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Disappointing voter turnout casts shadow over San Francisco election

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Mark Leno cruises down Castro Street on election day in San Francisco on election night on Tuesday, June 5, 2018. (Ekevara Kitpowsong/Special to S.F. Examiner)

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Update: The Department of Elections gave us a whopper of a surprise Wednesday morning: More than 90,000 ballots coming in on election day are yet to be counted, including 44,000 vote-by-mail ballots turned in by hand at polling places on election day. Experts I talked to saw their eyebrows go sky-high. The number was far higher than some had anticipated, and could potentially push turnout past 50 percent. Though it’s shaping up to be a pretty good turnout for a June primary election, I’d argue it’s still lackluster for a healthy democracy. Whoever wins the mayor’s race will still need to earn the trust of the hundreds of thousands of San Franciscans who didn’t turn out to vote.

If the numbers late Tuesday night are any indication, the mayor’s race is still a serious nail-biter. Yet no matter who wins, it will be without a mandate of city voters.

On election day, San Francisco slumbered.

The whirrs of vote-processing machines were scant. Those ever-present sign waving electioneers were sparse. And those traditional mountains of mailed votes? Mere hills.

The leading candidates for mayor still believe their causes to be inspirational to San Francisco writ large: Breed would take back her birthright as city native to lead the Bay’s beacon after being unfairly ousted by the Board of Supervisors in January, her supporters maintain. Mark Leno’s supporters are equally adamant he will ride a sea of goodwill to become the first gay mayor of Harvey Milk’s adopted home.

San Francisco will find its next decade-long leader, but most of its citizens couldn’t be bothered.

Leno led the night with 50 percent of the vote, as of 1 a.m. Wednesday, with Breed holding a barely behind 49 percent. Ranked-choice votes left to count may still sway the race.

Either way, the votes tallied are from a mere 154,000 San Franciscans, a hair more than 31 percent of registered voters.

You wouldn’t know it at Breed’s election night party, where her supporters at the Delancey Street Restaurant danced and made merry. Giants game attendees could hear the cheers out in The Embarcadero.

Da Mayor Willie Brown declared the race for Breed just after 11 p.m.

At the party, Breed openly said that should she win, Brown would not be mayor any longer — implying he was under Lee.

One can always hope.

Leno’s party was a far chillier affair outside in Jane Warner Plaza, the square on Castro and Market streets. Cleve Jones, the historic gay rights trailblazer, told me he feared ranked choice-voting may be “a crapshoot.”

The candidate himself seemed murky on the prospect of winning. Leaning in to speak to a supporter from the Chinese community, he spoke in curt, hushed tones, his brow furrowed as he worried over ranked-choices votes. He told me this short campaign had him unsure of his footing to start with, and only by April did he feel had a full command of the particulars needed for his plan to change San Francisco for the better.

Leno’s crowd was jubilant, but for a far shorter time than Breed’s — they quickly fled into Twin Peaks bar for warmth.

That mirrors many of the campaigns. Fly-by-night affairs with a few hastily cobbled soundbites and mixed messages.

Breed trumpeted historic change for San Francisco, but her politics closely mirror that of our late Mayor Ed Lee. She has little legislative record for her six years as a lawmaker and still has much to learn.

For his part, Leno also trumpets himself as a change agent. But as many insiders note, he’s more the elder statesman. Why tack to the left and paint yourself as an ultra-progressive when your strength for years has been coalition building?

Still, voter turnout has many aghast. Nearly two thirds of registered voters may have rejected this race. The flood of money spent to back Breed — exceeding $3 million; $1 million of it from outside campaigns heavily funded by tech and real estate interests — merely agitated her own base. The lackluster turnout is also strange considering the high drama that launched these rapid-fire campaigns.

At 2 a.m. on Dec. 12, I remember standing outside Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital in the cold, hands in my pockets, next to City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Supervisor Aaron Peskin. We were waiting on news that would shake San Francisco.

I remember Breed’s face, taut, grim, with her jaw locked. A few reporters stood together to hear her announce that Lee was dead. It was a moment I’ll always remember, one where it seemed the future of San Francisco could unfurl in a truly different way, flowing with possibilities.

Breed had the countenance of a leader.

If Breed has indeed secured her path to lead The City for the next decade, she has to cast aside some who supported her. She cannot have an open door to Brown, as Lee did. As Gavin Newsom’s administration did. She cannot pave the way for the technology interests to run unregulated, unchecked, at the expense of San Franciscans who call this city home.

And should Leno approach victory, he’ll need to find his voice again, and show us what his vision for The City is — not just about refuting its machine politics.

If either wins, it is with most of San Francisco never having touched a ballot. Either candidate will have much work to do to lead.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

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