Like his predecessor before him, Mayor Ed Lee is coasting to a second term victory.
So much so it may seem he spends more time at press events for his District 3 appointee Julie Christensen in a nail-biter contest against progressive challenger Aaron Peskin than stumping for himself. Ask his campaign, and they will say the mayor’s main focus is ensuring his $310 million affordable housing bond passes with two-thirds of the vote.
The only candidate “debate” the mayor engaged in on the so-called campaign trail was more of a staged question-and-answer that left most people underwhelmed. He generally came off scripted, similar to how he operates when he attends monthly question time sessions before the Board of Supervisors, and by some accounts seemed disinterested.
While income inequality has grown and rents and evictions have soared under his watch during the past five years — unrest over these issues have caused hundreds to storm City Hall for redress, such as calling for a Mission housing moratorium, which the mayor opposes — Lee still is popular by and large, even as he faces sharp criticism from his most outspoken critics that he is the mere puppet of tech investor Ron Conway and is failing long-time residents who are being driven out of San Francisco in droves.
Eric Jaye, who was Gavin Newsom’s political advisor when Newsom was mayor, said there are similarities to Newsom’s 2007 reelection bid when he was facing the likes of a nudist and a showman and no real contender.
“They didn’t step in because they didn’t think they could win,” Jaye said of possible qualified Lee challengers, such as State Sen. Mark Leno or former assemblymember Tom Ammiano. The mayor, Jaye said, has a “large growing active and loyal demographic base,” noting that the Asian American voters comprise up to 30 percent of the vote in a mayoral race.
As of Oct. 17, the mayor’s campaign has spent $1.4 million on the campaign for an election he is supposed to sail through to victory. A SurveyUSA poll commissioned for KPIX 5 showed in December 2014 that Lee’s job approval rating was 47 percent, down from 61 percent in December of 2011.
Jason McDaniel, assistant professor of Political Science the San Francisco State University, said the lack of competition impairs the democratic system.
“When any politician faces credible challengers, the system is better for it,” McDaniel said, adding that “the issues are real, they are not fake” and if San Francisco’s left-leaning faction, the progressives, “had a real candidate who could build on that, then maybe Mayor Ed Lee would be more vulnerable than he is now.”
Lee was appointed interim mayor in 2011 to fill out the term vacated by Newsom. At the time, Lee promised he would not run for a four-year term but instead serve as caretaker. But he decided to run in the end in a field of 16 candidates. He was the top choice of voters, picking up 30 percent of the first-place votes with the second highest finisher, Supervisor John Avalos, with 19 percent.
Jaye said that despite the sometimes heated opposition, the mayor remains popular because he has lived up to the promise of turning around the local economy following the Great Recession and that “after an era of flamboyant mayors” Lee has also lived up to his promise “to work slowly and steadily behind the scenes without great drama to address the prosaic issues of city government.”
If you ask his challengers — challengers the San Francisco Magazine likened earlier this month to a “a clown car of neophytes and eccentrics” — such as Amy Weiss, the voters are eager for change in leadership. Weiss blames the lack of traction of an alternative to Lee in part on the media, the San Francisco Examiner included, for not taking herself and the other candidates like writer “Broke-Ass” Stuart Schuffman, who is also a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, more seriously.
“In my experience, all the connections, except maybe one or two, have been, ‘I don’t support Ed Lee,’” Weiss said, during a recent San Francisco Examiner editorial board meeting, of her talks with voters on the campaign trail. The mayor himself declined to meet with the Examiner editorial board.
Other candidates include Francisco Herrera, a community organizer and musician, who has coordinated with Schuffman and Weiss on a ranked choice voting strategy; Reed Martin, a technology designer, and Kent Graham, a retired hospital administrator.
“We are in a state of emergency here,” Herrera said, referring to the displacement of longtime residents, such as the 8,000 Latinos who left the Mission since 2000. “We really need to reexamine how we’ve opened up The City to investors.”
Schuffman said he wanted to send the message, “This is our city. You can’t take it from us. We are going to fight back.” He said his humorous presentation shouldn’t lead people to think he’s not a serious candidate.
“I am lending my voice. It is not always serious. It’s often funny. But I feel like you get people to care by getting them to laugh,” Schuffman said. He has raised the most money of the Lee challengers with $29,740 in contributions as of Oct. 17.
Weiss, who founded the nonprofit Neighbors Developing Divisadero, which helped revitalize Harding Theater and create a large community garden, offers creative solutions to challenges facing The City. Among them, she said The City should create a registry of city workers whose rent exceeds more than 30 percent of their income, then allow new in-law units on condition those property owners rent to those on the registry at rents no more than a third of their income.
But Jaye said the call for the mayor to do more on housing issues won’t resonate with voters. “The criticism that the mayor isn’t doing enough to address the housing challenges I think are somewhat hollow if you turn on your TV or go to your mailbox and you see that the mayor has been putting his affordable housing bond front and center,” Jaye said.
While the mayor may not have a contest on his hands, there are three contests on the ballot that would have a direct impact on his next four years in office: Proposition I, the Mission moratorium; Proposition F, tougher restrictions on short-term rental platforms like Airbnb; and the District 3 supervisor race, according to McDaniel.
“If the progressives get [Prop.] I passed and [Prop.] F passed and Peskin wins, all right, they have a strong case to make that the mayor needs to work with them and change what he has been doing,” McDaniel said. “If that doesn’t happen, I think the mayor will have a sense of being vindicated in his style of governance and results-oriented approach he has taken.”