Why Mayor Lee is Running Unopposed

by on June 10, 2015

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee

Today is the deadline for entering the San Francisco mayor’s race, and no major candidate is challenging incumbent Ed Lee. Why?

The obvious answer is that Lee is politically popular. Yet that’s a political fact that some progressives cannot accept.  They claim Lee has “pillaged” the city and turned City Hall over to Ron Conway and modern day robber barons. Such progressives insist Lee is “out of touch” with the needs of regular San Franciscans.

If Lee is governing for the rich and not the majority of San Francisco voters, how do his critics explain the lack of  a serious challenger?

Frequent Lee critic former Mayor Art Agnos sees Lee’s campaign war chest, not his popularity, as scaring off rivals: “The high-tech moguls like Ron Conway who are backing Lee have shown they are willing to spend millions in independent expenditure money on the people they are backing. I think that has intimidated a lot of people, who figure why not wait and run in four years.”

Agnos’ analysis is particularly ironic because he had a huge campaign funding edge when he was up for re-election in 1991 yet he attracted three sitting supervisors (Richard Hongisto, Tom Hsieh and Angela Alioto) and a former police chief (Frank Jordan) to run against him (and Jordan defeated him). Challengers do not see money as an obstacle when they view the incumbent as unpopular, as we saw earlier this year when Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel face stiff opposition despite a massive campaign funding advantage.

A More Moderate Electorate?

Is Lee running unopposed because his policies have produced a more moderate electorate? I hear this argument a lot. It fails to recognize that winning electoral coalitions in San Francisco mayor’s races never come exclusively from progressive constituencies.

The winning progressive mayoral coalitions—-George Moscone in 1975 and Art Agnos in 1987—were extremely broad based. So was Matt Gonzalez’s electoral base in 2003. That breadth of support led the leading left candidate in modern San Francisco political history to almost defeat the heavily funded, Democratic Party-backed Gavin Newsom.

Many believe that San Francisco’s electorate is now more moderate  than in 2003. But that fails to recognize that the progressive Gonzalez won many moderate voters, and that a similar candidate could do so in a future San Francisco’s mayor’s race. Gonzalez took many positions that did not fit a left orthodoxy, and entered the 2003 race despite progressive icon Tom Ammiano’s candidacy.

Based on ballot initiative outcomes (the minimum wage, 8 Washington, etc.), the evidence does not support that San Francisco’s electorate is less progressive today than a decade ago. The 2016 Supervisor races will provide a clearer picture.

“Not Our Guy”

Ed Lee is running unopposed not because of campaign funding or a more moderate electorate. Rather, it’s because voters like him and he has been the nation’s most progressive big city mayor.

Even harsh Lee critics do not dispute that the mayor is personally popular. This conforms to their image of Lee as a sort of modern day George Babbitt, a civic booster whose top aspirations are civic growth and neighborhood comity.

But what some overlook is that Lee is popular less due to his personality than  his policies. Frank Jordan had a likeable personality but that didn’t stop his unpopular policies from defeating him for re-election in 1995.

Lee is a self-proclaimed “moderate” who is also San Francisco’s most progressive modern mayor. Lee’s progressive record deterred a challenge from the left, ensuring he would run essentially unopposed.

Despite his actual record, Lee is regularly criticized by some progressives. That’s because, as I wrote in December 2013, Lee will never be the progressives’ “guy.” Unlike New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio, Lee was not elected mayor “as the clear choice of a growing citywide progressive movement.”

Lee’s policies are to the left of de Blasio’s in most areas, but many progressives will never trust or accept him. They see him as merely agreeing to measures that progressives have initiated, as if that were a bad thing.

In 2011 Lee was strongly backed by Asian-American progressives, but that constituency has never been admitted to the city’s primarily white progressive club. That’s why it has taken progressive D6 Supervisor Jane Kim, scorned by the Bay Guardian as a “moderate” when she ran in 2010, nearly five years for many white progressives to accept her.


The chasm between Lee’s progressive policies and his estrangement from progressives is most clear on housing.

Although Lee implemented Matt Gonzalez’s then radical idea to essentially blow up the San Francisco Housing Authority and start anew, progressives insist the mayor only cares about luxury housing. That Lee is investing unprecedented dollars to save and improve public housing is routinely ignored as it doesn’t fit progressives’ critique of the mayor’s priorities.

Lee also led the effort to enact a $1.3 billion Housing Trust Fund in 2011, a longtime dream of city housing advocates that no prior mayor got done. He is following it with a $300 million housing bond, the first strongly backed by a San Francisco mayor since 1996.

Lee announced yesterday that $50 million of the bond will be specifically earmarked for the acquisition and construction of affordable housing in the Mission District. So much for those claiming the mayor was unconcerned about evictions and displacement in that neighborhood.

On evictions, Lee has signed every eviction protection measure passed by the Board. He became the first mayor to go to Sacramento for Ellis Act reform and has also dramatically increased eviction defense funding. Yet some progressives insist he is doing “nothing” to reduce evictions, and blame him for the problem.

If Mayor Lee were really ignoring or worsening the city’s housing and eviction crisis, major challengers would be lining up to run against him.

Of course, progressives unwilling to accept the popularity of Lee’s policies will find their own “evidence” that the mayor’s agenda is off course. In a May 19 article on Aaron Peskin’s D3 Supervisor’s race, Tim Redmond wrote, “So this single district race, in which fewer than ten percent of San Francisco voters will have a change to cast ballots, will be a test of the popularity and agenda of a mayor who has no strong opposition – but whose agenda and positions on issues are making a growing segment of the city unhappy.”

Redmond is saying that Lee running unopposed in a citywide race is not a test of the popularity of his policies. Instead, he feels the mayor should be judged by the outcome of the D3 Supervisor’s race.

Will Redmond feel differently if Lee gets more D3 votes than the winning supervisor? Don’t count on it.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He describes Mayor Lee’s policies toward the Tenderloin in his new book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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 is the author of four 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. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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