A truncated mayoral campaign ended today with a truncated concession from Mark Leno. In all of five minutes, he congratulated London Breed on her victory, thanked Supervisor Jane Kim, and that was that.
The brevity was likely appreciated by the throngs of reporters crammed into Leno’s SoMa sign shop, creating a situation veering disturbingly toward the Black Hole of Calcutta. When asked what was next for him, the 66-year-old former supervisor, assemblyman, and state senator replied, “It’s a big and beautiful world out there. My life has been about community and public service and that is not going to change. Whether he’ll challenge Breed in 2019 is “a question for another day.”
Leno, who spurned city lefties’ entreaties to challenge Ed Lee for mayor in 2015, had been methodically raising cash for his 2019 run, when Lee’s term was scheduled to expire. Lee’s sudden and unexpected death in December jolted the city — and unmade Leno’s carefully laid plans. The prospect of a sprint for the mayor’s race, as opposed to a marathon, emboldened Supervisor Jane Kim to enter the race and invigorated Board President London Breed. Breed assumed the role of acting mayor — and, five weeks later, saw that role unceremoniously discontinued on Jan. 23, when six of her colleagues opted to put Supervisor Mark Farrell into City Hall Room 200 in an acrimonious and racially tinged affair.
The optics, as we wrote at the time, of replacing a black woman who grew up in public housing with a white, male venture capitalist were so bad as to border on evil. But that was a risk the left-leaning faction of the board that executed this political maneuver was willing to take. This was portrayed as a good-government move: Breed had, for weeks, led both the executive and legislative branches of government and would also, as the incumbent, have had a leg up in the June election. But it was also an unsubtle shot across the bow of venture capitalist Ron Conway — the preferred financier of Ed Lee and the single biggest donor in recent years in San Francisco elections. It was an even more unsubtle attempt to tether Breed to “rich, white men — billionaires,” as Supervisor Hillary Ronen put it on Jan. 23.
Conway, despite his pledge to the Chronicle that he was “too busy” to participate in this election, did indeed participate — albeit behind the scenes. Introductions were made and much money was raised for Breed at his behest. While Leno’s most memorable message this election season was to bemoan the influence of big money in politics, that big money flowed unabated, and it’s uncertain how effective Leno’s jackhammer repetition of this complaint was in persuading voters to opt for him instead of Breed. It’s also uncertain to what extent the ugly scene on Jan. 23 affected the race.
While Breed enjoyed a subsequent boost in fundraising, a small army of political insiders affirmed that the calculation here was clear. Farrell wasn’t the first choice or the second, or probably the 22nd. But there was no other way to make that deal work. And, if Breed had served as mayor before the election, it was accepted as a foregone conclusion she’d win in a landslide.
That is a logical conclusion. But it also highlights what was ultimately to serve as Leno’s Achillies’ heel in this race. When suddenly thrust alongside two younger, dynamic women in a fast-moving race, Leno’s supposed front-runner status evaporated with alarming rapidity. It was, said some of his deepest backers, notable how superficial his support was. And the contrast between the older, soft-spoken white man and two high-energy women of color was not flattering. (All three candidates have lengthy backgrounds, searchable career records, and mayoral policy statements. But, frankly, this was not the thrust of all but a minuscule portion of coverage of this race).
Leno’s strategy all along was to ride a cavalcade of second-place votes from Kim in San Francisco’s ranked-choice voting system to overtake Breed — who was months ago seen as the likely recipient of a plurality of first-place votes. And, on election night, that strategy appeared viable. Breed, as expected, crossed the finish line first with some 36 percent of the vote, while Leno clocked in at 26.5 percent. Leno’s team had told Mission Local that a deficit of 10 points or more would trigger early inebriation, but 9.5 is not 10. And, when the initial ranked-choice runs were tallied on election night, a surge of Kim’s second-place votes put Leno around 1,200 votes in the lead.
“It was a brief 24 hours of hope for the Leno campaign,” sums up longtime San Francisco political strategist Alex Clemens. Like most of this city’s political insiders, Clemens felt Breed faced slightly uphill odds to overtake and pass Leno with late election returns. While early vote-by-mail ballots tend to come from wealthier homeowners and skew moderate, election-day voters have, traditionally, leaned more progressive. With 90,000-odd votes left uncounted on election day, the conventional wisdom held that voters dropping off their ballots at City Hall or polling places or mailing it in at the last possible moment would tentatively lean left.
That did not happen.
Breed gained votes on Leno in every batch of votes tallied between June 5 and the present. While Breed polled decently in every corner of the city, Leno overperformed in his home district of The Castro and struggled nearly everywhere else — rendering it an unmitigated disaster when District 8 votes made up the plurality of a day’s counting and he still lost ground. In the end, while Leno and Kim executed a 1-2 strategy to a degree that few thought possible, Leno simply couldn’t register enough first-place votes. Breed, who spurned the ranked-choice strategy in a ranked-choice election, won on the strength of that solid first-place showing. “Board President Breed’s late- and election-day voter performance was much brawnier than most San Francisco political professionals would have predicted,” Clemens admitted.
Breed’s campaign has not returned our calls. If their success in late vote-by-mail ballots was organic, it was a hell of a break. If this was an the result of an organized thrust by Breed’s campaign to reach out to voters, it won them the election.
With San Francisco’s demographics changing rapidly, it remains to be seen if our political conventional wisdom needs a reboot as well. Clearly late voters did not skew left this time around (though they did skew toward the younger candidates). It’s not yet known whether this trend is permanent, or merely because of Breed’s unique qualities. But, in the near term, that may be a difference without a distinction; San Francisco’s demographics are changing — and Breed is your next mayor.
“She’s a remarkable woman and she is going to do a very fine job,” Leno told the press. He had, apparently, said as much in a personal call to Breed prior to this afternoon’s press conference. “We all wish her the best. Because her success is San Francisco’s success.”
Update, 3:15 p.m.: London Breed introduced herself to the gathered crowd of perhaps 200 people on City Hall’s front steps as San Francisco’s president of the board and future mayor. Her message was one of harmony, not acrimony. “My focus is not what happened on the campaign trail, it will be what San Francisco needs.” Breed mentioned a lack of housing and homelessness as her major priorities. “No matter who you voted for mayor, I will be your mayor too,” she said, repeating a campaign refrain.
The once and future mayor said she’d have additional remarks tomorrow, time and place to be determined.