How An Unscrupulous Media Contrived To Ignore Opposition Candidates In the San Francisco Mayor Election

Tiny - Posted on 17 November 2015

Sana Saleem

On November 3rd, the people of San Francisco voted to elect a Mayor. A number of candidates stood to oppose the incumbent Mayor Ed Lee. In the weeks preceding the vote Bay Area publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle and the SF Examiner, and international publications like the New York Times, largely ignored campaigns run by opposition candidates.

Early on in the campaign, on December 8th last year, Heather Knight wrote in the SF Chronicle that “Mayor Ed Lee may have no challengers”, this misrepresentation of the campaign continued throughout the election campaign and even post-election.

On June 24, Business Insider wrote that Ed Lee faces a cakewalk to an ‘easy reelection’; the Editor of Mother Jones, tweeted:


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The misinformation continued. The San Francisco Magazine wrote an editorial titled: San Francisco Needed a Real Mayor's Race. Instead, It Got a Charade, in which it claimed without substantiation that those running against the incumbent are “a clown car of neophytes and eccentrics”; another article by the same publication argued There is no "movement" and certainly not the organized, cohesive campaign it would take to unseat the well-funded mayor”. Another publication, 48 Hills, published a number of articles discrediting opposition campaigns; the editor repeated the factually incorrect statement that Ed Lee was running effectively unopposed. 

Two days before the election on November 3, the SF Examiner published this incredulous frontpage:

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In response, local community activist Alyse Ceirante penned a letter to Editor of the SF Examiner explaining how headlines such as this keep voters away from polls. 

International media borrowed from the local playbook and repeated the same inaccuracies. In an unbalanced article titled “Battles in San Francisco, but not in Mayoral Race”, the New York Times claimed Ed Lee “is by every account gliding to re-election.” ‘Every account’ is a real stretch.   Similarly, the LA Times reported that Ed Lee was “expected to coast to victory”.  When these articles were published the streets of San Francisco were full of posters on the windows of independent shops supporting Francisco and the 1-2-3 platform. It may not have been a high profile candidacy but it was one supported by the local community and whose presence was wholly denied.

When lies are repeated often enough, the electorate begin to believe them.

Many would go on to say that the lack of media coverage wasn’t an intentional bias, that the  “no contest” headlines were merely a play of words, but what of the coverage post-election? Following decades of working at the grassroots level, Francisco Herrera, a community organizer and leader of the “People’s Campaign” to reclaim City Hall for the people of San Francisco, came second in the election. 

Photo credit Santiago Mejía via El Tecolote

He received over 15% of first choice votes on the first count and 32% when the #2 votes are included from the 1-2-3 voting platform; which he and other candidates, Stuart Schuffman and Amy Farah Weiss, ran on. Altogether, the 1-2-3 election alliance that the 3 candidates stood on received over 44% of the votes. This result was made possible because of San Francisco’s ranked choice voting system and the 1-2-3 to Replace Ed Lee election pact the candidates stood behind.

With no media coverage, receiving 44% of the votes in an election is a far cry from a “cakewalk”.

If we take this result and consider how the mainstream media totally ignored the opposition campaigns, it goes without saying that the results would have been very different if the media provided the same coverage to the opposition candidates as they did for the incumbent. A fair media coverage is integral to a fair election.

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Francisco Herrera and the 1-2-3 electoral platform actually defeated Ed Lee in a number of neighborhoods, including Bernal Heights, Haight Ashbury, Western Addition, the Mission District and many others.


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Image sourced from Vote 1-2-3 to Replace Ed Lee Facebook page.

Even after the election, when Francisco had been voted for by 44% of the electorate, a SF Chronicle columnist wrote another unsubstantiated and audacious conspiracy theory, claiming that the reason Francisco received so many votes was because he shared the surname as City Attorney, Dennis Herrera.

However, Dennis Herrera’s name was on the same ballot running for City Attorney. How could people think he was running for Mayor as well? The reality is they couldn’t and didn’t. 

This final, cutting dig further demonstrates the inability of the so called ‘intelligentsia’ from understanding what the people of San Francisco are going through or seek to better manage their city. The commentators are so far removed from what’s going on in the neighborhoods and in our streets they need to invent unsubstantiated and farcical lies to make sense of these results.  

Why Did Practically All Media Ignore the Opposition Candidates?

It was accurate and fair to say Mayor Ed Lee wasn’t running against any household names, but in the run up to the election when the streets of San Francisco were lined with 1-2-3 posters, the candidates were speaking regularly on independent radio stations, performing better than Ed Lee at a campaign debate, and active on social media, it’s not easy to excuse how media ignored candidates like Francisco Herrera.

Poor Magazine caught up with Francisco, a well respected community organizer and musician from San Francisco. For over two decades Francisco has been heavily involved in the community, setting up homeless shelters, fighting gentrification and standing up for the rights of the working people. Francisco’s platform stood to make San Francisco a working family friendly city again, he supported the Poor People’s Network Homefulness policy and was endorsed by large a number of leading rights groups in the city, including the SF Green Party, SF Tenants’ Union, Tom Ammiano, SEIU Local 1021, AFT 2121, who are amongst the strongest unions in the city.

We asked Francisco about why he thought mainstream media ignored his campaign:

I called and tweeted to many reporters. I asked them to sit down with me to discuss why I was running for Mayor of San Francisco. I wanted to explain to them that I may not be a household name but that there is a large number of people living in this city who don’t like how the city is being run. I stood for these people. However, they refused to cover our campaign.

It's been a very interesting race to see the level of corruption that exists in the press. I spent time as a human rights worker in El Salvador during the war and knew a young reporter called Phil Bronstien, who would fact check his stories. Phil later went on to become editor of the SF Chronicle. During the Mayor’s race, I didn’t see any fact checking nor integrity in the reporting of the election.”

With little to no coverage, Francisco ranked second in this election. It was solely the credibility of two decades of community work that got these votes for Francisco, not media coverage. Other candidates, such as Ed Lee, depend on and need a complicit media to be elected.

Money Talks in San Francisco Politics

An interesting aspect of the election was campaign finances. With support from city elites, Ed Lee’s campaign fund raised over $1m USD, in comparison to his opposition whose supporters weren’t able to contribute nearly as much. That being said, each vote cost Ed Lee $19.78, while for each vote Francisco received, he spent on $0.75 campaigning. One can only imagine what the result would have been if big money wasn’t allowed to interfere in our electoral process.

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Why Does It Matter That The Media Ignored The Opposition?

It matters because by ignoring the opposition candidates existence the vast majority of voters were not aware of all the candidates positions or what they stood for. Elections cannot be considered “fair” if some candidates are completely ignored and written off by the media for no particular reason. Oftentimes mainstream US media and the US government criticize what they call ‘dictatorships’ and authoritarian governments when incumbent candidates run for election without challengers. They criticize countries such as China, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and others who typically elect the candidate the powers that be want to be re-elected.

What difference do you see here in the San Francisco mayor election?



Sana Saleem is a writer and activist, based in the Bay Area.


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