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San Francisco elects its first Chinese American mayor

Interim Mayor Ed Lee ultimately wins 61% of the vote in the 'ranked choice' balloting. During the bitter campaign, a number of his 15 opponents accused him of reneging on a promise not to run.

November 10, 2011|By Lee Romney and Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from San Francisco -- Interim Mayor Ed Lee won a four-year term by a solid margin, a vote tally Wednesday showed, making him the first Chinese American elected to lead a city where a fourth of the voters are of Chinese descent.

The results capped a bitter campaign in which a number of Lee's 15 opponents accused him of reneging on a promise not to run. More recently, criminal investigations of alleged money laundering and ballot tampering shadowed Lee's supporters.

Lee strongly denounced the purported wrongdoing, and ultimately voters decided that the soft-spoken candidate, who campaigned on job creation and his 10-month record of collaborative governance, deserved a full term.

"What did they care about? It's still the economy," said David Latterman, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. He said voter rejection of a sales tax hike, approval of two bond measures and the victory of a moderate district attorney also spoke to the city's centrist bent.

Lee, 59, a former tenants rights attorney turned city bureaucrat, was appointed to the interim job in January to fill the seat of now-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

San Francisco voters also elected another appointed leader — Dist. Atty. George Gascon — to a full term. Gascon, the former police chief, had filled the seat of Kamala Harris when she became state attorney general.

Meanwhile, left-leaning Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi appeared to be edging out moderate opposition to replace the city's longtime liberal sheriff after a record 32-year run.

"I am profoundly grateful that San Francisco voters have given me four more years to keep our city moving in the right direction," Lee said in a brief and emotional appearance outside his office. "Let us work together with a renewed sense of commitment toward creating jobs and improving neighborhoods for our entire city."

In a statement Wednesday, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco called the election of the first Asian American to the city's highest office "a point of pride for all San Franciscans." Pelosi gave a nod of approval to Lee's focus on fostering high-tech jobs and said he brings "a record of accomplishment and a demonstrated ability to bring people together to address our toughest challenges — growing the economy and creating jobs."

Lee had failed to pass the 50% mark with first-choice votes tallied Tuesday night, which kicked in the city's "instant runoff" or "ranked choice" voting system. Lee emerged victorious in the 11th round of counting, with 61% of the vote to second-place John Avalos' 39%.

The system, which allows voters to rank their three top choices, works this way: If no one breaks the 50% mark, the candidate who fared worst is eliminated and the votes of those who favored that candidate are transferred to their second choice. The rounds of tallying and elimination are repeated until a victor emerges with more than 50% of the votes in play.

Turnout was fairly dismal, at a third of registered voters. The showing left startled analysts to conclude that Lee's quick rise to front-runner status, the clumped field of largely like-minded opponents and negative campaigning by many seeking to dethrone him took a toll.

"It certainly wasn't the weather," said political consultant Alexander Clemens. "San Francisco prides itself on being a politically sophisticated and active city, but voter turnout under 40% for a mayor's race makes it hard to justify that claim with a straight face. It's nothing to celebrate about."

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