Ed Lee all but declared victory after early counting in the mayoral race Tuesday night, when he was enjoying a comfortable lead over his closest contender, Supervisor John Avalos.
Under The City’s ranked-choice voting system, the Elections Department will continue to count second- and third-place votes through the week. The first candidate to achieve a majority through his or her first-place votes — and subsequently the second- and third-place votes on ballots cast for losing candidates — will be named the official winner.
Although Department of Elections Director John Arntz could not pin an exact figure, past trends suggest there are still thousands of absentee and provisional ballots left to count. Still, local political observers said Lee will likely prevail.
It would be “pretty hard to imagine” any candidate overcoming Ed Lee’s lead after early vote counting in the mayoral race Tuesday night, according to Steven Hill, the political analyst who engineered San Francisco’s ranked-choice voting system.
“It's reflecting what we've seen in the polls for quite some time, Ed Lee with a sizable lead,” Hill said.
The statement was echoed by other political consultants.
“You never say never,” said local political consultant David Latterman. “But it’s very, very improbable” any candidate will beat Lee.
Latterman added that recent polls show Lee performing better than Avalos when ranked-choice counting begins. But Avalos was not ready to throw in the towel yet, according to his campaign.
“We’re not going to stop hoping until all the votes are counted,” said Erica Fox, campaign manager for Avalos.
Lee acknowledged that counting remains, but spoke confidently to a throng of supporters at a South of Market restaurant Tuesday night as results were first announced.
“(Voters) want the city to continue the way we’ve been running it,” Lee said. “I think San Francisco wants us to do four more years.”
In the first-ever mayoral race where ranked-choice voting was a factor, the early field of candidates spent the bulk of debates complimenting and agreeing with each other, leaving voters with little to distinguish them from each other. The dynamic shifted dramatically after Lee’s late entry into the race, which happened in August despite his original promise not to run when he was appointed in January.
Lee — a longtime city administrator who led five departments but never tried his hand at elected office — appeared reluctant to make The City’s top office a permanent gig when he was appointed to serve out the final year of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s term. But as the interim mayor’s nonconfrontational style bolstered his popularity in City Hall, he began to like the job.
When Lee entered the crowded field, he became the instant front-runner — and an instant lightning rod for attacks. Criticism ranged from accusations that the lifelong Democrat actually serves Republican interests, to insistence that the career bureaucrat would be nothing more than a shill for powerful City Hall insiders. Lee also was dogged by accusations of voter manipulation by an independent expenditure committee that supported the mayor and other backers laundering campaign donations, which prompted a District Attorney’s Office investigation.
This year was the first mayoral race in which public financing played a role. Nine candidates qualified to receive financial support from taxpayers to help pay their campaign bills. The City doled out a total of about $4.6 million to qualified candidates.
Now that the campaign season is over, Lee could be facing even bigger challenges than his first foray into politics.
The City is facing annual deficits in the hundreds of millions over the next five years, prompting officials to push legislation such as the $248 million streets bond just to do routine road maintenance.
Saddled with ballooning pension costs, San Francisco’s budget future also has issues, such as an underperforming transit system wrought with expensive problems and massive contracts with social service nonprofits fighting over dwindling city resources.