The race to become the next mayor of San Francisco has begun to take shape with a list of eight serious contenders that reads like a who's who of city politics.
The candidates vying to fill the vacancy left by Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom include three Asian-American elected officials competing in a city that is nearly one-third Asian but has never elected an Asian-American mayor. The number of candidates is expected to grow in the months leading up to an Aug. 12 deadline.
Adding to the unpredictability, the Nov. 8 election also will be the first test of the city's ranked-choice voting system in a competitive mayor's race, and the first time mayoral candidates can take advantage of new public financing rules offering a hefty boost of taxpayer money to participants who surpass certain fundraising thresholds.
Political experts and campaign insiders say these factors will help keep some lesser-known hopefuls competitive and encourage a shift away from cutthroat campaigning by rewarding candidates who form strategic alliances.
Ranked-choice, or instant-runoff, voting allows voters to select up to three candidates for a single office. If no candidate receives a majority of first-choice selections, the last-place candidate is eliminated and voters who chose that candidate will have their votes transferred to their second-choice candidate _ a process that repeats until one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. The system has been used in mayor's races in nearby cities as well as races for other San Francisco offices, including city supervisor.
"San Francisco politics is somewhat of a blood sport, but this mayor's race is going to show the culture starting to turn," said Steven Hill, a political reform advocate who ran the successful citywide campaign for ranked-choice voting in 2002. "You win by finding common ground with opponents and building coalitions, and you don't win by getting into a 'me-against-you' situation."
The San Francisco mayor's job has long been a stepping stone to higher-ranking positions, with two former California governors and U.S. senators once holding the position, including current Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Willie Brown and Newsom are among the more recent well-known former mayors.
Though San Francisco is home to the largest percentage of Asian Americans of any county in the continental U.S., it never had an Asian-American leader until Edwin Lee was appointed interim mayor in January. The appointment energized the Asian-American community, and turnout in November is expected to be high.
Some observers predict the three Asian-American candidates _ state Sen. Leland Yee, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu and Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting _ may form their own slate on the ballot, whether they intend to or not.
"It is likely that the three Asian-American candidates will split the vote on the first counting of rank-choice voting, but the candidate who can skillfully garner the second and third preferences from Asian-American and other voters throughout the city will prevail," said Don Nakanishi, director emeritus of the UCLA Asian Studies Center.
The structure of ranked-choice voting will help ensure that Yee, Chiu and Ting don't cancel each other out as they compete for that powerful voting bloc, said Jim Stearns, Yee's campaign consultant.
"Now, multiple candidates from the same community can inspire additional commitment, enthusiasm and turnout in that community, and ultimately benefit the top vote-getter with the second- and third-place votes of the other candidates," he said.
The math could get more complicated if Lee yields to mounting outside pressure and decides to try to hold on to his position. He has so far insisted he's not interested in staying beyond his interim term and instead hopes to resume his former role as city administrator.
So far, the talk of coalitions remains talk, and it's unclear what partnerships will ultimately develop among the current crop of hopefuls, which also includes City Attorney Dennis Herrera; former city supervisors Bevan Dufty, Tony Hall and Michela Alioto-Pier; and venture capitalist Joanna Rees.
But recent elections in and around San Francisco have served as cautionary tales about the risks of going it alone. In two city supervisor races and the mayor's races in Oakland and San Leandro last fall, the candidate who received the majority of first-choice votes in the initial tally ultimately lost.
"If they weren't aware before, they ought to be aware now that the typical strategy of setting yourself apart is not a wise strategy this time around," Francis Neely, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University, said of this year's mayoral contenders.
That message has not been lost on Herrera and Yee, the two candidates who have taken an early lead in fundraising.
"At this point, ranked-choice voting won't just affect our strategy, it is our strategy," said Stearns, who added that the campaign plans to work closely with other candidates.
Alliances will likely form in full public view rather than behind closed doors, said Herrera campaign spokeswoman Jill Nelson.
"Many organizations will endorse more than one candidate, and you may even see candidates endorsing others for second choice," she said.
The hypotheticals may sound complicated, but there's little risk of voters getting overwhelmed, said Richard DeLeon, a longtime political analyst and professor emeritus of political science at San Francisco State. He predicted that four or five "lead players" would emerge from the pack well before Election Day.
"San Francisco has a very high level of political activism and civic engagement at all levels, and people here will sort things out pretty quickly," he said. "And like any election, one candidate could suddenly come in and clear the field."