Mayor London Breed in November 2018. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez

Last week, Mayor London Breed enthusiastically endorsed Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, the woman George Gascón left his post in San Francisco to challenge. 

The Family Feud-like dynamic was picked up by media outlets from Los Angeles to San Francisco and beyond — how could it not be? But the larger question was left unasked: Will the voters of Los Angeles value London Breed’s suggestion on who should be the next DA more than the voters of San Francisco did? 

To wit, also last week, San Francisco DA-elect Chesa Boudin named his transition team. That’s a press release Breed invested a considerable amount of political capital and credibility — and other people’s credibility — to prevent from ever being written and disseminated. 

Additionally, in a matter of weeks, Breed’s handpicked successor and former aide Vallie Brown will be supplanted by District 5 Supervisor-elect Dean Preston. He will be an enthusiastic and outspoken critic of the mayor and adds one more oppositional voice to a board where Breed is having increasing trouble rounding up any votes at all. (A Matt Haney-authored hike on the fee office developers pay toward affordable housing recently passed 11-0, despite Breed’s opposition. It also won unanimous approval at both the Planning Commission and Labor Council.). 

After a crushing November 2018 election return for the mayor, we wrote that her relationship with her board “has not been well-maintained.” It’s worse now; there is a metaphorical non-running car up on blocks in the front yard. 

So that’s why, despite cruising to re-election with 71 percent of the vote, this is, in many ways, the winter of Breed’s discontent. 

She heads into her first full, four-year term as a personally popular and well-liked mayor, but presides over a city in which more and more of its surveyed residents feel is not well-led and headed in the wrong direction — and where it grows ever more difficult to square the jarring disparities of great wealth and extreme and overt misery and poverty. 

This is a precarious dynamic for this or any mayor — and will only grow more so if and when San Francisco’s gangbusters economy slows. Too much money is never enough in this city; if you thought it was expensive to live here, try running the place. 

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This city is at a crossroads. And so is its mayor. There are messages to be deciphered and lessons to be gleaned from these last two elections. Whether our mayor chooses to do so could well determine what all of us experience in the next four years. And beyond. 

Planning Director John Rahaim will soon exit — as will others. Mayor London Breed will pick the leaders that align with her vision of this city. Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

Mayor Breed may be weakened but, by no means is she weak. Dealing with the board is only one of the mayor’s jobs — and only one of the ways to get things done. 

It’s hard to overstate how big this city’s budget is; $12.3 billion one-dollar bills laid end-to-end would stretch 1.2 million miles — five times the distance between the Earth and the Moon. It’s also difficult  to overstate how much control the mayor has over that budget, especially relative to the Board of Supervisors. 

There are youngish public-policy-school grads wearing Allbirds to work who have more input and influence on the city’s budget than any elected supervisor. They work for Mayor Breed. So do our city’s department heads. 

“When you control the budget, you ultimately control the policy outcomes,” says a longtime City Hall insider. “The two are related to each other.” 

So, let’s say the mayor is less than thrilled with street crime — a safe assumption. Well, San Francisco County, notably, has the lowest arrest rate in the state — by far. If the mayor would like to see the San Francisco Police Department move up a few notches — say, up to 50th instead of 58th — she has plenty of leverage. The same goes for so many underperforming departments — Public Health, Public Works, you name it. 

In the coming months, Breed will additionally reshuffle San Francisco’s departmental deck, and name the kings and queens of her choosing. She’s already tapped Dr. Grant Colfax to lead the embattled health department and named the intriguing Jeffrey Tumlin to head Muni — the well-regarded transit consultant has scant management experience and is about to take over one of the most dysfunctional vestiges of city government. Additionally, his big-picture views on transit are all but certainly going to put him in conflict with supervisors whose constituents are wont to complain about parking and red lanes and whatnot. 

He’ll likely bump heads with the mayor, too — in a recent Chronicle article he boasted about his hard bargaining for a sweet severance package. Which is an odd thing to do when you haven’t been installed in your job yet. 

Land-use, they tell me, is somewhat important here in San Francisco. Longtime Planning Department boss John Rahaim will retire soon. And more high-level leaders will likely soon follow. 

Had he lived, Mayor Ed Lee would have left office in January. A goodly number of city officials circled January 2020 or thereabouts on their calendars. Breed will, less and less, be stuck with the cast of characters she inherited from her predecessor and, more and more, be surrounded with the team of her own choosing. 

If there was any sense of reticence — if Breed or anyone in her kitchen cabinet felt it prudent to finish out Lee’s laps under a yellow caution flag — that’s gone now. 

“Time to swing for the fences,” says a longtime city political operative. “Go, go, go!” 

Mayor London Breed, flanked by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and others including Supervisor Hillary Ronen at a ribbon cutting ceremony at Horace Mann Buena Vista’s new soccer field. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

[dropcap] T[/dropcap]his desire for bold, proactive leadership was a common refrain repeated to me by both those ostensibly adversarial to the mayor and those deep in her camp. It was a shared hope among elected officials and members of government and others who’ve been in and around City Hall long enough to remember many mayors walking in, walking out — or being carried out. 

The city, they say, is around the bend. The city, they say, is in a dark place. It’s time for the mayor to articulate a vision for the future, plan for it, and budget for it. It’s time for a “Big Idea.” 

