San Francisco voters waited to hear Wednesday whether they had elected their first Asian-American or Hispanic mayor, after an instant ranked-choice voting system was launched when no candidate got a majority of the vote.
Appointed Mayor Ed Lee held a commanding lead against a diverse slate of 15 candidates. But he didn't get a majority of the vote in Tuesday's election, so the election system in which voters rank their top three candidates will decide the winner.
Lee, the city administrator named to finish the term of then-Mayor Gavin Newsom when he became lieutenant governor in January, was ahead with just over 31 percent of the vote. City Supervisor John Avalos followed with nearly 19 percent; and City Attorney Dennis Herrera was trailing with 11 percent.
Political analysts and elections consultants said that while it's still possible for someone other than Lee to win, it's unlikely.
In last year's Oakland election, a strong movement coalesced around voting for anyone other than the frontrunner, former California Senate president Don Perata. After several rounds of ballot counts, Jean Quan would become the city's first Asian-American mayor with an upset over Perata even though she had far fewer first place votes than Perata.
But Lee has not had the same polarizing effect in San Francisco.
``It's mathematically possible. Politically, it looks rather insurmountable,'' said Gautam Dutta, a San Francisco Bay Area-based election law attorney and backer of ranked-choice voting.
This is the first San Francisco mayoral election in which the voter-adopted ranked-choice system has kicked in, designed to save the city an estimated $15 million in runoff costs over 10 years.
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.
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.
``It's going to be, I suspect, a pretty clean result in the mayor's race, a non-contentious one,'' predicted Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a pro-ranked choice voting nonprofit closely watching San Francisco's elections.
Though an additional 50,000 to 60,000 votes are expected to be counted in the coming days before an official tally is reached, Richie said patterns in pre-election polling and votes counted so far don't suggest additional ballots will shift the results.
The formal election of Lee would symbolize a milestone for the city's Asians, who make up a third of the population but have traditionally been underrepresented.
Lee had been the favorite in the polls. The civil rights attorney-turned-bureaucrat has worked for four mayors in five city departments for 22 years, and his likeability ratings were consistently high. Though some of his campaign supporters are under investigation for ballot tampering and campaign contribution laundering, Lee has yet to be linked to any wrongdoing.
He had pledged not to run after being named the caretaker mayor, calling himself a reluctant politician who wasn't sure he wanted to join the rough and tumble of San Francisco politics.
``I can run a city; I feel very confident about that,'' Lee said in an interview. ``What I was not confident about was the politics that sometimes prevent you from running the city as well as you
He changed his mind in August, to the consternation of those who had pushed to make him interim mayor but then saw their own mayoral ambitions diminished when he joined the fray.
Lee agreed he was influenced by powerful San Francisco politicians such as former mayors Newsom, Willie Brown, and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who were pushing him to run. But he said the choice was his alone.
The mayor's office gave him the power to get things done: a balanced budget; a deal to keep tech giant Twitter in town while wooing the America's Cup yacht race to the bay; a negotiated
pension overhaul plan to save the city some $1.3 billion over the next decade; and maintaining the city's reputation as one of the most environmentally progressive in the world.
He had a pivotal conversation with Feinstein in July outside the Oval Office while they were waiting to see President Barack Obama for a belated celebration of the World Series win by the San
``She said, `Wait a minute Ed, what's there to think about?''' he recalled. ``Ed, take advantage of this, your city is coming together, they need someone to just be consistent and keep it going.''
The other two races also awaiting final results after no one claimed a majority were those of district attorney and sheriff.
Former police chief George Gascon was poised to keep his seat as district attorney with more than 44 percent of the vote.
But it's the race for sheriff that experts say could result in an upset due to the ranked-choice system.
Popular Sheriff Michael Hennessey, stepping down after three decades, endorsed City Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who was leading with 38 percent of the vote. But Chris Cunnie, an advisor to the attorney general with three decades in law enforcement, and Sheriff's Capt. Paul Miyamoto were at a dead heat behind Mirkarimi, with 28 and 27 percent, respectively.