Crowded field in mayor's race chasing Ed Lee for a demanding job 

(Getty Images file, Examiner file, courtesy photos) - (GETTY IMAGES FILE, EXAMINER FILE, COURTESY PHOTOS)
  • (Getty Images file, Examiner file, courtesy photos)
  • (Getty Images file, Examiner file, courtesy photos)

The San Francisco mayoral race began in a very un-San Francisco way. With no clear front-runner, candidates were civil, cordial and even pleasant with each other in early forums.

And then, in the final days before the Aug. 12 candidate filing deadline, Ed Lee officially entered the race after he promised earlier in year he wouldn’t. The popular interim mayor became the instant front-runner, and the race suddenly became bitter and barbed. In others words: normal, as San Francisco politics go.

Almost immediately, candidate and City Attorney Dennis Herrera questioned whether Lee would be his own man in light of the support he got from the well-entrenched former Mayor Willie Brown and Chinatown powerbroker Rose Pak.

In his first two debates, Lee was roundly booed by supporters of other candidates. State Sen. Leland Yee’s campaign later began airing a TV ad titled “The Promise,” questioning Lee’s trustworthiness after the mayor reneged on his pledge in January to the Board of Supervisors that he would not to seek permanent office.

However, little of the animosity appears to have resonated with voters, according to polling that shows Lee well in front of the pack of 10 other serious candidates. (There are 16 total candidates on the ballot.)

What’s perhaps most remarkable is that so many people are fighting for a job that promises more headaches than rewards in the coming years.

“Unsustainable” is the nice word for San Francisco’s projected financial future. Others would call it “scary.” The City is facing annual deficits in the hundreds of millions, prompting officials to push legislation such as the balloted $248 million streets bond just to do routine road maintenance.

Exacerbated by ballooning pension costs that may or may not be fixed by competing ballot measures that may or may not pass, The City’s budget future also holds an underperforming transit system with expensive problems, plus massive contracts with social service nonprofits fighting over dwindling city resources.

“It’s kind of interesting that we could find 16 people who even want to be mayor,” said University of San Francisco political science professor Corey Cook. “This is definitely a crossroads time for San Francisco.”

A few candidates have responded by positioning themselves under the banner of fiscal responsibility. Public Defender Jeff Adachi — another late entrant into the race — touts his more aggressive pension reform measure: Proposition D.

Joanna Rees, a venture capitalist and political newcomer, said she’d run City Hall more like one of the dozens of startup companies she oversaw, with all city departments reshaping their budgets from scratch. Board of Supervisors President David Chiu and Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting have proposed The City put out a searchable public database of budgets.

No matter how San Francisco’s next mayor approaches the job, he or she will be on the hook to make substantive changes that will surely find internal opposition.

“The new mayor will inherit either having to implement a new pension system, or if both measures fail, come up with a solution to that ongoing problem,” political consultant Jim Ross said.

Before any of The City’s major problems are broached, the new mayor will have to beat out a large field of candidates in a race with new wrinkles — including the first major test in a citywide race of the ranked-choice voting system, which allows voters to pick three candidates in order of preference. If a voter’s primary candidate loses in an early round of counting and no single candidate has gotten 51 percent of the first-place votes, his or her vote goes to the second-choice candidate. The process repeats itself until one candidate gets a majority.

Also getting its first big test is The City’s public campaign finance system. According to Ethics Commission executive director John St. Croix, The City is set to spend around $9 million funding campaigns in the name of leveling the playing field for candidates, who are required to abide by a spending cap of $1.475 million unless another candidate raises more.

No one has dropped out of the race due to Lee’s entry, but that’s no surprise given the fact candidates would then have to pay back the money they’ve already received under the public financing law.

“Without the public financing, some of them might be dropping out of the race,” Cook said. “Instead, some of these folks are limping toward November.”

Critics’ attacks on mayor have failed to resonate with voters

Ed Lee is a small man: 5 feet 5 inches, to be exact. But politically, the appointed municipal chief has emerged as the 800-pound gorilla in the race for The City’s top post.

Most polling shows Lee well ahead of the 10 other serious contenders for the seat, who will have to make up a lot of ground before the Nov. 8 election. It’s no wonder Lee has been the target of numerous attacks.

For Lee, the preferred defense is to quickly deflect criticism and avoid waging an aggressive offense against the lagging field.

“I may not take it in a traditional way,” Lee said of the criticism at a recent merchant walk in the Bernal Heights neighborhood, where he was often recognized and photographed by passersby. “I’ll just say, ‘OK, well, what have you done for our city?’”

University of San Francisco political science professor Corey Cook said if any candidate is going to gain traction by going negative, their attacks will have to resonate with voters. So far, attempts to connect Lee to controversial figures such as Chinatown power broker Rose Pak and former Mayor Willie Brown have mostly fallen flat, Cook said.

