SF’s Wild Mayor’s Race

by on January 3, 2018

(Updated to include City Attorney Dennis Herrerra’s pulling papers to run for mayor)

A Five Month Sprint to the Mayor’s Office

On January 9 at 5:00pm we will know who is running in San Francisco’s June mayoral election.  Mark Leno and Jane Kim have already filed. Others will  join them, and some may wait to the last day.

The June race is only part of the story.

Adding to the intrigue is the January 9 Board of Supervisors meeting when the Board could—but is not required to—elect a new acting Mayor. Since this meeting precedes the mayoral filing deadline, the Board is expected to defer voting for an acting mayor to at least the following week.

The Board has no time deadline to vote to replace London Breed as Acting Mayor. But few see the Board allowing her to remain in that position if, as expected, she files papers to run for mayor.

Unprecedented Political Situation

San Francisco’s current political situation is unique. It is very different from the mayoral succession following the assassination of Mayor Moscone in 1978 and Mayor Newsom’s leaving office to become Lieutenant Governor in 2010.

Moscone faced a re-election challenge in November 1979 solely from the city’s conservatives. No major candidate from the center or left was preparing a run. This meant  Acting Mayor Dianne Feinstein had a free field for a November mayoral run.

In contrast, Ed Lee’s mayoralty had only two years left. Mark Leno was already running in 2019. As I wrote nearly a year ago (“Early Thoughts on SF’s 2019 Mayor’s Race”), the November 2019 election was likely a battle between Leno and Assembly member David Chiu.  Chiu had not declared for 2019 but was clearly running.

So unlike 1978 we have two major liberal candidates who were already running for mayor when the incumbent died. This makes it unlikely that the Board of Supervisors would allow an Acting Mayor to also run in June, as it  creates an unfair advantage.

Today’s situation also differs from 2011. Ed Lee’s selection as Acting Mayor did not require him to immediately file papers to run in November. If it had, Lee would not have run.  Lee had no intention of seeking his own term when he took the Acting position and only ran for a full term under pressure from supporters.

The Race for Acting Mayor

Mayor Lee’s death set off a lot of scenarios, plans, and backroom deals  around the position of Acting Mayor. Instead of recounting plots and strategies that have since failed, I will only say that it appears that logic and fairness have won.

We now face one of two scenarios.

If London Breed does not file papers to run in June, she will remain Acting Mayor. She would relinquish her Board Presidency but remain D5 Supervisor.

If Breed files papers the Board will select a true caretaker mayor. Someone everyone has good things to say about like Ben Rosenfield or Naomi Kelly. We are talking about only five months before the June election. A caretaker is fine. Those claiming that the city would run into a ditch with someone like Rosenfield or Naomi Kelly as Acting Mayor do not know what they are talking about (I’m told Kelly could be Acting Mayor without giving up her City Administrator’s job).

If Breed files before January 9 the Board will use that meeting to pick a caretaker. If Breed has not filed by the start of the January 9 meeting the Board is likely to delay the Acting Mayor vote for a week so the mayoral field is clear.

The June Field

Leno and Kim are expected to soon be joined by Breed. Dennis Herrera has pulled papers but not filed and Carmen Chu and David Chiu are still weighing the race. Should Chiu run I assume Kim would leave the mayor’s race to run for Assembly. She becomes the immediate favorite in that November Assembly contest, which excludes most areas that went for Scott Wiener against Kim in the November 2016 State Senate race.

I did not think Chiu would risk his Assembly seat to run for mayor. I felt he could still win in November 2019 regardless of who won the June special election. But Chiu’s camp may see it differently. They may not see Chiu or anyone else as capable of defeating a mayor elected in June 2018  only a little over a year later.

Chiu risks losing a chance to become mayor prior to 2028 should he skip the June race. I think there is a better than 50% chance that he runs. Others deem it even more likely, and his entry would certainly make June an even more competitive race.

Here’s my very early assessment of the candidates who could potentially win the June election.

Carmen Chu

I examined Carmen Chu’s mayoral prospects last March. I thought then that she would have a hard time expanding her base outside the Westside, but she could sweep conservative voters across the city.

As Assessor, Chu should have citywide name recognition. But since she has run effectively unopposed it’s unclear how well known she really is outside District 4 (which she represented as supervisor) and the Chinese-American community.

Carmen Chu’s candidacy primarily impacts the race by hurting David Chiu. Absent Chu, David Chiu wins overwhelmingly among the 20% of the June electorate projected to be Chinese-American voters. But Carmen Chu, who unlike David Chiu speaks fluent Cantonese, gets most of these voters first place votes if she runs.

That’s why I have heard about Breed backers pushing Chu to enter the race. They see her as taking first place votes from Chiu, which would happen.

But San Francisco is not going to go more conservative in June, and as genuinely nice a person as she is I can’t see Carmen Chu becoming the next mayor.

London Breed

Prior to December even her biggest backers did not think Breed could win the 2019 mayor’s race; Lee’s death and her ascension to Acting Mayor turned her into a viable candidate.

Breed still faces an uphill path to victory. Unlike the other candidates,  she has never run a race beyond her supervisor district. Many voters are unfamiliar with Breed despite her tenure as Board President and high profile appearances as Acting Mayor.

Some believe Breed would inherit Ed Lee’s “moderate” voting base. But central to that voting base is Chinese-American voters who have little familiarity with Breed; they will go with Chu and Chiu for their first or second votes.

