Lee needs to make a decision

Pub date May 24, 2011


The moment Ed Lee accepted the job as interim mayor — with the strong support of former Mayor Willie Brown and Chinatown powerbroker Rose Pak — we knew that the word “interim” would soon be in play.

Lee promised he wouldn’t run in November, and for some supervisors (particularly Sean Elsbernd, who nominated Lee) that was a deal breaker: Elsbernd told us he wouldn’t vote for anyone who wanted to seek a full term. But immediately some of Lee’s supporters began pushing him — quietly and not-so-quietly — to go back on his word and announce his candidacy.

Last week, a fake “draft Ed Lee” campaign emerged and got front-page treatment in the San Francisco Chronicle, despite the fact that it was orchestrated entirely by two political consultants. And word around City Hall is that Lee faces immense pressure to get in the race — and hasn’t entirely ruled it out.

That’s a problem. Lee is heading into a crucial budget season and will be negotiating with, and making deals with, a wide range of constituency groups. Everyone in town needs to know, now, what sort of mayor is running the show — a caretaker trying to get San Francisco through a rough time until a duly elected replacement can take office, or an ambitious politician looking at how to leverage this appointment into a four-year gig.

Lee has every right to run for mayor, and the filing deadline isn’t until August. By law, and political tradition, he can wait until the last minute to tell the city how he plans to spend the fall. And the fact that he promised not to run shouldn’t be an absolute bar: we never endorsed the idea of a caretaker mayor in the first place. What if Lee does a great job? What if the voters overwhelmingly want him to stick around? Why should that be off the table?

Still, this waiting game and this ongoing round of rumors and back-room discussions isn’t good for the city. If Lee wants to run, he needs to announce it now. If he’s not going to run, he needs to tell everyone — starting with Brown, Pak, and his other top backers — that he’s simply not going to do it, that he’s not changing his mind, and that they have to stop pushing him and making noise about it.

There are other candidates in the race, some directly involved in making city policy. When Sup. David Chiu talks about his budget priorities, we know exactly whom we’re dealing with — a board president who wants to be mayor. When City Attorney Dennis Herrera takes on the tricky job of running for mayor while serving as an impartial city legal officer, we know what the conflicts are. It’s not fair to them, or to anyone else, to be dealing with a mayor who may have secretly promised his supporters (who are also players and lobbyists at City Hall) that he’s getting into the race.

Lee may be personally undecided — but he can’t manage the city this way. He has to give San Franciscans a straight, and final, answer: is he running or not? Otherwise all these behind-the-scenes whispers, involving some very shady political operators, will fatally undermine his credibility.