Veteran Assemblyman Willie Brown, seeking to become the city's first black mayor, and Mayor Frank Jordan, who gained notoriety for posing nude in the shower during his reelection campaign, appeared headed for a runoff, based on early returns Tuesday night.
With the vote count delayed for nearly three hours because of a computer glitch, civil rights lawyer Roberta Achtenberg trailed Jordan and Brown in her bid to become the city's first lesbian mayor. After nearly 20% of the vote was counted, Achtenberg was lagging behind the two front-runners by at least 10 percentage points.
"I can tell you right now . . . we are going to win tonight," Jordan told a cheering crowd of 600 backers gathered at his campaign headquarters.
Brown, appearing before a throng of supporters at the Longshoreman's Hall near Fisherman's Wharf, also was optimistic, citing high voter turnout in areas of the city where his support is strongest.
"My spin: We win," Brown said in an emotional speech. "We will win, we will govern and we will be mayor of San Francisco." But then Brown added: "I don't intend to declare any victory. That would be quite premature."
The former Assembly Speaker, not missing an opportunity to criticize the city's management, said of the registrar of voters' antiquated technology: "It's a total and complete failure so far."
Officials blamed the glitch on the failure of a computer monitor, which required technicians to restart the machine and then test it before conducting the vote count.
None of the three major candidates was expected to win the race outright Tuesday. The top two finishers will face each other in a five-week runoff campaign. Recent polls suggest that Brown or Achtenberg would defeat Jordan in a one-on-one contest.
The hard-fought mayor's race pitted three strong candidates against one other: Brown, the consummate powerbroker; Jordan, a former San Francisco police officer and chief, and Achtenberg, a liberal former supervisor who held a post in the Clinton Administration.
The contest also featured four other candidates, including Republican mortgage broker Ben Hom, who was fired by Jordan from a city commission and spent $250,000 of his own money on his long-shot campaign.
Jordan, who has a solid base among the city's large Irish American population, sought to appeal to the city's more conservative voters and made his fight against crime the linchpin of his campaign.
On the left, Achtenberg reached out to liberals and the city's large gay and lesbian population with a message of government reform and the need for neighborhood involvement.
That left Brown in the political middle, seeking to build a base by emphasizing his leadership strengths and his ability to make changes in the city.
Heading into Tuesday's balloting, the race appeared so tight that the campaigns were concerned that the outcome could be affected by a snafu in the printing of some ballots.
San Francisco County Registrar Germaine Wong estimated that about 30,000 sample ballots contained a numbering error that could result in votes for one contestant being counted as votes for a different candidate.
Over the last week, the registrar's staff attempted to contact everyone who had received a defective sample ballot and provide a replacement.
Wong said she hoped that the number of miscounted ballots would be too small to affect the outcome. But Brown's campaign said it was likely that the candidate who came in third would take legal action to challenge the results if the margin was narrow.
For Brown, who represented a San Francisco district in the Assembly for 31 years--including more than 14 years as Speaker--the campaign for mayor has been the battle of his political life.
Like Jordan and Achtenberg, Brown campaigned hard from morning to night, making hundreds of appearances across the city and shaking the hands of what he estimated to be 60,000 people. On Tuesday, Brown's campaign reported 1,200 volunteers walking precincts, including ministers who drove voters to the polls.
Much of the campaign was a referendum on his tenure as Speaker, as his rivals repeatedly attacked him for his long record of collecting campaign donations from special interest groups and for moonlighting as a private lawyer for land developers and big-time cocaine dealers.
Brown countered such criticism by campaigning on a platform of effectiveness, arguing that of all the candidates he was the only one who knew how to get things done.
When he announced his candidacy in June, Brown acknowledged that his fund-raising on behalf of Democrats in the Legislature had taken its toll and left him politically vulnerable.
"I have done the job and it has been costly personally," Brown said. "When you take $65 [million] to $70 million, some people will question whether or not you still have a soul. I still have a soul."
