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Politics

San Francisco Is Failing London Breed

The city has a chance to support a black woman in politics, and instead its leaders are holding her back.

illustrated portrait of london breed
Gif by Louisa Bertman

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.

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If anyone deserves fairness in 2018, it’s black women. When it comes to the progressive agenda, black women have repeatedly made the difference, and we saw this as recently as last month. With the upset victory of Doug Jones in Alabama’s Senate race, many finally seemed to catch on to what lots of us have understood for a long time: the indisputable political power of black women. Ninety-eight percent of black women voted for Democrat underdog Doug Jones, while 63 percent of white women voted for his Republican opponent, accused child predator, Roy Moore. Not only did black women vote overwhelmingly for Doug Jones, had they stayed home, he would have lost.

What was missing from a lot of the election-night commentary, however, was the fact that black women in Alabama didn’t just magically ordain this win: it was the hard-fought result of brilliant community organizing and grassroots strategy. Black women have been doing hard work that deserves all of our recognition — and as many noted, it’s also time we stand with black women by fighting for their distinct and varied interests, rather than simply showing gratitude on social media when the outcome benefits everyone — meaning, only after black women are viewed as having stepped in to “save America.”

Right now, we have a moment to do that in San Francisco, to actually show up for a resilient and deserving black woman. And yet, we are stumbling. In the most progressive city in the country, we are failing at fairness instead of seizing an opportunity to let a black woman lead. Some local leaders have begun to speak out, in particular calling on other women to stand with London in this critical moment, regardless of whom they may choose to back in the June special election.

Last week, women gathered at City Hall to voice their support for London. If you live in San Francisco, you can call your supervisor, who could be voting on whether to allow London to continue serving as mayor; if you don’t live in San Francisco, share this, and encourage others to #trustblackwomen.

And if you were someone who publicly thanked black women for defeating Roy Moore in Alabama, please join me in sending a simple and resounding message to San Francisco and beyond: when given the opportunity to stand for fairness, and with talented black women leaders, we must do so deliberately and wholeheartedly.

Please go here to learn more about London.

Meena Harris is the founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign.