San Francisco’s popular mayor says he won’t run for election


Interim Mayor Ed Lee is low-key, works hard and gets along well with the famously contentious Board of Supervisors. Residents have dubbed him “adorable.” They even love his chunky mustache, which has its own Facebook fan page.

The former city administrator swore when he was persuaded to take office in January that he would not run for the position later this year. He has not changed his mind. But Lee’s nice-guy ways and his willingness to listen to others have now spurred a host of efforts to persuade him to do just that.

Among them are the Draft Ed Lee Organizing Committee, launched by two former supervisors-turned-consultants, and Run Ed Run, a campaign that has gathered more than 12,000 signatures to press Lee, 59, to reconsider. Its posters, featuring a line drawing of Lee with a Mona Lisa smirk below his iconic ‘stache, are popping up all over town.


Spearheaded by political consultant Enrique Pearce, Run Ed Run opened a campaign headquarters Saturday — with no candidate.

“Part of what makes Ed so appealing is that he’s kind of the anti-incumbent incumbent,” said Michael Yaki, who cooked up the Draft Ed organizing committee with consultant Jim Gonzalez over lunch. “Ed’s interest is in getting things done, not in ‘how is this going to get me elected to the next political office?’… It’s a breath of fresh air.”

Not everyone is thrilled: A Facebook page dubbed Let Ed Be derides the numerous entreaties as Astroturf, a term for campaigns that are orchestrated by the powerful but claim to be grass-roots efforts. Playing off the design of the “Let It Be” Beatles album cover, its logo swaps out pictures of the famed musicians for key Lee supporters, calling them the “Not so-Fab 4.”

Still, Lee’s popularity is undeniable and could signal a mellower era of San Francisco politics.

In a town of high-profile mayors who have played to the press — think Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom — Lee has emerged as an everyman hero. Most unusually, he has sidestepped the high-drama battles between moderate liberals and more left-leaning progressives that have at times paralyzed city business.

“Theatrics and electoral politics go hand in hand” here, said political consultant Alex Clemens, who is not involved with the recruiting efforts. “Recent San Francisco mayors have been larger than life. And part of Ed Lee’s charm is that he is exactly life-sized. He is not trying to be bigger or different than he has been for his entire career in public service.”

Though the filing deadline for the mayor’s race is in mid-August, more than 30 candidates have already declared. Several are solid contenders, including two current supervisors, a former supervisor, the city attorney, the city assessor and State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco).

Many of them have similar views and can be expected to split the vote. Lee’s appeal appears more widespread.

According to private poll results reported this week by San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius, 70% of likely voters have a favorable view of Lee. Fifty percent said that if Lee were to run in November, they would either “definitely” or “probably” vote for him; 30% said they would vote for someone else. Reminded that Lee had promised not to run, 62% of those polled said they “strongly” or “somewhat” supported a Lee candidacy; 23% said they opposed it.

The poll was conducted by EMC Research, which declined to comment at the request of its unnamed client.

Lee helped run San Francisco’s Asian Law Caucus in the 1970s, championing the rights of immigrant tenants. He chaired the city’s Human Rights Commission before trading his activism for the staid work of a bureaucrat.

He had little desire to leave his second term as city administrator. But Willie Brown and Chinatown powerbroker Rose Pak were among those who persuaded him to do so. When he filled the seat vacated when Newsom was sworn in as lieutenant governor, he became this city’s first Asian American mayor.

Enrique Pearce, the Left Coast Communications consultant who crafted Run Ed Run, ticks off Lee’s accomplishments: He pulled off the least contentious budget process in years — despite a more than $400-million deficit — in part by including community input. He named a new police chief with broad rank-and-file backing. He engaged labor leaders in roll-up-the-sleeves talks on pension reform.

Far from being Astroturf, Pearce says, Run Ed Run was born as residents and merchants shared their desire for a Lee candidacy with him and with other community leaders. Gordon Chin, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center and a 40-year friend of Lee’s, is among five co-chairs of the group, which aims to gather 100,000 signatures.

“Clearly Ed’s not the only person that’s responsible for the civil tone of the city,” Chin said, “but he can help set that tone by example.”

If the nastiness is draining from local politics under Lee’s leadership, however, the battle over whether he should be pressed to run may just bring it back.

Only 117 people “liked” the Let Ed Be Facebook page as of late Sunday afternoon, a far cry from the thousands who signed the petition urging Lee to go for it. But among its architects is former San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly. With his propensity to hurl offensive language at colleagues, he came to personify the ugly theatrics permeating politics during Newsom’s years in office.

Daly, who now runs a bar, says he has “no issue with Ed Lee,” but he called him the “lap dog” of Brown and Pak. Lee’s candidacy, he said, is likely “a done deal” that Lee has secretly signed on to, while Pearce’s venture seems a convenient ploy to bypass campaign contribution limits. A city ethics official confirmed that the independent expenditure committee that funds the campaign is not subject to the limits that saddle candidates’ efforts.

Christine Falvey, Lee’s spokeswoman, reiterated Friday that he has no intention of running and hopes to return to his old job in January.

Lee’s backers also said he has had nothing to do with their efforts. He once quipped to local press that Yaki and Gonzalez were as controversial as “shark fin soup” — well worth avoiding.

Yaki said he’s seen Lee just once since launching his draft push with Gonzalez — about five rows away at a baseball game.

“He smiled at me. I smiled at him,” Yaki recounted. “He waved. I waved. He said, ‘You’re trying to get me in trouble,’ and I said, ‘I certainly hope so.’ ”