Can Leno Defeat Lee?

by on October 30, 2014

Leno and Lee worked together to pass Ellis Act reform

The Chronicle’s Matier & Ross finally reported what political insiders have been discussing for weeks: State Senator Mark Leno is seriously considering challenging San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee in the November 2015 election. Their story cited April poll numbers that had Leno leading Lee 40%-36%, and the fact that “a half dozen” people out of a crowd of several hundred recently urged Leno to run.

Neither the poll nor six people urging Leno to run says anything about his plans. But the article echoes my October 23 analysis questioning the Mayor’s endorsement of David Chiu on the heels of the Airbnb vote.

As I stated then, the timing of the endorsement made the mayor’s backing look like payback for Chiu’s win for Airbnb. It also connected the mayor to the controversial $600,000 donated to Chiu by two Airbnb investors, an action many see as “pay to play” politics.

Missed Opportunity on Airbnb

On October 20, Senator and former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein authored, “Don’t Hand San Francisco Over to Airbnb.” She urged revising the Airbnb legislation. But Feinstein’s comments did not stop the Board from passing the measure on second reading.

On Sunday October 26, Lee ally Willie Brown telegraphed to the mayor that Feinstein was serious about getting involved in the Airbnb issue. Brown wrote in his Sunday Chronicle column:

Sen. Dianne Feinstein tells me that if Mayor Ed Lee signs the Board of Supervisors’ legislation legalizing Airbnb-style rentals, she’ll support an effort to overturn it at the ballot. It would be one heck of a fight for Lee to face when he’s up for re-election next year, but Feinstein is serious in her belief that the proliferation of short-term rentals in the city will destroy the neighborhoods.

When we talked the other day, she had pictures of some of the homes that are being rented out to tourists and the like. Homes with no pictures on the walls or any other evidence that anyone lives there. Her fear is that speculators are going to start buying houses throughout the city just to farm them out at daily rates that get around rent laws.

Feinstein’s comments gave Lee the perfect opportunity to revise the measure. He could still give the short-term rental industry a huge step forward while satisfying key critics.

But instead of seizing this opportunity, the Mayor signed the Airbnb legislation the next day.

Meanwhile, Mark Leno is watching all this. He recognizes that the Airbnb measure creates an opportunity to define the 2015 mayor’s race around short-term rentals. As he told Matier & Ross, “In one stroke, we have rezoned the whole city. “There is a compromise to be found, but this is not it — it’s too broad.”

A Mayoral Referendum on Airbnb?

Mayor Lee has an unprecedented record on job creation and reducing unemployment. He has passed an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, prioritized the revitalizing of public housing, and done more than any local mayor ever in California to reform the state Ellis Act. His overall record of accomplishment would seem to make any potential political challenge pure folly.

But here’s how politics actually works.

Next June, the media reports on a wild party on a once quiet street in the Outer Sunset. It turns out that the party occurred in a house rented year round to tourists. Neighbors have been complaining about late night taxicabs and drunken singing for months, and the party was the last straw. The media starts covering similar incidents around the city.

A Facebook page is soon created where people can post Airbnb horror stories. The feeling starts to grow that this Airbnb legislation has done exactly what Dianne Feinstein predicted, which is to “destroy” the quiet enjoyment of the city’s neighborhoods.

A ballot measure emerges to change the short-term rental law. It is backed by landlords, tenant groups, and prominent moderates like Feinstein. State Senator Mark Leno has entered the mayor’s race and strongly backs the initiative.

Suddenly, the November 2015 election is no longer about Mayor Lee achieving an economic miracle in Mid-Market. Or about his building more affordable housing, investing in neighborhoods, or ensuring cleaner sidewalks and streets.

No, the November 2015 election instead becomes about saving our neighborhoods from year-round tourist rentals. The accompanying ballot measure restricting the Airbnb law would come to define the differences between candidates.

Dianne Feinstein presided over the “Manhattanization” of San Francisco. When someone with her background expresses fear that the Airbnb legislation will “destroy” San Francisco and change the city’s character, politicians should listen.

Many San Franciscans are upset about skyrocketing housing prices. They see the city becoming a home for only the affluent and the subsidized poor. They recognize that no mayor can regulate housing sale prices, or control rents on vacant apartments.

But some will look at the Airbnb legislation and ask why the mayor backed legislation that even Dianne Feinstein believes will raise housing costs while reducing supply.

Mayor Lee has enormous positives that the last two incumbent San Francisco mayors who were defeated lacked. Unlike Agnos, he has not sought to get key political opponents indicted, only to motivate them to work round the clock for his defeat (ace political consultant Jack Davis actually slept in his office during Frank Jordan’s 1991 campaign). Lee has a booming economy, is personally likeable, and has maintained his strong Asian-American support.

I don’t know about that poll cited by Matier & Ross, but all the polls I know about have Lee’s approval at over 60%.

Challenging Lee will be a steep uphill climb even for Mark Leno. But the Airbnb/Feinstein controversy has created an opening for a candidate to redefine the race.

By publicly floating a potential candidacy, Leno will soon learn whether the financial and political support is there.


Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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