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Mark Farrell Made the Most of His Whirlwind Tenure as Mayor. Is He Eyeing a 2019 Run?

Taking stock of S.F.’s once (and future?) exec.


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Mark Farrell calls his six-month job an “incredibly busy, frenetic experience.” Here, shots from his Instagram show the interim mayor throwing out the opening pitch at a Giants game.

Photo: Instagram

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Welcoming Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau.

Photo: Instagram

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Unveiling Ed Lee’s portrait with Dianne Feinstein and Gavin Newsom.

Photo: Instagram

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Marching, as he does every year, in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade, for which his children donned leprechaun hats. “They look incredibly cute,” the mayor says. “It was very important for me and my wife to let them live their lives, but you can’t skip that your father is the mayor.”

Photo: Instagram

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When Mark Farrell took office as mayor of San Francisco this winter, he stepped aside from his venture capital firm, but not from another sizable time commitment: coaching his son’s baseball team. The father of three has tried not to let his new temp gig curtail his parenting duties, taking his kids to school each morning and coaching several of their teams. For his efforts, he receives some positive feedback. “The kids will say, ‘We lost, but it’s cool that you’re mayor,’” he says during an interview in his City Hall office in mid-May. But not everyone is quite so enthused. Parents sometimes buttonhole the interim mayor about civic issues while he’s trying to direct bunts and infield shifts. “It’s a lot tamer on the baseball field,” he says, “than it can be walking down the streets.”

For a short-timer, Farrell seems quite comfortable inhabiting the office of mayor. His compressed time in power—he was dramatically thrust into the job on January 23 and will be booted out of it at some as-yet-undetermined point after Supervisor London Breed’s victory in the June 5 election—has forced him to bear down on only a few issues, ones that he believed he could make progress on in fewer than 180 days. “In the first week or two, we drew up a whiteboard and said, ‘These are the topic areas I care about,’” he says. On that list: public safety, dirty streets, and the homelessness crisis. As of May, Farrell gives himself high marks. “We’ve been able to make significant progress on each one of them,” he says.

He has also enthusiastically taken to the showier parts of the job, whether it’s throwing out the first pitch at a Giants game, signing legislation to rename one of the terminals at SFO after Harvey Milk, marching with his family and their friends in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade, or clasping hands with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Supervisor Jane Kim at the opening of Salesforce Tower (how’s that for bridging the aisle?). If the late mayor Ed Lee was San Francisco’s corny-joke-telling dad, Farrell is its tough-love stepfather, firm but fair. The smoothness with which he’s slid into the position hasn’t gone unnoticed. “It’s striking how much better he is at the public face of being mayor than Ed Lee was,” says Jason McDaniel, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University.

The machinations that granted the former District 2 supervisor his Airbnb-length stay in Room 200 have already become City Hall legend. After the death of Lee, who suffered a massive heart attack in the Glen Park Safeway on December 12, Breed became acting mayor. Her progressive colleagues worried that having that job would give her an unfair leg up on winning the mayoralty in June. After several other candidates bowed out, the moderate Farrell sided with progressives on the board to put the kibosh on Breed and install himself as interim mayor. Perhaps that compromise shouldn’t have been surprising—Farrell endorsed progressive leader David Campos over the moderate David Chiu when the two men ran against each other for state assembly, earning a chit he could have cashed during the January vote. Whatever deal he may have cut with the board’s left faction (Farrell maintains that there was no quid pro quo), he has governed authentically for himself, pushing forward his long-standing policy commitments in ways that could set him up for a bank-shot return to the Mayor’s Office sometime down the line. In politics, timing is everything, and Farrell has been determined not to squander his.

