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San Francisco is a political proving ground

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Board of Supervisors President London Breed on Tuesday called for a working group to speed up construction on accessory dwelling units, also known as in-law units. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Learning of Mayor Ed Lee’s passing last week was deeply shocking and sad to me, in the same way it was for so many others. It’s been said many times already, but he didn’t sign up for the job to boost his ego.

I recall filming a TV spot for Proposition A, the 2014 bond measure to increase transit infrastructure improvements. We requested that Mayor Lee appear in the spot, and he agreed.

When Lee showed up on the set, it was clear he just wanted to be part of the team. He was there to do his job and made sure he was communicating how important the measure was.

We filmed the spot near the West Portal Muni station. Lee didn’t fuss over my last-minute script changes and was willing to do as many takes as necessary to get it right. He had just switched to transition lenses, so we had to rush a few takes of him crossing the street because his new glasses kept getting dark. He laughed it off and went with the flow, making everyone around him on the set feel relaxed.

Mayor Ed Lee, alongside campaign manager Maureen Erwin, is seen on set to film a TV commercial in support of Proposition A in 2014. (Courtesy Maureen Erwin)

This whole experience might not sound extraordinary, but in politics, it’s rare to work with someone at Lee’s level who doesn’t have at least a little bit of prima donna in them. As far as I could tell, he had none. No drama.

Now, we face an abrupt change in leadership with Acting Mayor London Breed at the helm, vowing to keep The City steady while we mourn and manage until the transition to new leadership is complete. (Disclosure: I ran Breed’s District 5 supervisor campaign in 2010.)

My experience as a political consultant has taught me that San Francisco elections are more complicated than anywhere else I have worked. Until the results are certified, the only thing you can count on is uncertainty.

There’s a reason why our elected state and federal officials to tend come from The City: San Francisco is truly a proving ground.

I think of politics here as the Olympics. To win, a candidate must able to navigate our system of Instant Runoff Voting, in which candidates are ranked by voters and eliminated in the rounds of counting based on lowest aggregated vote totals. Candidates are also subject to even more complicated local campaign finance regulations, the varying needs of a city with more than 100 neighborhoods; 11 supervisorial districts with varying problems and priorities; and, of course, the dozens of political clubs that not only endorse but often actively engage their membership in efforts to see candidates win.

The business community engages. Labor unions engage. Artists engage. And then there’s the guerilla campaigning we often see, in the form of anonymous “hit” flyers stapled to street poles and street theater.

In a city that faces problems that can seem intractable — homelessness, income inequality, and not enough housing, getting around town (to name only a few) — and with many viewpoints on how to properly address these issues, the calculus involved in getting elected mayor of San Francisco can be mind-boggling.

The deadline to file for the June 2018 election is Jan. 9 at  5 p.m. The field isn’t even set. But when it passes, we will be only one step into the equation. Whoever emerges as winner though this process will have to provide a steady hand, given the challenges The City faces, not to mention the disastrous policies of President Donald Trump that require so much energy and focus just to hold the line.

Whoever wins — whether backing moderate or progressive policies — I hope they carry on Mayor Lee’s legacy of caring about what’s best for The City, and just getting it done.

Ego checked, and no drama.

Maureen Erwin is a Bay Area political consultant. Most recently she led Sonoma County’s Measure M, which will create the largest GMO-free growing zone in the U.S.

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