San Francisco’s 2011 Mayor’s Race: A Progress Report

by Randy Shaw on November 30, 2009

While San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom battles the media, attention has turned to his successor. There are already four prominent candidates for mayor, with two other potentially strong candidates potentially joining the race. The two most clearly off and running are State Senator Leland Yee, a proven vote getter and fundraiser who currently has much of the Westside electorate to himself, and District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who would become San Francisco’s first gay mayor. They will soon be joined by the all but certain candidacies of City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Assessor Phil Ting. Two other current city officeholders are also possible candidates: Public Defender Jeff Adachi and District Attorney Kamala Harris. Harris’ candidacy depends upon her losing her race for Attorney General in 2010, and she would be the field’s only strong female candidate. While it is still early — Matt Gonzalez did not even decide to run for Mayor until July 2003 — here’s our assessment of the candidates most likely to become San Francisco’s next Mayor.

Leland Yee

Advantages: State Senator Leland Yee has high citywide name recognition, routinely does better on Election Day than projected, and is a prodigious fundraiser from his real estate / landlord / developer / business base. He has far greater support on the Westside than any other current or likely candidate, and would be the city’s first Chinese-American mayor.

Yee’s strong Westside support means that he needs relatively little progressive backing to prevail. And he is seeking to cement such backing by publicly supporting SEIU’s opposition to layoffs, and by sponsoring a number of measures designed to increase accountability at the University of California.

Yee’s ability to broaden his moderate to conservative base will also be helped by his campaign manager, Jim Stearns. Stearns is primarily identified with such progressive candidates as Supervisor David Campos and former Supervisor and now San Francisco Democratic Party Chair Aaron Peskin

Challenges: Yee has a consistently anti-tenant, pro-landlord voting record, and was among the few Democrats who did not support then-Assemblymember Mark Leno’s bill exempting SRO’s from the state Ellis Act (the bill passed by one vote despite Yee). This record could limit Yee’s ability to secure enough progressive votes to win.

Yee could also have a problem convincing voters that he knows how to get things done. His record of legislative accomplishments looks great on paper, but voters may be hard-pressed to identify his impact on San Francisco. Yee also has some personal issues in his past that are likely to re-emerge in a tough mayoral campaign.

Bevan Dufty

Advantages: Dufty is personally very popular, and he will benefit from the first seriously contested mayor’s race under ranked-choice voting by being a popular second-choice. Dufty is also the only gay candidate in the race, which means he has no competition among voters whose primary consideration is electing the city’s first gay mayor.

Dufty’s chief reputation is as a consensus builder. Many voters may be eager for a mayor who would work collaboratively with the Board of Supervisors, and whose career shows that he puts getting things done ahead of ideology.

Challenges: Dufty may lack a clear political identity citywide, and his personal popularity may not translate into votes. Herrera’s candidacy is also likely to cut into Dufty’s gay support, as Herrera initiated and won the landmark California Supreme Court case affirming gay marriage.

Dennis Herrera

Advantages: Herrera has run what is likely the nation’s most effective and progressive city attorney’s office. He has a record of legal victories that will greatly impress voters, and has no doubt earned the loyalty of San Franciscans whose marriages were made possible by Herrera’s legal victory.

Challenges: Herrara will have to convince voters that his major legal victories shows that he can get things done in the political arena as mayor. While he is capable of drawing votes from across the city, he does not have a clear political base, which in the pre-ranked choice voting days was essential to winning a mayoral election

Phil Ting

Advantages: Ting has been a populist Assessor, and has won a contested citywide race. He too offers the prospect of becoming the city’s first Chinese-American mayor, and could cut into Yee’s support among Asian-American voters. Ting’s campaign manager, Eric Jaye, has run a winning mayoral campaign, and Ting is well- positioned to tap into Newsom’s voting and funding base.

Challenges: Ting lacks Yee’s strong support on the heavily Asian-American Westside, and could have great difficulty winning these voters. Ting’s political identity may also be unclear, and, like Herrera, he does not start with a defined political base.

Potential Candidates: Adachi and Harris

Jeff Adachi

Advantages: Adachi would be the only clear progressive in the race, and would enter the race with the support of much of the electorate that supported Matt Gonzalez. He proved in his race against Kimiko Burton that he can draw moderate to conservative voters, and that his support is citywide.

Adachi is a tireless campaigner who tends to leave audiences impressed. Like Gonzalez, he will win the votes of people who do not agree with him on all or most issues, but who trust him to listen to their concerns.

Challenges: Public Defenders are not real popular with some voters. During his long career, Adachi has no doubt vigorously represented people who engaged in truly reprehensible conduct — opponents could use some of these cases to argue, that Adachi is a Michael Dukakis-like figure that cannot relate to the average person’s fear of crime.

Kamala Harris

As the only woman in a multi-candidate Democratic primary field, Harris may well be the favorite to be California’s next Attorney General. But I have been struck by how many political insiders question her candidacy, citing campaign fallout over her refusal to seek the death penalty for an accused cop killer.

In addition to Harris potentially being seen as “soft” on crime, some also question whether California will elect a woman of color as its top law enforcement official. So given the possibility that Harris does not become Attorney General, it is worth assessing her possible run for mayor.

Advantages: The only woman in the race, and the local official most identified with Barack Obama’s campaign. Harris will have no trouble raising funds, and, in contrast to Adachi’s identification as someone who defends alleged criminals for a living, District Attorney Harris can run as a proven crimefighter in a race where her death penalty stance will not be a factor.

Challenges: Harris lacks a clear political base, and her views on most issues are unknown. She has kept such a low-profile that many voters could have little idea what kind of mayor she would be.

It is unprecedented to have so many elected officials with successful fundraising and campaign experience already planning mayoral runs more than two years prior to the election. This likely ensures a highly competitive race, and a large turnout in the otherwise quiet 2011 election cycle.

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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