Breed would benefit tremendously from being able to serve as Acting Mayor while running for mayor. If her Board colleagues allow this, her prospects for June increase greatly. Breed will also benefit, as would Kim and Chu, from a  political climate that favors women candidates in blue cities.

Dennis Herrera

City Attorney Dennis Herrera took out papers to run for mayor on January 3, and presumably will enter the race. I did not include Herrera in my original story as I had been told by a reliable source that he was not running.

Herrera has always felt that he would have won the 2011 mayor’s race had Ed Lee not run. And  polls seem to confirm this. The question is where Herrera gets his votes in a race where Mark Leno seeks to become San Francisco’s first gay mayor;  Herrera’s legal success on marriage equality likely gave him the lion’s share of LGBT votes in 2011.

When I thought Herrera would run after Mayor Lee’s death and he was being pushed to serve as Acting Mayor, I talked to people about his candidacy. I was surprised how many think Herrera is a moderate to conservative. In truth, unless he has  suddenly changed the views he has expressed for years at the City Attorney’s office, Herrera is clearly progressive.

Herrera would compete with Leno for LGBT votes, win his home neighborhood of Potrero Hill, and pick up votes around the city from those who know and appreciate the work of his office. But overcoming Leno and potentially David Chiu will not be easy. By pulling papers at the end of a slow news day rather than announcing his candidacy with fanfare it could be that Herrera is testing the waters before deciding to run.

Jane Kim

If Chiu runs, Jane Kim faces an uphill battle to win the mayor’s race. It’s not impossible; after all, she beat Scott Wiener in the June 2016 primary and has two major advantages in the mayor’s race that she did not have then.

First, she will not be targeted by an avalanche of negative mail pieces as occurred against Wiener. No candidate is going to invest major money in anti-Kim hit pieces in a strong multi-candidate field.

Second, Kim’s lesser fundraising will not hurt her in a five month sprint to the June election. Kim’s national support base of Bernie Sanders supporters (aka Berniacs) combined with public financing  gets her enough money  to win.

If neither Chiu nor Chu runs, Kim would be the only Asian-American in the field. She could pick up  Chinese-American votes that she did not get in her State Senate race, and when added to her progressive support she has a chance to win. It may be akin to drawing one card for a full house in poker, but that happens all the time.

If Chiu runs, Kim has a brighter future by dropping out of the mayor’s race and running for Assembly. She becomes the immediate favorite in a progressive district that is made for her.

David Chiu

If politics had proceeded as expected, David Chiu would be at worst a co-favorite to win the November 2019 mayor’s race. The June 2018 election deprived him of two more effective years as a legislator (building on his success in 2017) that would boost his standing with voters. It also requires him to quickly assemble a winning campaign in time for a June election—-all while his chief rival, Mark Leno, has reportedly raised $400,000 and has been running for mayor for some time.

If Chiu is the only Chinese-American candidate in the race, he dominates the first place votes among a constituency that is 20% of the electorate.  He evenly competes with Leno in Pacific Heights and the Marina, wins District 3, and is the second choice of a lot of Breed voters in his home neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point.

Chiu’s citywide voting appeal makes him a strong candidate. He would suffer most from Carmen Chu’s entry into the race, because based on the 2011 election 16% of the electorate do not make second place choices.  So Chiu would lose votes he would get if Chu does not run.

Votes he may need to defeat Mark Leno.

Mark Leno

Prior to Ed Lee’s death Mark Leno faced another almost two years out of the political limelight while David Chiu was adding to his political resume in the Assembly. Now this dynamic has changed. Leno is the only June candidate who was already openly running for mayor, an advantage in the five month sprint to June.

Leno’s candidacy is built on the premise that San Francisco voters want change.That’s a good message in a city that overwhelmingly wants change at the national level. Many voters will want to express their hunkering for change in the June mayoral election.

While Ed Lee was a much more progressive mayor than Gavin Newsom, he accepted the “moderate” label. He also kept most of Newsom’s staff and  department heads.  Outside of the first Chinese-American mayor the “look” at City Hall from 2004-2017 was largely the same; Newsom’s mayoral staff and support base remained in place.

After fourteen years many San Francisco voters want at least the appearance of change at City Hall. Leno identifies as a progressive, not a moderate. In a field without David Chiu, Leno gets most of the “change” voters who do not share Jane Kim’s agenda.

Chiu has a savvy campaign team that will position the father of a young child as part of a “new generation of leadership for San Francisco.” At age 47 compared to Leno’s 66, Chiu can make the case that he does represent change just as much as his chief rival.

But Leno would be the city’s first gay mayor. He has cultivated a political identity outside the forces that ran the Newsom and Lee Administrations.  Voters eager for “change” will likely back Leno over Chiu.

Political insiders differ over Leno’s strength. I attribute this to Leno not having run a contested election since his 2008 race against Carole Migden. Many voters have moved here since 2008 and do not really know Leno.

I have always seen Leno as a strong mayoral candidate because I do know him.  He has the ability to win votes across the city and to win the second choice votes of the rest of the field; these second and third place votes could decide the election. Leno’s challenge is getting to know today’s electorate in a short time span, which I think he can do.

We will soon see which candidates energize the electorate and which do not. One thing we know for sure: the next five months will be a wild ride for San Francisco.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His most recent book is 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'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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