The strange, unique power of San Francisco mayors

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San Francisco mayors Ed Lee, Gavin Newsom, Willie Brown
SF Examiner file photo

Mayor Ed Lee wields a strange and unique power in San Francisco politics, passed down from Mayor Gavin Newsom, and held by Mayor Willie Brown before him.

No, we're not talking magic, though mayors have used this ability to almost magically influence the city's political winds. 

When elected officials leave office in San Francisco and a seat is left vacant, the mayor has the legal power to appoint someone to that empty seat. A study by San Francisco's Local Agency Formation Commission conducted March last year shows out of 117 jurisdictions in California, and ten major cities nationwide, only seven jurisdictions give their executives (governors, mayors) the ability to appoint an official to a vacant seat. The other jurisdictions hold special elections or allow legislative bodies to vote on a new appointment. 

The power of a San Francisco mayor then is nearly singularly unique, the report found, but especially when seen in the context of the nation's major cities.

"Of the 10 cities surveyed here," the study's authors wrote, "no other city among the most populous grants total discretion for appointments." 

The study is especially relevant now, as Sup. John Avalos introduced a charter amendment to change this unqiuely San Franciscan mayoral power, and put the power back in the hands of the electorate.

His amendment would require special elections when vacancies appear on public bodies like the community college board, the board of education, or other citywide elected offices. He nicknamed it the "Let's Elect our Elected Officials Act," and if approved by the Board of Supervisors it will go to this November's ballot.

Avalos touched on the LAFCo study while introducing his amendment at the board's meeting on Tuesday [5/20]. 

"One of the striking results is how unique San Francisco's appointment process is," Avalos said. "There's no democratic process or time constraint when the mayor makes these appointments."

He pointed to then-Assessor Recorder Phil Ting's election to California Assembly in 2012. Camen Chu, his successor, was not appointed by the mayor until February 2013, he said, a longstanding vacancy.

So what's the big deal? Well, voters notoriously tend to vote for the incumbents in any race, so any official with their name on the slot as "incumbent" come election time has a tremendous advantage. In fact, only one supervisor ever appointed by a mayor was ever voted down in a subsequenet district-wide (as opposed to city-wide) election. This dataset of appointed supervisors was culled from the Usual Suspects, a local political-wonk blog:

Supervisor

Appointed

Elected

 

Terry Francois

1964

1967

 

Robert Gonzalez

1969

1971

 

Gordon Lau

1977

1977

 

Jane Murphy

1977

Didn't run

 

Louise Renne

1978

1980

 

Donald Horanzy

1978

Lost in 1980

Switched from District to

Citywide elections.

Harry Britt

1979

1980

 

Willie B. Kennedy

1981

1984

 

Jim Gonzalez

1986

1988

 

Tom Hsieh

1986

1988

 

Annemarie Conroy

1992

Lost in 1994

 

Susan Leal

1993

1994

 

Amos Brown

1996

1998

 

Leslie Katz

1996

1996

 

Michael Yaki

1996

1996

 

Gavin Newsom

1997

1998

 

Mark Leno

1998

1998

 

Alicia D. Becerril

1999

Lost in 2000

Switched from Citywide to

District elections.

Michela Alioto-Pier

2004

2004

 

Sean Elsbernd

2004

2004

 

Carmen Chu

2007

2008

 

Christina Olague

2012

Lost in 2012

Only loss by a district

appointed supervisor.

Katy Tang

2013

2013


So mayoral appointments effectively sway subsequent elections, giving that mayor two prongs of power: the power to appoint someone who may agree with their politics, and the power to appoint someone who will then owe them.

A San Francisco Chronicle article from 2004 describes the power derived from appointees former Mayor Willie Brown infamously enjoyed.

Once at City Hall, Brown moved quickly to consolidate power, and using the skills he honed during his 31 years in the state Assembly, gained control of the Board of Supervisors. Before the 2000 election, he appointed eight of the 11 members, filling vacancies that he helped orchestrate, as supervisor after supervisor quit to run for higher office or take other jobs.

The board majority was steadfastly loyal, pushing through Brown's policies and budget priorities with little debate. In a 1996 magazine article, he was quoted as likening the supervisors to "mistresses you have to service."

Voters may soon choose what elected officials they want in offices. The mistresses of the mayor, or the mistresses of the people.

Graph of the LAFCo study produced by Guardian intern Francisco Alvarado. LAFCo looked at California jurisdictions as well as ten major cities nationwide.