In Upcoming Elections, Incumbency May Be an Advantage or a Liability


By Tyler Breisacher

The advantage of incumbency will play a major role Tuesday, Nov. 5 when voters across San Francisco elect a district attorney and voters in District 5 choose a supervisor to represent them at City Hall.

City College’s faculty union, AFT 2121, has made endorsements in both races. According to their website, they support Chesa Boudin for district attorney because he “has a dynamic vision for community safety that which embraces restorative justice, police accountability and corporate responsibility.” 

In District 5, AFT 2121 endorsed tenants’ rights attorney Dean Preston, saying he “deeply understands the issues our members and students face.”

The city’s district attorney race was set to be the first in a century without an incumbent. 

District Attorney George Gascón was not planning to run for reelection, meaning that no candidate would get the advantage of name recognition that comes with being an incumbent. However, Gascón announced on Oct. 4 that he would resign before the election to begin a campaign for District Attorney of Los Angeles County. Mayor London Breed then appointed one of the candidates in the race, Suzy Loftus, to serve as interim District Attorney, potentially giving her an advantage.

Her incumbency will be an unusual one, however. Voters won’t see “Interim District Attorney” under her name, as ballots were already printed by the time the appointment was made. 

Even so, many critics still believe the last-minute appointment was an attempt to tilt the election in Loftus’s favor. The Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called the move “fundamentally undemocratic” in an Oct. 4 press release, noting that “incumbents win 95% of the time” in DA races where someone challenges an incumbent.

However, Loftus’s odds may not be quite that good. When Breed and Loftus held a press conference to announce the appointment on Oct. 4, they were forced to move a few blocks away, because of protesters who echoed the ACLU’s sentiments. 

“You are undermining our democracy,” one of the protesters shouted, according to the SF Examiner.

The frustration behind said protests may or may not translate into votes for one of Loftus’s challengers, according to James Tracy, a City College instructor in Labor and Community Studies. It depends on whether people are willing to not just protest, but also do the “boring work” it takes to win a campaign, such as canvassing and phonebanking to reach out to voters.

Tracy is also the political director for AFT 2121. He said Boudin (the candidate AFT 2121 endorsed for district attorney) would frame the appointment in a “David vs. Goliath” way, and if that narrative is successful, Breed’s move could backfire and end up being a benefit to Boudin’s campaign.

Since turnout for this election will be relatively low, it will all come down to each candidate’s “ground game,” Tracy said. A campaign mobilization on Oct. 26 drew about 150 people. The mobilization was for both Boudin’s campaign, and that of Preston (the other candidate endorsed by AFT 2121). Preston is a top contender for the supervisor race in District 5, which includes the Inner Sunset, Alamo Square, and Lower Pacific Heights neighborhoods.

Incumbency is playing a similar role in that contest: Preston’s main challenger, Vallie Brown, has held the District 5 seat on the Board of Supervisors since she was appointed by Breed in July 2018. That may help her somewhat, but incumbency is far from a sure thing, particularly in San Francisco supervisor races.

In 2015, after Julie Christensen was appointed to the District 3 seat by then Mayor Ed Lee, voters ended up electing Aaron Peskin instead, who had previously held the seat about six years earlier.

Voters rejecting mayoral appointments is not unique to District 3. “D5 has rejected mayoral appointed incumbents before. The voters there are very independent,” Tracy said. “Brown’s real strength comes from her work in the neighborhood. Preston’s strength comes from his intensely dedicated volunteers. These factors will figure in much more than incumbency.”

City College Political Science Professor Timothy Killikelly agreed that incumbency may not be a major factor for Brown, even though it is “a huge thing,” in American elections in general. One reason incumbency makes such a big difference is name recognition. However, Dean Preston has significant name recognition as well, from his campaign for the same office in 2016.

“He didn’t lose by very much to London Breed. He did way better than people thought he was going to do,” Killikelly said. “Some of the advantage that Vallie Brown might have might be mitigated by the fact that people in the district know who Dean is.”

The Guardsman