Carmen Chu Joining SF Mayor’s Race?

by on March 14, 2017

Carmen Chu

Chu Would Join Leno, Chiu, Farrell and Possibly Breed

In the nearly two months since I offered early thoughts on San Francisco’s 2019 mayor’s race, at least one major new candidate seems likely to run: Carmen Chu. Chu is a former D4 Supervisor and since 2013 has been the city’s Assessor-Recorder. Chu’s name has been rumored before, but two reasons lead me to believe that she is test driving a mayoral run.

First, Chu is attending events in West Portal, Chinatown, Visitacion Valley and other neighborhoods whose support she would need for a mayoral run.  True, Chu regularly attends public events across the city in her role as Assessor-Recorder. But volunteering with Self Help for the Elderly at the West Portal Senior Center as Chu did on March 3 seems unrelated to her elected role.

Second, and far more importantly, a lot of people are touting Chu’s potential strengths in the 2019 mayor’s race. This chatter is likely coming from those to the political right of current favorites Mark Leno and David Chiu who do not believe Mark Farrell can win.  They see Chu as having a much better chance (London Breed is often mentioned as a mayoral candidate but as I explain below I don’t see that happening.

If Breed is not in the race, Chu is the only woman running against three men. She would also be the only candidate with public sector executive experience, and the only one with a record of financial administration. As one Chu backer laid out her case in the SF Examiner, “what good is all the new revenue Chu generates as assessor if City Hall continues to squander it with bloated budgets and inefficient operations? To fix that, Chu would have to run for mayor in 2019.”

Chu’s Challenges

Chu’s chief challenge in winning the mayor’s race is that she could be too conservative to win a contested citywide race. Chu served on the Board of Supervisors from September 2007 to 2013. She was seen as a consistent pro-realtor vote. She would compete with Farrell for real estate industry support, and from the downtown and corporate interests who will favor Chu and Farrell over Leno and Chiu.

Chu could get very few votes in Districts 5, 6 and 9. She would contest Chiu for Chinese-American votes in the Westside, and compete with Leno and Farrell in Pacific Heights and the Marina.

If San Francisco had runoff elections, Carmen Chu could finish second in November 2019 and go on to win a December runoff. But under the city’s ranked choice voting system, Chu will not be a common second choice for Leno and Chiu voters. These two candidates benefit by being the most likely second choice for supporters of the other.

Chu’s other big challenge is whether San Francisco voters in 2019 will be primarily seeking a mayor with a strong fiscal record. I strongly doubt it.

San Francisco voters have never prioritized fiscal experience in electing a mayor.  One reason Ed Lee avoided a serious challenge in 2015 was his strong job creation record, but he did not initially get elected due to his financial acumen. Nor did any  of Lee’s predecessors going back to the 1960’s, Newsom, Brown, Jordan, Agnos, Feinstein, Moscone and Alioto.

San Francisco voters are even less likely to prioritize financial experience in 2019, when many voters will use the mayor’s race  to send a national message.

This gives Leno, who would be the city’s first gay mayor, an advantage.  The expected progressive mood of the 2019 electorate also explains why David Chiu is promoting strongly progressive positions on affordable housing and immigrants’ rights; his camp also expects voters in 2019 to prefer a progressive mayor.

Chu would be San Francisco’s most conservative mayor since Frank Jordan. Leno and Chiu are both far closer to Mayor Lee’s politics on housing and tenants’ rights than is Carmen Chu.

Chu has obvious strengths. She would be the most personable candidate in the field. If she has political enemies they are unknown. Chu would have the most thorough knowledge of city government of any candidate, though that is not something San Francisco voters have historically valued in choosing a mayor.

Chu can raise money and campaign across the city for her 2018 re-election as Assessor-Recorder even though she will have no serious opponent (she won election in 2014 with 98% of the vote). The response she gets to her re-election campaign will likely be the decisive factor in whether she goes from winning re-election to running for mayor.

London Breed

I previously wrote that London Breed was unlikely to run without explaining why. Breed’s potential candidacy took on new life last week with her hiring of former SF Examiner Editor Michael Howerton as Chief of Staff. Many assume that she wanted this media firepower for a mayoral run, though she already had a strong writer in longtime chief of staff Conor Johnston (Johnston is leaving the office. His going away party is Friday from 4:30-7pm at 1942 Market St.).

Breed defeated insurgent Dean Preston in her D5 re-election by only a 52-48% margin. She narrowly won despite securing the Democratic Party endorsement and with Aaron Peskin and Jane Kim not backing her progressive challenger.

How does Breed go from a close re-election race in her home district to winning a citywide race for mayor? I don’t see it. Further, Leno, Chiu, Farrell and Chu have all showed they can all raise sufficient money to win a mayor’s race; Breed has not.

That’s why I think Breed will not run for mayor. But San Francisco history is filled with supervisors who thought they could defy the odds to become mayor, so her entry into the race would not be a major surprise.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron

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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