In a last-minute bid to rally supporters, all three major candidates launched get-out-the-vote drives over the last few days and dispatched a final flurry of mailers and hit pieces throughout the city.
One hard-hitting flyer sent by Jordan attacked Brown for accepting $750,000 in campaign donations from the tobacco industry. "Since 1984, the tobacco lobby sent Willie Brown $750,000--more than any other politician in America," the mailer said. "In the same decade, tobacco sent 4 million Americans to an early grave."
The mailer notes that Brown insists he never casts favorable votes to the tobacco industry and denies spending any tobacco money on himself. But the piece charges that Brown "pocketed" at least $60,000 and voted 14 times with pro-tobacco interests.
"While they were dying, Willie Brown was living it up," the hit piece concludes. "Can you trust Willie Brown in City Hall?"
While Jordan and Brown saved most of their attacks for each other, their campaigns criticized Achtenberg for leaving her post as an assistant secretary of the Housing and Urban Development Department after only two years to run for mayor. She also was assailed for her part in enforcing a federal policy that threatened legal action against citizens who spoke out against housing for the disadvantaged in their neighborhoods.
Achtenberg, who pledged to run a positive campaign, criticized Jordan for inept handling of city business. For the most part, however, she focused her strongest attacks on Brown, even sending out her own election-eve flyers attacking his record on sexual harassment. One mailer criticized Brown for hiring a campaign aide who was accused of sexually harassing a female subordinate while working for the state Assembly.
"She was demoted. He was promoted by Willie Brown," the mailer read.
A second Achtenberg flyer accused Brown of signing the termination papers for three women who complained of sexual harassment by an assemblyman. Brown has denied any retribution against the women and said he signed the papers as a routine matter.
Brown countered with a mailer using the widely publicized picture of a naked Jordan in the shower with two Los Angeles disc jockeys. That mailer accused the mayor of lying about his public safety record.
"Frank Jordan will show all to strangers but hides the truth from San Franciscans," the mailer said. " . . . Come clean, Frank."
Perhaps one of the most effective last-minute electioneering pieces on behalf of Brown was a column by Herb Caen in the San Francisco Chronicle on Monday praising the assemblyman, his longtime friend. The widely read columnist called Achtenberg a "little brown sparrow [who] hops around picking up the crumbs."
And referring to Jordan's shower scene, Caen advised would-be voters: "If you vote for him . . . you'll get what you see in that photo: a man who looks as though he is wondering what he is doing there."
The mayor's race was not the only hotly contested campaign in San Francisco.
In a hard-fought battle for district attorney, Arlo Smith, the four-term incumbent, faced Bill Fazio, his onetime assistant, and Terrence Hallinan, a liberal supervisor.
Smith, the 1990 Democratic nominee for state attorney general, was criticized by his rivals for sloppy administration and one of the worst conviction rates of any district attorney in the state.
Hallinan, son of the late Vincent Hallinan, a renowned leftist lawyer and labor leader, accused Smith and Fazio of buckling to the "right-wing agenda" in fighting crime and sending blacks to prison at twice the statewide rate.
Smith and Fazio were once close, but the district attorney fired his assistant after he announced he would run for the office.
Among 15 propositions on the city ballot, voters were asked to restore the 140-year-old name Army Street to what is known now Cesar Chavez Street.
The issue revealed deep cultural divisions between the people of largely white Noe Valley, who sought to save the name Army Street, and the mostly Latino Mission District, where the late farm workers leader is revered as a hero.
Backers of the Army Street measure denied that they were motivated by bigotry but said they were attached to the old name; they also argued that the change to Cesar Chavez Street was inconvenient and costly for businesses.
Supporters of the Cesar Chavez Street name said it was important to honor a great man who was committed to nonviolent change and to show that Latinos have a prominent place in San Francisco.
Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Mark Gladstone and Jenifer Warren and researcher Norma Kaufman.
* POWELL ANNOUNCEMENT: He may disclose presidential plans today or Thursday. A12
* L.A. COUNTY RESULTS: B1, B4