Recall elections are serious business. Beyond being a bully tactic brandished by opponents, they are costly and time-consuming without any guarantee of success. And despite many mayors at least hearing recall whispers during their tenures, it's rare to actually qualify one for the ballot — so rare, in fact, that it only happened once in modern San Francisco history.
The year was 1983. Ronald Reagan was president, the first millennials were being born, and a group called the White Panther Party was stark raving mad at San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, now a U.S. senator, who had signed a law banning handguns in the city.
Despite its name, the White Panther Party was anything but a white supremacist group. Aligned with the more famous Black Panther Party, their members felt that removing guns from the city would leave poor residents defenseless. They called the ban unconstitutional.
"We are people who support the Constitution," Thomas W. Stevens, the leader of the White Panthers who spearheaded the recall, said at the time. "Also, we're Communists. We're on the Marxist, Leninist, Maoist, Castroist side of most questions."
The handgun ban, however, was overturned by the state appeals court before the recall even took place, which meant other forces eventually propelled it to the ballot.
The recall "was not getting any real traction until Feinstein vetoed domestic-partner legislation," says Art Agnos, the progressive Democrat who succeeded Feinstein as mayor. "That angered the gay community."
That ordinance would have extended city-employee benefits to domestic partners. Reports at the time credited the veto with galvanizing the recall effort, as the gay community helped gather signatures to move it forward — these were days of "Dump Dianne." In his book Season of the Witch, author David Talbot characterizes Feinstein as having a seesaw relationship with the gay community — at once being a champion of equality while "clamping firm limits on the gay revolution in the city."
In its coverage of the recall in 1983, The New York Times described the White Panthers as "veterans of the street demonstrations and radical political groupings of the 1960s" who "live together, share expenses, and support themselves in part by cashing food stamps and using the money to operate a cut-rate food distribution system."
"The conditions that produced the White Panthers here were the demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the atmosphere of rebellion against authority that has swept this area over the last 15 years," the Times wrote. "The White Panthers are a communal group of fewer than 20 whose members say they are interested in the political process and the plight of the poor."
If a lot of that sounds familiar, it's because the people leading the city's current recall effort against Mayor Ed Lee share that kind of sentiment. They say they're upset over police shootings, business-friendly tax policies, and the treatment of homeless people.
As mayors, Lee and Feinstein are alike in many ways. Outside San Francisco, they are viewed as far-left liberals. But inside the city, they're considered moderates friendly to business interests, unconcerned with the decaying soul of San Francisco, and late to the party when it comes to social justice causes. Whether that's fair or not is a topic of much debate.
Agnos was a member of the California Assembly at the time of Feinstein's recall. And though he tells SF Weekly he was not "a natural political ally" of hers, he did not support the recall. Agnos was not alone, as Feinstein won more than 80 percent of the vote in what would be a precursor to her actual re-election later in 1983.
"It turned out to be a political boon for her, because the city rallied around opposition to the recall," Agnos says. "No one really wanted to run against her when they saw the kind of support she had gotten in the recall election. So she didn't have major opposition in that race for re-election, and many people attributed that to the huge defeat of the recall."
Feinstein, unlike Lee, was a popular mayor. She first was appointed to the post amid the violence and chaos of 1978, when Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated by Supervisor Dan White only weeks after the Jonestown suicides claimed hundreds of members of the San Francisco-based Peoples Temple.
Moscone's assassination "was another factor in the opposition to the recall," Agnos says. "The city did not want any more turmoil that is inevitably part of recall elections."
Lee, on the other hand, has been mayor during a relatively calm and prosperous time in San Francisco history. Besides several police shootings and the resignation of the top cop of a department increasingly labeled as racist, Lee's tenure has been largely free of high drama. Polling data, however, suggests his approval rating is under 50 percent, even though he was re-elected only last November.
Agnos was never subjected to a recall, but he heard the threats. "Whenever you do something that is not what the Chamber of Commerce wants, or the big builders, they're always looking for ways to get rid of you," he says.
Not a big fan of the current mayor, Agnos says San Francisco needs "stronger leadership than Ed Lee has provided."
"Whether it's affordable housing, the homeless, he always comes late to the issue," Agnos says of Lee. "He hasn't dropped the ball ... he has run away from it until he's forced to address it. That's when we see action from him, and it's usually weak."
But Agnos does not support a recall of Lee for the reasons behind the effort, and he would rather voters focus on November's election. He hopes more progressives are elected to the Board of Supervisors and cautions against using heavy political artillery.
"A recall should not be used frivolously, simply because you're upset," Agnos says. "I do not support a recall of Ed Lee for the issues that are being identified in this latest effort. I believe that a recall is a very serious tool that ought to be used in severe circumstances. Unless there's gross malfeasance or corruption, I don't think we should be recalling people."