What Makes A GREAT Mayor?

Apr 20, 2023

A Plea For San Francisco Leadership to ‘Get Things Done’


As a native San Franciscan who’s also been around a while, I look at the many problems facing our city and ask myself, “who were the great mayors in my lifetime?” Who got things done in the face of extraordinary challenges? Only two names came to mind, Joe Alioto and Willie Brown.


Alioto was elected mayor in the 1960s when a popular candidate, Gene McAteer, died suddenly during his election. Joe was a successful attorney and was asked to run in his place. Joe was a strong union man with deep roots and support from San Francisco’s Italian community. He was mayor in a particularly violent time in our city. There were race riots, the rise and fall of the hippie movement, and drug use was out of control. He also was mayor when the city began seeing a significant exodus of families leaving the city when bussing was introduced.


The city was experiencing blight in many neighborhoods, leading to the development of east coast-type slums. He saw that we were losing our downtown. To counter this downturn, he began rebuilding the Western Addition and Financial District neighborhoods of San Francisco, two of the most significant redevelopment projects since the 1906 earthquake.


Alioto also brought in new businesses from different industries to the city– like the movie industry. This was particularly difficult since the movie industry at that time was a non-union workforce. He worked with union leaders and Hollywood to create a plan where the movie industry would invest in our communities while the unions would back off. Down 3rd street, you would see a park and swimming pool, all “donated” by the movie industry in exchange for the rights to the film in San Francisco. His ability to work with different fractions and get things done made him GREAT.


Another great mayor of San Francisco is Willie Brown. Willie got things done like no other mayor in the history of the city. Thanks to Willie’s work, we have UCSF and built the Giants a new ballpark. Willie knew how to make deals. When the city turned down the rebuilding of Civic Center and Union Square, he found a way to get it done regardless. One of his most significant achievements was when, through Eminent Domain, he had an office building on 4th and Mission Street renovated after the 1989 earthquake and developed Moscone West—all without fanfare or what seemed to have no political opposition.


Several other mayors made great speeches and offered good ideas but seemed only to accomplish a little.


Both Joe Alioto and Willie Brown were corporate attorneys. They understood business, they understood the law, and they understood how to negotiate. They also, more than anyone, understood that a mayor is an executive administrative job, not a legislative job. They knew the necessary skillset to be a great mayor.


Our city is in deep trouble again. We are losing businesses (along with their employees) to surrounding Bay Area cities. San Franciscans continue to feel unsafe walking around, while we remain one of the most taxed and expensive cities to live in the U.S.


We need leadership from our mayor and our Board of Supervisors, but we must be realistic; we need leaders with the background for the job and who have exhibited authentic leadership and executive competency. We cannot continue to elect people only from the non-profit world. We need business-minded people who have run a variety of companies and organizations. We have close to 40,000 employees in San Francisco. To administer such an organization, requires a background in running a large-scale operation. We can’t expect someone to provide authentic leadership with on-the-job training.


The challenge is to find these leaders and convince them to run and back them to win. Such a leader today must be hard-skinned and willing to take a lot of grief for the sake of our city. Right now, we have no one to step up and hope that a leader shows up soon.


Written by: Hans Hansson

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Hans Hansson is the President of Starboard Commercial Real Estate. Hans has been an active broker for over 35 years in the San Francisco Bay Area and specializes in office leasing and investments. If you have any questions or comments please email [email protected] or call him at (415) 765-6897. You may also check out his website, https://www.hanshansson.com