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Streetwise - San Francisco's Women Supervisors

by Frank Dunnigan
March 2017

Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

March is Women’s History Month, and a time to take a look at the many female office-holders who have served on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. Over the past 96 years, 34 women have been members of the board, with many advancing to higher offices during the course of lengthy political careers.

Interestingly, today’s 6-5 female majority on the board (Supervisors Breed, Cohen, Fewer, Kim, Ronen, Tang) is NOT the first time this balance has occurred, as incorrectly stated by some recent commentators. The board has had previous female majorities as far back as 1981-1985 when 6 out of the 11 Supervisors were women: Hutch (succeeded by Kennedy), Nelder, Renne, Silver, Walker, Ward; and again from 1993-1996 when 7 out of the 11 Supervisors were women: Achtenberg (succeeded by Leal), Alioto, Bierman, Conroy (succeeded by Teng), Kaufman, Kennedy (succeeded by Katz), Migden.

NOTE: The “official” San Francisco Board of Supervisors website and various on-line listings are considered by many to be incomplete/inaccurate. The author is deeply indebted to long-time WNP member and retired City Hall political observer Paul Rosenberg for providing a reliable source of information and fact-checking for this month’s column.

* indicates incumbent

Roberta Achtenberg — Achtenberg, an attorney, ran in 1988 for the Assembly seat vacated by Art Agnos when he became mayor. She did not win, but was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1990 (same election as Carole Migden), thus becoming one of the board’s first two LGBTQ women. Achtenberg resigned in 1993 when she was appointed to a post in the Clinton administration. She ran for mayor in 1995, and later served on the SF Chamber of Commerce and the Cal State University Board of Trustees before being appointed to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 2011.

Angela Alioto — Politically active for decades, Alioto worked on her father’s two successful campaigns for mayor in 1967 and 1971. An attorney, she was elected Supervisor in 1988, a position she held until 1997, including serving as board president. She herself made three bids for the office of mayor in 1991, 1995, and 2003, and has been running her own law firm since leaving the board. She remains active in both civic affairs and local politics, having been elected to a seat on the Democratic Central Committee in June 2016.

Michela Alioto-Pier — Alioto-Pier made her first run for a Congressional seat at age 28 in 1996 after working as an aide to Vice President Al Gore. She won the primary, but not the general election. In January 2004, Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed her to fill his recently vacated seat on the board, and she was twice elected on her own before being impacted by term limits. She ran for mayor in 2011, and is currently managing her family’s vineyard business. Alioto-Pier is the granddaughter of former Mayor Joseph Alioto and the niece of former Supervisor Angela Alioto.

Alicia Becerril — An attorney, Becerril was a member of the Board of Appeals and the Landmarks Advisory Commission. She was appointed by Mayor Willie Brown in 1999 to complete the term of board member Jose Medina who left to accept appointment to a statewide office. She was defeated in her first election bid in November 2000, later becoming an administrative law judge.

Sue Bierman — Appointed to the Planning Commission by Mayor George Moscone in the 1970s, Bierman was 68 years old when she was first elected to the board in 1992 and was subsequently re-elected in 1996. She was termed out of office in 2000, appointed to the Port Commission in 2003 by Mayor Willie Brown, and was still serving in that capacity when she died in 2006.

*London Breed — In 2004, Breed, executive director of the African-American Art/Culture complex, was appointed to the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency by Mayor Gavin Newsom who then appointed her to the Fire Commission in 2010. In 2012, Breed was elected Supervisor after winning the seat from incumbent Christina Olague, who had been appointed earlier that year by Mayor Ed Lee to fill the vacancy created by Ross Mirkarimi’s election as Sheriff. Breed was re-elected in 2016.

Julie Christensen — Appointed by Mayor Ed Lee in 2015 to replace Supervisor David Chiu who had been elected to the State Assembly, Christensen had previously served on the Advisory Board for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). She was unsuccessful at her first election bid in November 2015.

Supervisor Carmen Chu visited the new WNP office on Taraval - Photo by David Gallagher

Carmen Chu — In 2007, Chu was appointed to the board by Mayor Gavin Newsom to complete the remaining term of former Supervisor Ed Jew. She was twice elected on her own before being appointed Assessor by Mayor Ed Lee in 2013, winning her own full term in 2014.

*Malia Cohen — With a Master’s Degree in Political Science, Cohen worked as a field organizer in Gavin Newsom’s first campaign for mayor, and then as a legislative aide to a San Mateo County supervisor before being elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2010 and re-elected in 2014.

