Two developments helped Mayor Ed Lee’s campaign last week, and both were outside his control. First, the well-publicized heckling of Lee at last Tuesday’s Castro Theater debate left his opponents' supporters looking petty. Second, Jeff Adachi’s entry into the race turns the dueling pension reform measures on the November ballot into a central mayoral campaign issue. This makes it harder for all but Adachi and Tony Hall to distinguish themselves from Lee (as the others back Lee’s pension measure), and highlights Lee’s skill in reaching consensus among the diverse pension reform interests. Putting pension reform center stage in the mayor's race also more closely aligns opponents of Adachi’s measure to the Mayor who got their alternative done. And when candidates talk about Lee’s broken pledge, it will now be joined by Adachi’s insistence that his pension efforts were unconnected with a mayoral run, reducing the potency of the issue.

It is hard to understand why rival campaigns would think it a good idea to heckle Ed Lee at his first candidate’s debate last week, unless they felt that the normally unflappable Lee would get so rattled as to make a major error. But if Lee has ever lost his cool in over two decades in public life it has not been reported, and last week was no exception.

The heckling, rather than anything to do with issues or the city’s future, became the story of the first debate. And that’s great for Ed Lee, who is running as the guy who singlemindedly focuses on getting things done and does not get distracted from this goal.

The heckling also blurred very real differences among the candidates, obscuring their own substantive records.

Lee’s rivals must have agreed with my assessment, as there was no heckling at the second debate last Thursday night. But while the English-language media focused on David Chiu’s description of Lee running as feeling “a little like meeting an ex-girlfriend after a break up,” the Chinese-language World Journal noted the question on the candidates’ positions on banning shark fin soup.

According to reporter Portia Lee in the August 12 World Journal (and there is not an English-language version to link to), all eight candidates – including Leland Yee, whose opposition to the ban on ethnic grounds made headlines, raised their prepared answering card to “Yes” (Mayor Lee had not arrived when the question was asked). Yee then flipped his position by showing the card to “No” and then flipped the card back to “Yes” and “No,” as the audience burst into laughs. Some interpreted that as Yee being playfully self-deprecating about having been on both sides of the issue.

Adachi’s Impact

In announcing his candidacy, Adachi made it clear he wanted to make pension reform the central issue in the race. He declared, “It wasn't until I really listened to what the candidates were saying in the last few debates about pension reform that I became convinced that either the candidates don't get it or they don't want to get it, and I want to make sure that there's a voice in there that's talking about the fiscal realities of this city.”

When moderator Melissa Griffin asked for a show of hands at last Thursday’s debate regarding the Lee pension measure, all the candidates raised hands in support (leading Griffin to quip that if Tony Hall were there, he’d be the exception). Adachi’s presence in the remaining debates, and the message of his future campaign literature, inextricably links the pension ballot measures to the mayor’s race.

This could not be worse news for the other candidates.

For example, Dennis Herrera has attacked Lee for “not being his own man,” and has questioned Lee’s performance as head of the Department of Public Works. These are the areas where Herrera’s forces see Lee as vulnerable.

But Herrera gains nothing from talking about pension reform because his position is the same as Lee’s. And unike the Mayor, he cannot take credit for putting together the rival ballot measure to Adachi’s.

Lee is happy to have the campaign be about pension reform, because it reminds voters that he is the candidate who successfully united business, labor and the Board of Supervisors around a pension reform proposal. And the more Adachi attacks the Lee pension reform measure, the more labor and other key allies of the initiative become vested in establishing that Lee took the right approach (and Sean Elsbernd will not remain silent while Adachi bashes the consensus pension reform measure on the Westside).

John Avalos and David Chiu can also claim some “ownership” of the pension reform agreement – but Herrera, Leland Yee, Bevan Dufty, and Michela Alioto-Pier cannot. And as I have repeatedly noted, the differences on issues are not as obvious as in past mayoral elections (with only Avalos clearly to the left), so that the media and debate questioners are more likely to focus on the pension issue which gives Adachi a chance to argue with his rivals.

Another Broken Pledge

Lee’s greatest vulnerability is voter resentment over his broken pledge not to run. This hasn’t prevented Lee from taking a huge lead in polls, and now Adachi can be the one explaining why he ran after insisting that his pension reform quest had nothing to do with him running for mayor.

My first reaction upon hearing that Adachi had picked up filing papers was to think, “Nathan Ballard (manager of the campaign against Adachi’s measure) must be licking his chops.” And within minutes Ballard was already quoted: “All along I've been saying that his interest in pension reform is nothing but a Trojan horse for his desire to run for the top job. He has succeeded in gaining notoriety for his pension reform efforts, and he is hoping to parlay that into a ticket to Room 200.”

Those who thought Ed Lee’s broken pledge would remain a major issue through Election Day did not consider that there would be forces making this case just as forcefully against another candidate. And considering some media have unfairly thrown Bevan Dufty’s broken pledge not to accept large donations into the mix, Adachi’s candidacy just contributes to the view that all politicians change their minds and that this is not what the mayor’s race is about.

Finally, Adachi’s entry crowds the field even further, which makes it harder for the stronger candidates to get enough space in debates to put Lee on the defensive. And considering the strained relationship between Adachi and Herrera, any sparks that do fly are likely not to involve Lee.