The least stirring San Francisco Mayor’s race without an elected incumbent finally ends a week from today, not a moment too soon. When local activists are more excited about Occupy Oakland than they are about an imminent mayoral election, its clear that 2011 has not come close to matching the nonstop citywide excitement of the 1975, 1987, 1991, 1995 or 2003 campaigns. Yet there is much to learn from this mayor’s race, which for the first time saw ranked-choice voting, public financing, multiple viable Asian-American candidates and a field that included four citywide office holders (Jeff Adachi, Dennis Herrera, Ed Lee and Phil Ting). Here are three key lessons with a week to go in the race.
(1) Media Ignorance About Asian-Americans
Chinese-Americans have lived and worked in San Francisco for over a century, and Asian-Americans now comprise nearly 33% of residents. Yet the San Francisco English-language media has displayed remarkable ignorance of Asian Americans during this mayor’s race.
In the world of the San Francisco Chronicle
and Bay Citizen
, Chinatown is a sinister place where “power-brokers” make “backroom deals” and operate with an iron hand. It is a neighborhood where seniors are threatened with the loss of benefits by politically powerful nonprofits, whose actual function in Chinatown is not revealed.
Early in the campaign, much was made of a letter written by Ed Lee’s adult daughter where she described Rose Pak as “Aunt Rosie.” The media used this to “prove” Lee’s family-like relationship with Pak, ignoring the fact that Asian-Americans use the term “uncle” and “aunt” to describe a broad range of elders who are not blood relations.
Although the Getty family funded Gavin Newsom’s businesses and were chiefly responsible for the launching and sustaining of his political career, the Getty family was rarely mentioned during Newsom’s 2003 race. Yet Chinese-American Rose Pak is mentioned in the majority of stories about Ed Lee, almost always in negative terms.
Longtime Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) and community leader Gordon Chin
got more newspaper coverage – most of it negative – after becoming co-chair of the “Run Ed Run” campaign than he ever got during three decades of extraordinary service to San Francisco. Chin was caricatured as being part of some unholy alliance with Pak and other nefarious Chinatown interests, and the media’s false charges
against CCDC surrounding its Central Subway contracts were never corrected or retracted.
(2) Progressives Have Lost a Citywide Mayoral Base
In 2003, Green Party member Matt Gonzalez nearly defeated Gavin Newsom despite facing unified opposition from the local and national Democratic Party, unrelenting pro-Newsom advocacy by the San Francisco Chronicle, and being outspent 10-1. Yet John Avalos the sole viable progressive in the 2011 race, is at least 15 points behind Ed Lee despite winning the Democratic Party endorsement, facing virtually no attacks in the Chronicle or other media, and having sufficient public financing to win.
What changed between 2003 and 2011 to reduce a progressive mayoral candidate’s citywide support?
If you get your news from the Bay Guardian
, nothing changed. San Francisco is still primarily bedeviled by market rate housing development, gentrification, and a booming economy that puts all but the wealthy at risk.
If you live in the actual world, San Francisco in 2011 is a far different place. Unemployment exceeds 9%, public funding cutbacks have put social services at risk and new affordable housing on the back burner, and financing commercial or residential development is more difficult than ever.
In the real world of San Francisco in 2011, voters care most about jobs. Yet many on what I call the “Bay Guardian left” oppose private sector projects that create jobs, even denouncing
the Central Subway, the type of public infrastructure project that progressives back at the federal and state level.
If you view San Francisco as solely at risk from skyrocketing development and gentrification, voters concerned with jobs and growing the economy will not turn to you for leadership in tough economic times. Unlike the Left nationally, the Bay Guardian progressives have no viable local job creation strategy. And promoting jobs through public sector expansion and the building of affordable housing does not resonate when voters know there is no money to fulfill these plans, while jobs are needed now.
Ed Lee is far ahead in polls despite undergoing the most concentrated media attacks ever waged in a modern mayor’s race because voters see him as the best candidate for creating jobs and boosting economic development. John Avalos is not identified with these issues, and lags well behind Lee as a result.
(3) Political Consultants Misunderstood the Election
I understand that candidates decide elections, and that campaign consultants get too much credit for wins and too much blame for defeats. Yet the strategies pursued by prominent consultants in this mayoral campaign seem particularly curious.
Take Jim Stearns, who has run Leland Yee’s campaign. Stearns late July video attacking Lee
for deciding to run for Mayor was the first of a nonstop negative campaign that continues to this day despite its lack of success with voters.
Here’s what I wrote
about Stearns’ strategy on October 3:
“Leland Yee’s campaign appears stuck in neutral. I’m looking forward to his mailings the week before Election Day highlighting Ed Lee’s ties to Willie Brown and Rose Pak, since campaign manager Jim Stearns appears to believe that if he pounds this message enough it will eventually sink in.”
Lo and behold, I was right. Stearns used the week before Election Day to distribute a book
, “The Real Ed Lee: The Untold, Untold Story,” which describes Brown and Pak as “Racketeers.” While some call the book a parody of “The Ed Lee Story,” it comes across as a bitter attack by a candidate who knows he will lose by a landslide to Lee among his traditional Westside political base.
Usually candidates go positive in the last week, in order to make their case to voters about why they should be elected. But Stearns has stuck to his strategy of attacking Lee for his connections to Brown and Pak despite the lack of results.
Barnes Mosher Whitehurst Lauter (BMWL), the consultants for Dennis Herrera, also have gone heavily negative against Lee. BMWL’s John Whitehurst told the Chronicle
, “Every time we hit (Lee), I’m fully aware that we won’t get every vote he loses. But if we want to win, we can’t let him sit there at 35 percent” in the polls.
Yet BMWL chose the wrong issues to attack Ed Lee. Herrera’s attack on the Central Subway went after a project with unanimous Board of Supervisor and labor support, and sent voters exactly the wrong message about Herrera’s commitment to creating jobs. And how could BMWL not have known that there was video footage of City Attorney Herrera praising current DPW Director Mohammed Nuru only months before candidate Herrera attacked his appointment?
Stearns and BMWL both overestimated voters’ familiarity with their candidates, and neither effectively made a case why either Yee or Herrera would run the city better than Ed Lee. Their ongoing negative attacks on Lee neither hurt the interim mayor nor boosted their own poll numbers. And while Herrera never expected to get many Asian-American votes with Chiu, Lee and Yee in the field, his exceptionally low numbers among this group (2.5% in a recent poll) show that nobody can get elected mayor of San Francisco by alienating the Asian-American electorate.
I’ll have my election predictions on November 7.