Alastair Boone is the editor-in-chief of Street Spirit and a former editorial fellow at CityLab.
High drama at City Hall—involving race, tech money, and politics—lays bare the city’s simmering tensions.
On Tuesday night, Mark Farrell was sworn in as interim Mayor of San Francisco, becoming the third person to hold that office in twice as many weeks. Farrell, the former city supervisor, takes the reins from London Breed, the president of the Board of Supervisors, who had been acting mayor since Mayor Ed Lee’s untimely death on December 12.
In an only-in-San Francisco tale that involved a mix of tech money, racial tension, and political jockeying, the city’s most progressive elected officials spearheaded the ouster of the city’s first female African-American mayor, a woman with roots in the city’s public housing projects, in favor of a white, male venture capitalist who represents the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
The curious chain of events that led to Farrell’s appointment began only days after Lee’s death, at the late mayor’s private funeral service.
During his speech, the billionaire angel investor Ron Conway surprised the mourners by suggesting that London Breed’s historic mayoralty would be an appropriate continuation of Lee’s “legacy,” as the city’s first Asian-American mayor. Local political pundits viewed Conway’s comment as an implicit endorsement of Breed in the city’s June election to replace Lee. And that raised red flags among the city’s progressive wing.
Conway, who provided early funding for companies like Google, Paypal, and Airbnb, became a close ally of Lee’s after the mayor approved a controversial tax break for Twitter and other tech companies in 2012. To Lee’s opponents, the relationship seemed to symbolize the mayor’s coziness with the tech industry.
Like Lee, Breed is considered a “moderate,” in San Francisco parlance—a pro-business, lefty Democrat—which puts her in a logical position to carry on Lee’s tech-friendly legacy. Once she officially declared for the mayoral race, Conway and his allies reportedly began threatening other moderate supervisors, insinuating that if they did not support Breed, they would lose fundraising dollars. In response to the consolidation of power forming around Breed, the city’s progressive wing began casting around for a new interim mayor. “The more Ron Conway openly became the kingmaker for London, the more people like me who have come to respect her and work with her very well became more and more reticent,” progressive supervisor Aaron Peskin told Mission Local.
When the vote for interim mayor came up at a Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday night, the stage was set for an emotional spectacle. Progressive board member Hillary Ronen gave a long—at times tearful—speech in opposition to Breed. In it, she invoked a theme that has come to define San Francisco for many longtime residents.
“There are white, rich men—billionaires—in this city that have steered the policies for the past mayoral administrations … that have gotten us into the absolute mess that we are in today, where poor people and people of color cannot afford to live in the city,” she said. “I hate to say it, but those same white men are enthusiastically supporting your candidacy, London Breed.”
To the outside observer, Breed’s resume might suggest otherwise: A San Francisco native, she was raised in public housing in the city’s Western Addition neighborhood, and still lives in a rent-controlled apartment, with a roommate. “I am a life-long renter,” she wrote in an op-ed for the San Francisco Examiner, in which she advocated for more affordable housing. “To this day—as president of the Board of Supervisors—my housing future is uncertain.”
At the Tuesday meeting, Breed’s supporters showed up in force, including members of the city’s shrinking and long-marginalized black community. After more than three hours of public comment, the board voted 6-3 to elect Farrell, a fellow moderate and the former managing director of Thayer Ventures, a firm that invests in technology companies. Breed supporters were livid.
“There’s never been an intentional effort on the so-called progressive liberals of this town to work with the black community so that we would have our fair share,” said Rev. Amos Brown, head of the San Francisco chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., in the New York Times. Randy Shaw, the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, echoed that sentiment. He wrote that for the black community, Ronen’s speech, in particular, “seemed to be implying that they too, like Breed, were being manipulated by ‘rich white men.’”
Mission Local reporter Joe Eskenazi, who attended the hearing, called it “a deeply ugly scene.”
In short, the left-leaning bloc of the city’s legislative body, at this particular moment in American history, chose to unseat a black woman who worked her way from public housing to City Hall and replace her with a well-off white venture capitalist who graduated from St. Ignatius High and lives in the Marina.
The optics here are so bad they border on evil.
Board members gave two primary reasons for their decision to elect Farrell, both related to quirks in San Francisco’s electoral system. First, Breed’s opponents emphasized the issue of “separation of powers” in city government. Since Lee’s death, Breed had been both acting mayor and president of the Board of Supervisors, giving her disproportionate power to appoint city officials.
There’s also the issue of Breed’s incumbency advantage heading into the June elections. Mark Leno and Jane Kim, two prominent candidates in the race, both argued that the Board of Supervisors should install a caretaker mayor who would not run in the June race, so as to ensure a fair election.
Still, it’s not clear this political maneuver will ultimately play out in the progressives’ favor. As interim mayor, Farrell will likely install a fellow moderate in his former supervisorial seat. And while he will not run in this year’s special election, he’ll get an opportunity in 2019, the year of the scheduled mayoral election—after building citywide name recognition.
Whoever does win the June race will be in a strong position to be mayor for nine years, after finishing Lee’s term and then having the opportunity to run twice more. For progressives who have been locked out of the mayor’s office for more than two decades, this possibility called for drastic action.
The tension surrounding Tuesday’s vote reflects that frustration, but it’s also a sign of San Francisco’s increasingly strained relationship with the tech industry. The city’s spirit of diversity and tolerance may have helped nurture the boom, but tech moguls like Conway—and the power they wield in municipal politics—are also widely blamed for the Bay Area’s affordability crisis. For many residents, the June election appears set to be a referendum on the city’s identity, if only a symbolic one.