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Under the Hood of Ed Lee

How San Francisco’s political machine has turbocharged the mayor’s campaign

Ed Lee

On Sept. 14, about a dozen business and labor leaders gathered in an eighth-floor conference room in the Financial District. They met for an hour, rehearsing their strategy to assure that Ed Lee, the interim mayor of San Francisco, is elected to a four-year term on Nov. 8.

A number of well-connected San Francisco figures were present, including Steve Falk and Jim Lazarus of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce; Rob Black of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association; Leon Chow, the head of the United Healthcare Workers West, and Enrique Pearce, a political consultant closely associated with Rose Pak, the Chinatown lobbyist.

The people there represented four independent political action committees that, in the weeks since, have collectively spent more than $400,000 to broadcast advertisements, send political mail and deploy an army of field workers on Lee’s behalf, effectively turbocharging his campaign.

According to a poll conducted by The Bay Citizen and the University of San Francisco released on Monday, Lee claimed 31 percent of first-place votes, far outstripping his nearest challenger, Dennis Herrera, the city attorney, who had 8 percent.

Lee also earned an approval rating of 78 percent. Corey Cook, a professor of political science at the University of San Francisco who helped analyze the poll, said it was an “astonishing” number for a mayoral candidate. It is twice as high as the approval rating for Willie Brown, one of San Francisco’s most celebrated mayors, when he won re-election in 2000.

Lee’s dominance shows how San Francisco, despite its reputation as the liberal poster child of American politics, remains in the grip of a classic political establishment that has overwhelming influence in elections and policy battles. The mayor’s ascent in the polls has been helped along by independent groups — largely associated with the city’s political machine — that can raise unlimited amounts of money but are prohibited from coordinating their activities with Lee’s official campaign.

In the past 10 months, Lee’s supporters have united around the centerpiece of Lee’s legislative accomplishments, a pension reform deal struck with the city’s labor unions: Proposition C on the upcoming ballot.

The measure has won favor in polls, as Lee’s power brokers have worked to pressure his opponents, notably Jeff Adachi, the public defender of San Francisco and the author of an opposing pension reform plan.

During the past year when labor and business leaders met with Lee to craft Proposition C, the labor unions requested that Adachi be kept out of those meetings. This month, the Proposition C campaign launched video advertisements comparing Adachi to Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a Republican, who gutted the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions.

According to the Bay Citizen/USF poll, Proposition C is leading Adachi’s plan, Proposition D, by nine percentage points. The telephone poll was conducted Oct. 7-13 in English and Chinese with 551 likely voters throughout San Francisco by MAXimum Research of Cherry Hill, N.J. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus four percentage points.

Proposition C has some powerful supporters, including Lee, all 11 supervisors, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Representative Nancy Pelosi, and the major labor unions. Neither Adachi nor his measure has attracted endorsements from the city’s political establishment.

“The names change, the faces change, but the machine is still there,” Adachi said. In a campaign mailer, Adachi called Proposition C “a backroom deal.”

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