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What Would It Really Take to Recall the Mayor?

Short answer: An army of people with clipboards.


After a scuttled attempt to recall Mayor Ed Lee this spring, a small band of organizers is back and ready to storm the walls of City Hall. The Department of Elections blocked the first Recall Mayor Ed Lee campaign back in May because not enough time had elapsed in the mayor’s new term. Now, on the six-month anniversary of Lee’s inauguration, organizer David Carlos Salaverry is ready to declare open season on San Francisco’s First Mustache. “Really, the entire city has issues with the direction the city is headed in. We’re not a bunch of left-wing crazies—we’re going to be reaching out to coalitions unhappy with the mayor,” the 64-year-old remodeling contractor told San Francisco, his cell phone crackling with din from the 14 bus. “We’re making sure we have votes from moderates. We’re even going to engage with Libertarians, and possibly even with Republicans.”

It’s too late to get a measure on the November ballot, which means the recall folks will be going it alone and petitioning for a special recall vote. Nonetheless, Salaverry says his group—which includes former mayoral candidate Francisco Herrera and Mike Murphy, a gardener—today served the mayor with a notice of intention to circulate a recall petition. They’re holding a kickoff rally at City Hall on July 15, although the actual petitioning of voters wouldn’t begin until August. No mayor of San Francisco, at least as far back as modern memory goes, has been successfully recalled. It’s true that Lee was reelected very unenthusiastically, and voters seem to enjoy heckling him. But will all those boos really translate into tens of thousands of signatures?

As you’d expect, insiders are calling this a very long shot. “I would say no one’s taking it seriously,” says political consultant Eric Jaye, the campaign manager for Supervisor Jane Kim’s state senate run. “But we’re in a political moment where outliers like this probably have more traction than they otherwise would have. Nobody took Donald Trump seriously, or the idea that Great Britain would leave the European Union.” Given those political black swans, Jaye is at least willing to entertain the possibility of an Edxit.

So what, exactly, would it take for the mayor to get the boot? 

If their petition checks out at the Department of Elections, the recall campaign will have 160 days (just over five months) to gather 47,227 signatures—the equivalent of 10 percent of registered voters. Asked how they’ll pull that off, Salaverry talks up his organizing chops on Propisition I, aka last fall’s failed Mission Moratorium. “With Prop I, we had 21 days to get 15,000 signatures,” he says. “We’re confident that with 160 days, it’s achievable to get 60,000 signatures.” (Their goal is higher because not all signatures will be ruled valid.)

So: Assuming that recall petitioners recruit, say, 600 volunteers, all of those people will need to deliver 100 signatures. Jaye, for his part, works the math differently, ballparking that 1,000 people would need to collect a more modest 50 or 60 signatures. “If you were paying for it, it would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he says. “It’s not that volunteers couldn’t do it, but that’s a whole lot of volunteers, isn’t it?”  

Salaverry isn’t worried: He says they plan to start all-volunteer and work in paid clipboard mercenaries as needed, raising money as they go. Asked how much his committee has raised so far, Salaverry says, “About $2,000,” mostly from contributions by the core members.

If those hurdles can somehow be cleared and the campaign gets its 47,227 valid signatures, a recall election will be called, in the first half of 2017 at the earliest. No candidates will be put forth, only an up-or-down vote of whether to remove the mayor from office. Then, 50 percent (plus one) of voters would need to approve an Edxit, or we are stuck with—sorry sorry—Leemain.

THEN—we’re so many hypotheticals in at this point, but what the hell—if the recall vote is a yes, the president of the Board of Supervisors (whoever that will be!) steps in as interim mayor until the board appoints a new mayor. That mystery mayor will then serve until, per the city charter, a new mayor can be elected at the next citywide election. On the timeline Salaverry is floating, that could be the June 5, 2018, primary—roughly a year and a half before Lee is scheduled to leave office anyway. 

From his ride on the 14 bus, Salaverry is sounding pretty sanguine: “San Francisco in 10 years will be an all-white whatever, San Ramon with hipster cafes,” he says. “That’s a direction I don’t think the majority of San Franciscans, even conservatives and moderates, want to head in.” 

Even if a recall only takes 19 months off Lee’s term? “Those 19 months make the very heavy lift worth the effort,” Salaverry says later, via email. In his signoff, he clings to hope: “We know of at least one very interesting potential candidate, Kara Swisher,” he writes, while being careful not to officially ensorse the tech journalist. “She says she'll run in 2023, maybe an opportunity in 2018 would up her timetable?”


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