San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee's easy reelection comes with complications

Tuesday was a good night for San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.

But behind his clear reelection triumph was a message from voters: The city's affordability crisis matters beyond all else. And due to a surprising result in the only supervisorial district that was up for grabs, Lee is now likely to meet strong resistance to policies perceived as too tech-friendly.

Lee coasted to victory as expected, distantly trailed by obscure challengers. The $310-million affordable housing bond he championed -- the largest in San Francisco history -- won with 73% of the vote, safely surpassing the two-thirds threshold needed for passage.

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That and a few other victories in the housing arena mean more new housing construction for all income levels, along with efforts to rehabilitate dilapidated public housing and help tenants stay in their homes. 

Meanwhile, the ballot measures Lee had strongly opposed both lost: Proposition F would have strictly regulated Airbnb and other short-term rental hosting platforms; Prop I would have temporarily frozen market-rate housing development in the city's Mission District while a plan to ensure a balance of affordable units was crafted.

"The mayor is grateful and thankful that the voters came out and supported his agenda," said Lee's spokeswoman, Christine Falvey.

Then there is the story behind the story.

Of the 132,000 or so residents who cast votes in the election, more than 7,500 sat out the mayor's race altogether, city election results show.

The city uses a ranked choice voting system that kicks in if no candidate wins more than 50% of first-place votes. Lee cleared the hurdle with 56% -- a showing several political analysts found weak given his opponents' lack of name recognition or political experience.

(In eight of the city's 24 neighborhoods, he missed that mark. In the Mission District, which has been plagued by tenant displacements, he won only a third of first-place votes.)

In Chinatown and North Beach, meanwhile, the candidate Lee had hand-picked to fill an empty board of supervisors seat early this year -- and campaigned for vigorously -- went down to defeat.

Her opponent: Aaron Peskin, a left-leaning former president of the Board of Supervisors and onetime head of San Francisco's Democratic Party Central Committee, who called for a board majority "willing to stand up to the tech billionaires."

More than a third of the city's population is of Asian descent, according to 2014 U.S. Census population estimates. And Lee -- the city's first Chinese American mayor -- is widely adored and respected among Chinese American voters.

Those voters overwhelmingly approved his affordable housing bond. But they also came out in strong numbers to reject his candidate in favor of Peskin, a brash Lee opponent who positioned himself as "leading the fight for a more affordable city." 

"We saw clearly in the precincts in Chinatown that Peskin won overwhelmingly," said David Lee, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University and executive director of the nonpartisan Chinese American Voters Education Committee.

A dense, low-income neighborhood that is home to many new immigrants, Chinatown is surrounded by a "rapidly-rising tide of gentrification," David Lee said. "There are a lot of people who feel that if they were priced out of Chinatown they would not be able to live anywhere in San Francisco.... Aaron Peskin spoke to those concerns."

In Peskin, the board gains an experienced leader who will probably build strong progressive coalitions to challenge moderate members and push through a more liberal agenda, making it "a much more contentious body," said Corey Cook, a longtime University of San Francisco political scientist who recently left to become dean of Boise State University's School of Public Service.

That, he said, is a blow to the mayor.

"The voters in Ed Lee’s core constituency elected somebody who ran in direct opposition to the policies that the mayor enacted," he said. "If I were the mayor, I'd be a little concerned."

Lee still surpassed his closest opponent by a whopping 40 percentage points in first-place votes cast, Cook stressed, and he ran a low-key campaign, "barely breaking into a jog."

But still, a musician, an educator and a blogger whom voters had never heard of until recently combined to win a third of first-choice votes.

"There’s something interesting in a city with 3.2% unemployment to have a mayor not totally cruise through what was supposed to be an uneventful reelection," Cook said.

Falvey said in an interview that Lee had a far better first-place showing than he did in 2011. (Cook countered that Lee had actual politicians with enthusiastic constituents running against him in that race.)

And, Falvey noted, it is not unusual for some voters to skip the mayoral contest when the election is not hotly contested. (Data on previous contests were not readily available Wednesday.)

Mostly, she stressed that Lee had met with voters across the city, taken their priorities to heart and was well on his way to acting on them.

"They want him to spend his time on issues like homelessness; the need for more affordable housing; keeping the city safe with major investments in police, fire and 911; shoring up transportation systems; and making historic investments in our public schools," she said.

On Wednesday, Lee spent his morning meeting residents who had just moved in to a new affordable housing complex he had championed near Twitter headquarters. The 190 below-market-rate units are priced from the low-$200,000s for studios to the mid-$300,000s for three-bedrooms.

As for Peskin, Falvey said, "the mayor is known for reaching across the aisle, working with people, and putting politics aside. Whoever the voters of District 3 want to be their supervisor, the mayor will work with that person to move the city forward."

Twitter: @leeromney

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