In surprise, San Francisco’s interim mayor enters race

Mayor Ed Lee, who in January promised to fill out his predecessor’s term as a caretaker and swore off aspirations to run for the job this fall, on Monday announced plans to enter the race, upending a crowded political field.

Surrounded by a media crush, Lee requested filing papers at the city’s election department before emerging to answer questions about broken promises that will probably shadow him throughout the campaign.

The former tenants-rights activist turned city administrator said he only recently had reversed his position, persuaded by many residents and some elected officials that he owed it to the city to press ahead in his trademark cooperative style.

“We’ve changed the tone of government,” said Lee, 59, flanked by his family. “I really feel good about it, and I don’t want to let it go.”


Lee said that when the Board of Supervisors named him to the seat vacated by now-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, he had no intention of seeking election. His pledge to stay above the fray was a key condition for a slim majority vote of the former board and a unanimous vote of the newly seated one that placed him in office. Four of the former and current officials who backed Lee are running for mayor. Among them is board President David Chiu. “Make no mistake, I am disappointed that he broke his promise to San Franciscans not to run for office,” Chiu wrote in a message to supporters Monday. “But it will ultimately be up to the voters to judge the character, vision and record of those who want to lead our city for the next four years.”

Lee’s drama-free approach to problem-solving has proved a marked contrast to the contentious battles between moderates and progressives that have plagued recent administrations in San Francisco’s liberal landscape. The political theater has at times paralyzed the business of governing.

But Lee on Monday cited a host of achievements this year that resulted, he said, from his “deliberate effort to reach out” to all constituents and colleagues. Among them:

Persuading Twitter and other tech companies to maintain a corporate presence in the city, promoting a local-hire rule, shepherding passage of a balanced budget despite inheriting a $380-million deficit, hiring a popular police chief, negotiating a pension reform proposal and securing the America’s Cup sailing race.


“I have been part of changing the way city government is run, and I have been striving to do this for 21 years,” said Lee, who is of Chinese descent and the city’s first Asian American mayor. “Things have changed at City Hall over the past seven months, and because of that, I’ve changed my mind.”

Lee credited Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) for helping persuade him that San Francisco needed his continued steady hand. She became the city’s last interim mayor after the 1978 assassination of George Moscone, an appointment that catapulted her into two elected terms as mayor and then national politics.

But critics and a number of political experts said that the act of entering the November race would instantly tarnish Lee’s image.

One citizen struggled as he was ushered out of the elections office Monday after demanding that Lee step down for filing his papers “under false pretenses.” Chiu, meanwhile, told KQED-FM (88.5) radio that the interim mayor’s decision “will certainly have an impact on our working relationship moving forward, about what we’re able to trust in what he says.”

Three separate efforts to persuade Lee to run were launched in recent months.

Progress for All, the group behind the polished “Run Ed Run” campaign, was the subject of a previously scheduled policy discussion Monday by the city’s ethics commission. At issue is whether the group is an independent expenditure committee working on behalf of a candidate, which would mean it skirted a $500 per-contributor cap. Its founder has argued that because there was no candidate, the group was more akin to a political action committee. If Lee or anyone involved in his campaign authorized or assisted the committee, that would be improper collusion, the ethics director has said.

The San Francisco Chronicle has reported that Progress for All’s small group of donors is closely allied with either former Mayor Willie Brown or Chinatown power broker Rose Pak — both long criticized for a backroom-dealing style of politics. Brown and Pak were key to talking Lee into taking the interim post.

“Ed Lee told us he didn’t want to be interim mayor. But powerful people insisted he do it, so he did. Then Ed Lee told us he didn’t want to run for mayor. But powerful people insisted he run,” City Atty. Dennis Herrera, who also is running for mayor, said in a statement. “To my mind, Ed Lee’s biggest problem isn’t that he’s a dishonest man — it’s that he’s not his own man.”


Though Lee said he enjoyed the “Run Ed Run” posters that caricatured his bushy mustache, he insisted Monday that he was not in any way allied with the campaign.

“I will not change the way I do business,” he said. “I will continue to be Ed Lee, reaching out and cracking my sorry jokes.”

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