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.


give him that mandate. If every Mayor was a progressive, you'd be fine with appointments.

Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 1:46 pm

You're going around in circles.

Posted by Greg on May. 27, 2014 @ 1:55 pm

It is insanity tot ry and call an election for every vacancy on every board. Most cities use appointments and that has been working for decades.

As long as the Mayor is elected and popular, there isn't a problem. And the last SF mayor who wasn't popular was Agnos.

Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 2:07 pm

Often district voters vote overwhelmingly *against* the mayor who wins a city-wide vote, so such a mayor certainly doesn't have a mandate. Why not have a supervisor name his or her own temporary replacement until a special election can be held? Why not have a second place runner up of the previous election get offered the job?--especially when the mayor is not popular in a district, that would be far more democratic.

The shortcomings of the current situation can cut both ways; a future progressive mayor might otherwise be able to foist an unwanted supervisor onto a conservative district. Better democracy should be the choice every time without regard to which side wins.

Posted by lillipublicans on May. 28, 2014 @ 10:38 am

The mayor and his puppet master Ron Conway created the environment for Olague to loose via hit pieces blanketing San Francisco.

Posted by One that knows on May. 27, 2014 @ 11:01 am

According to the Wikipedia page for David Campos, he was appointed to the Board of Supervisors after Tom Ammiano after he won state-wide election/resigned from the Board. I can't remember if that's the case - but was curious as Supervisor Campos is not listed as being appointed in this article. Does anyone know?

Posted by Kristin on May. 27, 2014 @ 11:35 am

Campos had won the D9 seat in November of 200, when Ammiano had won the seat in the Assembly. Newsom appointed Campos to serve out the month or so remainder of Ammiano's term until the one he won commenced in January.

Posted by marcos on May. 27, 2014 @ 12:10 pm

That's it - now I remember how it went. The Wikipedia entry is correct I guess, but kind of misleading. Thanks for the reminder, marcos!

Posted by Kristin on May. 27, 2014 @ 12:30 pm

So Campos isn't the problem here.

Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 1:43 pm

If the SF Charter is changed the new rules will apply equally to all future appointments regardless of who's mayor and what their political persuasion might be, so it's really a non-partisan issue. A change is long overdue because the present system is ripe for corruption. Clear separation between the powers of the executive and legislative branches is necessary for a healthy democracy.

Posted by Barry Eisenberg on May. 27, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

Should we elect the Secretary of State? The Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? The Treasury Secretary? The head of the Fed?

There is a reason we appoint such positions. It's part of what we vote for when we vote for a President, Governor or Mayor.

Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2014 @ 2:41 pm

who could have predicted it?

Can a non-sequitur be blindingly brilliant in the way a "B-movie" can be bad enough to be good? If so, this was like the Troll 2 of Internet comments.

We don't want a mayor to be so strong that through their appointive powers they can pack the legislative body after enticing legislators to leave their elected posts. It defeats the purpose of district elections to regularly have supervisors in office who were appointed by an at-large mayor; concentrating power and blurring the separation between the executive and legislative bodies.

Posted by lillipublicans on May. 28, 2014 @ 1:20 pm

accusing others of being a troll?

Again, explain why you are happy for Obama and Brown to appoint every important job in their cabinets?

Why do you want to strip our local executive of the exact same powers?

Posted by Guest on May. 28, 2014 @ 1:31 pm

and get rid of ranked choice voting. We deserve a shot at the 'top two' .

Posted by Guest on May. 29, 2014 @ 12:36 pm

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