Why Leno Won’t Run Against Lee

by on December 1, 2014

On November 18, I wrote that after Thanksgiving State Senator Mark Leno would announce plans to run against San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. Last Saturday, Leno told the Chronicle’s Matier & Ross that he has decided not to run.

Leno regularly reads Beyond Chron and if he thought my November 18 story was off base he would have contacted me and likely other media.He did not.

Here’s why I think Leno’s plans changed.

First, he lacked a campaign manager. As I previously wrote, Leno’s prior political campaigns were managed by the BMWL campaign team. After firm principal John Whitehurst made it clear that his partners would be backing Mayor Lee, many assumed that Jim Stearns would run Leno’s campaign.

But Stearns recently sent out a mass email that cryptically described him as backing away from politics. And he also sent an email to private clients saying he would not be running Leno’s campaign.

With his trusted campaign managers unavailable, and no obvious choice to run his campaign, Leno’s uphill challenge to unseat Lee began looking even harder.

Lee’s Preemptive Campaign

Leno also was impacted by Mayor Lee’s aggressive preemptive campaign.

The mayor learned the week of November 11 that Leno planned to run. He quickly  launched an all out effort to deny Leno potential support. Lee reached out to key elected officials and asked for their endorsement. He got his fundraising team in gear and quickly put together a campaign event at the Hotel Whitcomb on November 21.

Lee contacted current and former elected officials, including many who were not clearly in his camp.  Whether this outreach led these officials to believe that they were better off sticking by the incumbent mayor and re-election favorite cannot be known,  but it may have  deterred some from offering early support to Leno.

Lee backers scheduled a major fundraiser for January 9, 2015. The event would be an early loyalty test for those with major interests at City Hall who might want to wait and see how Leno is doing before jumping into his camp.

The main reason incumbents in nonpartisan races  lose is their failure to anticipate tough opposition. Ed Lee saw Art Agnos make this mistake in 1991 and was not going to repeat it; instead, he moved preemptively to prevent Leno from marshaling early support.

Since Lee was originally appointed mayor and did not previously enter politics, many underestimate his competitive fire (ironically, Leno’s competitive juices and ambitions have been similarly underestimated for the same reasons). But Lee’s rise from a low-income family to graduate from one of the nation’s top law schools (Berkeley Law School) shows he is not deterred by obstacles. Lee thrives on challenges, which is why after becoming an attorney he went to work for the Asian Law Caucus when Chinatown’s very future was at risk.

In response to Leno’s potentially tough challenge, Mayor Lee began campaigning as if it were the fall of 2015, not still 2014. And the mayor’s quick launching of a campaign and fundraising team sent a message to Mark Leno that Lee was ready to rumble and this race would be far more daunting than previously appeared.

The Airbnb Campaign

Leno may also have been impacted by the proposed Airnbnb ballot measure.

In my story on the November 24 press conference by those backing a November 2015 ballot measure to regulate Airbnb, I found it significant that no specific language had been proposed. I wrote that this meant “Mayor Lee has the ability to forestall a ballot initiative by working with opponents on a compromise that might not satisfy everyone, but will reduce the issue’s impact in the mayor’s race.”

Since Leno saw the recently passed Airbnb legislation as the linchpin for his attack on the mayor’s record, initiative backers  willingness to work out a possible compromise with Mayor Lee was not good news for Leno’s candidacy. Whether a satisfactory deal is reached remains to be seen, but Leno could not take the risk that it would.

Lack of Progressive Enthusiasm

Leno may also have been dissuaded by a lack of progressive enthusiasm for his challenge. Many progressives were incredibly excited about a serious challenge to Lee. But others remembered Leno’s running as a moderate against progressive Harry Britt, his endorsement of landlord advocate Scott Wiener over progressive Rafael Mandelman in the District 8 Supervisor’s race, and his failure to endorse David Campos in the recent Assembly race.

I was surprised how many progressives still have hard feelings against Leno for running against Carole Migden in the 2008 State Senate race. But the recent Campos race was an even bigger hurdle to progressive enthusiasm. Leno would be promoting his potential to become San Francisco’s first gay mayor shortly after he failed to use his clout to keep the Migden-Leno-Ammiano State Assembly seat in LGBTQ hands.

Who Will Challenge Lee?

After Leno announced he would not run, SF Chronicle Editorial Page editor John Diaz tweeted, “There goes chance for what could have been a lively debate on SF future between two civil & substantive candidates.” But don’t activists, elected officials and newspapers like the Chronicle hold this lively debate nearly every day?

I don’t see another major challenger reaching a different assessment from Leno on the difficulty of defeating Mayor Lee. But that surely should not mean that the mayor and Board should not be pushed on a range of policies and that they are not subject to a lively debate.

Leno leaves himself as the frontrunner for Nancy Pelosi’s congressional seat (should it become vacant) and the 2019 mayor’s race. He also has two more years to help San Francisco in the State Senate.

And he faces both potential races without the baggage of running a losing race against Lee in 2015.

Randy Shaw is editor of Beyond Chron. He analyzes San Francisco politics in The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century




Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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