Voting Begins: Assessing SF Mayor’s Race

by on May 3, 2018

Have Candidates Overcome Obstacles to Victory?

Voting begins on May 5 in San Francisco’s June mayor’s race. Since  a majority of votes will likely be cast prior to the June 3 Election Day, candidates recognize that winning time is now.

This story will focus on the challenges the three leading candidates faced when the race began, and how effectively they have been overcome. I will go in reverse order to my January 11 article, “SF’s Surprising Mayor’s Race,” that  outlined the race.

Mark Leno

In predicting a Leno victory, I saw him as “the perfect candidate for an electorate impacted by national politics and hungry for Change.” He faced two challenges: winning support of Chinese-American voters and overcoming his absence from public life since leaving the State Senate at the end of 2016.

But as I wrote on April 3, “Leno’s plan to be the Change candidate was formulated when he planned to be running in November 2019 against the departing Ed Lee Administration. Voters were not going to see Leno as the chief agent of Change candidate in a race against Jane Kim and London Breed.”

Leno has shown himself to be more a champion of returning San Francisco to a mythical past than an advocate for charting a new path for the 21st century. Unable to be the candidate of Change, he has instead tried to make the race about Super PACs. Voters do not care much about Super PACS. That a pro-Leno Super PAC is spending money on his behalf further undermined his newly favored campaign theme.

I did not realize when the race began how little the electorate knew about Mark Leno. At public forums Leno highlights an Ellis reform bill I worked with him on in 2003, which is before many voters even came to San Francisco. Leno’s last real campaign in the city was in 2008; he is an unknown commodity to much of the 2018 electorate.

Leno made no meaningful breakthrough among Chinese-American voters despite his long relationship with Phil Ting. The city’s three most influential Chinese-American endorsements—-Carmen Chu, Katy Tang and David Chiu—all went to London Breed.

Leno has led only one recent poll—-and it was paid for by a Super PAC set up to elect him. I hear about polls that do not reach the media and in the best he is seven points behind Breed.

Leno will be helped by a June electorate likely to skew to older homeowners, so he can still prevail. But is not in the strong position to win that I and others anticipated when the race began.

Jane Kim

I initially saw Kim facing two big challenges: winning progressive support over the presumably more “electable” Leno, and getting votes beyond her core base. Kim has completely accomplished the former and tried her best to do the latter.

I wrote in March, “Jane Kim has become the clear progressive favorite in the race. I thought Leno would get support from more of the progressive community but Kim has dominated among this constituency.”  Even early Leno supporter Aaron Peskin has now dual-endorsed, offering no preference between Kim and Leno.

Kim has sought to win moderate Westside votes by championing the area’s opposition to new apartments. Kim’s opposition to a non-existent threat of “luxury condo towers” in the Sunset sought to redefine her as a mayor who would stand in front of bulldozers to keep class-segregated single family zoning intact.

Will Westside homeowners who chose Wiener over Kim due to mailings claiming she supported encampments now pick her to be mayor? I don’t think so. Kim’s camp has really pushed to define her as the candidate the Westside can trust the most  to stop new housing.

Kim has surged since the race began and could still win. But she will have to figure out new ways to expand her moderate support beyond her opposition to Scott Wiener’s now dead SB 827.

London Breed

On January 11 I wrote that “if Breed retains the Acting Mayor position at the Board’s January 16 meeting it may help her less than her supporters believe.” It turned out that her removal could pave the way for her becoming the city’s next mayor.

The racist and misogynist context of Breed’s ouster as Acting Mayor, and her replacement by a “rich white man,” has defined the mayor’s race. As I wrote on January 30, “Will Backlash Return London Breed to Room 200?”  “the backlash to Breed’s ouster has helped re-position a candidate backed by many Mayor Lee supporters into an agent for change. Amidst the #MeToo movement, female voters particularly see the election of an African-American woman as a powerful message of ‘change’.”

When you consider the media attention given in recent weeks to dirty streets, needles and feces, ask yourself how it would have worked for London Breed’s mayoral campaign if she were the Acting Mayor on the hook for those problems. Or if she were the Acting Mayor alienating all sides by shutting down—or allowing— tent encampments.

Breed’s unceremonious ouster insulated her from chief responsibility for troubling city problems. That’s why Mark Leno’s repeated claims that electing Breed is voting to keep this untenable status quo makes no sense; Breed is not running the city. The person in charge is the Acting Mayor installed by Leno’s  backers, a critical fact Leno ignores in attacking the “status quo.”

My January 11 piece saw Breed facing two main challenges: she lacked the unchallenged support of a broad constituency base and was not well known outside her district.

Hilary Ronen’s incendiary comments preceding Breed’s ouster brought Breed a lot of women supporters, providing the broad constituency she needed to win. Her removal and replacement made local and national news, solving Breed’s problem of not being well known outside her district.

Breed has also benefited from the racism of the Trump Administration, which has made some voters eager to elect an African-American woman. A woman who grew up in the public housing whose tenants the Trump Administration is trying to undermine by tripling their rents Jane Kim put out a recent mailer identifying her as the candidate that will “Resist Locally” and “Fight Back” against Trump; Breed is just as likely to get voters wanting to send a message to the president.

Breed has focused extensively on the Westside and outside of her African-American and D5 base. I originally thought she would have a hard time picking up Ed Lee’s core supporters, but helped by her support for the late mayor’s pro-housing views she appears to be doing just that.

Breed has been ahead in every poll I have seen except for the one funded by Leno’s Super PAC, which had her a point behind Leno. She has more house signs than any candidate, and polls show her doing surprisingly well on winning the second place votes of her top rivals.

Breed has met every challenge and exceeded expectations. She has to be considered the front runner as voting begins on May 5.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His upcoming book on the national urban housing crisis, Generation Priced Out, will be out in October from UC Press


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's 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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