It’s Jan. 8 in San Francisco, which, every other year, means it’s time to elect a Board of Supervisors president.
It’s always a peculiar spectacle; newly installed legislators, often tearily, thank their families and supporters with seemingly heartfelt homilies before immediately hunkering down to an exhibition of back-room politics in the front-room and a noxious combination of procedural minutiae, strategic ploys and personal animosities acted out in real-time.
This year, however, there were no back rooms. In pandemic times, our supervisors did not have the opportunity to wander into each others’ offices and wrangle one another over the past several weeks, days and minutes.
Today, the supes expediently elected Supervisor Shamann Walton president in a unanimous, uncontested procedure. He is the first Black man to achieve this position (a few Black women have been elected Board president: Doris Ward, London Breed, and Malia Cohen).
Newly ensconced Supervisor Myrna Melgar nominated Walton. Supervisor Hillary Ronen seconded. The supes lauded one another with platitudes, which at least sounded heartfelt, and public comment — which largely served to urge the board to defund the “racist motherfucker” police — was heard. Several commenters read from the same extended script, though one ad-libbed, “Fuck the sheriffs, too.”
And the vote was 11-0 for the sole nominee.*
But there was plenty of wrangling leading up to this moment. It was just offline — even if it was online.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin for weeks seemed content to maintain a role akin to one he held under Board President Norman Yee — legislating and politicking in the background while enjoying a cordial relationship with a favorable president. Of late, however, he reconsidered and opted to make an attempt at the office he held from 2005 to 2009.
A deft board president can wield great procedural power. He or she selects committee assignments for fellow supervisors — which can effectively advance or doom legislation. The board president also makes appointments to key city commissions and committees.
But it is, largely, an inward-facing job, requiring the president to serve as something of a conciliator, a therapist, a coach, and a rabbi, massaging the egos of fellow supervisors and helping facilitate legislation (and, if the mayor dies or otherwise departs from office, the board president steps in).
With the city in the condition it’s in, these figure to be difficult years ahead for the board president: He’ll have to say “no” to a lot of his friends — and, it figures, say it a lot.
Walton told Mission Local that his priorities would be “Our covid response, addressing the needs of people on the streets, addressing the wealth gap, and making sure folks suffering the most from the pandemic have a true shot at recovery.”
His predecessor, the avuncular Yee, was just the latest president chosen by his colleagues largely because of his likability and compatibility more than his legislative abilities or political leanings. Matt Gonzalez was elected president in 2003 for similar reasons; he remains close with conservative erstwhile colleague Tony Hall.
And, if you believe Walton’s colleagues, that has happened again.
Behind the scenes, Melgar turned out to be the key vote deciding Walton over Peskin. Neither Peskin nor his intermediaries could alter the vote count.
“I’ve known Shamann for many years and worked with him while he was president of the Board of Education,” she told Mission Local. “I’ve known him to be emotionally even-keeled and fair. That’s what I was looking for.”
Peskin is now the oldest and longest-serving supervisor. He is acknowledged as one of the smartest and most knowledgeable people in City Hall, with a procedural expertise and encyclopedic knowledge of city codes.
He is not, however, someone who would be universally acknowledged as “emotionally even-keeled.”
“His relationships with his colleagues,” says one City Hall observer, “are the most complicated.”
His supporters on the board, however, were not sure Walton would be the more avuncular, cooperative, Yee-like president.
“Aaron can blow people up, yes,” said one colleague. “But in the end, he listens to everyone. He likes to compromise.”
That, however, is now an academic argument, at least until the next scheduled election for board president or unforeseen vacancy in the position.
Peskin told Mission Local that he was “a tad bit disappointed on the one hand, a tad bit relieved on the other” — and still very busy and committed to the job of an elected official during a crisis.
Prior to today’s meeting, he released all his colleagues from any commitments. During the meeting he referred to Walton as “more than a friend and a colleague. You’ve become something of a sibling.”
Peskin further referred to the animosities that seem to define San Francisco politics as “small ball” and “mini hatchets.” He urged that they be buried. “I think the 11 of us need to come together. That doesn’t mean we won’t have our policy differences. And the same goes with this board and this mayor,” he said.
“There will be a time for those fights. But the work in this coming year of economic recession and covid and climate change is way too important. So I want to join arms with all of you.”
The notion of Melgar serving as the deciding vote to elevate Walton is a politically intriguing one.
Various elements of the so-called City Family had trepidation about Walton because of his closeness to Supervisors Hillary Ronen, Matt Haney and the board’s left flank. This certainly included the mayor.
And yet Walton was independent enough of those supervisors to back Melgar for supervisor while Ronen, Haney et al. supported Vilaska Nguyen. So, that mattered.
Melgar, meanwhile, was perceived as too close to Mayor London Breed for the liking of the city’s most ardent leftists.
And yet she was independent enough of the mayor to serve as the deciding vote for Walton, despite the mayor’s preferences. That mattered, too.
Perhaps Chuck Berry put it best: C’est la vie … it goes to show you never can tell.
Well, sometimes you can. Today, like every other Jan. 8, resonated with calls for harmony and pledges to work together for a stronger San Francisco.
It figures this is a harder ask during times of plague and parsimony than plenty. But hope springs eternal on opening day.
And, if not — wait ’till next year.
*We’re publishing this while the commentary continues; we do not see the need to wait out every last comment. If, by some alchemy, the vote is upended or an asteroid hits City Hall, we will update.