Will S.F. Mayor's Race Reopen Old Wounds?

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Former state Sen. Mark Leno (L), San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim and San Francisco Board of Supervisors President London Breed. (Max Whittaker/Getty Images and Adam Grossberg/KQED)

The unexpected death of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee seven weeks ago has set off a ferocious power struggle in the city. With the June election approaching, the campaign backdrop is an economic boom that some fear is threatening what makes the city special.

The morning Mayor Lee died, London Breed, the 43-year-old president of the Board of Supervisors, automatically became acting mayor.

"And I now must assume the responsibility.  And I ask for your patience, and I ask for your support, and I ask for your prayers," Breed said at a City Hall press conference.

Breed is a native San Franciscan who grew up in one of the city’s toughest public housing projects. By San Francisco standards, Breed is seen as a moderate, and somewhat business-friendly. And that didn’t sit well with liberals, who felt her new high profile was giving her an unfair advantage in the June election.

During a public comment period at a board meeting last week, dozens of people gave impassioned testimony for and against Breed -- some celebrating her as a female African-American leader, others saying she was in the pocket of wealthy tech moguls.

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Supervisor Hillary Ronen gave a passionate assessment of how the high-tech boom was transforming the city.

"For years now San Francisco has been heading fast in an unrecognizable direction," Ronen said. "It is quickly become a city where only the ultra-elite can prosper."

After a raucous debate, the supervisors voted to replace Breed with another supervisor -- a white former venture capitalist who represents some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Breed’s supporters -- especially African-American women -- were furious. "Shame, shame, shame" echoed through the board chambers. Some even shouted, "This is war!"

Mark Farrell, elected Jan. 23, 2018, to be San Francisco's interim mayor by fellow members of the Board of Supervisors. (San Francisco Board of Supervisors)

Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, who cast the deciding vote to make Supervisor Mark Farrell the new mayor, said the protests frightened him.

"It was scary," Sheehy said this week. "I'm the closest one to the crowd. And so they moved me to the back of the chamber, so I couldn't even occupy my seat safely. They took me to my office. They insisted on escorting me out of the building to a taxi. They said I shouldn't take mass transit for a while.

"What did I do that was so terrible? I did my duty. I chose a successor mayor. That was the task that we had before us," Sheehy said.

Asked afterward if her ouster was based in part on racism as her supporters were saying, Breed declined to say.

"Because it sadly has brought out the worst in some people," a composed Breed said. "And so what I’m trying to do as the leader of this city is bring out the best in some people."

Lee’s death -- and the maneuvering for and against London Breed -- have reopened painful wounds in San Francisco.

"It’s almost like these white liberals are undermining the black woman mayor on behalf of the black community," said University of San Francisco political science professor James Taylor, who has written extensively on African-American political history.

"You can talk to most older African-American San Franciscans and if you mention redevelopment, they will tell you urban renewal was Negro removal. That sentiment has carried over for 40 years," Taylor said.

As African-Americans have left the city, the Asian-American and Latino populations have grown. But they too now feel the economic squeeze as tech workers -- many of them white and well-paid -- flood the city.

"Everything that made us so attractive that we became the boom place for tech -- it was our tolerance, our values, our diversity, our beautiful community -- the people who built that are being pushed out," Supervisor Sheehy said.

While race is a backdrop for this skirmish, at its heart, this is a struggle for power: who has it and who wants it.

Among the candidates running for mayor besides Breed are Jane Kim, another supervisor who is an Asian-American woman, and Mark Leno, a former supervisor and state senator hoping to become the city’s first openly gay mayor. Also in the top tier is former Supervisor Angela Alioto, who has a historic connection to San Francisco through her father, former Mayor Joe Alioto.

City Supervisor Malia Cohen, who backs Breed, says the whole controversy is a distraction.

"We should be coming together to talk about homelessness and car break-ins and many of the issues that are at the forefront of people’s minds," Cohen said. "But now race, gender and sexual orientation are going to be at the forefront."

Cohen says she was stunned how the "backroom deal" that put Farrell in Room 200 highlighted how quickly progressives abandoned what they say they value, including gender equity and diversity.

"There are a lot of double standards here, and for me what was most unsettling was the hypocrisy," Cohen said.

But David Lee, who’s active in the city’s Asian-American community, sees an upside to this political skirmish.

"I think people are really invested in this election in a way that I haven’t seen before," Lee said. "And for the first time in a long time we’re going to have a really open election."

Whoever wins in June will serve only the rest of the late mayor’s term. So next year voters will once again decide who should lead this city.