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Mayor Ed Lee’s death shifts fortunes of possible successors

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Mayor Ed Lee waves to the crowd as former mayors Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom cheer during Lee’s inauguration in January 2011. (Mike Koozmin/2011 S.F. Examiner)

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Mayor Ed Lee is gone.

Though we respectfully disagreed many times — and often — on policy, I respected him (and highly enjoyed his frequent “dad jokes”). There will be time to reflect on those disagreements later. For now: He cared for this city, and he will be missed.

Lee died unexpectedly early Tuesday morning at age 65. His leadership style was far from boisterous; some even called him the “pothole mayor.”

SEE RELATED: Mayor Ed Lee’s death brings tears, reflection to a changed San Francisco

But for a politician who was decidedly low-key, his exit from this plane dramatically shifts the fortunes of the candidates vying to succeed him.

Board of Supervisors President London Breed’s ascension to acting mayor introduces the possibility of a cutthroat, calculated vote by the board to replace her as interim mayor — much like when Lee was appointed by the board in 2011.

And perhaps more significantly, the mayor’s race has shifted from November 2019 to June 2018, wiping out 17 months of campaigning. That simple date change skews the calculations of the rumored candidates for mayor, as surely as swiping your arm across a chessboard.

“This is totally a free-for-all,” political consultant and kingmaker David Ho said. “This’ll be wild, man.”

Rumored candidate Assemblymember David Chiu loses big in this shuffle, as others gain ground.

Without the campaign time, many may face a formidable opponent in Mark Leno, the only declared candidate. My sources revealed he’ll have at least a whopping $400,000 in the bank when he compiles his finances through Dec. 31, which are due in January.

Less campaign time makes that money even more formidable. Other rumored candidates have yet to even file their intent to run with The City — or raise a single dime.

Many sources preferred to speak anonymously, on background, for fear of appearing insensitive by discussing politics so soon after Lee’s death.

But homelessness doesn’t take a break. Evictions don’t suddenly cease. And affordable housing doesn’t magically appear. Though we mourn, The City will need direction — soon.

SOME GAIN, OTHERS LOSE
Though Leno is the only declared contender, rumored candidates for mayor include Breed, Chiu, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu and supervisors Mark Farrell and Jane Kim, among others.

The City Charter compelled Breed to become acting mayor while simultaneously serving as District 5 supervisor, and assigned the mayor’s race to June 2018, the next available election date.

Originally, Chiu could have run for his second term in the Assembly in 2018, while also vying for mayor in 2019, safe in his statewide seat, should he lose. Now, he may be forced to make a choice between campaigning for the Assembly or the mayor’s seat.

My sources explained his dilemma: Can you solicit donations for both races at once? Likely not.

Chiu’s new calculus also may force Kim to make a choice of whether to run for mayor, or Assembly, sooner than later.

Chiu and Kim each declined to speak about their future political careers. But other sources told me it may be politically advantageous for Kim to bargain with Chiu — if she aids in his mayoral race, and he doesn’t run for Assembly, she could potentially run for his Assembly seat in a cakewalk.

Kim would maintain a significant advantage in either race, my sources said, because numerous polls (run by politicos, behind the scenes) show voters recognize her name strongly, most likely due to her recent, unsuccessful state Senate race against Scott Wiener.

But why should Chiu want Kim out over other challengers? Well, though she is Korean, her ties to political organizers who sway The City’s Chinese voting bloc are strong.

“Those 35,000 Chinese votes have to go somewhere,” Ho said. He and other background sources speculated if Kim entered the mayor’s race, those votes may go to her over any candidate, announced or otherwise.

Unlike Chiu, Herrera benefits from a shorter election lead time. Since the next City Attorney’s race is in November 2019, he would have also been in the position of having to choose which office to run for. Now, an early mayor’s race leaves Herrera’s previous City Attorney seat attainable, should he lose a bid for The City’s top spot.

All the rumored candidates will face a difficult opponent in Leno, who has been campaigning for months. That lead time was previously questionable, but now may deliver a solid advantage.

Leno would not comment, save to say of Lee, “I mourn with the rest of San Francisco the passing of a fine human being.”

And then, there’s acting Mayor Breed.

SUPES MAY DECIDE IT ALL
A Galileo High School graduate and woman raised in the Fillmore neighborhood’s public housing, Breed nets a major political advantage in her rumored mayor’s race by virtue of already being San Francisco’s mayor.

Time and time again, the power of incumbency has been shown — with two exceptions, defeated supervisors Christina Olague and Julie Christensen — to deliver a startling number of votes in San Francisco.

If The City doesn’t sink into the sea come June, expect Breed to be favored, even though she lacks Chinatown support.

But right now, she’s serving as acting mayor and as Board of Supervisors president, and the supes face a choice: Do they vote to make Breed mayor until June, vote a “caretaker” mayor in her place or do nothing and leave her as both mayor and supervisor?

Most sources I talked to said a “caretaker” mayor who is uninterested in running is the supervisors’ best hope to avoid political infighting.

History, however, reveals the weakness of that option: Lee was a caretaker mayor, and he ended up running. The broken promise serves as a warning.

Yet, despite the similarity to Lee’s appointment in 2011, Kim said, “The backdrop was so different. You can’t ignore the circumstances,” alluding to Lee’s death. She believes it’s unlikely their political conflicts will be aired publicly, out of respect for Lee.

The supervisors are also unlikely to coalesce around voting-in one of their own as interim mayor.

Because Farrell, Kim and Breed are considering mayoral runs, the vote is split three ways already. Supervisor Aaron Peskin is a noted backer of Leno, another fracture.

If the supervisors fail to find six votes for interim mayor, Breed may occupy the Mayor’s Office until The City votes in June.

At that point, with all the variables in the air, anyone who tells you they know what will happen is a huckster.

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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