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Rise of the Zombie Voters 

Wednesday, Oct 28 2015
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And we don't seem to care.

San Francisco's identity as a Democratic Party-dominated machine town is relatively new. Before Silicon Valley discovered its anarcho-libertarian side and Jeb Bush rode an Uber to a startup, the very idea of Republican presidential candidates campaigning in San Francisco was laughable. (Before this cycle, the closest any recent GOP contender came was a visit by Rick Santorum to Ronald Reagan's beloved Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield.) But there are people alive today who can still remember when the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater for president at its convention at the Cow Palace in 1964. And there are people still riding bicycles and drinking cheap beer in dive bars who, if pressed, might remember one-term mayors Art Agnos and Frank Jordan, ousted from office in 1991 and 1995, respectively.

If you came here — or were born — anytime after 1995, however, you have been living under a regime that has proven remarkably consistent.

Since termed-out state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown's election as mayor that year, centrist Democrats with strong ties to powerful establishment politicians such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Nancy Pelosi have held onto the mayor's seat and not let it go.

City Hall is full of familiar faces — the last three mayors have shared a powerful top aide, who served both current Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Lee as chief of staff — most of whom are welcomed as allies in big business circles.

Lee's entry to this world was more republican than democratic. Five years ago, when Newsom was elected lieutenant governor, the Board of Supervisors was tasked with selecting his successor. Complicated parliamentary maneuvering — some of it conducted behind closed doors and via text message — saw the city's left lose its best-ever shot at having one of its own as mayor. Instead, the Board chose Lee, a virtually unknown, long-serving city bureaucrat who at the crucial hour was vacationing in Taiwan.

Installed as an interim mayor in an election year already full of candidates, Lee promised to serve only until his duly elected successor was sworn in. But days before the August filing deadline, under pressure from Brown and Chinatown institution Rose Pak, Lee had a change of heart. Using the power of incumbency and the bully pulpit of the city's most powerful office — as well as the support of the Democratic establishment, from Feinstein on down — Lee became the immediate front-runner and recorded a double-digit victory in November over his closest opponent, left-leaning Supervisor John Avalos.

This year, Lee's incumbency, his formidable fundraising — he raised more than $1.5 million "without even really trying," one veteran consultant says — and a narrative that the two factors make him unbeatable have served to scare away all serious political challengers.

This has left Amy Farah Weiss, a bicycle-riding nonprofit manager, Francisco Herrera, a long-haired musician and community activist, and Stuart Schuffman, a bartender and travel writer whose professional name is "Broke-Ass" as the foils for Lee's reelection to a second term. They may be passionate and have good policy ideas, some of which were presented to a half-interested Lee during the campaign's only debate on Oct. 8, but they have not made Lee sweat.

"The fact that Ed Lee is getting a free ride is truly remarkable," says consultant Jim Ross, who handled Newsom's election bid in 2003. "Every mayor throughout the country is having a hard time right now."

With so few challengers in the political arena, it's not surprising that Lee's most uncomfortable moment of his reelection campaign came in a restaurant.

In early October, Lee had just finished a meal at Max's Opera Café on Van Ness Avenue with Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu. The mayor was heading towards the door when a Mission District native named Ilyich Sato, there with his family before a screening of a Black Panthers documentary at the nearby cinema, stopped Lee on the way out.

"Mayor Lee?" Sato asked.

"How are you?" replied the mayor, not breaking his stride.

"I'm all right, but, you're a disgrace to Asians, man," offered Sato.

Lee halted. Sato had his attention, and the attention of Lee's undercover police security detail, who stepped in between the two men.

"You have no heart," Sato continued. "The people that built this city, you're getting them all kicked out of here, man. That's some cold shit."

Lee exited before the exchange, about 30 seconds in all, went much further. But the outburst, recorded on a smartphone and posted to social media, earned Sato — a preschool teacher and underground rapper known as "Equipto" whose grandfather was born in a Japanese internment camp during World War II — the distinction of de-facto spokesman for Lee's opposition.

What Equipto unleashed on Lee — blame for the housing crisis, blame for the widening gap between rich and poor, and blame for the city's rapid gentrification and displacement of people of color— can be easy to dismiss as the rantings of a lone crank, heard for a moment and then lost in the tech boom good times of the Lee era.

But this is the same kind of sentiment that, tapped by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has made an anti-establishment, anti-big banks leftist the stiffest competition against Wall Street favorite Hillary Clinton in the race for next year's Democratic presidential nomination.

If obvious discontent with the establishment can be tapped to gain traction nationwide, why not here?

Most publicly released polls rate Lee's approval in the mid-50s to low-60s. Compare that to Newsom, who recorded approval ratings in the 70s but still survived a challenge in 2003 from then-Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez by only five percentage points, and it would seem that a Lee challenger would have a ready-made base.

"Ed Lee is popular," says political consultant Nicole Derse, "but there is a sizable piece of the electorate that does not have a high opinion of him."


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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