San Francisco Ousts a Mayor in a Clash of Tech, Politics and Race
SAN FRANCISCO — In a city where being called conservative can be an insult and where partisanship is often left versus further left, the removal of an African-American interim mayor, and her replacement by a white, male venture capitalist, was bound to set off an uproar.
The appointment of Mark Farrell, the venture capitalist, and the ouster of London Breed, the interim mayor, by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Tuesday in some ways exemplified a larger battle for the soul of San Francisco. In just seven years the median price of a home here has nearly doubled, to $1.3 million — a transformation, driven by the riches of the tech industry, that continues to push out longtime residents, many of them nonwhites.
But what may seem on the surface to be a familiar clash between tech and those threatened by its rise is in fact a moment full of complicated alliances and seeming contradictions.
Mr. Farrell, who is the managing director of Thayer Ventures, a firm that invests in technology companies, was backed by a faction that has been critical of tech companies’ influence on San Francisco.
Ms. Breed rose up from modest means and has vociferous support among the city’s thinning African-American population. But she also had the backing of a prominent Silicon Valley investor, Ron Conway.
The political fight quickly spilled out of the wood-paneled meeting rooms of City Hall and into the public arena. It will culminate in a mayoral election in June, one that promises to be in part a battle over the influence of the tech industry on the city and its politics.
“There have been many local politicians who say the tech industry is different, that they are innovative, they want to disrupt the status quo — maybe that’s true on some levels,” said Hillary Ronen, a member of the Board of Supervisors who voted to remove Ms. Breed on Tuesday. “But I haven’t seen that big of a difference when it comes to their interest and their willingness to attack politicians who don’t put their interests first and foremost.”
Perhaps no single person has emerged as the face of the tech industry’s political influence as has Mr. Conway, an investor who made a fortune taking early stakes in companies including Airbnb and Pinterest. Mr. Conway, an adviser to former Mayor Edwin Lee, whose death from a heart attack in December prompted the political scramble to replace him, has been a behind-the-scenes promoter of Ms. Breed’s candidacy.
Yet amid the debate over the tech industry’s influence, there was the powerful imagery of a black woman being thrown out of office, albeit an interim one, in a city that has a long history of discrimination against blacks.
On Tuesday evening, when Mr. Farrell was appointed by a 6-3 vote, some members of the public howled in derision, including many African-American supporters of Ms. Breed.
“The black community is not going to take this sitting down,” the Rev. Amos Brown, head of the N.A.A.C.P. in San Francisco and the pastor of Third Baptist Church, said in an interview on Wednesday.
Mr. Brown portrayed the decision as yet another blow to blacks in the city, whose numbers have been dwindling in recent years and who were evicted en masse during the city-led redevelopment of black neighborhoods in the 1960s and ’70s. “There’s never been an intentional effort on the so-called progressive liberals of this town to work with the black community so that we would have our fair share,” he said.
In a measure of the complex racial dynamics in San Francisco, Mr. Brown said Asians had been welcomed at the expense of blacks. “They opened the floodgates to Southeast Asians and to China, but they told black folks to get out of the way,” he said.
Ms. Breed, in an interview, played down the racial component of her ouster.
“I prefer not to get into the thoughts around that,” Ms. Breed said. “It’s unfortunate that this has brought out the worst in some people.”
Asked about the attacks on Mr. Conway and his support for her, Ms. Breed said she saw it as a political tactic.
“This is the playbook of these people in order to gain power and win elections,” she said. “They have to point the finger at someone. They’ve got to say that someone is the big, bad boogeyman.”
The group that ousted Ms. Breed as interim mayor said their motivation was to avoid a conflict of interest. Ms. Breed, who in the lingo of San Francisco liberal politics is described as a moderate, is president of the Board of Supervisors. Holding both that position and being interim mayor gave her unchecked authority and what her ousters said was an unfair power of incumbency. Mr. Farrell is not running for mayor.
The June election has particularly high stakes. The winner is eligible to serve the balance of Mr. Lee’s term, then run twice more, potentially securing the mayor’s office for the next decade.
Some analysts see Ms. Breed’s removal as a cold political calculus by the city’s progressive faction: Removing her from office would give them a better shot at reclaiming the mayor’s office in June. One of the supervisors who voted for Mr. Farrell on Tuesday is Jane Kim, a progressive who is running for mayor. With no clear front-runner yet, the election is a chance for the city’s progressive wing to reclaim an office that they have been locked out of since the 1980s.
Ms. Breed — who supports legalizing marijuana and recently wrote an op-ed on the need for cities to divest from fossil fuel companies — is considered right of the San Francisco center for her corporate ties and perceived receptiveness to the tech industry.
Mr. Farrell is also considered a moderate and is perhaps best known for a taking a tougher approach toward the city’s homeless problem, sponsoring a ballot measure that banned tent encampments from sidewalks. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But some are skeptical that ideology played a large part in this week’s political machinations.
“They said they didn’t want a white rich person in charge and then they put a rich white person in charge,” said Peter Ragone, a Democratic political consultant in San Francisco who was the communications director for a former mayor, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. “What I’ve learned over the years in San Francisco is that for progressives it is not about conscience or ideology, it’s about power.”