In each of the policy areas scribbled down on his whiteboard, Farrell has been able to advance his agenda, in part thanks to another layer of fortunate timing. His stint in office coincided with budget season, allowing Farrell—long the Board of Supervisors’ most green-eyeshaded member—to oversee the city’s annual allocation of more than $11 billion. In his budget, Farrell, a longtime ally of the police officers union, proposed funding 250 additional police officers, a staffing increase requested by Chief of Police Bill Scott. He also called for hiring four more street cleaners in each supervisorial district and placing a handful of Zamboni-style street-­cleaning machines on larger boulevards. And he proposed upgrading to 10 staffers a new team of doctors, nurses, and social workers who offer buprenorphine, the opioid-weaning medication, to drug users on the streets, taking advantage of a federal law that allows health workers to dispense a day’s dosage without a prescription—or to write one on the spot.

Freed from (at least immediately) facing the voters for reelection, Farrell has also had a relatively free hand to carry out more controversial actions, including a sweep of tent encampments in April in the Mission district and the issuance of Tasers to police officers. The mayor defends the cleanup order, arguing that San Francisco has “gone from a spirit of compassion to enabling street behavior that is unacceptable.” “I take issue with the term sweeps,” he continues, saying that prior to the decision, outreach teams offered homeless people shelter and services. Farrell was the chief proponent of 2016’s Proposition Q, which prohibited the use of tents on public sidewalks. San Francisco’s electorate narrowly approved it, and Farrell sees the most recent removals as a manifestation of that policy. “You shouldn’t have to walk over a tent to take your kid to school in the morning, or to get to the bus stop,” he says. “Nobody is getting better by sleeping in tents at night.”

Critics have charged that nobody is getting better thanks to Farrell’s actions, either. Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, argues that the clearings have simply pushed the problem around, needlessly traumatizing an already vulnerable group of people. Citing 311 data, Friedenbach points out that there were 4,633 encampment-related complaints citywide in the month prior to the sweep in the Mission and 5,399 in the month following—a 16 percent uptick. In District 9, which includes the Mission, complaints rose by nearly 9 percent during that time period, from 1,073 to 1,166. Only 8 individuals living in the more than 100 tents were placed in shelters, partly owing to what Friedenbach says was insufficient outreach—“You couldn’t even call it half-assed.” The Mayor’s Office counters with statistics that show that of the more than 1,200 people moved from tents over the last year and a half, 780 of them accepted shelter.

On the other hot-button issue of his tenure, police Tasers, Farrell has long contended that the SFPD ought to join the majority of big-city police departments that issue the weapons. Believing that the San Francisco Police Commission was dragging its feet, Farrell backed a ballot initiative put forward by the Police Officers Association to force approval. That shook the commission into action, and it greenlit the Tasers. Farrell thinks that made the ballot initiative moot: He did not support it, and 60 percent of voters rejected it in the June election. In his city budget, he offered funding for Tasers and for training police officers in how to use them—a move that Lee, another pro-Taser mayor, never had the wherewithal to make.

On the one hand, Farrell may be unshackled to pursue more controversial measures because this brief go-round could be his only time in City Hall’s executive seat. On the other, “he’s eyeing 2019, so he’s building his narrative in case the next mayor falters on these popular issues,” says David Latterman, a political consultant who works with moderates. In effect, when the VC in Farrell declined to endorse anyone this time around, he took out an option on the 2019 race. Had the progressive former state senator Mark Leno won, Farrell could have pointed to his record in office as a reason that he, rather than Breed, should be the challenger in 2019: Better to run a six-month mayor than a six-week mayor. But Breed’s narrow win eliminates that strategy, and she would have to stumble mightily during her time in office for Farrell to credibly build a case to run. Like many investments, his may not pay off.

Farrell isn’t sure about his political future. But he is looking forward to just being a baseball dad again. “Back in the gym for sure,” says the soon-to-be ex-mayor, who attended Loyola Marymount on a baseball scholarship. There’s likely a vacation with his wife and kids coming up soon, too. After that? Depends on the election. “I believe we’ve had an effect,” he says, “and have also set up success for whomever comes in next.” Rest assured, Farrell will be watching that successor closely.


Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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