Annemarie Conroy — An attorney, Conroy was appointed by her godfather, Mayor Frank Jordan, in 1993 to replace Doris Ward who had just been appointed City Assessor. Defeated at her first election bid in 1994, she was later appointed Director of the Treasure Island Development Authority and later to the Office of Emergency Services. She also served on the Police and Fire Commissions.

Dianne Feinstein — First elected to the board in 1969 (the fourth woman in board history) and then re-elected in 1973 and 1977, Feinstein ran for mayor in 1971 and 1975, though did not win. She became the first female board president and later the first female mayor, upon the death of George Moscone in 1978, before winning two additional terms on her own and serving until 1988. After a gubernatorial bid in 1990, she was elected to the U.S. Senate from California in 1992, again, the first California woman in this role, being sworn in a month prior to Barbara Boxer who was elected the same day. At age 83, Feinstein is the oldest currently serving Senator.

*Sandra Lee Fewer — A member of the School Board, Fewer won a hotly contested race for the District 1 (Richmond District) seat in the 2016 election, taking office in January 2017.

Ella Hill Hutch — First elected in 1977, Hutch was the first African-American woman to serve on the board. She was re-elected in 1980, but died in office in 1981. Mayor Dianne Feinstein then appointed Willie B. Kennedy to succeed Hutch.

Leslie Katz — Appointed by Mayor Willie Brown to serve out the remainder of Supervisor Willie B. Kennedy’s term after she took a seat on the BART Board, Katz had a background as an attorney and a member of the City College governing board. She won election to the Board of Supervisors in her own right in 1996, and later served on the Port Commission.

Barbara Kaufman — First elected in 1992, and re-elected in 1996, Kaufman had been the host of a consumer advocacy radio program. She later became board president and after being termed out returned to managing real estate investments and running the local office of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Willie B. Kennedy — A long-time San Francisco retail executive, Kennedy was appointed by Mayor Dianne Feinstein in 1981 to fill the remaining term of Supervisor Ella Hill Hutch, who died in office. Kennedy was then elected in 1984, 1988, and 1992, remaining in office until she resigned in 1996 to join the BART Board of Directors just before she would have been impacted by term limits.

*Jane Kim — An attorney, Kim was elected to the School Board in 2004 and 2008, becoming that group’s president in 2010. She won a surprise victory for the Board of Supervisors in the November 2010 election, becoming its first Korean-American member.

Susan Leal — Appointed as the board’s first Latina member by Mayor Frank Jordan in 1993 to complete the term of Roberta Achtenberg who left to accept a Federal appointment, Leal then won election in her own right in 1994. From 1997 to 2004, she served as City Treasurer, from 2004 to 2009 was General Manager of the Public Utilities Commission, and is now with Harvard University.

Supervisor Fiona Ma visits the earthquake shack work party at the zoo in 2005. (And has a hot dog.) - WNP photo

Fiona Ma — First elected to the board in 2002, Ma served until 2006 when she won election to the State Assembly. In 2014, she won election to the State Board of Equalization, and in 2016, was elected its Chair.

Sophie Maxwell — Maxwell (daughter of the late Enola Maxwell who previously ran for the board) was first elected in 2000 during the return to district elections. Sophie Maxwell was then re-elected twice and served until 2010 when she was termed out.

Clarissa Shortall McMahon — A practicing lawyer since 1935, McMahon was appointed by Mayor Elmer Robinson in 1953 to fill a seat vacated by Supervisor John J. Sullivan, thus becoming the board’s second female member. She was subsequently elected three times on her own, serving until 1966 when she left to return to her law practice. She was also a candidate for the SF Charter Reform Committee in 1978.

Carole Migden — Elected to the board in 1990 in the same election as another LGBTQ woman, Roberta Achtenberg. Migden served on the board until 1996, when she became a member of the California State Assembly, serving there until 2002. She was then Chair of the State Board of Equalization from 2002-2004, and then a member of the California State Senate from 2004-2008, but failed to win re-nomination in the 2008 primary.

Margaret Mary Morgan — In 1921, Morgan was elected and became the first woman to serve on the board. Prior to election, she managed a printing firm in the Financial District, returning to that business after one four-year term on the board. She was also involved with the California Federation of Business/Professional Women’s Clubs and the California League of Women Voters.

