State Senator Mark Leno
State Senator Mark Leno will announce after Thanksgiving that he will run against San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee in the November 2015 election, Beyond Chron has learned from multiple sources. Leno has been floating his intentions for some time, and apparently got enough positive feedback to decide to move forward. Leno may also have been influenced to run by Nancy Pelosi showing no signs of giving up her congressional seat, the only office other than mayor that would be a step up from Leno’s current office. Last week, Pelosi took the media to task for a "double standard” when it comes to focusing on the age of female but not male politicians. She did not sound like someone who would be leaving office anytime soon, and her performance and local approval ratings remain at a high level.
With a congressional seat unavailable, Leno has little to lose by running for San Francisco Mayor. And while he faces an uphill battle against a popular incumbent, at this point in 1990 incumbent mayor Art Agnos was considered a shoe-in for re-election in November 1991. That was an election that Agnos lost.
Leno’s road for victory is based on assembling a diverse coalition that is unhappy with the rapid economic development and spiraling housing costs over the past four years. This includes people unhappy about the tech influx and those tired of traffic snarls associated with the Central Subway. Leno will portray Lee as a cheerleader for the very forces that are making San Francisco less affordable and economically diverse. If you feel that San Francisco is moving in the wrong direction, Leno wants your vote.
Leno may feel particularly equipped to run such a campaign because he has never been identified with San Francisco’s “left.” Appointed to the Board of Supervisors by Mayor Willie Brown, Leno was always considered a moderate on the Board. He ran against progressive Harry Britt to win election to the Assembly in 2002, and defeated incumbent State Senator Carole Migden—the choice of the progressive Harvey Milk Democratic Club—in 2008. The longer Leno has spent in public office, the more he saw the benefits of progressive policies. He has been among the most progressive State Senators, and will clearly run against Lee from the left. Yet his “moderate” image helps him sell a message that says “if even Mark Leno thinks the city has gotten off track, they really must be.”
Leno does not galvanize progressives like Tom Ammiano or David Campos. Leno did not endorse Campos in his race against David Chiu, a race many Campos supporters saw as a fight for the soul of San Francisco. As I argued after that election, if Campos could not beat Chiu in a district that excluded most of Ed Lee’s strongest political base, it’s hard to see Leno beating Lee in a citywide mayoral election.
Making Inroads on Lee’s Base
Even assuming Leno can dominate among the roughly 35% of progressive voters, his challenge is securing enough moderate votes to get the 50% plus one necessary to win. The best way to do this is to find disaffection among those whose political views are closer to the mayor’s but who do not like Ed Lee. Frank Jordan beat incumbent Art Agnos by winning liberal homeowners who became disaffected with the mayor. Jordan’s victory was fueled by voters casting ballots against Agnos, rather than in favor of a former police chief whose politics were too conservative for the city.
I strongly supported Agnos in both 1987 and 1991, and learned an important lesson from that 1991 campaign. I learned that San Francisco was a very small town. It seemed that a lot of people had very specific negative stories about interactions with Agnos that shaped their vote against him. I don’t see a similar disaffection by Lee’s supporters. To the contrary, I find enormous reservoirs of good will toward the mayor. Unlike Agnos, who took positions adverse to his 1987 electoral base, Lee has not taken any major action to alienate those who voted for him in 2011.
While there are certainly Lee supporters on the Westside unhappy about rising housing prices and other changes in the city, the question is whether they blame Mayor Lee and will vote to replace him with Mark Leno. Leno is not well known on the Westside and will have a tough selling job to get moderate voters to abandon Mayor Lee.
Leno’s Campaign Team
Leno’s campaigns have always been run by the BMWL team, featuring John Whitehurst, Mark Mosher, and Sam Lauter (the late Robert Barnes was Leno’s entry to the firm and was the “B” in the firm name). But Whitehurst has already made it clear that the firm is supporting Mayor Lee. This makes it likely that Leno’s campaign will be run by Jim Stearns, who ran Leland Yee’s 2011 mayoral campaign and is a close ally of Aaron Peskin. The idea is to take the campaign team that won the 8 Washington campaign and spread the “San Francisco is on the wrong track” message citywide.
Will this message reverberate sufficiently to bring Leno victory? In 1999, Tom Ammiano challenged Willie Brown during the height of the dot-com frenzy and lost by 18%. The so-called “Twitter” Mid-Market/Tenderloin payroll tax exemption was an issue in the 2011 mayor’s race, and Lee won handily. Leno has never lost an election since Mayor Brown appointed him to the Board of Supervisors. He chooses his battles carefully. He no doubt did his homework before deciding to challenge Mayor Lee, and may see a weakness in the mayor’s standing that others have missed. Or it could be that with Pelosi planning to stay in office for at least another four years, Leno sees this mayor’s race as his last opportunity to extend his successful political career. Whatever his reasons, Mark Leno will run a tough race. Mayor Lee knows this, and has already moved his campaign into high gear.
On a personal note, I have probably spent more time talking with Mark Leno and Ed Lee than any other current elected officials. I have the highest regard for both. A race between them is obviously not good news for me. But it might be good for the city. If they run principled, issue-driven campaigns about the city’s future, then an election could have the counterintuitive effect of leaving San Francisco more unified than divided. That, at least, is my hope.