Six years ago, Ed Lee was appointed interim mayor of San Francisco by an overwhelming majority of the Board of Supervisors — after promising, repeatedly, that he would not seek the job permanently.
He went back on that promise after some of the city’s biggest political power players, including former Mayor Willie Brown, urged him to run. Now, after Lee’s sudden and shocking death early Tuesday, the 11-member Board of Supervisors again faces the question of who should lead San Francisco until voters have a chance to weigh in.
And the board’s experience with Lee could color that decision.
“What happened with Ed Lee — the idea he was seen as compromise candidate, that he would not hurt anybody else’s electoral chances going forward — and then him running and winning, that makes it much less likely that the board will find a consensus candidate, a non-politician,” said San Francisco State political science professor Jason McDaniel. “They are much less likely to approve an Ed Lee-type candidate now.”
That could be good news for one board member.
For now, Board of Supervisors President London Breed is acting mayor. Under city law, she assumed the position the moment Lee died. And if the board does nothing, she will stay in that role, and remain board president, until next June’s election.
A majority of the board could also vote to make Breed interim mayor. If they did that, she would have to step down as board president. The board could also vote to make someone else interim mayor.
But given that at least two of Breed’s board colleagues are eyeing a mayoral run themselves — and that Breed was thought to be a likely mayoral contender even before Lee’s death — it could be hard for her to win the support of six other supervisors to become interim mayor. (Breed would need six because she cannot vote for herself.)
Of course, it could also be difficult for the board to push Breed — the city’s first black female mayor — out of Room 200.
At City Hall on Tuesday, most people brushed off questions about the political chess game to come, saying they were focused on mourning Lee and presenting a united front to the city’s residents.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin, the unofficial leader of the board’s progressive wing, seemed open to the idea of keeping Breed as mayor. That’s important because Breed is seen as more allied with the board’s moderate faction, which is often at odds with the progressives.
“Who knows who’s gonna run, but for the next six months we have to have a very stable, predictable, mature government, and I think we are all united in that,” Peskin said. “Whether we act or allow President Breed to serve as (acting) mayor, doesn’t, I think, ultimately matter — what matters is we give London Breed the support that she needs over the months ahead, and in June there will be an election.”
Not everyone thinks what the supervisors do — or don’t do — is inconsequential. Whether the board weighs in and throws its support to Breed, or gives her its tacit support by doing nothing, will send a message to the public, McDaniel said.
“I would say that there is probably going to be pressure on the board to make a decision,” he said.
And some people believe Breed is the obvious choice.
Christine Pelosi, chair of the California Democratic Party’s women’s caucus and the daughter of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, said it would be politically difficult for the board to strip Breed of the mayoral position — especially given that when the supervisors chose her as board president, they knew Breed would be legally first in line to succeed the mayor.
Christine Pelosi, who has played a key role in bringing the issue of sexual harassment in California politics forward, said it would be particularly bad timing given the national conversation around women, discrimination and power.
“Given that the resistance is being fueled by black women, it would be very, very difficult for the Board of Supervisors to come explain to the women of San Francisco, and particularly the black women, why they want to take away the leadership from a very strong and capable black woman, London Breed,” she said.
Whatever happens next, it likely won’t be decided until January; Tuesday was the board’s final scheduled meeting of 2017. In the meantime, Breed will remain as the face of city government — and if she continues to lead with the steady hand she has shown in the hours after Lee’s death, it could catapult her to the top of what’s expected to be a crowded mayoral field come June.