San Francisco's interim Mayor Ed Lee is poised to become its first elected mayor of Chinese descent, a political milestone for a city where Chinese-Americans now account for a quarter of the electorate.

Lee, a one-time civil rights lawyer and career civil servant who had never run for elected office, has campaigned as a pragmatist who can tackle the city's chronic budget problems.

He faces 15 opponents in the November 8 election and has a wide lead in polls, though a relatively new electoral system known as ranked-choice voting adds a wildcard element to the race.

Lee's appointment as acting mayor in January was an acknowledgment of the Chinese-American community's growing political clout, said political consultant Sam Singer.

Over the course of the last decade they've made significant inroads in San Francisco's politics, Singer said.

Lee was tapped by the Board of Supervisors to succeed former Mayor Gavin Newsom, who was elected California's lieutenant governor last November, in part because he pledged to not run for a full term. But in August Lee plunged into the race, with strong support from business.

Nearly all of his leading opponents -- including the city attorney, the city assessor, two members of the board of supervisors and a state senator -- are City Hall insiders and have few major policy differences.

The election is non-partisan, so the party affiliations of the candidates will not be listed on the ballot in this heavily Democratic city.

San Francisco's next mayor will need to close a budget deficit estimated at $350 million for next year. The city has weathered the economic downturn comparatively well thanks to a booming high-tech sector.

But like other U.S. cities, San Francisco faces fiscal problems as a result of lower tax revenues, higher unemployment, and ballooning public employee pension and benefit costs.

Lee counts an agreement with the city's unions on a pension reform measure as the signature achievement of his 10 months in office. Voters will be asked to approve that measure on November 8, although a competing proposition that requires more sacrifices from public employee unions will also be on the ballot.

Lee has also aggressively courted tech companies, including Twitter and the online gaming juggernaut Zynga, offering tax breaks to keep them in the city. Most of the leading candidates have also supported those efforts.


An October poll by the University of San Francisco and The Bay Citizen, a local news organization, showed Lee with a wide lead.

However, Lee appears short of the support needed in the city's ranked-choice voting system to win the race outright.

It doesn't look like anybody is going to hit the magic 50 percent plus one in the first round, said Gautam Dutta, an election-law attorney and executive director of the Asian American Action Fund political action committee.

Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, allows San Franciscans to pick first, second and third choice candidates.

If no candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes, then the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated; voters who selected that candidate will have their vote given to their second-choice candidate, and all votes will be recounted. The process repeats until a candidate receives 50 percent plus one vote.

Supporters say the system produces outcomes acceptable to more voters. Opponents say it is confusing, and point to the election last year of Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, another Chinese-American, as an example of the hazards.

In the Oakland race, former California Senate President Don Perata had by far the most first-choice votes in the initial tally but fell short of a majority.

Quan was a distant second but as other candidates were dropped, she gained their votes and went on to beat Perata, once California's top lawmaker, by 51 percent to 49 percent.

Her performance as mayor, and especially her response to the protests associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement, have since been harshly criticized.

Lee does not appear at risk of meeting Perata's fate. Chinese-Americans voters are expected to turn out big on Tuesday and the Bay Citizen/University of San Francisco poll suggested they will decisively back him despite the presence of several other Chinese American candidates.