Willie Brown Looms Large Over the Race to Replace Ed Lee

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and former Mayor Willie Brown share a laugh at the dedication ceremony for the Willie L. Brown Jr. Bridge. on Feb. 11, 2014. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

Between the singing, the prayers and the tears at Sunday's memorial service for San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, political luminaries like Gov. Jerry Brown, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Nancy Pelosi all spoke about Lee's life and the sacrifice he made for the city.

But perhaps the person with the most at stake was a relatively unknown member of the Board of Supervisors, the first politician to address the gathered crowd at City Hall.

"Good afternoon, everyone," she said modestly. "My name is London Breed, and I'm the acting mayor for the city and county of San Francisco."

By virtue of her position as board president, Breed was thrust into a job she had not prepared for, but was rumored to be eyeing. She used her speech Sunday -- her first major public remarks as acting mayor -- to honor the man she replaced.

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"He was honest. He cared deeply. Working for him was all 'Parks and Rec,' no 'House of Cards,' " Breed said, implying that Lee was not a typical Machiavellian politician.

Another politician who would make Machiavelli blush reminded the crowd how Lee became mayor when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom was elected lieutenant governor.

"I had been part of the conspiracy to get him to take the mayor's job," former Mayor Willie Brown joked. "He didn't want the mayor's job."

In early 2011, Brown, along with the late Chinatown power broker Rose Pak, pushed for Lee, who at that time was the city's chief administrative officer. The Board of Supervisors, unable to get six votes for a liberal successor, agreed to appoint Lee interim mayor with the understanding he wouldn't run for the job later that year. Lee broke that promise, upending the field of politicians lined up to seek the mayor's office later that year.

London Breed, president of the Board of Supervisors and acting mayor, speaks at City Hall following the death of Mayor Ed Lee.
London Breed, president of the Board of Supervisors and acting mayor, speaks at City Hall following the death of Mayor Ed Lee. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

Nearly seven years later, some liberals are still smarting from that episode, and are privately determined not to let it happen again.  Many see Breed as too moderate -- a continuation of what's left of the Willie Brown machine.

Former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, whose name is mentioned as a potential interim mayor, hopes the supervisors can agree on an alternative to Breed, someone who will not turn around and run for mayor.

"I have faith that the Board of Supervisors will create that kind of level playing field so that the people ultimately can make a sound decision with the best candidates next June," Agnos said after Lee's memorial service.

"But if the power brokers of the city try to manipulate the process in a way that promotes one candidate, I think it's going to do some damage to our democracy and our city," Agnos said, apparently referring to Brown and others.

But Breed has her supporters, some of whom are determined to keep her right where she is in Room 200 with the accompanying electoral advantages that come with the title.

One of them is Christine Pelosi, who chairs the California Democratic Party's women's caucus. She fired a warning shot toward those who might be plotting against the acting mayor.

"It will be very, very difficult for the Board of Supervisor members to come explain to the women of San Francisco, particularly to the black women and their allies, why it is they want to take away the mayorship from a very strong, capable, talented woman like London Breed," Pelosi said the morning of Lee's death.

Pelosi said the recent U.S. Senate election in Alabama was a reminder that African-Americans, especially women, are the backbone of the so-called resistance to President Trump's agenda.

But with the Jan. 9 deadline for filing papers to run for mayor fast approaching, political consultant Nathan Ballard says anyone who's ever thought about running for mayor is doing so right now.

"You can run for mayor on a compressed time frame -- it's a sprint," Ballard said. "And there's nobody that's an overwhelming favorite. There's no heir apparent."

But as acting mayor, London Breed would definitely have a leg up. Some members of the Board of Supervisors may try to change that, if they can cobble together six votes to install someone else as interim mayor -- after the filing deadline so that person can't run in June.

Speaking after the service for Lee, Gavin Newsom, whose election as lieutenant governor set off the last scramble to find an interim mayor, said he hoped the coming campaign won't become a referendum on Lee's record as mayor.

"The city and elected family owe Ed Lee and his legacy the respect to continue at least through the election, without being disrupted" Newsom said. "You know, without personalizing  his tenure, without jumping over each other to try and elbow his legacy out."

Newsom, who seemed reflective after Lee's sudden death, noted that the day after the mayor died he saw "people already positioning and jockeying."

"I'm not naive and Pollyannaish. I get it. On another level, it's profoundly unbecoming. And I hope people really pause and take a deep breath.," Newsom said.

But it seems inevitable that Lee's record on courting high-tech companies, the cost of living and the entrenched homeless problem will become part of the campaign conversation next year. Do voters want more of the same, or a change of direction?

Among those planning a race is former state Sen. Mark Leno, who announced his candidacy in May.  Former county Supervisor Angela Alioto also pulled papers at the Department of Elections this week. And progressive Supervisor Jane Kim also announced her intentions to run Wednesday.

“It is time for fundamental change," Kim said in a statement. "If we stay on the path we are on, things will get even better for the wealthiest among us, but worse for the rest of us."

In other words -- I am not Ed Lee.

They will surely not be alone. Others said to be weighing their options include Supervisor Mark Farrell, City Attorney Dennis Herrera and state Assemblyman David Chiu.

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Note: This story was updated at 2:50 pm Wednesday to include the candidacy of Jane Kim.