Shamann Walton, seen here in 2018, was deemed the most "even keeled and fair." Photo by Jennifer Cortez.

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.” 

See also: Shamann Walton’s deeply personal quest to shut down Juvenile Hall

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. 

Supervisor Myrna Melgar, seen here in 2017, when she was a planning commissioner. Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

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.”

 

At City Hall, June 2020. Photo by Laura Wenus

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.

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Joe Eskenazi

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...

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10 Comments

  1. It’s great that there’s local media (or at least one medium) that actually explains what’s going on at City Hall. Thanks! Happy to be a supporter!

    1. No doubt “the sexism continues” in far too many places in our society. But that doesn’t appear to be relevant here. Did you actually read the article on which you commented? It was two women, Myrna Melgar and Ronen herself, who nominated Shamann Walton to be elected the first black man *ever* in the City’s history as Board president. Perhaps you could be celebrating that instead of cursing the fact that Ronen didn’t get elected to a position that she wasn’t even seeking.

  2. Congrats to Aaron,

    For still being in these horse races after 20 years.

    And, Joe, Matt didn’t win cause he had any deal with Tony Hall.

    He won because he made no deals and Aaron’s deal with Sophie
    ended up with her stabbing him in the back.

    Hadda lot of good times watching special moments from that Press Box and the 2002 election was one of em.

    Second was down the way at the Swearing in of Chesa Boudin.

    Ahhhh, politics.

    From the gutter to the Mosque and Cathedral to Temple and …

    All the same.

    Everyone get’s one vote.

    Go Warriors!

    h.

  3. The President of the Board of Supervisors does NOT automatically become Mayor if the Mayor’s Office is vacated. The President becomes “Acting Mayor”; then, the Board elects a regular replacement. They can elect anybody– even you.

    1. David —

      Hence the term “steps in.”

      As someone who covered both Gavin Newsom jetting out of town and Ed Lee’s death, this is not news to me. But it is a bit deep to use as a parenthetical aside during a larger story about a specific board president election and while concisely explaining the role of the office.

      Best,

      JE

  4. Congratulations to Supervisor Walton. It will be interesting to see how he handles committee appointments in this new role. Supervisor Melgar was pretty vocal in her support of Walton as board president when she was on the campaign trail, so her role in this decision is hardly surprising.

    The BoS has will have a lot of hard decisions to make this year, I do hope they seriously consider Supervisor Peskin’s call to bury the “hatchets,” however mini they may be.

  5. interesting Ahsha, Cathy & Rafael decided Peskin was the least progressive feasible option, Peskin wants to be king again & Connie is more loyal to Peskin than the real progressive wing. But Myrna doesn’t want to be seen as the mayor’s pawn & I bet she made Walton agree to give her chair of Land Use, which she deserves, while Peskin would sooner paint a bike lane in his district than let a yimby have that covered spot. I was hoping Haney could get elected prez just by being so damn charming but now he’s a double chairman with his bff in charge so seems like it all worked out pretty well

  6. Being “emotionally even-keeled” isn’t getting it done in Walton’s District 10. Those of us that live here know. Crime and loitering is worse than it’s ever been and this started before the pandemic.

    We’re still waiting for Walton to rally more of the community and make changes here, but here we are trying to do it on our own and organize subsets of community with SFPD. Oddly enough, SFPD is doing more for District 10. It’s crazy. Walton, please join at least one of the Bayview SFPD community monthly meetings. Young men are dying in our district and the liquor stores are rampant with loitering. 40 years in district 10…I look out my window and have to wonder how in the world Walton earned this position. “Talk less, smile more…” Let’s get to work!

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