“Nobody knows who Rose Pak is,” Cook said, adding that although Brown was embroiled in controversy in his mayoral tenure, he is mostly remembered fondly, and his column in the San Francisco Chronicle bolsters that feeling. “Turns out, we like Willie Brown. We like his movie reviews. He’s funny.”

Cook added that talk of being “personally betrayed” — because of Lee’s initial pledge in January not to seek permanent office — also doesn’t cut it.

“People like him, so changing his mind is exactly the kind of thing we forgive him for,” Cook said.

Countdown to November

44: Days until the election
16: Candidates in the race
11: Considered serious candidates
3: Candidates voters can choose under ranked-choice voting system
9: Candidates qualified for public financing
$1.475M: Spending cap under The City’s public financing law

Mayoral race candidates

Bevan Dufty

Age: 56
Current job: Mayoral candidate
Party affiliation: Democrat
Slogan: “He gets the big picture”
Platform: Addressing social issues at local level
Endorsements: Assemblywoman Fiona Ma; Small Property Owners of San Francisco
Claims to fame: Former Castro supervisor; helped bring Britney Spears to San Francisco for a special performance

David Chiu

Age: 41
Current job: Board of Supervisors president
Party affiliation: Democrat
Slogan: None
Platform: Long-term policy changes for a challenging future
Endorsements: League of Conservation Voters
Claims to fame: Founded a tech company; uses “Chiu-bacca” character inspired by “Star Wars” as a campaign mascot

Dennis Herrera

Age: 48
Current job: City attorney
Party affiliation: Democrat
Slogan: “The mayor we need — no strings attached”
Platform: Job creation, eliminate government waste
Endorsements: Former mayors Art Agnos and Frank Jordan
Claims to fame: Spearheaded court action in favor of same-sex marriage, including against the state’s Proposition 8; The City’s first-ever Hispanic city attorney

Ed Lee

Age: 59
Current job: Interim mayor
Party affiliation: Democrat
Slogan: “Ed Lee gets it done”
Platform: Job creation, fostering cooperative political climate in City Hall
Endorsements: U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein
Claims to fame: The City’s first Chinese-American mayor; his mustache, which has its own Twitter account

Jeff Adachi

Age: 52
Current job: Public defender
Party affiliation: Democrat
Slogan: “Jeff Adachi. Does it best.”
Platform: City’s fiscal crisis requires aggressive action
Endorsements: Judge Quentin Kopp (retired); former Supervisor Matt Gonzalez
Claims to fame: Aggressive and embattled stance on The City’s pension system; produced a documentary about actor Jack Soo

Joanna Rees

Age: 49
Current job: Venture capitalist
Party affiliation: Independent
Slogan: “A mayor for our neighborhoods”
Platform: City Hall needs an outsider with business experience
Endorsements include: Jennifer Siebel Newsom
Claims to fame: Invested in dozens of tech startups; spotty voting record

John Avalos

Age: 46
Current job: District 11 supervisor
Party affiliation: Democrat
Slogan: None
Platform: Affordable housing, environmentalism, small business
Endorsements: Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club
Claims to fame: Championed The City’s local-hire requirements; BFF with ex-Supervisor Chris Daly

Leland Yee

Age: 62 Current job: State senator
Party affiliation: Democrat
Slogan: None
Platform: Increase transparency and independence at City Hall
Endorsements: The Sierra Club; San Francisco Labor Council
Claims to fame: Taking on political commentator Rush Limbaugh for mocking Chinese language; arrested for allegedly shoplifting a bottle of suntan lotion in Hawaii in 1992

Michela Alioto-Pier

Age: 43
Current job: Mayoral candidate
Party affiliation: Democrat
Slogan: None
Platform: City should be a leader in biotech and emerging green economy
Endorsements: Former Vice President Al Gore
Claims to fame: Comes from a powerful local political family; worked as an aide to Al Gore

Phil Ting

Age: 42
Current job: Assessor-recorder
Party affiliation: Democrat
Slogan: “Reset San Francisco”
Platform: Engaging citizens to solve complex infrastructure problems
Endorsements: David Hochschild, co-chair of city’s solar task force; S.F. Asian Peace Officers’ Association
Claims to fame: Started a civic engagement website for San Francisco; has scores of friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter

Tony Hall

Age: 69
Current job: Retired
Party affiliation: Independent
Slogan: “People over politics”
Platform: Eliminating systemic corruption in city government
Endorsements include: San Francisco Republican Party
Claim to fame: Former professional singer who once chauffeured Elvis through the streets of Memphis

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Dan Schreiber

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