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As Breed regains slim lead, mayoral cliffhanger echoes Oakland's 2010 race

June 10,2018 02:43

San Francisco Supervisor London Breed pulled ahead of former state Sen. Mark Leno on Saturday by just 498 votes in the race to become the city's next mayor, according to the latest round of preliminary election results.



Photo: Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

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Board of Supervisors President London Breed greets supporters on Wednesday, June 6, 2018. Breed pulled ahead of former state Sen. Mark Leno on Saturday by just 498 votes.
Board of Supervisors President London Breed greets supporters on Wednesday, June 6, 2018. Breed pulled ahead of former state Sen. Mark Leno on Saturday by just 498 votes.
Photo: Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

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Samantha Geronimo operates the mail-sorting machine at the Department of Elections in City Hall on Friday as San Francisco awaits a final result in the mayoral election.
Samantha Geronimo operates the mail-sorting machine at the Department of Elections in City Hall on Friday as San Francisco awaits a final result in the mayoral election.
Photo: Sarahbeth Maney / Special To The Chronicle

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Ballots are processed with a mail sorting machine at the Department of Elections in San Francisco.
Ballots are processed with a mail sorting machine at the Department of Elections in San Francisco.
Photo: Stephen Lam / Special To The Chronicle

As Breed regains slim lead, mayoral cliffhanger echoes Oakland’s 2010 race
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San Francisco Supervisor London Breed pulled ahead of former state Sen. Mark Leno on Saturday by just 498 votes in the race to become the city’s next mayor, according to the latest round of preliminary election results.

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As Breed regains slim lead, mayoral cliffhanger echoes Oakland’s 2010 race

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SF mayor’s race: Mark Leno retains slight lead over London Breed — 144 votes

Breed steadily chipped away at Leno’s paper-thin lead throughout the week, but on Saturday, she came out on top with 50.13 percent of the vote, compared with Leno’s 49.87 percent. That gives Breed 94,771 votes to Leno’s 94,273. Almost 42,000 ballots have yet to be counted.
As the tense waiting game to determine whether Leno or Breed will be the next mayor of San Francisco enters its fifth day, uneasy voters searching for answers in the mountain of uncounted ballots might consider some recent history in Oakland.
The 2010 come-from-behind victory that installed Jean Quan as mayor of Oakland over the heavily favored Don Perata has a number of striking similarities with the current San Francisco race that could offer a glimpse into the future of electioneering under the ranked-choice voting system both cities use.
“When you watch the San Francisco mayor’s race play out, it’s deja vu all over again,” said Larry Tramutola, a political consultant who managed Perata’s 2010 campaign.
Just as in the Oakland race eight years ago, two candidates in San Francisco’s race with similarly progressive political outlooks teamed up against a more moderate opponent who chose to go it alone. Under the ranked-choice system, voters select their favorite candidate as well as a second and third preference. If no candidate gains a majority, the votes from the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes get redistributed to their supporters’ second and third preferences. The process continues until a winner emerges.

Less than a month before election day, Leno and Supervisor Jane Kim jointly urged voters to list them as their top two picks on the June 5 ballot, mirroring in many ways what happened in Oakland.
Quan also endorsed another contender in the Oakland race, Rebecca Kaplan, trumpeting an “anyone but Don” campaign slogan and increasing the odds that one of them could beat Perata, who, like Breed, never endorsed another candidate in the race.

