The strange, unique power of San Francisco mayors

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:





Terry Francois




Robert Gonzalez




Gordon Lau




Jane Murphy


Didn't run


Louise Renne




Donald Horanzy


Lost in 1980

Switched from District to

Citywide elections.

Harry Britt




Willie B. Kennedy




Jim Gonzalez




Tom Hsieh




Annemarie Conroy


Lost in 1994


Susan Leal




Amos Brown




Leslie Katz




Michael Yaki




Gavin Newsom




Mark Leno




Alicia D. Becerril


Lost in 2000

Switched from Citywide to

District elections.

Michela Alioto-Pier




Sean Elsbernd




Carmen Chu




Christina Olague


Lost in 2012

Only loss by a district

appointed supervisor.

Katy Tang



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.


for the Guardian this would not be an issue.

The goal of progressives is to work the system in such a way as to get over. They thought ranked choice would be a winner and yet no. Quan was the progressive ranked choice success and they can't even stand her now.

The goal is to rework the system until progressives have some sort of advantage.

Posted by Guest on May. 26, 2014 @ 5:03 pm

election or appointment is better except insofar as it gives them the results they seek.

And since a majority of SF voters are moderates, they have to seek to impose some artificial and arbitrary system to try and extract victory from defeat.

The Mayor should have this power because the people elect him to be the CEO of the city and to set the direction. SFBG just hates that they cannot ever win the mayoral race for the simple reason that most SF voters do not like SFBG opinions.

Posted by Guest on May. 26, 2014 @ 5:29 pm

"His amendment would require special elections when vacancies appear on public bodies like the community college board, the board of education,"

So the people who gave us Ranked Choice Voting in order to avoid expensive, low turnout elections now want us to have a special election every time someone leaves the community college board. What is the turnout on THAT puppy going to be?

How many special elections will there be?

Progressives need to be careful because this silliness will be visible to the public and will just strengthen the notion that Progressives can't govern.

Posted by Guest on May. 26, 2014 @ 7:25 pm

by the people who show up to city hall meetings and complain about everything.

Posted by Guest on May. 26, 2014 @ 11:39 pm

The civil grand jury and the citizen's advisory committees.

Both are great for diverting and distracting trouble-makers.

Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 1:58 pm

The same could be said for conservatives -if it wasn't working out for conservatives, conservatives would be wailing about how the current system is so undemocratic.

Whether you're a lefty or a righty you generally want systems that work in your favor.

I don't want to go too far with the equivalency argument, because I do think conservatives are more prone to playing naked power politics without regard to fairness, while progressives do tend to think about what's fair somewhat more.

Part of it has to do with what sorts of reforms benefit what sorts of politicians. Basic self interest -progressives are better served by reforms that say, increase voter turnout and decrease the influence of big money, so that's what they generally support; conservatives are better served by the opposite, so that's what they generally support.

And part of it has to do with legitimate differences in political philosophy -progressives are preoccupied with fairness, while conservatives practically recoil at the very mention of the word. "Might makes right" is practically a tenet of conservative philosophy. The last time a progressive tried playing power politics in San Francisco to reshape the BOS through appointment, he was actually murdered by a conservative supe who wound up at the wrong end of it.

That said, both sides generally find ways to rationalize things that help their side. In this case, however, conservatives have no leg to stand on. Elections are more democratic than appointments, period. End of story. This is about basic fairness.

Of course I'm a progressive, so that's something I care about. If you're conservative, that argument probably rings hollow because that's not something you care about.

Posted by Greg on May. 26, 2014 @ 8:38 pm

that make my point.

Posted by Guest on May. 26, 2014 @ 11:36 pm

win, for no reason other than that it is his side.

Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 4:49 am

You have no cogent response to the points made, but you feel the itch to respond, if only with a mindless catch phrase and word count. As if that invalidates my argument.

Posted by Greg on May. 27, 2014 @ 7:49 am

And your "argument" invalidated itself. I merely pointed that out.

Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 8:03 am

"progressives are preoccupied with fairness" - what a hoot!

Posted by Richmondman on May. 27, 2014 @ 1:09 pm
Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 1:47 pm

and it is the term limits which makes it so absolutely atrocious.

