SF Mayoral Race Poised to Make History as Political Drama Unfolds

July 29, 2011

                                                    Image courtesy of San Francisco City Hall.

Update, 8/8/11: Since this article was published, Ed Lee has announced his candidacy for mayor.
Update, 8/12/11: San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi has also announced his candidacy.

Asian Americans have deep roots in San Francisco, and in recent decades those roots have only grown deeper. Since the '70s, Asian Americans have become the fastest growing racial group in the city. Today, they make up a third of the population. For decades they've held important posts and mobilized influential voting blocs. But no Asian American has ever won a mayoral election in San Francisco.

That could change on November 8.

Back in April we brought you the news that there are three Asian American candidates in the election who have a strong chance at winning, and as of this writing there is a possible fourth. Here they are:

David ChiuPhil TingLeland YeeEd Lee

From left: David Chiu, Phil Ting, Leland Yee, Ed Lee.

David Chiu, the young, whip-smart president of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors. In 2009, he became the first Chinese American to be elected as the Supervisor for District 3, which includes Chinatown, North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf. Soon after taking his post, he won the support of the Supervisors' progressive bloc to become the Board's President -- the city's second most powerful position. He was reelected to the position this January.

Phil Ting, the city's Assessor-Recorder, became the city's highest-ranking Chinese American official when he was first elected in 2005. Before entering politics, Ting spent much of his career defending tenants' rights. From 2003-2006 he served as the executive director of the Asian Law Caucus, a prominent civil rights and immigrants’ rights defense organization located in the heart of San Francisco's Chinatown. In 2010, he launched the website ResetSanFrancisco.com, which uses social networking to crowdsource solutions to municipal problems.

And then state Senator Leland Yee. A child psychologist by training, Yee began his career in politics back in the '80s, when he was elected to a position on San Francisco Unified School District's Board of Education. From there he went on to become President of the Board, a City Supervisor, and then state Assemblyman. In 2006, he was elected State Senator and has held that post ever since. Pundits currently project him as the man to beat.

Each of these candidates has a deep history of service to the city and each has launched a vigorous campaign. As for the fourth, a classic political drama has been unfolding in recent weeks. There have been promises made, hints at breaking them, and attacks prompted by speculation. And they all surround one man: Edwin M. Lee.

In January, former mayor Gavin Newsom passed the reins of his office to Lee, a longtime City Administrator. The Board of Supervisors appointed Lee to finish up the term Newsom resigned when he became Lieutenant Governor of California. Though he is, officially, the city's first Asian American mayor, he has fallen just shy of the distinction of being the city’s first elected Asian American mayor.

Interim or not, nearly all observers agree that he would easily walk away with the election if he were to throw his hat in the race. That's because, by all accounts, Lee has been doing an excellent job as mayor. He's been praised for his sensible management, practical mindset and ability to solve problems. Moreover, his unassuming manner has been a welcome contrast to Newsom's flashier style. One Lee supporter told the New York Times that what San Francisco needs now is a "Camry driver," not a "Testarossa.”

But here's the hitch: he doesn’t want to run.

At least he's said as much on numerous occasions. And, indeed, according to some of the players involved, the primary condition of his appointment was that he promised to be a “caretaker” mayor rather than a politician.

So it came as a surprise this past week when, for the first time, Lee declined to reiterate that he would not enter the race. Yee’s campaign responded swiftly to the ambiguity with a scathing attack ad featuring footage of Lee insisting that he won’t run. A “friendly reminder,” said Yee’s campaign manager Jim Stearns.

It seems, however, that many are willing to overlook such technicalities. A campaign to convince Lee to enter the race -- RunEdRun.org -- was launched in June. It's being spearheaded by a coalition of Chinatown powerbrokers, including Rose Pak, who, along with former mayor Willie Brown, was one of the driving forces behind Lee's appointment. Last week, Lee’s supporters were emboldened when US Senator Diane Feinstein publicly urged Lee to run for mayor. Newsom himself just wants Lee to make up his mind.

Either way, this will certainly be an exciting election season. Official unofficial candidates notwithstanding, over the next several weeks, Hyphen will bring you a series of profiles on Chiu, Ting and Yee -- and their visions for San Francisco.

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Links to each profile in the series will be added below as they are published. Please click on the candidates' names to read further.



Chris Fan

Co-Founder and Senior Editor

Chris Fan is a Hyphen co-founder and senior editor. His personal website is here. He's also an assistant professor at UC Irvine in the department of English; his faculty page is here.