When Ed Lee became mayor last January, nearly everyone predicted a city fiscal Armageddon as the July 1 budget deadline approached. It was said that San Francisco had already made the easy budget cuts, and that vital city and nonprofit services were now on the chopping block. But San Francisco passed a budget last week that avoided these draconian cuts, as well as the mutual recriminations and public feuding that typified recent budget fights. The budget is another example of Ed Lee’s ability to use cooperation and conciliation rather than public confrontation to get the city’s business done. Lee used a similar approach to win broad agreement on the highly contentious issue of pension reform, in choosing a new police chief, and for other issues in which a heavier hand would have brought division rather than results. Lee may not want to run for mayor, but his performance is undermining his case for not giving voters the option of electing him.

In an article I wrote on February 14 about the new spirit of cooperation that Ed Lee and newly elected supervisors had brought to City Hall, I disagreed with those who “believe that the new spirit at City Hall is a false spring, and that battles over the budget will return bickering and petulance.“ I concluded that “avoiding bitterness and anger during this worst of all budget years will not be easy, and will be the steepest test of Lee’s vaunted skill at collaboration.”

Lee passed this test with flying colors.

If San Francisco has experienced a less confrontational and more conciliatory budget process in the past three decades, I do not recall it. Even when the city ran surpluses there were public battles over distribution, and this was a year that started with deficit projections of as high as $500 million.

The Board of Supervisors, Controller’s Office, public employee unions and community groups all deserve credit for the positive budget process. But Mayor Ed Lee was the only new component in this mix, and his non-confrontational, win-win style set the tone.

Lee’s Increased Visibility

As the “Run Ed Run” campaign grows around him – with longtime Chinatown and nonprofit housing leader Gordon Chin, and progressive Planning Commissioner Christina Olague among its leadership – Mayor Lee is out and about meeting with constituents.

On June 23, the statewide tenant advocacy group Tenants Together held its first fundraising event at the Women’s Building in the Mission. Attendees included representatives of most of the city’s housing counseling, legal services, and tenant advocacy groups, as well as tenant activists from across the state, including those living at San Francisco’s Parkmerced.

John Avalos, who voted against the Parkmerced project and has consistently backed tenants, was the only declared mayoral candidate to attend the event. David Chiu, publicly criticized by Tenants Together leader Dean Preston for his decisive Parkmerced pro-development vote, was not present. Nor was Leland Yee, Dennis Herrera, Bevan Dufty, Phil Ting, or the other announced candidates.

Mayor Lee signed the Parkmerced legislation, and it would have been understandable if he chose not to attend a function where he would likely be confronted by activists and Parkmerced tenants upset over the project.

But Lee showed up. And he stayed at the Tenants Together function for nearly an hour, talking to people and enjoying a beer.

One Parkmerced tenant leader spoke at length with Lee about the project, and their conversation was respectful. This leader, like many other tenant activists, felt that Lee inherited the Mayor’s Office pro-Parkmerced development position when he took office, and that the project’s entire conception and process would have been different if Lee had started with a clean slate.

Lee sent a message by going out of his way to create and maintain relationships with those on the other side of the issue. And Lee’s conduct was even more striking when you consider that no Supervisor other than Avalos attended this major tenant event – which also honored longtime renter hero Assemblymember Tom Ammiano.

Mayor’s Race Remains Unexciting

The only excitement in the mayor’s race, and the source of most media coverage, concerns Lee’s plans. Lee’s decision has also become the most talked about issue in a race where voter interest remains low.

If a current candidate had broken from the pack and already built a massive grassroots and financial base, the Run Ed Run effort would not have gotten off the ground. As strong as the field appears to political insiders, it is not galvanizing San Franciscans the way of Newsom and Gonzalez in 2003, Ammiano in 1999, Brown and Achtenberg in 1995, or Agnos in 1987.

Lee’s running would change this. It would inject excitement into all of the leading campaigns. It would also bring the type of mayoral election in non-incumbent years that San Francisco is accustomed to, one that gets thousands into the streets seeking votes and offers the widest possible choices for voters.

Lee has until August to decide, which gives his supporters another month to galvanize support while leaving the other campaigns trying to attract many donors and supporters unwilling to commit until Lee’s decision.