In his year as interim mayor, the soporific alternative to his sensational, tabloid-worthy predecessors Gavin Newsom and Willie Brown, Ed Lee was all business—hold the politics. He turned the city into a tech paradise with his special tax exemptions for tech firms. He did away with executive privileges such as Newsom’s high-tech mayoral SUV. And he replaced the toxic relationship between the mayor’s office and the Board of Supervisors with the “city family,” a Mr. Nice Guy approach that helped him cruise to election in his own right.
But now, a series of mistakes and misstatements have mired him up to his mustache in San Francisco politics—and he has none of the swell and gel his predecessors used to get out of such scrapes.
It began in February, when plans for the America’s Cup race pegged as “the sailing Super Bowl” were scaled back to something closer to a Fleet Week on steroids. Then the “city family” cried foul when Lee kept the supes in the dark about the details of a development deal that could have led to the closing of St. Luke’s Hospital, one of the city’s premier facilities serving a low-income population. He proved that the nice guy could play tough when he moved to boot Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi from office—but then he put in a disastrous, distracted performance at Mirkarimi’s removal hearings. A bomb threat “rescued” Lee, but not before he had said enough to allow opponents to claim that he had perjured himself on the stand. And that happened the very week that Lee alienated the city’s Latinos and African Americans with the suggestion that police be allowed to “stop and frisk” suspected wrongdoers without warrants. It was a brutal combo of regrettable moments that dominated headlines for weeks.
Is Lee scuffling under difficult circumstances—or has he been playing out of his league all along? Well, we should remember that Lee’s preparation for office was two decades of near-anonymous city service, from which he was plucked, some say, because he has a tough time saying no to Brown, Chinatown heavyweight Rose Pak, and Ron Conway, the city’s unofficial tech czar. Detractors claim that Lee is nothing but a bagman for the city’s power elite—and their case is looking stronger by the day. After all, Lee was called to the witness stand in February in a civil trial to explain why, as city purchaser during Brown’s tenure, he had granted a key city contract to a firm with close ties to Brown. And why would Conway have plunked down more than $150,000 for Lee’s mayoral campaign if Lee hadn’t pushed policies that helped engorge Conway’s portfolio?
Perhaps the measures Lee has sent to the November ballot—a trust fund for affordable housing and a reform of the city business tax, both fleshed out in concert with progressives—will help get him back on track. But if they fail to win over voters, he’ll need to get something, anything, done— and fast—before his first-year accomplishments are forgotten forever.