San Francisco Mayor Struggles
Frank Jordan has low ratings; but some say he can pull the city through
SAN FRANCISCO — AFTER being swept into office with throw-the-bums-out fervor in January, this city's self-proclaimed "citizen-mayor" has stumbled into the lowest ratings of any mayor in local history - lower than his predecessor, Art Agnos.
But a number of observers say that if the job can be done by anyone amid the city's worst fiscal crisis in half a century, former Police Chief Frank Jordan (D) will eventually pull the beleaguered city up by the boot straps.
"Jordan is more of a tortoise, while Agnos was more of a hare," says political consultant Richard Rapaport. Noting a slow start fueled by myriad staff changes, severe budget deficits, riot crackdowns, and political controversies, Mr. Rapaport says, "Frank is deliberate, in touch, and unwavering, which is a new way of doing business here. San Franciscans are used to the glitzy `we-can-fix-everything-in-a-hurry school.' "
Six months into Mr. Jordan's tenure, just one in four San Francisco voters believes that he is doing a good job, according to a June San Francisco Chronicle Poll. That assessment puts Jordan's performance rating lower than that of his predecessor, Mr. Agnos, at any point during Agnos's four-year term. It reflects a widespread view that the mayor has failed to make significant progress in solving the city's problems. Poor ratings
Just 3 percent of the respondents said Jordan is doing an excellent job; 21 percent rated his performance as good, 41 percent as fair, and 31 percent as poor. On issues from the dismissal of a new police chief (Richard Hongisto) to promotion of San Francisco as business capital to providing solutions to the homeless problem, only a minority of the respondents praised Jordan's efforts.
To become the city's 40th mayor, Jordan campaigned on a moderate, centrist platform promising to improve basic city services and "get San Francisco back on track" after years of rises in crime, homeless population, and city blight from graffiti to street trash. Jordan served as chief of police from 1986-90.
"Jordan's mayoral victory was really a referendum showing popular distaste for Agnos at an all-time high," notes Larry Kamer, political commentator for Kamer/Singer Associates. He calls the six-month nightmare honeymoon of Jordan a "roller coaster of highs and lows" that is only now leveling out. "People have had to discover what he is going to do on the job under the worst of circumstances. It has been one crisis after another," says Mr. Kamer. Troubles hit early
Beginning in January, the owners of the San Francisco Giants baseball team announced they were interested in leaving the city, testing Jordan's savvy in trying to retain them.
After balancing a $61 million budget deficit in his first two months with sharp cuts in social services, health care, and public safety, Jordan was faced with a $90 million deficit for the coming year.
Already the worst deficit since 1939, the figure has since grown to $175 million - not including cuts imposed on cities by state efforts to close its $11 billion budget gap. A possible $80 million in further cuts would require an approximate 10 percent cut in the city's $2.4 billion overall budget.
"He has been handed economic conditions that are beyond his ability to control," notes Rapaport. "With no money and so many pressure groups, every city in America is close to ungovernable right now. Civic politics are as close to gridlock as you can get."
In addition, Jordan has faced embarrassing staff shake-ups, including the ouster of a press secretary who subsequently wrote an expose of incompetence for the San Francisco Examiner Sunday Magazine in May. A shuffle of appointments led to both a former mayoral adversary as police chief and a goddaughter as city supervisor, raising cries of nepotism.
Street demonstrations after the Rodney King verdict was announced led to a Jordan-ordered crackdown that won kudos in many corners for avoiding the death, fire, and destruction that occurred in Los Angeles.
But a scandal ensued when new police chief Hongisto allegedly removed from newsracks thousands of gay newspapers that carried unfavorable portrayals of Hongisto as power hungry. The allegations led to a police commission investigation and eventual ouster of Hongisto. Jordan was criticized for not standing more resolutely beside his man.
Jordan has likewise been seen by many as slow, indecisive, and a political novice.
After cutting short a $1,000-per-plate inaugural dinner amid press criticism that the fete conflicted with his populist image, Jordan gave $50,000 of the money raised to charity. But the remaining $200,000 price tag still cost twice that of his predecessor.
He has also had to renege on campaign promises not to raise taxes, or cut back on such perceived essentials as libraries, police and fire services. Key business leaders agreed last week on a utility tax to raise $11 million.
As for the homeless, a high-profile issue here where panhandlers aggressively pursue resident and tourist alike, Jordan has retreated from a controversial campaign promise advocating warrant checks, work camps, and other tough measures. He now speaks of hiring the homeless to retrofit quake-damaged buildings and creating a special bank to provide loans for those seeking permanent housing.
"He is the kind of man who listens to all sides when making a decision," says Tom Benet, chief editorial writer of the San Francisco Chronicle, which has supported the mayor from the beginning. "He's gotten some people upset in a time of unprecedented challenge, but that is the nature of leadership."
Some leftist elements in the city have begun a recall process, similar to efforts beaten back by former Mayors George Moscone and Dianne Feinstein. Most feel the effort will not take hold.
Jordan, for his part, sees himself as an undaunted, stick-to-it problem-solver who eventually will achieve his goals.
"I was a new person coming in with no political baggage and without the political team other ... politicians usually have," he says in a phone interview from his City Hall office. "I've had to hire and fire, bend and shape more than a normal mayor would." Jordan reaches out
To turn around his current negative image, Jordan says he will continue the same strategy that got him elected: reaching beyond press and politics to meet people in their neighborhoods. That means 5 to 10 appearances a week at meals with local leaders and participating in volunteer neighborhood-cleanup programs where residents can find him out on the street.
"Jordan is far better at showing his face in town and showing he cares than Art Agnos ever was," says Rapaport.
Even detractors concede Jordan's likeability and persuasiveness in person.
"Frank is a genuine human being that you don't often get in politics," says Rapaport. "That forgives a lot of sins."