During the 2010 campaign to elect a new District 2 supervisor, I invited the three major candidates to my house for interviews. The reason was a personal one: My pit bull, Jazzy, was recovering from cancer surgery. Kat Anderson, Janet Reilly, and Mark Farrell all accepted, and I hosted each of them over the course of a weekend. I’m a fan of the old adage “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like dogs,” and all three candidates passed the test with flying colors — Janet even knelt on the floor in a very expensive suit and allowed Jazzy to give her a big kiss. Mark did that too, but he took it to the next level by bringing dog treats.
A political unknown, Mark Farrell was a native San Franciscan raised in the Marina. An attorney who worked in venture capital, he had boyish good looks, a lovely wife, two adorable children (now three), and he was refreshingly naïve about City Hall.
The campaign was grassroots — his parents went door-to-door passing out flyers and stumped for him in grocery store parking lots. The hard work paid off, and he won the election. Nearly two terms later, he is the 44th mayor of San Francisco, voted in by his peers on the Board of Supervisors to serve until June when voters will choose someone to serve the rest of the late Ed Lee’s second term. Recently I sat down with Mayor Farrell to ask him how life has changed, what he wants to accomplish, and what the future holds.
What is the biggest change that you weren’t prepared for?
That’s a great question. I think simply the awesome responsibility of being the mayor of San Francisco. It was an honor to represent District 2 for over seven years. As you know it’s the neighborhood I was born and raised in, and Liz and I are raising our children in. There was nothing better. Being mayor of our city is something wholly different, but likewise, an honor.
Will the issues you worked on as supervisor, like homelessness, remain a focus?
Public safety and homelessness are the two issues I’ve heard the most about and spent the most time on as a supervisor, and without a doubt they will remain two areas of focus for me as mayor. In terms of public safety, the property crime epidemic, whether it’s car break-ins or burglaries, is out of control. I’ve met with our new police Chief [Bill] Scott almost every day since taking office. I’ve asked him to put together an analysis of the true staffing needs of our police department to make people feel safer. We need to have an honest conversation about that. We are a city without walls or borders and always will be, so we are susceptible to people coming into San Francisco — as we discovered last week, an international crime ring was breaking into cars in our city — but that doesn’t mean we don’t have responsibility to crack down on what’s happening. So public safety will be a huge focus for me as far as time and our budget.
I was recently downtown and for the first time I saw cops asking some drunk guys passed out on the sidewalk to move on. Is this something you’ve asked for?
It speaks to the quality of life for residents, the quality of experience for visitors — the shock value of some of our street behavior is unbelievable. We need to address it. We cannot continue to ignore it. I am not afraid to be a mayor who says we have some of the best men and women protecting us — we need to thank them every single day for putting their lives on the line. But we also need more of it. That is something I am keenly focused on.
Another area you focused on is housing. Are you still looking to build more densely near transit corridors?
Absolutely. To do nothing about our housing crisis is tantamount to sticking our heads in the sand. Housing costs are out of control. Whether you’re a renter or a homeowner, it’s affecting everybody. We need to build more housing. It’s a supply and demand issue. We have more people moving here, more people working here, more people driving here than ever before.
I’m the first to say the beauty of our city is in our neighborhoods. Whatever floats your boat, we have neighborhoods that are unique, globally unique. To massively change the character of the neighborhoods is not the right solution. San Francisco would truly lose its heart and soul, which many are talking about anyway. But, if we build smart, along transit corridors, where it isn’t just one person with one car moving in … that’s the way we need to think about housing. If you think congestion is bad today, imagine what it would be like five years from now. It would take two hours to get across town.
We have to be smart and efficient about how we build, and as we invest in transit corridors like Van Ness and Geary, that’s where we need to build more housing.
How do you feel about building on the waterfront?
Along the waterfront, San Franciscans are very protective. No one wants to become Miami Beach with high rises right smack on the water. How we’re approaching it now and the projects we’ve approved are, I believe, what is right for San Francisco. Think about Pier 70 and the Giants’ Lot A — those are a mix of housing for different income levels, retail, open space . . . we need that. Housing has to be our number-one priority, but it can’t be only housing. It has to be better infrastructure, open space, commercial corridors, schools — we have more children now in San Francisco than we have had in so long, something I’ve fought for. And just today we announced we are dedicating $330 million to children and family programs, thanks to something voters approved in 2014. That’s exciting. What this city looks and feels like for the next generation is incredibly important.
Why have you decided not to run to fill the rest of Mayor Lee’s term in November?
Mayor Lee’s death shocked all of us, and affected us all in different ways. Whether you agreed or disagreed with his politics, he was an amazing human being, truly a dedicated public servant to San Francisco for over 30 years. I’d gotten to know him very well. We traveled together; we worked closely together. We had very different styles of being a politician, but his loss was real for me, for many people. The cascading effect of course was no longer having a mayoral election in 2019 when his term ended but a shotgun election culminating in June of this year.
Our three children are the most important thing to Liz and me. Period. And Liz — well, I definitely married up. The thought of spending the next six or seven months gone from the house, on the campaign trail, not being able to coach our son’s baseball team . . . to not be there for their school plays, and their activities, and just be the present father that I am today would have killed me, because we’re not getting these years back. And it wasn’t just six or seven months. Then it’s turning around and running for the November 2019 election, and right back on the campaign trail. And you know what? That’s not worth it. My family comes first.
When reporters over the past year or two started speculating about me running for mayor in 2019, I always told them it was a possibility, but that my first and last decision was going to be about my family. And no one really believed that. But we obviously held true to that and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Is this the last we’ll see of Mark Farrell, public servant?
I have absolutely no plans to run for public office in the near future. I’m very lucky to have a successful career outside of City Hall, a job I love that I can’t wait to return to. Who knows down the line? You never say never.
I’ve had plenty of people come up saying, “We’re going to start a write-in campaign for you,” or “You need to run in 2019.” No thanks. I have a unique opportunity being in this job and not campaigning or compromising positions to win an election. I get to just do what I think is best for San Francisco and our residents. Wow, is that a unique opportunity.
I’m taking the job incredibly seriously, carrying on a lot of legacies of Mayor Ed Lee, putting my own stamp on it, but also setting our city on a path for the future.
How do you feel about the term “caretaker mayor”?
I wholly reject the notion of a “caretaker mayor.” Sit in this seat for a day and anybody will realize what a misnomer that is.
We have so much to do, like putting the budget together. As someone who was the longest-serving budget chair in the city’s history, I feel particularly well equipped to lead that charge. I plan to be as active if not more active than mayors before me. It’s going to be a sprint to the finish. But I absolutely want to leave my mark on the city.
What is the funniest thing one of your kids said since you became mayor?
Just this morning my 5-year-old son woke me up at 6 o’clock and said “Daddy, you have to come with me!” And he pulled me over to our Alexa machine and asked, “Alexa, who is Mark Farrell?”
And Alexa said something to the effect of, “Mark Farrell is a lawyer and a politician and the 44th mayor of San Francisco.”
He thought that was the bomb.