Jane McKaskle Murphy — Murphy served on the Police Commission before being appointed by Mayor George Moscone in 1977 to complete the remaining term of Dorothy von Beroldingen following her appointment as judge. Murphy was never elected to a full term of her own, returning to the Police Commission after leaving the board.

Wendy Nelder — First elected in 1980, Nelder served on the board until 1991. She was part of the first female-majority board of Supervisors (Hutch, Nelder, Renne, Silver, Walker, Ward) when seated in January 1981. Her father, Al Nelder, a retired Chief of the San Francisco Police Department, also served on the board in the mid-1970s, and her one-time father-in-law, Harold Dobbs, was a board member and board president in the 1960s, as well as a three-time candidate for mayor in 1963, 1967, and 1971. In a footnote to history, Wendy Nelder’s adult children, Amy and Jeff, are the only San Franciscans who can claim their mother and both grandfathers as members of the Board of Supervisors.

Christina Olague — Appointed in January 2012 by Mayor Ed Lee to fill the remaining term of Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi who had been elected Sheriff, Olague did not win election in her own right that fall, being defeated by London Breed.

Louise Renne — Appointed by Mayor Dianne Feinstein to fill her own vacant board seat after becoming mayor in 1978, Renne was later elected in her own right. She lost a 1982 congressional primary to Barbara Boxer, continuing as supervisor, and serving until 1986, when she became San Francisco’s first female city attorney. She briefly ran for mayor in 1987 hoping to succeed Dianne Feinstein, but then continued as city attorney until 2001, when she returned to private law practice.

*Hilary Ronen — A former immigrant rights attorney and aide to Supervisor David Campos, Ronen was elected to the board in 2016 to replace her boss who had been termed out.

Carol Ruth Silver — First elected to the board in 1977 and twice re-elected, Silver lost a third re-election bid in 1988 and later ran for Congress, but was defeated by Michela Alioto-Pier (who herself would later be elected to the board). Silver made a new bid for a board seat in 2000, but voters did not return her to office. She was later appointed director of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office of Prisoner Services.

Mayor Dianne Feinstein at dedication of Esmeralda Corridor on Bernal Heights, February 8, 1979., Feb 6, 2024 - Photograph by Greg Gaar

*Katy Tang — An attorney, Tang worked as legislative aide to Supervisor Carmen Chu before being appointed to the board by Mayor Ed Lee in 2013 to take over the seat after Chu’s appointment as Assessor. Tang has since been elected twice in her own right, and has served as board president.

Mabel Teng — First elected to the Community College Board in 1990, Teng was elected supervisor in 1994 as the first Asian-American female board member and then re-elected in 1998. She lost her bid for a third term in November 2000 by a razor-thin margin of just 38 votes. In 2002, she was elected as Assessor. Teng resigned in 2005, citing family issues.

Nancy Walker — A member of Citizens for Representative Government (CRG) since the early 1970s, Walker was first a candidate for the board in 1977, but was elected on her second run in 1979. She was re-elected three times, and also served as board president. She chose not to seek re-election in 1990.

Doris Ward — Ward became a member of the Community College Board in 1972, won a second term, was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1979, and then re-elected four more times, becoming board president in 1991. She was also one of several candidates who ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1987 to succeed Sala Burton, who had died in office. In 1993, Mayor Frank Jordan appointed Ward as City Assessor (naming Annemarie Conroy as board replacement). Ward was then elected assessor in her own right in 1994 and again in 1998. In 2002, she was defeated in a runoff by former two-term Supervisor Mabel Teng.

Dorothy von Beroldingen — The first woman appointed to the San Francisco Civil Service Commission in 1964, von Beroldingen was named to the board by Mayor Jack Shelley in 1966 to replace Joseph Tinney, who had been appointed Assessor to replace Russell Wolden, who had been removed from office. During her time on the Board of Supervisors, von Beroldingen also became the first woman appointed to serve on the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District board of directors. She remained a supervisor until 1977, when she was appointed municipal court judge by Governor Jerry Brown, and then later served as a superior court judge—a position which she held until just before her death in 1999.

Historical Footnote:—Dianne Feinstein is widely regarded as the first woman mayor of a major U.S. city. However, members of the Board of Supervisors have long rotated among themselves in filling the role of mayor upon that person’s absence from San Francisco. It was in this regard that the San Francisco Chronicle reported on June 18, 1954: “San Francisco has a female mayor for the first time when Supervisor Clarissa McMahon serves as acting mayor.”

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