How many pols have gotten their careers jump-started by strong mayors taking advantage of the regular churning that term limits represent? Termed-out Supes regularly skip into appointed office--often a sinecure--while their replacements get to run as hand-picked incumbents.

Term limits represent the voters of yesterday telling voters of today who they may choose from. It's absolutely wrong answer to a real problem of the power of incumbency--a problem which is neatly controlled through other means such as public financing of campaigns--but in the context of such a strong mayor, term limits are truly horrible.

I'd eliminate term limits for non-executive offices before clipping the appointive power of the executive--though that is worth discussion too. It is ironic that the progressive bastion of San Francisco validated this idea twenty some odd years ago which is now being touted as a solution to the problems in Congress by right wingers.

Term limits make sense only for executive officers: presidents, governors, mayors. In implementing term limits for legislators the effect is to more completely throw the legislative process into the hands of lobbyists.

Posted by lillipublicans on May. 26, 2014 @ 5:48 pm

Yeah, I know the arguments in favor. And yeah, it might work against progressives on a mayoral level. For me, though, it's a basic philosophical opposition. Term limits are fundamentally anti-democratic. If they're undemocratic for one office, they're undemocratic for all offices.

Posted by Greg on May. 26, 2014 @ 8:48 pm

though George Washington's personal policy and the 22nd Amendment seem to provide a good model for lower-level executives. The powerful nature of such offices and an awareness of Lord Acton's maxim supports the idea: power corrupts.

On the other hand, just as with all other offices, once a mayor is elected to a final allowable term they must to some degree lose respect for the constituency. They will perhaps begin to seek the approval of some different and/or larger constituency who they may hope to later represent. That is a fundamentally undemocratic property of term limits which results in people not having proper representation as much as half of the time.

Posted by lillipublicans on May. 26, 2014 @ 9:50 pm

What if you have an executive who's just really popular and/or doing a good job -someone like an FDR, or a Mario Cuomo, or a Thomas Menino who served for 20 years as mayor of Boston because people in Boston seemed to like the guy? Shouldn't people get to continue to vote for someone they like if they feel the person is doing a good job?

I get it that power corrupts, but ideally the people will remove someone who's corrupt if they want to. And I realize that in practice it's hard to remove someone because incumbents have all sorts of advantages. Many of those advantages, however, come about as a result of incumbents being able to raise more money than challengers. I say limit the money rather than limit the right of the people to make their own democratic choices.

Posted by Greg on May. 26, 2014 @ 11:52 pm
Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 4:52 am

By 1987, Reagan was non compos mentis, a walking idiot. Remember they had to drill into his brain in 1988. Dukakis would have lost but Reagan as he would have failed to beat an inanimate carbon rod, but Reagan could not have beat Clinton.

Posted by marcos on May. 27, 2014 @ 5:40 am

"By 1987, Reagan was non compos mentis, a walking idiot."

Pot. Kettle. Black.

Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 6:30 am

win repeated elections but for term limits (assuming age and health allow) and we'd have something approaching a monarchy.

If you accept no term limits as a policy ideal, then you must accept that it may condemn your politics to permanent opposition.

Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 6:39 am

Doubt that Reagan would be in power for 20 years even if he wasn't a vegetable. People would see through the shtick eventually. But yes, I'd support getting rid of term limits even if it produces someone I don't agree with. Like I said above, it's a principle with me. It's not about getting the policy that necessarily produces the candidate I agree with. But then, I'm a progressive. I believe what I believe because it's fair.

That said, we need to seriously tackle the issue of big money controlling the political process. Otherwise no democracy is possible.

Posted by Greg on May. 27, 2014 @ 12:36 pm

The race with Clinton might have been close.

Then again, We'd have lost FDR sooner, so maybe no New Deal?

Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 1:45 pm

The major underlying problem is the power of incumbency. That promotes ossification, and that is what term limits are incompetently set to address.

In San Francisco, public financing and district elections curtail the power of incumbency for the supervisors, but I think the mayor's position is more prone to benefiting from incumbency and the appointive power that the position holds is a great part of the reason for it.

In regard to Congress, the committee structure which rewards those with the longest tenure is a problem for which I haven't heard solution--except the idea of limiting the terms of lobbyists seems absolutely on target.

