SF Election May Tilt Board of Supervisors in Mayor Breed's Favor

San Francisco Mayor London Breed waits to walk out of City Hall for her inauguration on July 11, 2018. (Scott Strazzante)

Mayor London Breed and San Francisco's Board of Supervisors largely agree on the city's most pernicious problems — the pandemic, the rental crisis, homelessness, the survival of small businesses — but find themselves disagreeing on how to solve them.

These ideological logjams, however, may clear after this November's election.

Breed is considered a political moderate, generally in ideological opposition to the (for now) progressive-majority Board of Supervisors, and they're particularly split on how to solve the rental housing crisis.

Moderates tend to favor market-rate housing production at any rental price, in a bid to bring down rents through abundant supply, whereas progressives tend to favor city- or developer-subsidized affordable housing with rents targeted at residents with specific income levels.

When disagreements over housing solutions or other proposed legislation arise, the 11-member board has an ace in the hole: Any vote backed by a supermajority can't be vetoed by the mayor, an advantage a solid bloc of eight progressive allies have enjoyed over the last year. Marshaling those eight members on a particular issue gives progressives an open road to author their preferred laws.

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That supermajority can be tenuous, however, said David Campos, chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party and a former supervisor.

"If the other side can split you off and siphon you off, your leverage is diminished," he said.

And while votes are still being counted, this November's election may shift the balance of power. While no one is calling out "checkmate," a few vital rooks may be knocked off the board.

At least one new ally to the mayor is on a firm path to the board after voting concluded Tuesday, while another of Breed's allies is only dozens of votes away from winning, with some San Franciscans clicking the "refresh" button on the Department of Elections' website repeatedly — and nervously — as officials continue to count mail-in ballots.

Myrna Melgar, a former Planning Commission president who is a progressive Democrat, declared herself winner after the latest ballot count showed her leading her closest opponent, Joel Engardio, by seven points. The latest count looks poised to clinch Melgar's win, as of Wednesday afternoon.

Melgar will represent District 7 on the southwestern side of San Francisco, which includes Parkmerced. While she is ideologically progressive, she was appointed to the Planning Commission by Breed and is considered a close ally.

Melgar and Breed have known each other for years and enjoy a positive working relationship. That’s particularly key for Breed, whose history with the board has shown that she often values the ability to work with someone over how closely they align with her views.

In the city's Richmond District, Breed's former senior adviser, Marjan Philhour, a moderate Democrat, is locked in a tight race with progressive Democrat Connie Chan. In each day's new count, the two jockey for the lead by mere dozens of votes, amounting to a toss-up that's still too close to call.

There are 90,000 mail-in ballots left to count, according to the San Francisco Department of Elections.

Philhour is considered a close ally of Breed's and if elected, would take the seat of outgoing Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, who, while friendly with the mayor, is considered particularly powerful among the progressive camp.

Philhour did not return a request for comment.

Meeting in the Middle

Progressives and moderates play nice on some issues, but add a dash of housing discussion and you'll often find a combustible mix.

Melgar can perhaps douse the powder keg by serving as a conduit between Breed and the progressive camp. As a candidate, Melgar uniquely obtained the backing of SF YIMBY Action, a pro-housing development group, and also of progressives and their allies who are normally opposed to YIMBY ideologies.

"Affordable housing built on the West Side is my top priority," Melgar told KQED, where she's thinking of pushing for subsidized co-ops in partnership with progressive supervisor Gordon Mar, perhaps in a unique arrangement between government and labor groups.

The concept would rely on a funding mechanism favored by progressives and would see the construction of housing in a part of town that moderates have long complained hasn't borne its fair share of housing development.

And beyond housing proposals alone, boasting allies on both sides of the aisle may make it possible for Melgar to serve as a crucial swing vote on the Board of Supervisors more generally, a position once enjoyed by former supervisor David Chiu, who is now serving as a state Assembly member.

The calculation is simple: If you're ideologically in two camps, both will negotiate with you for your vote. Melgar could use that power to unite Breed and the supervisors on thorny issues where they may not otherwise see eye to eye.

"I think it’s possible, she certainly could do that," Campos said. "But for this kind of unity to really work, there has to be a commitment on the part of everyone involved."

When asked if she thought that dynamic could emerge on the board, Melgar simply answered, "I do."

"I think if the board reaches out to the mayor there will be a good outcome in this city,"  Campos said.

San Franciscans "elected London Breed mayor and a progressive Board of Supervisors as a balance to one another. I think the hope is that they’ll work together and find a common ground that is needed," he added.

Even More Leverage

While Melgar’s win may give Breed a trusted ombudsman with the progressive-led board, an additional Philhour win would give Breed a far higher stack of chips at the poker table.

It would give Breed enough allies among the supervisors to break up the progressives’ veto-proof supermajority. It would also give the mayor a chance to stymie higher taxation in future ballot propositions from the board, for instance, or to argue for more affordable housing for middle-income San Franciscans versus low-income residents, two positions she has espoused in previous years.

Philhour may carry another trump card: Her time in City Hall has shown she’s not afraid to get in scraps over ideas she backs. In the past, vocal critics of the board’s progressive wing have been successful at drawing public attention to policies they disagree with, and Philhour could fit that mold.

Philhour is viewed skeptically by some progressives as perhaps too close to Breed, having served directly in her office. They're particularly worried that super PAC-like campaign accounts, called independent expenditure committees, spent money to support Philhour's election in the Richmond District.

Some of that funding came from William Oberndorf, a wealthy investor who gave more than $1 million to help Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, in his senate race, according to 48 Hills.

Favorable donations from Republican allies prompted some progressives to question local candidates' proposals, but Philhour tweeted in October, "I am the only candidate in this race to denounce all Independent Expenditures and Super PACs. I've done so from the beginning."

Shanti Singh, a tenants organizer, hopes that Philhour, if elected, will show her independence and favor progressive affordable housing policies.

"If Marjan [Philhour] wins, it’s incumbent on her to think about that vision and not what the PAC, big business-backers want to do about housing," Singh said.

That's particularly important with the likely passages of San Francisco's Propositions I and K, the former of which is a property transfer tax that would raise about $196 million annually for the city's general fund, and the latter of which is a mandate for the city to build up to 10,000 affordable rental units, a proposal which still needs identified funding.

"The city is buying what the progressives are putting on the ballot right now," Singh said.

Todd David, director of the SF Housing Action Coalition, said progressives should strike while the iron is hot, as this week's likely multiple ballot proposition wins would give progressives more tools to begin tackling the housing affordability crisis in a way he claims they have not yet done.

Many political moderates like David, who side with market-rate ideologies, agree that the progressives should aggressively pursue their housing proposals because building more affordable housing on the West Side, for example, would at least see the neighborhood become more housing-dense.

"I'd like to see the Board of Supervisors put their money where their mouth is," David said. "Take their mandate, and change zoning in the city to allow for some geographic affordable housing equity."

David critiqued the progressive supervisors for failing to use their majority to add more housing on San Francisco's West Side.

They have "all said they can do this," but "last time I checked they haven't added any new zoning locally," he said.

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Any possible new cooperation between Breed's camp and the progressives, if pursued, could transform the city, he said.