Even Matt Cain Could be Interim Mayor: A Breakdown of Political Inside Baseball

Here’s your secret decoder ring for mayoral succession. The League breaks down the City Charter, definitions, process, and political inside baseball.

It’s been 14 years since San Francisco had a mayoral election without an incumbent! We think it's time.


  • The last time the Mayor’s office was vacant in 2011 was a clusterfuck. The Willie Brown-Gavin Newsom crew pulled power plays to give Ed Lee the power of incumbency, which led to a divisive election and a lot of bad blood.
  • We don’t support power plays where political insiders decide who our mayor is -- even if the potential Mayor is someone we would support.
  • The Board of Supervisors needs to go through a transparent process to select a caretaker Mayor (we’ve got some ideas - see below).
  • San Francisco voters deserve the clean slate of a fair and rigorous debate about who should be our next Mayor without an incumbent running.

There has been a lot of talk about what the City Charter says about this mayoral succession process and confusing terminology (Acting Mayor, Interim Mayor, Caretaker Mayor, Care Bear Mayor?), so let’s start with City Charter Section 13.101.5(b):

“If the Office of Mayor becomes vacant because of death, resignation, recall, permanent disability or the inability to carry out the responsibilities of the office, the President of the Board of Supervisors shall become Acting Mayor and shall serve until a successor is appointed by the Board of Supervisors.”

Acting Mayor: This term is defined in the Charter section above. City Charter, Section 3.100.13 also allows the Mayor to designate a member of the Board of Supervisors as Acting Mayor when the Mayor is out of state or temporarily disabled. This occurs regularly when the Mayor travels. The Acting Mayor is not always the President of the Board of Supervisors during these routine designations. Currently, District 5 Supervisor London Breed is both Acting Mayor and President of the Board of Supervisors.

Interim Mayor/successor Mayor: The term “interim Mayor” isn’t defined in the Charter, but people are using this to refer to someone who is appointed by the Board of Supervisors to be Mayor until the June 5 election. When the Board appointed Ed Lee, their Motion #11-11 referred to this position as the “successor Mayor.” This person would be the for reals Mayor -- not “Acting Mayor” -- with the full paycheck and the requirement that they not hold any other job (City Charter, Section 3.100). The Charter doesn’t specify a deadline when the Board must appoint a successor, but it seems clear that they are supposed to appoint someone.

There is precedent for this: after the death of George Moscone and the resignation of Gavin Newsom. And even though the Board can delay appointing a successor and temporarily leave the Board President in place as Acting Mayor, that person continues to hold three positions, including head of both legislative and executive branches, with major obligations at both district and citywide levels. (See our possible scenarios below.) That’s why the Board of Supervisors voted to appoint Dianne Feinstein as successor Mayor, on December 5, 1978--eight days after she became Acting Mayor following the death of George Moscone. She resigned from her seat on the Board of Supervisors, and went on to win the election in November 1979.

And that brings us to...

Caretaker Mayor: In 2010, the term “caretaker Mayor” was proposed by then-Mayor, Gavin Newsom. Newsom said, “The board should pick a caretaker, not a politician. That’s my criteria1." The idea was that neither progressive or moderate factions of the Board of Supervisors would have an incumbent in the 2011 Mayor’s race. In January 2011, the Board appointed Ed Lee after he agreed not to run in November. But after months of assuring San Franciscans he’d return to his old job of City Administrator, Lee announced his run for Mayor in August 2011 following the “Run Ed Run” campaign.

Fun fact: In 2011 the Board passed ordinance #86-11 for Ed Lee that allows a City employee who is appointed Mayor to return to their old job.

Care Bear Mayor: Okay, we made that one up, although the Care Bears did have their own mayoral controversy.

Are you still with us? This shouldn’t be this hard, but it is, so…..

Let’s walk through the three steps of mayoral succession from City Charter Section 13.101.5(b):

  1. The Office of Mayor became vacant when Ed Lee passed away.
  2. London Breed immediately became Acting Mayor. She also remains as President of the Board of Supervisors and the Supervisor for District 5.
  3. She “shall serve until a successor is appointed by the Board of Supervisors.” The Board can appoint Breed or any other registered voter of San Francisco.

Why is this sooooo complicated? Part of the complication is because the City Charter is kinda vague.2 They might not want to be too prescriptive in the event there’s not anyone to run the City after a catastrophic event.

Who wants to be Mayor anyway?

Turns out, a lot of people. At the time of publishing, 25 people have “pulled papers” to run for Mayor. Pulling papers means you’ve notified the Department of Elections that you intend to run for that office. It also prepares the department to complete the nomination process. Candidates have to turn over a few required items like signatures, financial declarations, filing fee, etc. before the nomination period ends at 5pm on January 9th.

In addition to Breed, some well-known names have already stated they’d like to be Mayor - Jane Kim, Mark Leno, Dennis Herrera, and Angela Alioto. There are others rumored to be interested - Carmen Chu and David Chiu.

State law says no one can vote for themselves if they have a political or financial interest, and Board Rules say 6 votes are necessary to elect a successor Mayor. That complicates the vote, since Supervisors Jane Kim and London Breed are both declared candidates for Mayor. If either of them try to rally enough votes to become successor Mayor, they would effectively need seven votes instead of six (since their own vote ‘doesn’t count’).

In 2010, there was so much disagreement that Supervisors and the Clerk of the Board created a special one-time process to choose the next Mayor - but not before then-D6 Supe Chris Daly called it a “clusterfuck,” saying it was too complicated and could make it harder for the Board to appoint a successor Mayor.

San Francisco tried once and failed to have a true caretaker Mayor. This is why we have a short list of super-qualified and capable women (mostly women of color) who we’d most definitely support as an interim caretaker Mayor:

  1. Nadia Sesay, head of the Successor to the Redevelopment Agency, former head of the Office of Public Finance
  2. Naomi Kelly, San Francisco’s City Administrator
  3. Angela Calvillo, Clerk of the Board of Supervisors
  4. Micki Callahan, Director of Human Resources
  5. Monique Zmuda, retired Deputy Controller

They all have broad experience at high levels of San Francisco government and could keep the City running until the voters can elect a new Mayor in June.

We believe an interim process is the best way to build trust in our government and limit political shadiness. We would feel this way regardless of who was Board President or running for Mayor.

So WTF happens next? We made a list of possible scenarios. And we made a chart!


If London Breed remains Acting Mayor...

  • She would continue to be District 5 Supervisor, President of the Board, and Acting Mayor if the Board doesn’t appoint an interim/successor Mayor.

If London Breed is appointed successor Mayor by the Board...

  • She would have to resign as D5 Supervisor. She would then appoint a new D5 Supervisor. If Breed is appointed Mayor before February 5, the election for the D5 seat would be in June. If Breed is appointed Mayor after February 5, the D5 election would be in November.

If someone else is appointed successor Mayor:

  • If a local elected official, such as City Attorney Dennis Herrera, is made successor Mayor, he or she would then appoint someone to take their previous job.
    • If the successor Mayor is appointed before February 5, the election for the office they vacated would be in June.
    • If the successor Mayor is appointed after February 5,  the election for the office they vacated previous seat would be in November.
  • If a state-level elected official, such as Assemblyman David Chiu, is made successor Mayor, his or her seat would remain vacant until the Governor calls for an election to fill the seat in either June or November.
  • If an unelected city official, such as the police chief, is made successor Mayor, they must resign that job, but could return to it after the June election.
  • If retired Giants pitcher Matt Cain was made successor Mayor (and he can by City Charter), then he unfortunately can’t pick the next Giants pitcher. That only works for political inside baseball. 

Perfect Cain



  1. That led to an appointment process where progressives thought they had the votes to appoint Sheriff Mike Hennessey before behind-the-scenes power politics led to Bevan Dufty meeting with Mayor Newsom and changing his vote to Ed Lee. Ouch! The League didn’t oppose Ed Lee’s appointment, but we hoped he’d be more open and less divisive than Newsom.
  2. The City Charter says voters can weigh in at the next scheduled election, in this case, June 2018. But the timing of the June election and the date of Ed Lee’s death create some interesting scenarios. Mayor Ed Lee passed away on December 12, 2017, just shy of two years into his second term that began on January 8, 2016. If someone is appointed successor Mayor after January 9, 2018, that person will be Mayor till June, then can run and (if they win) can eventually run for a second term. If they are appointed before January 9, 2018, however, they can only run once. It just so happens that 5pm on January 9th is the deadline to file to run for Mayor in June. The Board of Supervisors plans on waiting till after that date to appoint a successor Mayor, so if they appoint someone who is in the race, that person will be eligible to sit for the next 6 months, then (if they win) two full terms after that.

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