As Ed Lee jumps in, mayor's race thrown a curveball

Even Ed Lee probably couldn’t tell you exactly when he decided he wanted to run for mayor, with all the months of chanting and back-patting and the regular city business at hand.

But my guess is that last week, as he stood next to President Barack Obama and Willie Mays inside the White House he thought: You know, I could get used to this.

And it appears he will, ending months of speculation about his previous public denials that he had no interest in being anything other than a caretaker. I can’t say it officially because the mayor is on vacation and his spokeswoman said that there is no announcement scheduled for this week “that I’m aware of.”

Which is to say — things can change.

Just ask 30-odd (and I mean that) candidates who never saw this Lee-superhero-rock star thing coming and took him at his solemn vow that he wouldn’t run for re-election, especially the three former supervisors and current mayoral hopefuls who helped put him in the job in the first place.

It turns out the same thing they all want is the one thing that Lee has, and power and popularity are twins no politician can resist.

So are we going to blame him for not keeping his word, or forgive him for changing his mind? In the end, it’s not going to matter. Lee, a career administrator, is responding to the siren call of politics. You think his opponents are going to level that charge against him?

No, instead they’ll be concentrating on the actions of Progress For All, the committee that has been pushing Lee to enter the race that is linked to Chinatown leader Rose Pak. Five of his opponents have already called for an investigation into alleged campaign finance violations, though Lee has said he has had no contact with the group.

Still, it’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for his competitors, some of whom have been running for more than a year. Everyone I have spoken to agrees that Lee is the odds-on favorite in the race, even over the more-established names like Dennis Herrera, Leland Yee, Michela Alioto-Pier, Bevan Dufty and David Chiu.

And no doubt Alioto-Pier, Dufty and Chiu would like a do-over because it was their votes that put Lee in Room 200 to begin with, under the belief that Lee would be leaving the rental unit after the November election.

But when you get to be leader of the free world, or at least the overseer of 49 square miles of it, and people tell you that they love you and that they need you and start making signs for you telling you to go, man, go, it’s hard to say no.

And Lee, in his Yoda-like way, spent months grappling with it. He is, after all, a man of his word. It’s just that the word is apparently now yes.

Under normal circumstances, I would urge the other carefully considered candidates, especially Herrera, Alioto-Pier, Dufty and Chiu to reconsider their campaigns and return the millions they’ve received of our hard-earned money through public campaign financing. But unfortunately, our ridiculous system in which politicians agree to take city money to advance their own careers doesn’t allow them to drop out unless they agree to pay back all the money they’ve received, and no self-serving candidate would ever consider doing that.

So then it’s a race for No. 2. Or No. 3. Or some mathematical formula that could only take place under our undemocratic system called instant-runoff voting, which seems to reward those who don’t receive the most first-place votes unless they reach 50 percent, an unlikely event given so many contenders.

And that’s a little ironic since although the other candidates are no doubt aghast now that Lee is almost certainly in the race, they’ll have to hope that he anoints them as political partners in his own coy, cautious, mustachioed kind of way.

Lee’s expected candidacy has thrown this race on its head, a place familiar to voters in San Francisco who have seen much election lunacy over the years.

We haven’t seen such a changeup since Tim Lincecum last took the mound. Game on.

Bay Area NewsLocalMichela Alioto-PierNews ColumnistsSan Francisco

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