It was a Saturday evening on the campaign trail, and things were getting ugly. Mayoral candidates Mark Leno and Jane Kim were holding court at a “Meet the Progressives — Future of the Fillmore” event when a handful of London Breed supporters holding signs interrupted the proceedings.
“This is London Breed’s house, fuck what you’re talking about,” one protester caught on video said, before launching into a racist epithet that subsequently shut down the event. The ugliness of the moment was shocking in a city that prides itself on liberal values, but it’s just one of a dozen dramatic incidents that have plagued a mayoral race that was never supposed to happen.
Mayor Ed Lee’s unexpected death disrupted the slow stroll up to 2019’s mayoral election, and in the five months since, San Francisco’s political scene has devolved into a chaotic sprint to the finish line. At times it’s been ugly, with dark money from tech billionaires, racist slurs, domestic-violence-themed attack ads, and even efforts by Democratic candidates to recruit Republicans. There is so much tied up in this race that for months local and national media has been deep in the weeds with all the gory, dramatic details. But while reporters hungrily sift through campaign-financing records, relatively few San Francisco voters are aware of who the candidates are, or what policies they plan to enact.
It’s a difficult time for local politics. Donald Trump’s rise quickly overshadowed San Francisco’s last major election in November 2015, a surprisingly narrow victory for Lee over what was considered token opposition, and in the years since, it’s been hard to look away from the havoc Trump is wreaking at the White House. Steve Bannon, Robert Mueller, and Stormy Daniels have all become household names, while Mark Leno, London Breed, Jane Kim, Angela Alioto and Amy Farah-Weiss are far less prominent in local conversations over a plate of tacos. The other day, I overheard someone on the bus talking confidently about how Breed will sweep the race since she’s already the mayor — a fact that’s four months out of date.
Part of this is probably due to how fast everything has happened. The deadline to file papers for mayor was less than a month after Lee’s death. Breed was ousted from her role as acting mayor and replaced by Supervisor Mark Farrell three weeks after that. Money poured into campaigns quickly, and its sources were largely kept secret until last month, when candidates hit the deadline for releasing their financial backers. And Super PACs are even shadier, with untold amounts of money flooding in so candidates’ supporters can play dirty.
In a nation that frequently launches its election campaigns years in advance of an open position, giving voters six months to learn about each candidate and their policies is a little fast, regardless of how tapped in you are to local politics.
And while Trump gets himself further mired in drama, Flint still has no water, and Gaza goes up in flames, it can be hard to give a shit about what’s going down in our little City Hall. But this election is a big one, and for many San Franciscans, who is chosen to be the next mayor of the city will have a much bigger, more direct impact on daily life than who’s in power in our nation’s capital. You should care, and this is why.
Whoever is elected mayor in June will be known as a first. Jane Kim would be the first Asian-American woman mayor, London Breed would be the first African-American woman mayor, and Mark Leno would be the first openly gay mayor. Being the first is no small thing; in these cases, it could give added attention to marginalized communities, set examples for other cities nationwide, and encourage a new generation of women of color and queer individuals to run for office.
Each also has a powerful story to tell. Breed was raised in public housing by her grandmother (a fact that she never ever fails to mention when speaking publicly), has one brother in jail, and a sister who died of a drug overdose. Her story is a remarkable one, and it was heartening to see young African-American women stand up and voice their support for her the day that she was booted from her role as acting mayor.
Kim is the daughter of Korean immigrants, raised in New York, and has dedicated her life to public service. A civil-rights attorney, she’s immersed herself as supervisor of one of the most-challenging districts in San Francisco, which includes SoMa, Treasure Island, and the Tenderloin.
Leno is the grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants, a rabbinical-school dropout, and a local businessman who rose to political power as a city supervisor, assemblyman, and finally a state senator. He lost his partner during the AIDS crisis of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and has more legislative experience than the other two combined.
The person elected to mayor in June will most likely be in that position for 10 years. San Francisco voters love an incumbent, and the last mayor to lose a re-election bid was Frank Jordan in 1995, when Willie Brown beat him in a run-off. Because of Lee’s untimely passing, the mayor elected in June will carry out the rest of his term, which runs through January 2020. They can run for the same job in November 2019, and once more in 2023. If they win every election, which is fairly likely, they will lead San Francisco until January 2028. Yikes.
In other words, our next mayor will greatly define the future of San Francisco and every resident who lives here. And this is where the deep, in-the-weeds reporting starts to matter, because on paper, the top three candidates’ campaign issues appear nearly identical. All three promise cleaner streets, more affordable housing, and solutions for street homelessness. There are a few key differences: Breed pledges to build 5,000 new homes of all kinds each year, while Leno more specifically vows to construct 5,000 low-income, workforce, and supportive-housing units annually. They all support alternatives to automotive transportation, but Kim is the most pro-bike lane.
So it’s no wonder that policy is not what defines this race. There’s no meat there; campaign promises are not set in stone, and simply reflect the issues voters care about back to them. Instead, this race has come down to personal integrity, an abstract, intangible topic.