The obvious advantage of having experienced legislators in powerful positions seems to run counter to the goal of keeping every one of them equally vulnerable to the will of their constituents.

Posted by lillipublicans on May. 27, 2014 @ 7:09 am

usually elect the same kind of politician, which generally they do.

Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 7:20 am

Because the same 30% of eligible voters actually vote! The rest get what they deserve - other people's choices.

Posted by Richmondman on May. 27, 2014 @ 3:14 pm
Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 3:47 pm

If we don't end term limits for electeds, then let's impose 8 year term limits on lobbyists to even the score.

Posted by marcos on May. 27, 2014 @ 5:21 am

doesn't matter whether or not Brown, Newsom or Lee are term-limited or not.

Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 6:36 am

So let's term limit lobbyists as well.

Posted by marcos on May. 27, 2014 @ 6:57 am

If it was, you'd have been term limited out decades ago.

Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 7:19 am

It is legal to regulate the industry of paid operatives who seek to influence government to create economic rent for their customers.

Posted by marcos on May. 27, 2014 @ 10:06 am

Unions and non-profits are exempted from Lobbyist regulations, and will continue to be unregulated under proposed legislation. Special interests get their way, one way or another

Posted by Richmondman on May. 27, 2014 @ 1:14 pm

I could get behind that. Picking and choosing which ones to inhibit is obviously biased, however.

Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 1:42 pm

For-profit, non-profit and labor, all lobbyists should all be term limited and be required to wear Go-Pro cameras on record while lobbying.

Posted by marcos on May. 27, 2014 @ 1:59 pm

Ted Gullicksen on the record?

Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 2:08 pm

There should be live video feeds with sound from the offices of all elected officials running all of the time, and it should be official misconduct for an elected or appointed official to converse with anyone attempting to seek consideration in public policy formulation to not record their conversations on video.

Posted by marcos on May. 28, 2014 @ 10:24 am
Posted by Guest on May. 28, 2014 @ 10:42 am

Without term limits, Willie Brown would still be Speaker of the Assembly, or at least Mayor.

Posted by Richmondman on May. 27, 2014 @ 1:11 pm
Posted by lillipublicans on May. 27, 2014 @ 8:17 pm

That indicates he did far more good than harm.

Why do you think Jordan would have been better?

Posted by Guest on May. 28, 2014 @ 5:33 am

Hadn't occurred to me that Jordan would have been better until the troll asked just now.

Jordan would have been better for a great number of reasons I'm sure, but right off the top of my head I'd suppose it is because he's got a [better] moral framework; and not as cunning.

If Jordan had been astute enough to not get into the shower with those two radio wags, San Francisco would not have gotten damaged in the 90s to the degree that it was.

Posted by lillipublicans on May. 28, 2014 @ 8:28 am

But of course in reality you know nothing about him. He served only one term because Willie beat him. Jordan then tried again, and lost.

Jordan was probably more right-wing than Willie by most measures.

Posted by Guest on May. 28, 2014 @ 10:01 am

We deserve to vote for our elected representatives.

Posted by Guest on May. 26, 2014 @ 6:32 pm

The mayor appoints an interim Supe and then the voters get to decide to make it permanent, which they do not always do.

Seems to work fine.

Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 4:51 am

The seat is not open on the next ballot, and that is the problem.

Posted by Greg on May. 27, 2014 @ 7:45 am

but she was up for election the following November and the voters threw her out.

That is how it is supposed to work i.e. appoint but give the voters a say later.

Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 8:00 am

In this case, Lee appointed an electorally weak individual to D5 and then had saboteur Enrique Pearce run her campaign (into the ground).

Posted by marcos on May. 27, 2014 @ 12:11 pm

So that's a win for the current method.

Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 2:00 pm

McGoldrick amended the Charter in the early 2000s to make it so that the mayor retained the appointment power but the appointee came up on the very next local ballot instead of getting to serve out the full term.

Posted by marcos on May. 27, 2014 @ 10:51 am

Election reform advocates tried to get him to understand that we really needed an election, that the fact the mayor still appoints creates a skewed environment. Unfortunately he didn't get it. It's time to finish the job.

Posted by Greg on May. 27, 2014 @ 12:41 pm

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