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Sean Elsbernd: Lessons Learned During Eight Years as a SF Supervisor

  • Jan 2, 2013 · 8:00 AM
  • Pacific Research Institute


Host: John Wekselblatt


Sean Elsbernd received a BA from Claremont McKenna College in 1997 and graduated from University of California Hastings College of the Law in 2000. He was subsequently admitted to the State Bar of California on December 4, 2000.

Prior to his work in City Hall, Elsbernd worked as a law clerk with Nielsen, Merksamer, Parinello, Mueller, & Naylor and with the San Francisco District Attorney's Office. He also worked in the office of Congressman Tom Lantos as a co-director of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1995.
Elsbernd was elected to the Board of Supervisors in November 2004, following his August 2004 appointment to the Board by Mayor Gavin Newsom.

For two terms he represented District 7, which includes neighborhoods west of Twin Peaks, the Villas at Parkmerced, Lake Merced, Harding Park Golf Course, San Francisco State University, City College of San Francisco, and Laguna Honda Hospital and Rehabilitation Center.

Fiscal Hawk’s Departure Leaves Void at City Hall
(SF Chronicle[masked])

Sean Elsbernd was an indefatigable teller of inconvenient truths about the city's finances and inefficiencies in his eight years on the Board of Supervisors. No one in City Hall brought more substance, principle or candor to the table on fiscal issues. He was ever the grump who insisted on reality and restraint.
Yet as he departed City Hall last week, termed out at age 36, Elsbernd allowed a confession: He didn't enter office on a mission to be the city's fiscal hawk. He emerged in the role almost by accident.
His focus on runaway retirement costs began when he was asked by Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin to join the city's Retirement Board in 2005.
"No one else wanted it - and I was the lowest person on seniority," he said.
Soon after that came an opening on the Health Service Board, which Elsbernd filled and quickly became a one-man warning system to the long-term problem that was emerging from unfunded health care promises to retirees.
Only in San Francisco would Elsbernd be labeled a conservative. He's decidedly progressive on social issues - he supported same-sex marriage as a civil right in 2004, when many prominent Democrats were hedging - and his fiscal resolve isn't about starving government, but making it work.
His departure is going to leave a huge void on the 11-member Board of Supervisors - and his decision not to run for the state Assembly is a missed opportunity for a city that had been accustomed to sending its brightest lights to Sacramento. He is leaving the elective arena to become deputy state director for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
It's rather hard to imagine Elsbernd holding his tongue at the compromises of principle and general tomfoolery that seep into politics. As a supervisor, he was not one to summon news conferences or master sound bites. But he was always accessible - and biting in his critiques.
"He was already a crotchety old man when he was 25," laughed Peskin, who counts himself as an Elsbernd admirer even though they sometimes clashed. "But so what? You don't have to be charming to be effective."
Elsbernd's principles were consistently straightforward: If you create a program, you establish a way to pay for it. Water ratepayer dollars should not be diverted to programs not related to getting water to the tap. Muni should not be giving free rides to youths when its basic service is deficient. He had no patience for Happy Meals bans, Grammy Awards second-guessing and myriad other board distractions from the city's core responsibilities.
Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the good-government group SPUR, recalled Elsbernd's role on forging Proposition G, the 2010 ballot initiative that raised Muni funding while overhauling work rules that had undermined the system's effectiveness for generations.
"He collected signatures on the bus with us," Metcalf said. "He was the only one who put himself out there like that."
Metcalf added, "He has been so important - just so sensible and solid when the board went so crazy" before its more recent moderate reincarnation.
Elsbernd was invigorated, but not intoxicated as so many others are, by his seat of power. In an interview last week, he said he is only too happy to walk away from the grind of elective politics and spend more time with his wife, Jennifer, who is expecting their second child this spring. He had no interest in the legislator-commuter life of spending three or four nights a week in Sacramento.
His family's gain is the Legislature's loss.
"It's certainly one of the best of the best appointments I made, that's for damn sure," former mayor and now Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week. "He's someone I admire personally and professionally. I wish only that he would have found a way to stick it out in politics. I hope he gets back in ... because we need more of him."
Elsbernd's many fans will just have to wait. I asked whether he could envision himself on a ballot again.
"In 21 years," he said instantly, with a grin but no trace of coyness.
Say this about Sean Elsbernd: Unlike many politicians, he knows his math.
John Diaz
SF Chronicle's editorial page editor

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