Occupy Oakland drama takes spotlight off grateful Ed Lee

He’s got a major occupation in one of San Francisco’s prime-time parks, he’s getting hammered in attack ads by his rivals, and some of his campaign workers are dredging up daily headlines for their high jinks.

So why is San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee smiling these days? For the simple reason that he’s not running Oakland.

Luck plays a part in any campaign or political career, and as it turns out, Lee is benefiting from the decision of his Oakland counterpart, Jean Quan, to give the green light to police last week to clear out its Occupy camp, resulting in a violent clash that left one Iraq war veteran with a fractured skull.

Lee and the San Francisco Police Department were ready to move in to push out The City’s version of Occupy, but judiciously decided to back off after the Oakland mishap made national headlines.

So the mayor has not only “softened” his stance on Occupy San Francisco’s encampment, as The San Francisco Examiner reported, he’s all but reversed it. And as Oakland protesters marched through the East Bay city Wednesday, Lee was looking forward to the final days of a forgettable mayoral campaign.

Lee can now count himself among the 99 percent of the other U.S. mayors who are cautiously monitoring the Occupy camps while trying to negotiate concerns over health and safety issues that accompany such gatherings.

With the election Tuesday, San Francisco voters will decide who they want to manage The City while it deals with a national movement over Wall Street greed at the same time it is struggling to find jobs for all those people currently out of work.

I interviewed Lee at his campaign headquarters in the Warfield Building at Sixth and Market streets, a place he picked as much for its symbolism as its central location. Lee has built the core of his campaign message on job creation, and the mid-Market transformation that involves the moves of tech firms such as Zendesk and Twitter there are key to The City’s lagging economy.

“Anything that will get more people down here will help The City,” Lee said. “I’m so intent on making that happen that I almost don’t want to move out of here.”

Lee told me that while the protesters at Justin Herman Plaza have tried to portray him as among the “1 percent,” he’s spending more time with investors trying to get tenants to occupy the vacant buildings on Market. Still, if the protesters keep to their vow to stay in the camp indefinitely, the mayor said he will respond in kind with help from public safety officials, clergy and labor leaders who are now financially supporting “the cause,” as it’s come to be vaguely known.

Taking a cue from Quan — which is to say, watching her bungling and keeping a safe distance — Lee has decided to be Zen-like with the protest movement and wait it out. It’s the smart-money move for someone who has spent a lifetime in government, but never got deeply mired in politics.

And as the former Department of Public Works director, he also knows that only one thing can really clear city streets — and that’s the weather.

“I’m patient, and I don’t want to have a confrontation,” he said. “If we do a police action now, they’ll just come back. There’s lots of balancing that has to happen. We will be having inclement weather and we need to talk about other sites for them if necessary. But the discussions are just beginning about the long term, and one thing I know is that they don’t really like any ideas coming from the government.”

Lee is fortunate in that the Occupy movement has overtaken the news in the last days of a mayoral campaign in which many of the other candidates have focused nearly all of their attention on the mayor because he’s far ahead in the polls. The negative attacks don’t appear to be changing the dynamics of the race, but they definitely reek of desperation.

And they also serve as a message of caution to any city that is involved in the election experiment known as ranked choice voting, a sort of roll-the-dice way of electing its top leaders.

You know, just like Oakland.

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