Interim Mayor Ed Lee held a wide lead Tuesday against a diverse slate of 15 candidates, taking a big step toward becoming San Francisco's first elected Asian-American leader in a mayor's race that could take days to settle.
Lee, a former city administrator who replaced then-Mayor Gavin Newsom when he became lieutenant governor in January, was ahead with nearly 33 percent of the ballots tabulated within the first hours after polls closed. City Supervisor John Avalos followed with 16 percent; and City Attorney Dennis Herrera was in third place with 11 percent.
But even with more than half the precincts counted late Tuesday, it could be days before the city's 468,000 registered voters know the winner because a voter-approved election system requires that
the winner get 50 percent plus one of the vote. If one candidate doesn't claim more than half the vote, then a system in which voters rank their top three candidates would decide the winner.
Dennis Herrera, who became San Francisco's first Latino city attorney in 2001 and is consistently ranked second to Lee in the polls, had claimed 10 percent of the vote after polls closed.
``All the different pieces that make this a fascinating race have to do with the candidates themselves and how they compete in this city that is so diverse and engaged,'' said Corey Cook, a
political scientist at the University of San Francisco. ``It's a remarkable case study for an election.''
Lee's formal election or that of any of the several other Asian-American candidates on the ballot would symbolize a milestone for the city's Asians, who make up a third of the population but
have traditionally been underrepresented.
Tuesday's election also asked voters to choose between dueling pension reform proposals for city workers, one promoted by Lee and the unions, and the other by his rival Adachi. Lee's Proposition C was far outpacing Adachi's Proposition D in early tabulations.
Former police chief George Gascon was winning in his bid to keep his seat as district attorney with almost half of the early vote. Sharmin Bock, a deputy district attorney in neighboring Alameda
County, trailed with about 20 percent.
Longtime Sheriff Michael Hennessey is retiring after three decades of wearing the badge and City Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi was leading the race to take over as of late Tuesday.
In the mayor's race, Lee has shown to be the favorite in polls.
The civil rights attorney-turned-bureaucrat has worked for four mayors in five city apartments for 22 years, and his likeability ratings are consistently high despite an investigation of some of his campaign supporters who are under investigation for ballot tampering and money laundering. Lee has yet to be linked to any wrongdoing.
He had pledged not to run after being named the caretaker mayor, but changed his mind in August when powerful San Francisco politicians such as former mayors Newsom, Willie Brown, and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein pushed him to reconsider.
Other strong contenders for the distinction of becoming the first Asian-American mayor include Democratic State Sen. Leland Yee, Public Defender Jeff Adachi and Board of Supervisor President
Caleb Ng, a Chinese-American who voted at City Hall, said he didn't cast his ballot based on ethnicity.
``It's not about race; it's about who can best do the job,'' he said.
Other potential ``firsts'' in Tuesday's mayoral race were Herrera and Avalos. If either won, they would be the city's first Hispanic mayor. Herrera has championed causes that help make San
Francisco a progressive touchstone, including arguing against Proposition 8, the state's same-sex marriage ban. Avalos is a social worker and labor organizer before being elected to the Board of Supervisors.
Candidate Bevan Dufty would become the city's first openly gay mayor. He served on the Board of Supervisors in the same seat once held by slain gay-rights leader Harvey Milk, and his personal story is classic San Francisco: He and a lesbian friend had a child through in-vitro fertilization, a 5-year-old girl often at his side at campaign events.
But it could be days before anyone knows who's who.
This is the first mayoral election in which ranked-choice voting adopted in 2002 and designed to save the city an estimated $15 milion in runoff costs over 10 years could kick into gear. Former
Mayor Gavin Newsom was re-elected in 2007 with more than 70 percent of the vote, eliminating any need to start counting second- and third-choice votes.
In the end, the run-off system could defy the polls and take days to tabulate.
If no candidate gets a majority, the last-place candidate is eliminated. Voters who chose that candidate have their votes transferred to their second-choice candidates. If a voter's first
and second choices are eliminated, then their third-choice is counted, a process that repeats until one candidate receives more than 50 percent. And it is one that could take several days to
Critics of the system say it forces candidates to tone down their views on issues so they don't alienate potential second- and third-place votes from their opponents' supporters.
``I'm not a fan of it,'' said Alice Engstrom, who dropped off her mail-in ballot at City Hall on Tuesday. ``It doesn't really create a distinction between the candidates because everybody is
vying for second- and third-place votes.''