Breed’s been in the hot seat for months. Early on (before Lee was even in the ground) she won the endorsement and financial backing of tech mogul Ron Conway, who has played a heavy hand in City Hall politics. He is self-interested, and it only takes a quick Google search to uncover that he has investments in almost every major technology company based in San Francisco. He wants a pawn in the mayor’s office, and has thus far pledged tens of thousands of dollars to Super PACs taking down her opponents. It hasn’t gone unnoticed, and for many voters sensitive to the displacement crisis, Conway’s endorsement of Breed is a sole reason not to support her.
On a quest for votes, Breed has also made another deal with a devil: former Republican Secretary of State George Shultz. Shultz has penned letters supporting Breed that are hitting mailboxes all across the city. It’s a wildly bizarre choice, particularly since Shultz held office during President Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs, which decimated the community Breed grew up in.
But for those familiar with her, none of this is that surprising. Breed has long identified herself as an independent politician, despite receiving ample criticism that white billionaires are pulling strings behind the scenes.
“For me, this is not about politics, this is not about ideology,” she told SF Weekly in April. “I do not do this job in fear of losing it. When you’re in the political arena you’re going to have people who agree with you and don’t, who like you and don’t, and for me it doesn’t matter.”
Kim is the farthest-left progressive of the trio, the whip-smart bleeding heart of the campaign. She can reel off data effortlessly, and for those single-issue voters who are on the hunt for compassion in a candidate, she’s your best match.
In this race, however, her defining moments have all been tied to others trying to take her down. In late April, a new attack ad funded by the Conways hit YouTube, accusing Kim of supporting former-Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi during his domestic violence debacle. So outraged were her supporters that the video was removed hours later, and the Conways have lain low ever since. In early May, Kim publicly lambasted the Chronicle on Medium for sending her a list of poorly disguised opposition-research questions, most likely handed to them by her opponents. The post went viral. And she handled last weekend’s racist slurs with grace, making a statement on Twitter that she “does not take it personally.”
All told, Kim’s been subject to the grossest, most transparent attacks during the race, but holds strong to her values.
“My platform is really about how we support our working class and regrow our middle class here in San Francisco,” she tells SF Weekly. “I’m running because I love my job, and I clearly care about what I do. I’ve often wondered if elected office is the best vehicle for me to make a change in our city, but I really believe in it.”
Leno is the quietest of the candidates. He doesn’t have the public-speaking charisma of Breed, or the nerd-like obsession with San Francisco facts as Kim. But he does have decades of experience at the state level, and, his campaign shows, a commitment to fairness. He was the first candidate to publicly denounce Super PACs and shady campaign financing, and in a city rife with tech dollars, having someone in power who believes in transparency would certainly be refreshing. He’s diplomatic and professional, but seeks change — as his slogan “shake up City Hall” implies.
“I think it’s the nature of local government that oftentimes paths of least resistance are taken,” he says. “Suddenly you look back and think, ‘Whoa, we’ve got some big problems.’ We are at a time now where that cannot go on any longer, and everyone knows it. I know it’s a big responsibility but I am willing to take on the task of making some tough decisions, and holding myself and other decision-makers accountable. I want my administration to be driven as least possible by political decisions, but what I believe to be best policies for moving San Francisco forward.”
Whoever moves into Room 200 in City Hall at the end of June will wield a massive amount of power, including managing San Francisco’s rapidly expanding annual budget. The 2017-18 budget came in at a whopping $10.11 billion, nearly three billion more than it was just 10 years prior. What each mayor chooses to prioritize can have a ripple effect across the city.
To be clear: Not all $10.11 billion is in the mayor’s hands. Much of that budget is already set aside for things like the cops and Muni. What the mayor can play with is the general fund, which, last year, came in at $36 million. Lee spent about $18 million of that on homelessness services, $9 million on harm-reduction efforts, and $3 million on street cleaning. The choice to spend more or less on homelessness is make-or-break for the thousands who live on our streets, and if $3 million was spent cleaning the streets and they still look like the way they do, you can imagine what a reduction could do.
San Francisco mayors can also appoint replacements to fill vacancies in all city elected offices, such as that of a supervisor, until the next election. Lee appointed District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy after Scott Wiener left for the State Senate. Before that, he appointed Julie Christensen to District 3, after David Chiu moved on to the State Assembly. In these cases, it’s entirely in the mayor’s hands who will be your direct point of contact for issues that affect your neighborhood.
Finally, our city’s mayor is also the highest-paid in the nation. Whoever we elect will get paid around $297,386 per year, so think carefully about who will work the hardest for that big of a paycheck.
We’re not going to tell you who to vote for. SF Weekly doesn’t do endorsements, and with dozens of Democratic clubs, neighborhood groups, and other media releasing voter guides, plus the piles of mailers you’re probably removing from your front door every day, there’s more than enough information out there for you to sift through. But from the day this newspaper hits the stands, you’ll have 19 days to decide who gets to lead the future of San Francisco for the next decade. If you’re legally able and you haven’t already, it’s a really smart idea to register to vote.
This is one of three stories that make up our May 17 feature. Check out: