Why you should care
Because it’s past time to fix a rigged game.
San Francisco voters have less than four months to consider the qualifications and records of the various candidates seeking to serve out deceased Mayor Ed Lee’s term. The looming special election deserves city residents’ full attention, but the circumstances surrounding the removal of Board of Supervisors President London Breed from the temporary role of acting mayor demands a nationwide examination of the myopic lens through which Black women are so often viewed and judged in politics.
When Breed became acting mayor in December, it wasn’t the first time an ambitious San Francisco Board of Supervisors president became mayor after a sudden death.
Given that the votes of Black women were critical to recent progressive triumphs by Alabama Sen. Doug Jones and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, we have more than earned our place.
In 1978, when Mayor George Moscone was assassinated — along with Supervisor Harvey Milk — now U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein was head of the Board of Supervisors, and she was immediately voted in by her colleagues as acting mayor. Feinstein went on to win the ensuing mayoral election, and served in the post for a decade. No one, it appears, was shaken over an unfair political advantage, because in the 40 years between Feinstein and Breed the section of the city charter that allows such a scenario remained unchanged.
That changed this January, however, when Breed, a Black woman, found herself serving as both president of the Board of Supervisors and acting mayor. Breed’s fellow board members suddenly had grave concerns over the potential for abuse of power, and they were moved by a desire to “level the playing field” for all the mayoral candidates who are now running in the special election. They voted to install a white male venture capitalist, Mark Farrell, as interim mayor. Based on the board’s reaction, one would think voters don’t know how to cast ballots in a race that includes an incumbent.
The board’s decision to ignore precedent, institute a double standard and unceremoniously remove Breed as acting mayor in response to theoretical worries would be surprising if Breed were not a Black woman. Instead, the members’ action is a clear expression of the persistent, problematic and wholly feeble vision that too many Americans have of who is deserving and capable of leading.
There is a centuries-old list of brilliant, highly capable Black women who have been shut out of leadership for no reason other than their combined gender and skin color. The message to them has long been: No matter how qualified you are — no matter your adeptness with problem-solving, innovation, consensus building and making difficult decisions — the reins of power are not yours to hold. Why else would the rules for occupying a seat at the table suddenly change at the exact moment a Black woman enters the room?
Recent examples of routine attempts to deny and usurp Black women’s power are plentiful. Take the infuriating case in the New York Legislature where eight rogue Democratic legislators are caucusing with Republicans in large part because they refuse to allow a Black woman to lead the Senate Democratic Conference. State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins took control of the conference in 2013 when it was mired in legal probes. When she arrived, the Democratic faction had already broken away from the party, and they were caucusing with Republicans under the auspices of keeping government functional.
With new leadership in place, however, the group was expected to reunite with fellow Democrats. Instead, the leader of the group — state Sen. Jeffrey Klein — has continued to make unprecedented demands for co-leadership of the conference even after abandoning it. Just as insulting were the nasty, racially motivated social media comments by Daniel Loeb, a major donor to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in an effort to further undermine Stewart-Cousins’ leadership.
In Washington, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris — a brilliant and highly successful former prosecutor — was publicly excoriated by her white male counterparts for having the nerve to thoroughly question Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein when they attempted to evade her inquiries during Senate hearings. Harris, the only Black woman in the Senate, was singled out for criticism even though other Democrats questioned the two men with similar gusto.
But the largely liberal San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ decision to oust Breed as interim mayor is a particularly vexing example of the kind of shell games Black women encounter once they occupy positions that traditionally afford power and deference. It reveals that the resistance to Black women leading often comes from fellow progressives who claim to be allies in creating a more equitable country. Given that the votes of Black women were critical to recent progressive triumphs by Alabama Sen. Doug Jones and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, we have more than earned our place.
Together, Black women can mount a sustained political effort aimed at ensuring Black female leaders are afforded the full power of their hard-earned positions. We can do this by taking action beyond the voting booth — by attending community board meetings, volunteering to get more Black women elected and letting others know that we, the voters, will determine who sits at the table to represent us.
Kimberly Peeler-Allen is co-founder of Higher Heights for America, a national organization building the collective political power and leadership of Black women.