Inside The Grassroots Effort To Recall Mayor Ed Lee

It’s funny to think that back in 2011, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee enjoyed the broad consensus support of San Francisco voters specifically because he vowed not to seek re-election to that office.

Fast forward five years, and the one-time interim placeholder is now a twice-elected mayor — but one whose approval ratings are well below the 50 percent threshold. Mayor Lee remains stubbornly unpopular, and the routine booing he receives at public appearances has become such a running joke that it’s not even funny anymore.

The public’s discontent with Lee has given rise to an effort to recall him from office, but a possible recall measure will not appear on this November’s already crowded ballot. The movement is indeed underway, but the petition drive to get on the ballot has not yet collected even its first signature. And the recall is not driven by any of the challengers who ran against Lee in his November 2015 re-election. Instead, the Committee To Recall Ed Lee 2016 is finalizing its petition after months of what its advocates see as roadblocks put up by the Department of Elections.

“The petitions are being held hostage,” says Mike Murphy, a Green Party of California coordinating committee member and co-organizer of the recall effort. “[Elections director] John Arntz has done everything in his power to block the recall process. We have some concerns that he’s working with the City Attorney and the Mayor’s office to do so.”

The recall committee’s reasons for wanting to remove the mayor from office are not uncommon sentiments among a San Francisco electorate unhappy with the mayor’s performance.

“The political process in the city is being hijacked for the benefit of wealthy investors in real estate,” Murphy tells SF Weekly. “That’s created all sorts of problems, including criminalization of the homeless and the SFPD scandals.”

Many progressives believe that when the SFPD targets of people of color and the homeless, it’s because they wish to gentrify certain areas like the Mission and Bayview Hunter’s Point, Murphy believes.

“We’re looking at another tax increase, even at a time when there’s more wealth in the city than we’ve ever had,” Murphy continues, referring to the Lee-endorsed sales tax. “Tax breaks for corporations have largely fueled an atmosphere where we don’t see the benefits of this influx of new wealth. Instead, we pay for the new infrastructure for the new industry that’s coming to town.”

(Lee’s office declined to comment for this article.)

The effort to recall the mayor began just months after his January inauguration to a second term, but organizers faced their first hurdle in a required six-month waiting period between the inauguration and the Department of Elections’ approval of the recall petition. That petition might be approved this week, or it might be sent back to organizers for yet more revisions.

Recall organizers argue that this petition has been singled out and assigned extra administrative hassles and hurdles.

“When I walked in with documents for the recall, I was met by four armed deputy sheriffs,” Murphy says. “It’s a completely different scenario when you present a threat like this to the establishment.”

Still, the drive appears likely to begin gathering signatures this month. “We’re potentially going to have the petitions on the street by, say, the third week of August or maybe the first week of September,” says David Carlos Salaverry, treasurer of the Committee to Recall Ed Lee and co-author of the petition.

The nuts and bolts of a recall drive are fairly complex. From the moment organizers gather their first signature, they then have 160 days in which they must acquire a total of 47,000 signatures from registered San Francisco voters. Since an estimated 30% of signatures routinely get rejected, organizers feel they actually need to collect 60,000 signatures by the end of January 2017. With little funding and an all-volunteer effort, this is an exceptionally tall order.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say that recall advocates do collect these 60,000 signatures by January. “At that point, a complicated clock begins,” Salaverry explained. “The Department of Elections has 30 days to respond, to count our signatures and then call a special election if we have the proper number.”  

Yes, a successful recall petition would require the holding of a special election, not your regular November election. That special election would then be held sometime between February and June of 2017. So if recall advocates can get the 47,000 valid signatures, and then get more than 50 percent of voters to approve removing Mayor Lee from office in a probably low-turnout special election, then Ed Lee’s tenure as mayor would end and his position would be filled by the President of the Board of Supervisors. (That would be London Breed, for those of you keeping score at home).

Recall opponents rightly point out that the cost of a special, off-year recall election is sure to run in the millions, and will come out of taxpayers’ wallets. But recall supporters argue that taxpayers are already on the losing end of the Ed Lee economy.

“We don’t dispute that the recall special election is costly to the taxpayers, we are all taxpayers ourselves,” says recall co-organizer Jon Foreman. “The investment in San Francisco’s future is far less if we stop the machine in its tracks now rather than [having] thousands more displaced, forced to the streets, left destitute, arrested or murdered so they can play Monopoly with our lives and the greatest city in the world.”

“And further,” he continues, “had John Arntz and the Department of Elections not violated the law and their sworn oath to uphold the constitution and City Charter by categorically refusing to do their job and accept our original petition, then the special election would not have been necessary because we could have gotten the recall on the November [2016] ballot.”

It’s not certain that Arntz and company violated the law or their oaths to office, nor is it even certain that Ed Lee himself sees the recall effort as a particularly unwelcome development. According to reporting in San Francisco magazine, the mayor’s supporters have been working the phones to raise money — big money — to fight the recall. There are no limits on recall contributions San Francisco’s Joe Eskenazi reports that Lee’s fundraisers have been soliciting a “five-digit ask” as opposed to regular election campaign contributions that are limited to $3,000 per individual per calendar year.

But the recall advocates hint that they’ve identified their own resources in the massive uphill fight they face. “We have a few tricks up our sleeve yet that have us very confident in our underdog odds,” Foreman tells SF Weekly.

Financial advantages or disadvantages aside, it’s far from a sure thing that a measure to recall Ed Lee will acquire the tens of thousands of signatures needed to conduct a special election. And even if they do, the recall effort is not guaranteed to pass and it certainly won’t have any allies at City Hall. “If we’re not given the opportunity to participate in a fair electoral process  — which includes the recall, it’s a constitutional right  —  then we can’t count on the votes being counted properly either,” Salaverry says. “It’s a bit scary.”

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