Ed Lee Takes Commanding Lead

by Randy Shaw on November 9, 2011

Ed Lee took a commanding lead in his race to become San Francisco’s first elected Chinese-American Mayor, with victory coming as soon as today when the ranked-choice voting process begins. With 100% of votes counted (and prior to the counting of Election Day absentees and the implementation of ranked choice), Lee leads John Avalos by a 31.38% to 18.67% margin, with Dennis Herrera third at 11.27%. David Chiu and Leland Yee rounded out the top five at 8.93% and 7.48% respectively. While Lee was careful not to announce victory before he hit the 51% threshold, the combination of spoiled ballots and Lee’s second place votes from low finishing candidates makes his election virtually certain. One year ago, Ed Lee was the City Administrator who had never sought public office; today, he is on the verge of being handily elected to a four-year term as San Francisco’s Mayor.

There was no real mystery last night as to the outcome of the mayoral voting. Once the absentee numbers showed Lee with 39.85 percent of the vote, his ultimate victory was clear. The only big surprise last night was John Avalos’ large lead over Dennis Herrera, which may be too big for the City Attorney to overcome with ranked choice.

While I picked Avalos to finish second, many pundits claimed – apparently absent any polling numbers – that Herrera was growing closer to Lee’s lead. I never saw an independent poll that had Herrera getting a greater percentage of votes than he got, and his lack of success is further testament to the risks of negative campaigning.

Lee’s final margin will retain the large lead he had in the very first poll. This remarkably consistent wire-to-wire run is virtually unprecedented in modern San Francisco mayoral races.

Why Lee Won (and the Media Lost)

Other than the reasons that I have highlighted throughout this campaign – Lee’s likeability, his focus on jobs, and his no-frills focus on getting things done, three campaign factors explain Lee’s likely victory.

First, no other candidate ever broke from the pack. Had Herrera or Avalos, for example, become the clear challenger to Lee, they could have encouraged supporters of other candidates to make them their second choice and potentially win through ranked choice voting. But with the candidates bunched, it means that Lee will likely benefit most from the process as second place votes are split as candidates are eliminated.

Second, Lee never became identified as the candidate of the elite. While the media tried to so identify him, the powerful establishment opposition Lee faced from both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Bay Citizen publishing in the New York Times had to make voters ask: if Lee is controlled by the city’s elite, why are they doing their best to destroy him?

Third, Lee’s rivals never explained why they would do a better job as Mayor than Lee has performed since January. Instead, they spent most of their campaign messaging bashing Ed Lee and turning voters off. Negative campaigning can work in a two or three candidate race, but when used in this race no candidate could be assured that they would get the votes of those convinced not to back Lee.

Many both inside and outside the paper believe that the Chronicle’s entire mayoral campaign coverage was a response to Rose Pak’s off-the-record comment that she was glad Chronicle Editor John Diaz told Ed not to run for Mayor, because it helped Lee’s decide the opposite. If true, Diaz should have considered another anti-Lee strategy because the one he picked clearly failed.

At his Townsend Street victory party, Lee attributed his victory to voters saying that “we want the city to keep creating jobs and for you to keep running the city as you have been doing it.” Acknowledging the historic step of the city electing its first full term Chinese-American Mayor, Lee noted, “it’s one thing to get confirmed by members of the Board of Supervisors, but it means much more to get confirmed by the members of the city.”

Lee also noted that he would be out doing his regular work today, as he is someone “who works hard and enjoys that work.”

A Victory for Chinatown

Ed Lee got votes from every corner of the city and all of his supporters are responsible for this victory. Lee’s strong support among Asian-American voters clearly made a difference, and the community has likely made history by electing the city’s first full-term Asian-American mayor.

But notwithstanding that Lee’s win is a victory for all of San Francisco, it is specially and profoundly a victory for Chinatown.

Chinatown took a young Ed Lee fresh from Bowdoin College in Maine and Boalt Law School and turned him into a community street fighter for justice. Chinatown also that taught Lee how to work with others in the community, to look for what unified rather than divided people, and to understand the importance of jobs in the fabric of a low-income community’s life.

Chinatown took its hits in this long campaign, from the start of “Run, Ed, Run” to the racist caricatures of the neighborhood published the Sunday before the election. Every effort was made to undermine Ed Lee by destroying the Chinatown community, even if this meant that Chinatown Community Development Center, the city’s longtime affordable housing leader, and Community Tenants of Chinatown, the city’s largest tenants organization, became collateral damage.

But what the candidates and media bashing Chinatown did not appreciate was the community’s powerful fighting spirit. It is a spirit that Ed Lee picked up in Chinatown in the late 1970’s and through the 1980’s, and never lost.

I knew Ed Lee in those days and I can tell you that while he dresses a lot better, he is the same guy. And now he is likely to serve another four more years as the city’s Mayor.

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