London Breed sailed to victory as the mayor of San Francisco. A local who rose from the housing projects to become the first Black woman to lead the liberal city, she won a special election in 2018 and then a full term in a landslide the following year. Times were good; the pandemic had yet to happen. If homelessness and crime worried San Franciscans, few of them blamed her.
Now San Francisco is reeling, its downtown plagued by fentanyl markets and tent camps, its employers straining to repopulate office buildings with a decidedly more remote labor force. More than 70 percent of voters have told pollsters that the city is on the wrong track, and some 66 percent disapprove of the mayor’s job performance.
With more than a year to go before the next mayoral election, Mayor Breed has already drawn a challenge from a former ally, Ahsha Safaí, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who outpolled her in a recent survey and who was building a campaign on addressing crime, especially what he called the “retail theft crisis.” And last week, word leaked from San Francisco political circles that Daniel Lurie, an heir to the Levi Strauss fortune, was also planning a mayoral run.
The list will inevitably grow, said Jim Ross, a longtime Bay Area political consultant who ran the 2003 San Francisco mayoral campaign of now-Governor Gavin Newsom of California.
“Anything less than 10 people running in a race for mayor is a small field for San Francisco,” Mr. Ross said. “But people getting in this early and with these kinds of resources? It’s not a good sign for any incumbent. She’s going to have a challenging race.”
As the pandemic has ebbed, its fiscal, spiritual and human impact has bedeviled mayors from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles. But San Francisco has struggled more than most places from the fallout of Covid-19 lockdowns. Tech workers who fled downtown high rises and lofts when the pandemic hit have gotten used to remote work and have resisted returning. One-third of offices in commercial buildings downtown are vacant.
Homeless people and drug users who overtook sidewalks in the city core, filling the vacuum left by absent pedestrian traffic, have sorely tested San Francisco’s ability to house and treat them, and to take back its public spaces. Exhausted and unnerved, San Franciscans have split across political, racial and class lines over how to move forward.
Parents in the city school district last year led the successful recall of three board members who were criticized for keeping students out of classrooms too long during the pandemic and prioritizing social justice goals. Four months later, in June 2022, voters ousted a progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin, who was faulted for being too lenient in his prosecutions.
Mayor Breed herself has fed into the outrage. In December 2021, she pointedly declared that she was sick of the petty crimes and drug use in San Francisco. She never took a position on the recall of Mr. Boudin, which political insiders viewed as a tacit endorsement. And she backed the school board recall.
“It’s an incredibly difficult environment to be an incumbent in,” said Maggie Muir, a spokeswoman for Ms. Breed’s campaign.
“The mayor is working incredibly hard,” Ms. Muir added. “She is making progress on downtown revitalization. She’s making progress — and yes it’s not as fast as some folks would have liked, on attacking the open-air drug markets.”
Police data show homicides up by 12 percent and robberies 13 percent higher over the past 12 months. Motor vehicle thefts increased by 9 percent, but burglaries were down by 8 percent. The overdose crisis has continued unabated, with an average of about two people dying of drug overdoses every day.
A pro-business moderate with progressive roots, Ms. Breed, 48, won the mayor’s job five years ago in a special election after the death of Ed Lee, the former mayor. She was re-elected with 70 percent of the vote the next year. Her current term was set to expire in 2023, but voters last year agreed to move city elections to even-numbered years starting in 2024, grouping them with federal and statewide elections, dramatically changing the mix of voters likely to turn out.
Further complicating the picture is the city’s system for electing local officials, which allows voters to choose up to 10 candidates in order of preference. It is unclear how the combination of the presidential year timing and the ranked-choice system will shake out for Mayor Breed. Some analysts predict the even-year vote will yield an electorate that is more progressive than the mayor, but in elections past, the ranked-choice system has benefited her.
“In the general election especially, you’ll have a lot more young people and a more ethnically diverse population,” said Adam Probolsky, president of the nonpartisan California-based polling firm Probolsky Research, whose surveys since April have shown a marked drop in support for the mayor. The timing could also attract San Franciscans who vote less regularly, he added, and who may not be as familiar with the candidates.
That could create lanes for challengers to Mayor Breed.
Mr. Safaí launched his candidacy in May and has been especially vocal about retail theft.
“It’s the brazen nature of it. It’s the way in which people believe they can just walk into stores, grab things and walk out with impunity,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. Crime, he said, “is hitting every corner of our city.”
Mr. Safaí, who was born in Iran and has a graduate degree in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began his San Francisco political career working in City Hall under former mayors Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom.
He has firsthand experience of the city’s crime problem. Thieves broke into his house last fall while it was undergoing renovations and hauled away the stove and microwave. Mr. Safaí is calling for the hiring of 500 additional police officers.
Speculation also has focused on Phil Ting, a liberal state legislator who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee and is favored by the city’s progressives; his spokeswoman said on Wednesday that he declined to comment. The progressive president of the Board of Supervisors, Aaron Peskin, is also discussed as a potential candidate, although Mr. Peskin, a fixture of San Francisco politics for the past quarter century, seemed unequivocal in an interview Wednesday that he was not running.
“I am tired, and my next chapter in life is not in electoral politics,” he said. “It’s time for me to exit the stage.”
Two people with knowledge of Mr. Lurie’s campaign plans confirmed that he was hosting gatherings and recruiting staff in advance of a mayoral run but declined to be named because the campaign has yet to formally launch. Mr. Lurie did not respond to requests for an interview. The San Francisco Standard, a city news site, was first to report last week that Mr. Lurie intended to challenge Ms. Breed.
A native San Franciscan, Mr. Lurie is descended from one of the city’s most prominent families. His father, Rabbi Brian Lurie, was the executive director of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco; his mother, Miriam Lurie Haas, known as Mimi, is a billionaire businesswoman; and his stepfather, the late philanthropist Peter Haas, was a descendant of Levi Strauss.
Mr. Lurie is a prominent philanthropist, too, and has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for anti-poverty programs through Tipping Point, a San Francisco nonprofit that he founded. His wife, Becca Prowda, is director of protocol for Governor Newsom.
But in a city whose fierce local politics have been described as “a knife fight in a phone booth,” Mr. Lurie remains a political novice. He has never held office, and the knives are already out.
“When you’re born or married into a billionaire family, you don’t have the experience to face hard challenges,” said Ms. Muir, the campaign spokeswoman for the mayor.
Other political veterans said that Mr. Lurie might struggle to overcome his lack of name recognition among voters. “I’m sure he’s well known in the foundation community, and possibly with homeless organizations,” said Mary Jung, a longtime San Francisco political operative who supports the mayor.
Mr. Probolsky, the pollster, warned that it is far too soon to count out Mayor Breed.
“If you want to make the case that she’s vulnerable, she is,” he said. “But if you want to make the case that she’s done? Finished? Over? You can’t because you don’t know who will oppose her and how viable they’ll be.”