The stories behind why Leno won’t run for mayor vs. Lee

Mark Leno is out of the mayor's race, at least for now. And with him goes one of the last contenders who could possibly give Mayor Ed Lee a significant challenge in the 2015 election.

Rumors are swirling: Soon to be termed-out Assemblyman Tom Ammiano is mulling over his own mayoral run. Before he does, he'll have to mull a year-long bloodbath against Lee and his monied backers.

The machine that Lee engineered is well-oiled, and ready to crunch any competitors.

Ammiano will have to soulsearch, as state Sen. Leno did. News reports say Leno's decision not to run may have rested on the political whims of monied San Francisco lobbyists, as well as tech titans with cash to burn.

“Here's the thing, Leno was never interested in running for mayor,” former Mayor Art Agnos said. “His goal has always been Congress. Over the past few months, more people have been urging him to run. As he took a look at it, I think the challenge of running against Ed Lee as an incumbent was an uphill one.”

Leno did not return calls for comment. Ammiano declined to comment.

Agnos undersells the challenge. A 2015 mayoral run for any candidate would be more than an uphill battle: It'd be an uphill battle as well-funded armies fire from all sides with nearly unlimited ammo.

One nail in the coffin for Leno's run, reportedly, was the hesitancy of his longtime campaign managers John Whitehurst and Mark Mosher to cross Lee in a high-stakes race.

In San Francisco politics, the pair swing heavy hammers.

They managed campaigns for Leno, state Sen. Don Perata, and Assemblywoman Noreen Evans. They help Democrats get elected, but they have a side business as well. The pair are partners in lobbying firm Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst, Lauter & Partners, a kingmaker of a different sort.

BMWL runs campaigns for ballot propositions statewide and local races. The successful No on E campaign that toppled The City's sugary-beverage tax in November was run by BMWL, and it ran a similar campaign in Richmond. More than $9 million were spent against the tax in San Francisco alone.

The lobbyists often build up goodwill by running halo campaigns, such as those for schools. Then, when candidates they support need a win, elected officials confided, they call in their favors.

None of this is of course new. What is noteworthy is the level of power BMWL is exerting now, and how this is now aiding Lee in his mayoral run.

“Follow the money,” Agnos said. “You see what BMWL makes in this city as lobbyists, you see why they don't want to take on an incumbent mayor.”

Big bucks aside, after running City Attorney Dennis Herrera's campaign against Lee in the last mayoral race, BMWL has double the reason not to cross him this round, sources say.

Without Whitehurst and Mosher's support, Leno not trotting merrily to the campaign trail is not surprising. But the last nail in the coffin may have been The City's newest political players: The tech industry.

“A prospective candidate has to be pretty brave to go up against them,” Agnos said.

Tech angel investor Ron Conway and LinkedIn founder Reed Hoffman dumped more than $750,000 against Assembly candidate David Campos in the November election. The shower of mailers linking Campos with domestic violence were courtesy of the pair, who spent over $1.2 million in local and statewide races, according to campaign filings.

Conway spent that money backing Lee's favored propositions, including Proposition A to fund Muni. And the cash to topple Campos was funneled through an independent expenditure committee, allowing the tech titans to circumvent the usual $500 contributor limits to candidates.

“We've seen now the introduction of national independent expenditures with the Koch brothers and Citizens United,” Agnos said. “Now we're seeing that full scale in San Francisco, changing the balance of power to those who have money.”

But, he cautions, progressive wins with the 8 Washington St. development, and others, signal people power may still rest with everyday San Franciscans. For now, with Leno out, and no contenders stepping up to the plate to challenge Lee, that power may not hold sway.

“Those billionaires who dominate Lee's administrative policy will have carte blanche,” Agnos said, “for another four years.”

On Guard covers issues concerning San Francisco's political left. It prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at

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