In San Francisco, finishing third means you can win

The San Francisco mayor race is looking a lot like Bay to Breakers — plenty of entrants, many characters and a few professional runners.

Yet given that the winner will be decided by the chaotic and confusing system called ranked-choice voting for the first time, the theme of the campaign is becoming clearer.

Hello, whiskey — it is us, San Francisco’s unsteady voters.

With the field beginning to take shape, people are starting to focus on the fact that a second- or third-place finisher in the race could ultimately be the next mayor of San Francisco, a scenario so ludicrous it has some groups in town eyeing a ballot measure to undo ranked-choice voting to stop the madness.

Unfortunately, that measure would not be ready until voters go to the polls to elect the next mayor, so it will be too late to block another possible fluke in the ongoing election experiment that saw Jean Quan recently elevated as Oakland’s mayor.

It is too early to see how that deal is going to work out, but the early indications are not swell. And it does not bode well for San Francisco that all the political consultants in town — already raking in big bucks — admit they have no clue how the race is going to play out this year.

I do not know about you, but I do not like to have the terms “clueless” and “election” linked in the same sentence, let alone for who might be running San Francisco for the next four years. But it is before us.

“We have no idea, and any person who says they do is crazy,” said consultant David Latterman, who has yet to sign up with any mayoral campaign. “It’s unprecedented at this level because no one has experienced it yet. With the [ranked-choice voting] configuration, it could just come down to dumb luck.”

Now that termed-out Supervisor (“any office sounds good’’) Michela Alioto-Pier has joined City Attorney Dennis Herrera, former board colleague Bevan Dufty, state Sen. Leland Yee, Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting and venture capitalist Joanna Rees in the race, we know only a few certain things.

The next mayor of San Francisco could likely win with only about 20 percent of the vote, which is, shall we say, slightly less than the 70 percent Gavin Newsom garnered when he won re-election.

The new election system, which can reject its top contender after the first round, could ultimately pick the winner on a statistical oddity.

And, eyeing that vote split among the candidates, it is almost certain others will jump in, because roulette wheels are designed to entice more gambling.

Most people are betting Supervisor David Chiu will enter the race soon, hot after his sleek handling of the political play that saw the surprise elevation of Ed Lee as interim mayor and Chiu’s ability to keep his seat as board president.

Most people believe Chiu would immediately be a top-tier candidate with the major fundraisers Herrera and Yee so far, but that is not taking in one other element that has yet to gather mainstream momentum.

That would be the growing chorus of people who are quietly encouraging Lee to forego the “interim’’ tag and continue on as the next elected mayor of San Francisco.

In the past week, I have heard from a number of political insiders and business types who believe the steady, stately Lee would be the best choice to continue to lead the city — and that was before the ongoing deal to keep microblogging giant Twitter from leaving San Francisco and instead installing the company as the centerpiece of mid-Market Street’s future rejuvenation.

This week, Lee told me he is flattered by the support, but he remains committed to his “one-year, non­political” approach to tackling The City’s budget deficit, reforming the pension system and otherwise doing what only a person with a limited term could do.

“This city deserves to elect its mayor,” he told me. But he did not say no.

Things change. There was a time when we had an election system in which people understood that a third-place finisher could not win. And pollsters, before ranked-choice voting, could fairly accurately measure the mood of the electorate.

That is now quaintly referred to as the good old days.

Bay Area NewsDennis HerreraLocalNews ColumnistsSan Francisco

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