This may be the strangest San Francisco Mayors’ race in memory. San Francisco voters are chiefly concerned about jobs and the state of the local economy, but most of the candidates and the media are not emphasizing these issues. Instead, contenders Dennis Herrera and Leland Yee appear to have concluded that they must undermine Ed Lee’s integrity, judgment and values to gain ground. Meanwhile, some San Francisco Chronicle reporters seem to be operating under a mandate that every campaign story involve Lee’s ties to Willie Brown and Rose Pak. This leaves Lee free to focus on job creation, and he spends much of his day announcing companies coming to Mid-Market, business expansions, and programs that put people to work. It is understandable why the interim Mayor would prioritize the issues voters care most about, but what’s odd is why his leading opponents are not doing the same.

Every prior San Francisco Mayor’s race in recent history offered voters a dominant and widely understood contrast. In 1975 (George Moscone vs. John Barbagelata) it was the new, emerging San Francisco demographic against the old. In 1987 (Art Agnos vs. Jack Molinari), it was neighborhoods against downtown. In 1991 (Agnos vs. Frank Jordan), voters chose between a social worker’s and police chief’s approach to neighborhood quality of life. In 1995 (Willie Brown vs. Jordan), it was the traditional Democratic coalition seeking to regain power against a moderate Westside outsider. And in 2003, it was the new politics of Green Party icon Matt Gonzalez against a Democratic Party machine refashioned for the 21st Century.

What is the 2011 race about? Not which candidate can best address the economic growth and employment challenges facing San Francisco. Nor has it been about defeating the entrenched Democratic Machine; after all, the Machine (embodied in the San Francisco Democratic Party) endorsed John Avalos, who is the candidate best positioned to run against the Brown and Newsom Administrations controlling the Mayor’s office for the past sixteen years.

It appears from news stories and press releases that most candidates want this election to be a plebiscite on the judgment, values, and integrity of Ed Lee. And that helps explain why Lee is so far ahead in polls, because that’s not what voters are concerned about.

Jobs and Economic Growth

When we look at the leading mayoral candidates on the crucial issues of jobs and economic growth, all are struggling to catch up to Ed Lee. As interim mayor, Lee has the obvious advantage of being able to take credit for all the new business openings and hiring increases occurring on his watch.

But Lee has also shown the ability to make business happen. For example, on September 6 the Mayor’s office announced that dinnerware and tile maker Heath Ceramics has signed a long-term lease at Florida Street and 18th streets and will open a 4,000 square foot retail space and 16,000 square foot manufacturing and warehouse space in early 2012. The new facility will house 34 employees in its first year.

I contacted Heath Ceramics to inquire if the Mayor's Office played a role in their plans. Robin Petravic and Catherine Bailey of Heath Ceramics responded: "We've been working on the idea of this expansion project with SFMade since January. SFMade's assistance and the Mayor's support in recent months both helped confirm our decision and moved the project forward." SFMade is a nonprofit group strongly backed by the mayor that works to develop local manufacturing.

As voters see business openings and/or expansions in San Francisco at a time when the state and national economy are stagnant, many will credit Ed Lee.

Lee’s press releases and daily schedule are far more likely to prioritize business attraction, jobs development and economic growth than the other candidates. Whether it be courting high-tech or being crowned “Mr. Mid-Market,” Lee has built an impression among voters that keeping the city’s economy growing is his top priority.

The other leading candidates have trouble competing with Lee on the jobs issue. John Avalos can tout his sponsorship of the city’s local hire law, but he was among only three supervisors to oppose the Mid-Market/Tenderloin tax exemption and his alcohol fee legislation in 2010 angered small business (it was vetoed by Mayor Newsom). Avalos’ agenda resonates stronger during an overheated economy, but it is harder to rail against the pro-growth policies of the Brown-Newsom years when voters want the city’s economy to expand.

Dennis Herrera has a problem pushing himself as the candidate of jobs and economic growth, because his tenure as City Attorney did not give him much opportunity to demonstrate success in these areas. Similarly, Leland Yee was unable to create a reputation as a jobs creator while serving as State Senator during an era of state budget cuts.

Bevan Dufty talks a lot about economic issues, which could explain his surprisingly high poll numbers. David Chiu is the only leading candidate with a pro-economic development track record equal to Lee’s, but it appears that voters see no reason to replace the interim Mayor with the Board President (Chiu’s poll numbers have been as low as 2%).

Media Prefers Smears to Issues

While the economic issues that concern voters are largely ignored, the media does not miss a chance to impugn the integrity of high-quality people allegedly connected to Willie Brown or Rose Pak. On August 25, the San Francisco Examiner targeted Randy Riddle, a former deputy city attorney who is among the City’s leading election law experts. Noting Riddle’s hiring as Mayor Lee’s campaign legal counsel, the paper described it as “yet another link between Lee and Chinatown power broker Rose Pak.”

This “link” involves Riddle representing Pak’s Chinese Chamber of Commerce in a single case back in 2006. Currently teaching Election Law at the University of San Francisco Law School, Riddle served as Chief of the Government Litigation Team at the City Attorney’s office and was formerly Chief Counsel to the California Secretary of State. Riddle told the Examiner he had not even spoken to Pak for two months, yet her photo accompanied the article on his hiring.

And here’s the September 6 Chronicle “City Insider,” describing Ed Lee backers with alleged Willie Brown connections: “Frank Chiu, former head of Department of Building Inspection who resigned under pressure after overseeing the department during FBI investigations, critical reports by the city controller and a civil grand jury, and a probe by former Mayor Gavin Newsom's administration of alleged favoritism in the awarding of building permits.”

None of the above paragraph is true. Chiu became head of DBI when Frank Jordan was mayor, and he did not resign under pressure. The FBI investigation found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by DBI employees despite a multi-year investigation. The only such wrongdoing uncovered concerned Gus Fallay, employed at DBI when arrested but working at the Planning Department when he committed his alleged crimes. And after the Chronicle wrote multiple front-page stories convicting Fallay in print, a San Francisco jury acquitted him of all charges.

The city controller and grand jury reports were discredited as politically motivated, and despite massive efforts neither the Chronicle nor the Newsom Administration ever uncovered illegal “favoritism” in the awarding of building permits (as became clear when a Supervisors hearing was held and no member of the public could point to a single example of favoritism).

Frank Chiu did an outstanding job at DBI, and since his entirely voluntary departure there have been four replacements in eight years. Willie Brown never had anything to do with Chiu’s position, and it is shameful that this fine public servant would be falsely attacked simply for attending a rally for Ed Lee.