Chiu becomes City Hall's go-to guy for solving tough problems

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David Chiu has become a more effective legislator since our last cover story profile of him on June 14, 2011.
Keeney and Law

At the start of this year, when I wrote a Guardian cover story profile of Sup. Scott Wiener (which SF Weekly and San Francisco Magazine followed shortly thereafter with their own long Wiener profiles), he seemed like the one to watch on the Board of Supervisors, even though I noted at the time that Board President David Chiu was actually the more prolific legislator.

Now, it’s starting to seem like maybe we all focused on the wrong guy, because it is Chiu and his bustling office of top aides that have done most of the heavy legislative lifting this year, finding compromise solutions to some of the most vexing issues facing the city (ironically, even cleaning up some of Wiener’s messes).

The latest example is Wiener’s CEQA reform legislation, which the board is poised to unanimously approve at today’s meeting, a kumbaya moment that belies the opposition and acrimony that accompanied its introduction. Rather than a battle between developers and the coalition of progressives, environmentalists, neighborhood activists, and historic preservationists, Chiu and board aide Judson True transformed the legislation into something that benefited both sides.

[UPDATE: For reactions to this post and another perspective on Chiu, read this.]

That effort comes on the heels of Chiu’s office solving another big, ugly, seemingly intractable fight: the condominium lottery bypass legislation sponsored by Wiener and Sup. Mark Farrell. To solve that one in the face of real estate industry intransigence, Chiu showed a willingness to play hardball and practice a bit of gamesmanship, winning over swing vote Sup. Norman Yee to get six votes using some hostile amendments to the legislation.

In the end, Chiu won enough support to override a possible veto by the waffling Mayor Ed Lee, who has always echoed Chiu’s rhetoric on seeking compromise and consensus and “getting things done,” but who lacks the political skills and willingness to really engage with all sides. For example, it was Chiu -- along with Sups. Farrell and David Campos -- who spent months forging a true compromise on the hospital projects proposed by California Pacific Medical Center, replacing the truly awful CPMC proposal that Lee readily accepted.

“It’s been a very long year,” Chiu told the Guardian. “It’s been important for me to not just to seek common ground, but legislative solutions that reflect our shared San Francisco values.”

Next, Chiu will wade into another thorny legislative thicket by introducing legislation that will regulate the operations of Airbnb, the online shared housing share corporation whose basic business model often violates local landlord-tenant laws, zoning codes, and lease conditions, in addition to openly defying rulings that it should be paying the city’s transient occupancy tax.      

“This challenge has been particularly difficult,” Chiu told us, referring the many hard-to-solve issues raised by companies such as Airbnb, who Chiu and board aide Amy Chan have been working with for several months. In fact, after originally predicting the legislation would be introduced before the board takes its August recess, Chiu now tells us it may need a bit more time to hammer out the details.

We’ll be watching to see how he sorts through the many tough issues raised by Airbnb’s approach, here and in other big cities with complicated landlord-tenant relations, which I will be exploring in-depth in an upcoming Guardian cover story. But if there’s anyone at City Hall capable of solving this one, it’s probably Chiu.