On December 12, 2017, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee died of a heart attack unexpectedly. He was the city’s first Asian-American mayor, and he was serving his second term. The city charter mandates that, in the event of the mayor’s death, the president of the Board of Supervisors (San Francisco’s equivalent of a City Council) shall become acting mayor. The board president at the time of Ed Lee’s death, now the acting mayor, was London Breed.
London is an accomplished San Franciscan with close ties to the city, its roots, and the enduring challenges it faces around housing and poverty. She was raised by her grandmother, and despite having grown up in an area struggling with violence and drug addiction, she found enough encouragement and support from the community to go to college and, ultimately, to come back and serve the same district as supervisor. London is homegrown and came from the grassroots, having operated a cultural center in the neighborhood in which she was raised. Not only that, as a black woman, London is a historic figure for San Francisco, which has never had a black female mayor.
A special election to select the new mayor is scheduled for June 5, 2018. Meanwhile, London will serve as acting mayor until the Board of Supervisors appoints an interim successor, who will fill the role in the short period leading up to June’s special election. The board could choose to appoint London as interim successor, allowing her to continue to fulfill the duties of mayor, just as she’s capably been doing since Ed Lee’s death.
Previously, the board has placed great faith and responsibility in London, perhaps most obviously by twice electing her board president, in 2015 and 2017. Growing up in public housing and seeing in her lifetime San Francisco’s black population dwindle to five percent, London has been especially focused on affordable living. She’s advocated for a complete overhaul of San Francisco’s housing to ensure not only that public housing is sustainable, but also that everyone across the city can live and stay here.
But now, in a perplexing move, some members of the board are appearing to bend over backward to avoid appointing London as interim successor and to prevent her from continuing as mayor for the next six months.
Even before Ed Lee’s body was buried, some had called for the appointment of a “caretaker” mayor, a concept not formally contemplated by the charter. Proponents of appointing a caretaker argue that such a neutral party would “level the playing field” before the special election, so no individual likely to run in June would unfairly receive an “incumbent” advantage. It comes as no surprise that many of the caretakers being proposed are white men, such as 79-year-old Art Agnos, who was mayor of San Francisco from 1988 to 1992.
What is going on in San Francisco right now is a matter of fairness: we have a tradition, and we have a charter, both of which clearly dictate in these circumstances that the president of the Board of Supervisors becomes acting mayor. Especially in the wake of tragedy and instability for a grieving city, this shouldn’t be a political issue — just as it wasn’t when now-senator Dianne Feinstein became mayor after George Moscone was assassinated in 1978. It’s a time, perhaps more than any other, where we must rely on our traditions and precedent and not exploit uncertainty as a way to gain on a petty political agenda. Unfortunately, that appears to be exactly what’s happening.
This is a pathetic echo of what happened in Chicago in 1976, after the death of Mayor Richard J. Daley. Just like in San Francisco, by tradition, the president pro tempore of the Chicago City Council was to occupy the mayor’s office until there was a process in place for the election of a new mayor. That individual was Wilson Frost, a black alderman and lawyer with an “impeccable reputation” and credentials. Because he was black, however, Wilson Frost was prevented from even entering the mayor’s office, the door of which had been blocked by armed police officers. This injustice was the very catalyst that led to the election of Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983. Chicago’s political machine had hijacked process, tradition, and fairness, and black voters rose up. They organized, held rallies, and they registered a record number of voters to ensure that their voices were heard and that fairness prevailed.