Election 2018

“It was pretty simple,” Quan said. “I knew that a lot of people were having a hard time deciding between me and Rebecca. So I said, ‘I get it if you’re going to vote for Rebecca, but I’d like your No. 2 vote,’” she said. “I wanted someone more like me to win. We were both women and we both supported pretty progressive causes.”
At the last mayoral debate in San Francisco, all candidates were asked whom they’d be selecting as their second choice on the ballot. Breed told the crowd, “My No. 2 choice was London Breed, and my No. 3 choice.”
“There was never a time where we considered having London run with someone else, as a team,” said Tara Moriarty, a spokeswoman for Breed’s campaign. “She stands strong on her own.”
An initial count of first-place votes in the Oakland mayor’s race put Perata in a comfortable lead: 35 percent to Quan’s 24 percent. Those results are nearly identical in San Francisco, with Breed holding on to a roughly 10-point lead over Leno in first-place votes.
But after the ranked-choice votes were tabulated, Quan surged ahead to a 2,058-vote victory, thanks to the fact that she won 75 percent of Kaplan’s second-place votes. Because of their reciprocal endorsement strategy, Leno has taken on around 77 percent of Kim’s second-place votes, once again echoing Oakland’s election.
“Jane Kim deserves a lot of credit if Mark Leno does indeed get elected mayor,” said Jason McDaniel, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University.
The parallels to the Oakland race don’t extend indefinitely, though. Over his many years in public office, Perata built up a negative reputation among some voters that rendered him particularly vulnerable to the Quan-Kaplan tag team. Breed, political observers say, isn’t viewed nearly as negatively as Perata was by much of the Oakland electorate in 2010, which could boost her chances of being a No. 2 or No. 3 selection on San Francisco ballots.
Photo: Sarahbeth Maney / Special To The Chronicle

Damian Buoni (left) and Dominic Buoni sort mail-in ballots for the mayoral election at S.F. City Hall on Friday as the count from Tuesday’s voting continues with no immediate end in sight.
Damian Buoni (left) and Dominic Buoni sort mail-in ballots for the...

Quan’s stunning victory caused a debate about the merits of ranked-choice voting, with critics of the system raising questions about whether it’s fair for a candidate who wins a plurality of votes to still lose an election — as Perata did. Should the lead flip back to Leno in the end, Breed’s supporters would have “perfectly legitimate” reasons to be upset, McDaniel said.
“The feeling of ‘We have a popular African American woman who got the most votes from across the city, and she’s not going to be mayor’ is something that’s very frustrating for people. That will fuel some grievances,” he said.
Steven Hill, an author and political consultant who drafted the charter amendments instituting ranked-choice voting in San Francisco and Oakland, warned against that line of thinking.
“You could have a plurality system to elect the mayor — the highest vote getter wins. But that means the mayor of Oakland would have won with 35 percent of the votes, which means two-thirds of voters would have preferred someone else. Is that a good system?” Hill said. “Once you go down that road, you realize there are no perfect electoral systems. They all have pluses and minuses.”
Proponents of ranked-choice voting also point out that cities save money by eliminating the need for a runoff election, which usually see scant turnout. John Arntz, director of the San Francisco Department of Elections, said the cost of a citywide runoff is about $3.5 million. San Francisco voters adopted the ranked-choice system in 2002 and have been using it since 2004.
But Tramutola, Perata’s campaign manager, and other critics of ranked-choice voting insist runoff elections provide the best way for voters to compare candidates head-to-head.
Political operatives on both sides of the ranked-choice debate agree that if a city is using the system, there is strength in numbers. Candidates, particularly those not considered front-runners or who are at risk of being outspent by their opponents, should consider teaming up.
“Candidates that don’t adopt a ranked-choice voting strategy are taking a risk,” McDaniel said, especially if the candidates’ political perspectives are well matched.
Tramutola hasn’t come around to ranked-choice voting since the 2010 election — he wasn’t fond of it then and he isn’t fond of it now. But with the benefit of eight years of hindsight, he said he’d likely do things differently if he had the chance.
“Every consultant is looking for an advantage. They aren’t looking at what’s best for democracy, they look at what it takes to win,” he said. “Philosophically, I would have had a problem (endorsing another candidate), but professionally, I probably would have done it, to be honest. You’d have to be a fool not to take advantage of that.”
Dominic Fracassa is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: dfracassa@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @dominicfracassa

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