It’s hard to bring up “Big Ideas” without evoking Gavin Newsom, that Harold Hill of mayors, who arrived with a satchel full of them. “Gavin did Care Not Cash in 2002,” grumbled a longtime city official, “and that sent rocket fuel up his ass.” 

It propelled him into the political stratosphere. He’s still up there, somewhere. 

But you knew that. Less well known is that, two years before Care Not Cash passed with 59 percent of the vote — vastly slashing cash handouts to the homeless and shunting the money into services — a highly similar (but less catchily named) measure lost, with 58 percent of the electorate voting against it.  

Branding counts, it would seem. And big ideas needn’t be new ideas. Or even your ideas. Newsom, famously, didn’t let a single one of his progressive challengers’ good ideas go un-co-opted. Despite what every Bay Area child learned watching Charley & Humphrey, borrowing without asking is actually not at all a stupid thing to do in the political realm. 

Breed could do this. If big policies (or any policies) are not forthcoming, she could simply appropriate them. She could proactively define herself regarding the city’s existential issues — homelessness, housing, transit, you name it — and force the board to react to her, rather than vice-versa. 

If neglected, the opposite will happen. 

You’re not going to believe this, but every supervisor your humble narrator spoke with says he or she wants to work with the mayor, not against her. But, with nine progressive votes, the current Board of Supervisors could, potentially, begin playing offense and sending the legislation of its choosing to Breed, — and overturn her mayoral vetoes with enough regularity to inspire a drinking game. It could do this intentionally, not only to accomplish legislative goals, but as a means of stoking the perception of an ineffectual mayor. 

So, that could happen. But the people of San Francisco may grow tired of game-playing in the face of obvious and visible misery and squalor on the streets and a rash of property crime. Perhaps every politician in San Francisco is now riding the tiger. Not just Mayor Breed. 

The year 2020 is going to be an epochal one, politically. For so many reasons. Locally, at least, the time may come that we demand more of our political leaders. If the voters do indeed desire change, it would behoove elected officials to deliver. 

That is: Articulate a vision for the future. Plan for it. And budget for it.

Swing for the fences. Go, go, go! 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Let’s see the Board of Supervisors take control of the budget, invite the community to participate in setting budgetary priorities, and presents its product to the Mayor with 8+ votes. If they are going to be incessantly attacked as “The Board of Stupidvisors,” they might as well get punished for their proactive governance.

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  2. Breed is facing the hard truth that people are increasingly aware that the real problem with homelessness has been the policy of using the homeless as a political football. Jordan, Brown, Newsom, Lee, and Farrell, all used abuse of the homeless to appeal to their core, who want the homeless driven elsewhere. But that has failed rather dramatically. The solution is obvious, and simple. New York has a right to shelter law. People cannot be forced to live on the streets. They provide all with decent shelter services. Creating enough beds for all, based on the Navigation Center model, which largely eliminates the absurd rules and arbitrary treatment that causes many to avoid trying to get into a shelter would make a tremendous difference. It would clear people off the streets, help address numerous problems, and, oh yes, infuriate the hateful, ignorant, and very vocal who demand punitive, and thankfully, illegal actions. Yes, the homeless have rights.

    Breed tried to block having bathrooms available 24/7, but was forced to allow three as a test, which she seemed to want to fail. Suddenly, when it worked, she tried to get ahead of the issue and look like she came up with the idea. She didn’t and is still trying to limit actually making the program widespread. Of course, the ever present chorus of haters is whining about the very idea of doing something reasonable.

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    1. I was in SF about 15 years ago. Some friends wanted to walk to a nearby restaurant but encountered a guy taking a dump in a doorway. That killed their appetite quickly. That beautiful city has now been turned into some filthy, third world place. How in God’s name can the residents put up with this?

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    2. Before Care Not Cash, we were told by advocates that shelters are not housing. Clearly 90 day stay Navigation Centers are not shelters, and if they’re not shelters, they’re not housing. Scaling up 90 day stays is not scaling up shelters which is not scaling up housing.

      We were also told by advocates that it was immoral to strip homeless people of their cash GA grants when Care Not Cash was being fought. Yet almost 20 years later, providing care for cash has become a progressive nonprofit cottage industry.

      Yes, Breed has major cooties. No, the voters are not over it and the climate is ripe for more divisive wedge Care Not Cash style punitive anti-homeless measures. The worst way to analyze this is how it plays for the Mayor politically. How about progs use political power to move their agenda over Breed’s?

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  3. The bottom line, as eloquently encapsulated by Mr. Eskenazi:

    “Too much money is never enough in this city”

    15 billion – right around the corner.
    It seems as though San Francisco’s governmental dysfunctionality has grown in direct proportion to the flow of lucre into city coffers.
    Ever get the feeling you’re being cheated?

    “youngish public policy school grads wearing Allbirds” pulling budget levers?
    The new MUNI guy doesn’t even have a key to his office and his big career achievement is crafting a sweet exit outta there?
    “swing for the fences” when they can’t hit a single off a tee?
    We’re doomed.

    Excellent article. Thank you.
    Albeit kinda depressing as are most developments coming out of city government.

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