When I was in high school, both of my older brothers played soccer. To kill time after school while they practiced, I became the “soccer manager.” This was a strange title, because I didn’t “manage” anything or anyone. All I did was fill Gatorade bottles and make sure the equipment was on the bus.
This experience reminds me of the presidency of the Board of Supervisors. Because being the president of the board comes with about as much authority as being the soccer manager.
Sure, the president gets to appoint supervisors to committees, but board committees simply are not that powerful. By way of background, when proposed laws are introduced, the president sends them to one of several committees for a full hearing. Otherwise, meetings of the full board would be even longer than they are now.
In some legislative settings, the person in control of the committee is important because he or she can prevent certain laws from being considered by the full legislature or kill a bill by voting against it. But that’s not the case in San Francisco. Here, if some committee chairperson refuses to schedule a hearing, any group of four supervisors can call the proposed legislation to the full board just 30 days after it’s introduced. The same goes for laws that are suspended in committee — any supe can force the committee to re-hear the item within 12 months. Even when all committee members hate a certain law, it still goes to the full board for a vote, albeit with a negative recommendation. Amendments made in committee can be un-done by the full board.
Even the procedural rulings that the president makes throughout the meeting can be overridden by a majority vote.
The reality is that presidential powers are limited to the following: representing the board at city functions, imposing a 30-day hold on legislation that needs time for more review, sitting in on committee hearings when there aren’t enough members to constitute a quorum, and leading the Pledge of Allegiance (just one more reason Supervisor Jane Kim, who refuses to recite the pledge, probably won’t get the nod).
Let’s face it: the board president is basically a hall monitor, albeit a city hall monitor.
And it’s not necessarily a launchpad for higher elected office. Sure, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, former Secretary of State Kevin Shelley and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano were each board president, but so were Angela Alioto, Matt Gonzalez and Aaron Peskin.
In fact, a number of supervisors who have gone on to higher office were never president, including state Sen. Mark Leno, former Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, former state Sen. Carole Migden and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
In light of the questionable payoff in being president, and its decidedly unpresidential powerlessness, why would anyone want to be the city hall monitor? Is it merely ego? A desire to have something to do during the meetings?
Maybe, like being the soccer manager, it simply beats watching the grass grow.
Election process in days of yore
According to the 1932 City Charter, members of the Board of Supervisors must get together every two years on Jan. 8 to pick a new president. Initially, a mix of popularity and seniority generally determined the choice. After World War II, however, the board got into the habit of choosing the candidate who had received the most votes in the then-citywide elections.
In 1976, The City voted to switch to district elections and Supervisor Dianne Feinstein was elected board president in January 1978. (Supervisor Dan White seconded Feinstein’s nomination and Supervisor Harvey Milk voted against her.) Feinstein’s term was cut short when she assumed the office of the mayor after then-Mayor George Moscone and Milk were assassinated in November 1978. Supervisor John Molinari stepped in as acting president, and in 1980, he was elected president for a term ending in January 1982.
Although voters chose to go back to citywide elections in 1981, Molinari had enough support on the board to serve out his two-year term as board president instead of the role going to Supervisor Quentin Kopp, who had gotten the most votes.
Incensed by this departure from tradition, Kopp and his allies put an initiative on the ballot in 1982 codifying the rule that the person receiving the most votes citywide should automatically be board president. This system was in place until 2001, when The City went back to district elections, leaving the supervisors to choose their own president.
… and who’d win under old rules
In light of this history of using the popular vote as a guide to the presidency, let us examine who would be president under a popular vote system. While differences in election years, district size and ranked-choice voting make it an inexact science, the person with the highest number of popular votes is Supervisor David Campos, with more than 24,000 first-choice votes in the last election.
The supervisor elected with the highest percentage of first-choice home-district votes cast is Supervisor Carmen Chu, with 98.56 percent, to 95.08 percent for the second-place Campos.
Interestingly enough, two supes rumored to be seeking the presidency — supervisors Jane Kim and Malia Cohen — were elected with the lowest number of first-choice and total votes. Kim received 6,621 first-choice votes when she was elected in 2010 and, after ranked-choice redistribution, was elected with 8,865 votes. Cohen got 2,097 first-choice votes and won with 4,321 votes.
Other hopefuls, including Supervisor Scott Wiener and current board President David Chiu, fall at the higher end, with Chiu receiving 17,700 votes, more than 75 percent, in the first round in the 2012 election, which precluded the need for ranked-choice recalculation. Wiener’s 2010 race for District 8 supervisor went several rounds, but after ranked-choice distribution, he won with more than 18,000 votes.
Melissa Griffin’s column runs each Thursday and Sunday. She also appears Mondays in “Mornings with Melissa” at 6:45 a.m. on KPIX (Ch. 5). Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.