a retired police officer all backed Chan. The Guardian also named her a local hero, in 2010. 

A change.org petition calling for her reappointment to the commission has 255 signatures, as of this writing. 

Chan hasn’t yet given up the ghost.

“I’m hoping the full board will recognize I work extremely hard,” she told the Guardian. “I look after the community, especially those who are most marginalized.”

Though many issues have political bents and political sides, one aspect of this tussle reveals the power play behind the curtain: the two candidates are competing for one empty seat on the commission, when there are actually two seats vacant.

Why fight over just one seat? 

The answer lies in political motivations insiders would only outline for reporters on background. You see, in a city where many commissions (see: SFMTA) are fully appointed by the Mayor’s Office, and therefore beholden to his whims, the Police Commission has a mechanism to dilute that power -- a minority of seats are appointed by the Board of Supervisors. The seat Chan and Hwang are fighting for is the supervisor appointed seat, and for now the mayor’s seat sits empty and uncontested.

Hwang was co-chair of Progress for All, which ran the Run, Ed, Run campaign for Lee's mayoral candidacy. If the question was really just about making Hwang a commissioner, the mayor could appoint him today with a snap of his fingers. But that’s not the point.

Many insiders, including ones that seemingly support Hwang, told the Guardian that Mayor Ed Lee has plenty of reason to usher Chan out and appoint Hwang in her place. The SFPD long pushed for tasers but found a formidable opponent in Chan, and the mayor would benefit from police support next election, they said. Others said her combative style ruffled people’s feathers, a seemingly legitimate complaint until you consider more cooperative boards like the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency define “cooperative” by mostly voting in unison and with little discussion, coincidentally also often in agreement with the mayor’s positions.

Angela Chan asks an SFPD station captain if officers use verbal means to de-escalate situations. 

That’s why Chan is dangerous; she’s a freethinker, and a loud one at that. By pushing the supervisors to appoint Hwang, we were told, the mayor would unseat a potential political liability, and net a freebie commission seat appointment in the deal. 

Win-win.

This isn’t to say Hwang is a bad guy. He longs for public service (nicknaming his practice the Ronin Law Firm), and expressed disappointment in political power struggles beyond his control.

“For me it’s not about Angela, it’s about the police commission,” he told the Guardian. “To give Angela credit, I think the work she’s done on Crisis Intervention Team and language access are important issues.”

And for his part, he said that though many political entities aligned with political powerbroker Rose Pak are pushing for his appointment, he wouldn’t be beholden to her, or them.

“Are Chinatown issues important to me? Yes, they’re very important to me,” he said. “Am I going to answer to one or two folks just because of whoever they are? No. That would be putting my own 20 years of work aside to kowtow to one particular person over anyone else.”

Hwang told us Supervisor Eric Mar is asking the mayor to appoint him to the second vacant police commission seat, but if that effort isn’t successful Chan and Hwang will go head to head.

So the supervisors have a tough choice ahead of them, but for some, the decision is tougher than others.

Conflict of interest

Some of the supervisors have votes that are fair to guess at. Long time progressives like Sups. Mar, John Avalos, and David Campos are ideologically aligned with Chan, and have reason to vote in her favor. 

Chan needs six votes to be re-appointed to the commission, and some of those votes are up in the air.

Sups. Norman Yee, and Katy Tang voted to approve Chan in the Rules Committee, the first round before today’s Board of Supervisors vote. But that’s no guarantee they’ll vote for her again. 

Sup. Jane Kim has an odd conflict of interest. Ivy Lee, an attorney and one of Kim’s staffers, is Hwang's romantic partner. The couple has three children together. He dedicated a brief he wrote for the Asian American Law Journal, “to my incredible partner Ivy Lee, who gave birth to our second son Kaiden, as I was writing the brief at the hospital.”

Is that conflict of interest grounds for Kim to recuse herself from the vote? Is it proper for her to vote to appoint her staffer’s partner to a political position? We reached out to Kim’s office but did not hear back from her before going to press. 

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu’s vote is also an open question. 

Chiu worked with Chan in 2011 to fight against the federal Secure Communities program, which as we then reported, was a database allowing the feds to circumvent local policies protecting local immigrants who have been arrested but not convicted of any crimes and deport them.

They were partners in the struggle for human rights. So will Chiu back his former ally, Chan, in her re-appointment?

We called, texted, and harangued Chiu to call us back, but did not hear from him before press time. To be fair, he’s running for the Assembly and was likely between one of his dozens of necessary appearances. He did have an aide call us back, but he was unable to give us a hint at which direction Chiu may vote in. 

Complicating his choice is a mix of allegiances. With so many former and current allies on both sides, Chiu will make someone angry no matter which potential police commissioner he votes for, insiders told us. 

And Chiu’s vote may be the deciding one. With real reform of the SFPD on the line, the stakes are higher than the fictional Game of Thrones.

Ultimately, Chiu will have to vote his conscience. 

Correction 3:28pm: The article earlier identified Ivy Lee as married to Victor Hwang. In actuality, Hwang and Lee are romantic partners who decided not to marry in direct protest of the LGBT community being denied the right to marry.

Update 6:50pm: The vote was cast, and Victor Hwang was appointed to the Police Commission in place of Angela Chan. Read our full story.