I didn’t think a more flamboyant parade of local politico-egos was possible than the one that ensued after Gavin Newsom cut short his term as mayor in order to save California’s economy as the state’s Lieutenant Governor.

Mayor Ed Lee

Newsom’s abdication joined the city’s political establishment in a battle royale to elevate the most-perfect political non-entity to the Big Chair. Someone with the requisite competence to act as caretaker-in-chief but without the accompanying ego to overstay his welcome once the real pros got their campaigns cracking.

I know! someone said. City Administrator Ed Lee!


The various outcries heard during that messy succession process may actually sound like sweet nothings compared to the collective accusation of betrayal from the 30+ total and nine or so serious candidates should Ed Lee, the once politically ambitionless technocrat installed by a Board of Supervisors seating no less than three current mayoral contenders, throw his hat into the ring. And that eventuality has seemed incrementally more likely over the past couple of days, as Lee picks up support from the likes of folks like C. W. Nevius and Dianne Feinstein.

The potential and/or imminent Lee candidacy raises many questions. Would it thin the field of would-be mayors? How would his previous unequivocal assurance of a non-candidacy be treated by the public, not to mention the other competitors? With four Chinese-American candidates running, how would the Chinese vote shake out? Who’s funding and working for the Run, Ed, Run campaign? Who’s behind that “Don’t Run Ed” Facebook ad?

The one question that doesn’t need to be answered: Are the gloves off yet among the other candidates? To cite the climactic phrase of the internecine battle from which Mayor Ed Lee was born, it’s on like Donkey Kong.

Here’s Ed Lee at the Commonwealth Club on May 3, answering the question: “What if some of your powerful friends came to you and said, ‘we don’t like who’s leading the polls right now, they’re going to be terrible for the city. We’d like you to run.’ Would you consider it then?”

“You know they’ve already done that,” Lee said. “And as powerful as they are, I’ve been very polite in telling them that I actually think it’s kind of neat to have a mayor go back to helping the city, maybe in a unique way. If I have a time period now where I can change some things so that there’s a more unified thought process in the city, that perhaps the standards of actions and dialogue are more open, and that we help change the economic business climate in the city so that we can support the kinds of things I talked about… then I can help carry those out. I don’t think you have to be mayor to do it.” (Hat tip Chronicle Politics Blog.)

I talked today about a potential Lee candidacy to Corey Cook, Associate Professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and director of the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Politics and the Common Good.

A Lee candidacy would “entirely reshape the whole calculus of the election,” Cook said. “Currently what you’ve got is an open-seat election, where you’ve got some 30 candidates and nine serious ones in the race. With ranked-choice voting and public financing, it’s essentially as wide open as a race could be.

“I think If Ed Lee gets in the race it suddenly becomes a fairly standard re-election race under ranked-choice voting. No candidate has ever lost a ranked-choice election in San Francisco as a re-election. It changes the race from a sort of prospective ‘what can these various challengers do in the future’ to a retrospective vote, a referendum in large part on Ed Lee.”

Does he become the automatic favorite?

“Yes, certainly,” Cook said. “Now the question is how long that lasts and his explanation to voters as to why he didn’t get in the race initially or why he’s broken his promise to the Board of Supervisors. He’s got to have a pretty sound explanation for him to be the front-runner.

“But if he’s able to do that, then the…field will narrow pretty dramatically, and you’ll be looking at him running against one or two for re-election. It just sucks the air out of the room for a lot of the potential candidates.”

Cook thinks one problem Lee would have to overcome is that “what people like about him is that he’s seen as the anti- traditional politician… He’s come at this from a very different perspective, a long career in public service where he’s been a very effective manager, and his approach to the job has been largely an apolitical one. And as such, we’ve had essentially the era of good feelings in San Francisco, where the board and the mayor have gotten along well in part because this guy is not running for re-election.

“Part of what made the budget pass unanimously and the pension plan pass unanimously is the perception that this is someone who has nothing to gain politically from any of these negotations. So the challenge for him (is that) the last couple of weeks he’s changed his tone about running. He sounds more and more like your typical politician. That’s not what people like about Ed lee. He’s got to explain to voters why he wasn’t in the race to begin with, why he changed his mind, and how he’s going to deal with a Board of Supervisors that may not trust him now.”

Lee has until Aug 12 to file for a run.

Listen to Corey Cook’s analysis below:

Analysis of the effect of an Ed Lee candidacy on SF mayoral race

Will Lee or Won’t Lee? SF Mayoral Race Gets Real Interesting; Political Analysis by Corey Cook 29 July,2011Jon Brooks

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor