A Knife Fight in a Phone Booth: The Saga of the San Francisco Mayor’s Race


(Mason Trinca). 

San Francisco politics are often described as a knife fight in a phone booth and this year’s mayoral race has done everything to reinforce that belief. The city was jarred last year when the popular and quiet mayor Ed Lee died suddenly of a heart attack. This shocking event sent SF politics into a tailspin and laid bare the divisions between the different political factions in the city. The past six months have seen unprecedented levels of division and anger from all sides of the left-leaning city. The upcoming mayoral race pits London Breed against Mark Leno and Jane Kim. It will likely not be the end of the battle for control of City Hall but it will be an important marker in the fight for the soul of San Francisco.

When Breed first heard the news of Mayor Lee’s death, she knew her life had been changed forever. The 43-year-old President of the Board of Supervisors was immediately vaulted into the role of acting-Mayor, where she was tasked with calming a traumatized city. Lee’s death also accelerated her political future, placing her as a favorite to win the upcoming election. The native San Franciscan had come a long way from her humble origins to Room 200 (the Mayor’s office) in City Hall. She was born in the notoriously crime-ridden housing project of Plaza East in the Western Addition. She was largely raised by her grandmother and was surrounded by poverty and violence. However, she managed to rise above, graduating from U.C. Davis and eventually becoming a supervisor in 2012. Breed rose quickly to be elected as the President of the Board in 2015 which made her second in-line for the Mayoralty.

Breed’s American Dream-esque story and her winning personality made her a favorite to become mayor in June. However, she hit a big bump in the road on an eventful night in January. Before we describe the events of that night, though, we must lay out the background of the fraught politics of San Francisco.

This race pits three candidates against each other who represent vastly different areas of San Francisco politics. The moderate faction is represented by London Breed. Breed is a protege of former Mayors Ed Lee and Willie Brown. Many predict that Breed will carry on many of Mayor Lee’s policies, including helping to modernize the city by giving tax breaks to tech companies. She is also supported by angel investor Ron Conway who has played a silent but crucial role in San Francisco politics for years and is thoroughly reviled by the progressive wing of the party.

Although Breed has strong liberal credentials, they pale in comparison to one of her main opponents, Jane Kim. Kim is the hero of the far-left; she is a leader of the progressive faction on the Board of Supervisors and was endorsed by Bernie Sanders in her 2016 attempt to become a state senator, which she lost to Scott Wiener. Kim and her allies abhor the gentrification and rapid changes happening in San Francisco. While Kim has moderated her message for the mayoral race – focusing on homelessness and clean streets – she remains the darling of the far-left in San Francisco, who have made it their mission to stop Breed at all costs.

Perhaps Breed’s most dangerous opponent is former State Senator Mark Leno. Leno’s progressive bonafides are beyond doubt and he is an attractive candidate to two key constituencies because he would be both the first gay and Jewish mayor in San Francisco history. Leno was seen as one of the favorites to succeed Mayor Lee before his untimely death. Leno has amassed a large campaign war chest and is poised to benefit from the divide between the Breed and Kim supporters due to San Francisco’s system of ranked-choice voting which allows voters to rank their top three candidates. After, all the first place votes are tallied, and then the candidate with the least amount of votes is eliminated and their votes are distributed amongst the second-place choices of the voters until a candidate wins. Through a process of elimination, the winner is picked.

The liberal forces that support Kim and Leno realized that Breed would have an incredible advantage if she could run as the incumbent. They therefore decided to exploit a quirk in San Francisco’s system of succession in order to harm Breed’s chance. As the President of the Board of Supervisors, Breed had become acting Mayor. However, the Board must select an interim mayor to serve out the rest of the term until the special election. Many expected Breed to hold on to the position and be chosen as the interim Mayor because she already held the position of acting Mayor. However, the more progressive members of the board who opposed Breed and her allies decided that she would have too much of an advantage if she were to retain the mayorship. They therefore mobilized support for one of the most moderate members of the Board of Supervisors, Mark Farrell. Farrell is a former tech lawyer and represents one of the richest districts in the city – not an ideal bed-fellow for the liberal coalition supporting Kim and Leno. Their strategy worked, however, and Breed lost the advantage of being an incumbent. This political move was heavily criticized by many of Breed’s supporters who denounced the plotters for replacing an African-American woman with a white man. This battle epitomizes the brutality and politics of San Francisco. Kim and her allies decided that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and for political expediency put a man who disagreed with many of their positions in the Mayor’s Office.

This Mayor’s race has become a referendum on the future of San Francisco. Does the city want to continue the growth and business-friendly, yet still liberal policies, of the past administrations or do they want to move in an even more progressive direction? Ultimately, the recently minted, rank-choice voting system will help Leno who is likely to benefit from being tolerable to both Kim and Leno supporters. He is predicted to get many of the second-place votes and thus emerge as the winner. Whoever emerges as the winner on June 5 will face the difficult task of uniting a divided and rapidly changing city while attempting to address some of the most urgent issues that face San Francisco.


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