Race Barrier May Topple as Voters Pick Mayor

San Francisco – This city with the country’s oldest Chinatown appears likely to elect a Chinese-American mayor for the first time on Tuesday, and for many residents it is a milestone long overdue.

“Chinese-Americans feel that they are making history,” said David E. Lee, executive director of the nonpartisan Chinese American Voters Education Committee here. “They feel they are on the cusp of achieving the holy grail of San Francisco politics, electing one of their own into the mayor’s office.”

Edwin M. Lee, who was appointed to the office on an interim basis last fall after Mayor Gavin Newsom was elected lieutenant governor, is considered a strong favorite, although his support has dwindled in recent days as opponents in a scattered field of 16 seized on reports of campaign irregularities by some of his supporters.

Drawn by the historic nature of the vote, though, the city’s ethnic Chinese, making up a quarter of the population and 16 percent of registered voters, are expected to turn out in unusually large numbers, David Lee said.

Ed Lee, a trim man with a moustache, had spent years running city agencies, most recently as the city’s top administrator, when he was chosen for the interim mayor’s job. The city of 800,000 faced a large deficit and intense bickering between the mayor and the Board of Supervisors and was ready, many said, for a technocrat. Over the last year, Mr. Lee’s admirers say, he cut spending and overhauled pensions with little acrimony and has done of good job of promoting development.

Although he had taken the interim job with a firm pledge that he would not run this fall, powerful backers formed a “Run, Ed, Run” committee and he joined the race in August. He has endorsements from heavyweights like Mr. Newsom, former Mayor Willie Brown and influential leaders in the Chinese-American community — and, to the chagrin of other candidates who had taken that no-run pledge seriously, he has learned to work the wards like any politician.

In a city where political views tend to range from liberal to very liberal, the campaign has consisted less of ideological debates than of personal appeals and attacks. Mr. Lee, 59, emphasizes his competence, with posters declaring “Ed Lee Gets It Done.”

Mr. Lee’s entry into the race pulled the rug out from under others who had a similar centrist appeal, like Dennis Herrera, the city attorney; Leland Yee, a state senator who has labor union support; and David Chiu, who is president of the Board of Supervisors and was endorsed by The San Francisco Chronicle for a commitment to “shake things up at City Hall.”

Mr. Lee’s opponents say that he has destroyed his credibility and that he is too close to a shadowy establishment that runs the city for its own benefit.

“Ed Lee is too beholden to power brokers,” Mr. Yee said in an interview as he greeted commuters in a subway station. “He’s hiding behind unregistered lobbyists and consultants.”

Mr. Yee, Mr. Herrera and other critics particularly mention Mr. Lee’s close ties to Mr. Brown, the former mayor and a lawyer and consultant to developers, and to Rose Pak, a powerful business consultant and political fund-raiser in Chinatown.

Aaron Peskin, chairman of the city’s Democratic Party and a former Board of Supervisors president, was blunt. “Ed Lee’s election will mean the resurrection of the political machine of the Willie Brown era,” he said, including favoritism in contracts and appointments.

In an interview at his campaign headquarters in the depressed mid-Market corridor, where the city is promoting new development, Mr. Lee bristled at the charges. “I’ve not been in the pockets of anybody,” he said. “Willie is a big supporter, but he never tells me what to do.”

His accomplishments, Mr. Lee said, speak for themselves.

The portrayal of Mr. Lee as part of an old-guard machine gained some currency in recent weeks as evidence surfaced, in The Bay Citizen and The Chronicle, that independent groups were helping Chinese-American voters fill out absentee ballots for Mr. Lee and collecting them, and that a property manager had promised to repay employees who donated $500 each to the Lee campaign.

Mr. Lee said he had no connection to these groups.

Predictions are complicated by the city’s unusual ranked-choice voting system, in which voters name their first, second and third choices. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the one with the least number of first-place votes is dropped, and the second choices of those who had picked that eliminated candidate are redistributed. The process repeats itself, dipping into third-place choices, if necessary, until someone has a majority.

The system can yield surprises: in Oakland, using the same approach, the candidate with the most first-place votes ended up, after eight days of counting and uncertainty, losing to Jean Quan, a candidate who had received more second and third place votes.

But the system gives a big advantage to a popular incumbent, said Corey D. Cook, a political scientist at the University of San Francisco.

Mr. Lee enjoys high support in the Chinese community and is also viewed favorably in most other groups, meaning that people with a different first choice are likely to put him second or third on their ballots, leading to ultimate victory, Mr. Cook said.

But private polls have suggested a tightening of the race in the last two weeks, he said, making the contest “interesting.”

One candidate who seems to have gained ground is Mr. Herrera, the city attorney, who is popular with gay voters, another large bloc here, for his strong efforts on behalf of same-sex marriage (a cause that all the major candidates support). He has also opposed a costly new subway line, which would bring the system up to Chinatown and is firmly promoted by Mr. Lee and others.

John Avalos, a member of the Board of Supervisors who is seen in San Francisco as a progressive because he prefers, for example, protecting renters to fostering new higher-end developments, is making a strong last-minute appeal from the left.

The Occupy San Francisco encampments, in a park and on a busy sidewalk, were a potential minefield for the interim mayor. Mr. Lee initially demanded that the tents come down. But after seeing the violent clashes across the bay in Oakland, he softened his tone and now says the city will work with the demonstrators.

In the interview, Mr. Lee said he was not all that excited about the prospect of being the first elected Chinese-American mayor, in part because he is already in the post and because “I’ve been the first of several things before.”

But Ms. Pak, the Chinatown consultant who is close to Mr. Lee and Mr. Brown, said a major reason for pushing Mr. Lee to run was to make sure that a Chinese-American would finally be elected to the city’s top post.

She and fellow Chinatown leaders concluded that candidates like Mr. Yee and Mr. Chiu were unlikely to win, she said. “We realized that if Ed Lee doesn’t run, then we’ll wait another 50 years.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: November 7, 2011

An earlier version of this article mis-stated the name of a news organization that had reported on independent groups helping Chinese-American voters fill out absentee ballots for Mr. Lee and collecting them. It is The Bay Citizen, not The Bay Observer.