SAN FRANCISCO — A former city official was tipped to become the first Chinese-American elected mayor of San Francisco, which has one of America’s oldest Chinatowns, after voters went to the polls Tuesday.
Although election results are not expected for several days, polls have shown interim Mayor Ed Lee — appointed last year to fill a gap — with a sizeable majority.
A survey conducted last month by the University of San Francisco and the local news agency The Bay Citizen showed Lee with more than 31 percent of the vote in the 16-candidate race.
Vincent Pan, head of civil rights group Chinese for Affirmative Action, said Lee’s likely election reflects the Chinese-American community’s growing presence on the West Coast city’s political scene.
“In the last three years, we’ve gone from being under-represented to having more representation,” Pan said.
“This is an important reflection point where the community has to appreciate how far we’ve come but also ask important questions about where we’re going,” he added.
Lee was a little-known city administrator when he was appointed interim mayor in January this year by then-mayor Gavin Newsom, who was elected to statewide office.
Although popular, Lee has faced controversy since entering the race. On being appointed he pledged not to run for mayor, and so angered other candidates when he changed his mind under pressure from political supporters.
His campaign has also been plagued by accusations that some backers have employed underhand and potentially illegal tactics in their efforts to round up votes for Lee. Lee has consistently denied involvement in any wrongdoing.
The interim mayor’s close ties to the city’s powerful political elite have also drawn scrutiny.
Ex-mayor Willie Brown, whose political dealings were once investigated by the FBI, has strongly supported Lee in the weekly column he now writes for the city’s major daily, the San Francisco Chronicle.
There are several other Chinese-American candidates in the race, including longtime state senator Leland Yee and city officials David Chiu and Phil Ting.
Although Lee is favorite to win, the city’s new system of voting, called “ranked-choice” or “instant runoff,” can produce surprises. The system is designed to prevent an expensive second round if no candidate wins a majority.
A recent survey by the popular local Chinese-language paper Sing Tao Daily found that roughly half of 325 Chinese-American voters surveyed were unaware or confused by the system.
Some 80 percent, though, said they would “absolutely” vote, according to the paper.