Behind Closed Doors: The Next Battle for Board President is Under Way

Negotiations around who should hold the seat of Board president raise questions regarding what qualities they need to possess.

Supervisors Hillary Ronen (left) and Rafael Mandelman (right) are both contenders for the Board president seat.

The race to six votes is on. 

Six months ago, Supervisor Malia Cohen received unanimous support from her colleagues to hold the seat of Board president, replacing London Breed as she stepped into the role of mayor. Getting 11 city supervisors to unanimously agree on anything is a rarity in this city, and while from the outside it may have appeared like a special moment of coming togetherness, it was still a carefully-orchestrated and strategic move. With Cohen’s term ending in January, her short-term appointment meant that supervisors would get to select someone else to hold the seat several months later — after the November election. With the wins of Matt Haney and Gordon Mar and the exit of Supervisors Katy Tang and Cohen, there is now a clear progressive majority on the Board of Supervisors for the first time in years. And that means that there could be the numbers to elect a progressive Board president, the first to hold the seat since David Chiu (who basically became a moderate when he joined the Assembly). 

As a reminder, Board president is no tiny seat to occupy. Whoever holds the position works closely with the mayor and selects the heads of each subcommittee, who wield a ton of power in how they push forward or hold back legislation. And, as we saw with the untimely death of Mayor Ed Lee, the Board president is also next in line to mayor should the worst happen.

While we elect our supervisors, we don’t elect our Board president; that task is handled by the politicians themselves, and usually takes place behind closed doors. As to be expected, gossip about alliances already abounds. 

January’s frontrunners thus far appear to be — based on off-the-record chatter, as it’s tricky to get politicians to show their cards prior to such a delicate vote —Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Rafael Mandelman.

The former took her seat in January of 2017 and hit the ground running. She’s called for hearings on the Marriott hotel strike and the city’s handling of rape cases, filed a ballot measure to oppose President Donald Trump’s policies, and rolled up her sleeves to clean the filthy 16th Street BART plaza every Wednesday morning for months. 

Mandelman was sworn in in July of this year after crushing his opponent Jeff Sheehy, and quickly showed a rare ability to work well with Mayor London Breed. He’s often standing beside her at press conferences and has become a champion for State Senator Scott Wiener’s controversial conservatorship bill. Aside from getting arrested at a Marriott strike, he’s strategically played his cards close to his chest since being elected, falling on both moderate and progressive sides of issues. 

Whispers bouncing off the marble in City Hall also predict that newcomer Shamann Walton is being considered as an option, as he too could play nice with the mayor, who endorsed his run for office. 

While we the voters don’t have too much of a say in the matter (a public comment period is held the day of the vote but by then most supervisors have decided on their choices), this particular election raises some key issues in what qualities a Board president should hold. Should it be a prolific legislator and a track record of getting things done? Or,  is the best choice someone who can comfortably walk that thin ledge between the executive and legislative branches — in this case, a passionate Board and a very particular mayor? 

The current board still appears to be split; expected partnerships are missing, and rumor has it some say Ronen is “too emotional” for the role, a phrase that reeks of sexism. (Ronen’s certainly not the only member of the Board of Supervisors to get passionate during her speeches.)

But let’s theorize for a moment: Future-Supervisor Gordon Mar has confirmed to SF Weekly that he will be supporting Ronen in the vote, and Matt Haney (who’s out of the country at the moment) is also rumored to lean that direction. Supervisors Ahsha Safai, Catherin Stefani, and Vallie Brown will most likely go for Mandelman. Candidates can also vote for themselves. So the swing votes are Supervisors Sandy Fewer and Norman Yee, who traditionally lean far-left progressive along with Ronen, but have been said to be on the fence about her appointment. And, Walton could also be a wild card; Ronen campaigned heavily with him during his race, but he may want to err on the side of caution and go with the mayor’s pick, which in this case is probably Mandelman.

Unless, of course, Walton truly does become a frontrunner. His list of endorsements was hefty, with both hard left progressives and right-leaning moderates supporting him. If Ronen and Mandelman can’t get to six votes first, he might be the one to secure them. 

 Patience is a virtue, and we’ll know the answer in a mere few weeks. The vote happens on Jan. 8, and aside from who wins, the votes themselves will be a key indicator in how City Hall’s politics will play out with its new cast of characters.

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