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San Francisco's next mayor will be a political star in California. Who will it be?

San Francisco's next mayor will be a political star in California. Who will it be?
Acting San Francisco Mayor London Breed speaks at a service for the late Ed Lee. She's at the center of speculation over Lee's successor. (Scott Strazzante / Pool Photo)

San Francisco is the city everyone loves, even if they hate it.

The stately Victorians, like a gingerbread dream come to life. The majestic Golden Gate Bridge, standing like heaven's portal above the fog. The plucky cable cars, scrabbling up its impossible hillsides.

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It can almost make you forget the bands of ravaged homeless, the paralyzing traffic, the scent of human waste wafting from sidewalks outside the city's posh eateries and palatial tech headquarters.

San Francisco is getting a new mayor, owing to the sudden death of incumbent Ed Lee. All of the grandeur, and all of the grit, accompany the position.

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To say the race is wide open — Lee having passed just about a week ago — is an understatement.

London Breed is the acting mayor, by dint of her role as president of the Board of Supervisors, the city's governing body. Whether she runs to keep the job, agrees to serve as caretaker until a June 5 special election or continues in the role because the fractious 11-member board can't agree on an interim successor are open questions.

Wheels are spinning.

"A lot of vacation plans have been altered because the stakes are remarkably high and remarkably immediate," said Alex Clemens, a political strategist who has already held a number of conversations with prospective candidates.

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Whoever prevails, California will have a new Democratic star, a national voice on the liberal — pardon, progressive — agenda and a contender sometime down the line for governor, U.S. Senate or some other statewide office, should the new mayor choose to run.

San Francisco has an extraordinary record of producing political leaders of state and national import: Hiram Johnson; Pat Brown and his son, Jerry; Phillip Burton and his brother, John; Dianne Feinstein; Willie Brown, and Nancy Pelosi to name a few.

Feinstein's junior partner in the U.S. Senate, Kamala Harris, is a former San Francisco district attorney. Gavin Newsom, the front-runner to replace Jerry Brown as governor, is the city's ex-mayor.

The close-quarters combat of the city's 47 square miles and its demanding and highly engaged electorate make for an unmatched training ground. "San Francisco is a crucible," said Nathan Ballard, a former Newsom press secretary. "It chews up and spits out the least talented."

San Francisco politicians also benefit from the mindset of Bay Area residents, who regard the nine-county region more holistically than residents of Southern California see their sprawling home. Goings-on in the city — or The City, as it's widely regarded — are chronicled on TV, in the newspapers and in foreign-language media in ways that turn its local personalities into areawide celebrities, or at least familiar names and faces.

Though San Francisco has plenty of detractors, the recognition is a leg-up for any Democrat running in a crowded field. (It helps, too, that voters in the Bay Area typically turn out in higher percentages than Southern Californians.)

The stakes are remarkably high and remarkably immediate.


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Lee, a former city administrator, became interim mayor in January 2011 after Newsom quit to become lieutenant governor. Although he had agreed to be a placeholder, Lee changed his mind. He won a full term in November 2011 and easy reelection in 2015, going virtually unchallenged.

Unlike Feinstein and Newsom, he never set his sights beyond San Francisco. That made him a rarity in a ruling class that oozes ambition.

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Those who wish to succeed Lee have until Jan. 9 to get into the race. Whoever wins on June 5 will finish the remainder of his mayoral term, then face another election in November 2019 for a full four years.

The potential field is large.

Along with Breed, City Atty. Dennis Hererra, Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu and Assemblyman David Chiu are believed to be eyeing the race. Former state Sen. Mark Leno declared his candidacy in May, back when the election was supposed to be in 2019. Former Supervisor Angela Alioto announced on Monday, and board member Jane Kim jumped into the race Wednesday.

More are considering the contest.

The fault lines of the incipient campaign are those historically cleaving San Francisco, pitting the business-backed, moderate wing of the Democratic Party, which includes Breed, a Willie Brown protégé, against the city's progressives. (We're grading on a curve; a moderate by San Francisco standards, Feinstein, for instance, would be considered unassailably liberal just about anywhere else in America.)

The issues likely to dominate the race reflect the scourges that make this city so vexing: homelessness, street crime, a public school system failing some of its neediest children and, above all, a growing gulf between rich and poor, which gives San Francisco the increasing feel of a Third World country.

None of those problems are new. Feinstein wrestled with similar issues, and she left City Hall nearly 30 years ago. Several mayors have been overmatched since then.

Few cities in the country have been blessed with the natural beauty, exuberance and charm of San Francisco. Any mayor who could bring its quality of living to the same lofty level would forge a legacy deserving of higher office.

Maybe even coronation as king or queen of California.

@markzbarabak on Twitter

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UPDATES:

11 a.m.: This article was updated to reflect Supervisor Mark Farrell's decision he would not run for mayor.

This story was originally published at 4:05 a.m.

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