SF Mayoral Race: Caricature or Photo? Leland Yee and Jeff Adachi on the Streets of San Francisco

Why caricature? Do you know this guy?

This past week, you can tell San Francisco is different from other places.  You won’t see a week like this one anywhere else (except maybe Honolulu) when two (of the six) Asian Americans vying for mayor grace the covers of both regional free weeklies.

And it’s not just a strip headline or a sentence teaser, it’s the entire cover.

Calif. State Senator Leland Yee’s the cover boy of the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

A simple photo is all that's needed at this point, folks.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi fronts the latest SF Weekly.

I’ll have more to say about the articles in sec.

But about those images.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, it’s worth asking why the weekly choose a caricature for Adachi, rather than a normal smiling pol photo like the one the Bay  Guardian used for Yee.

Sure, artistic license comes into play. But why risk the danger with caricature when caricature isn’t necessary?  

I get it that the Weekly was illustrating how Adachi’s pension reform plan is a gamble. So here’s Jeff pushing “all in” as if in a poker game where the chips are mixed in with icons of the city as if Muni, City Hall, the Pyramid were like Monopoly’s thimble, top hat, and spinning wheel. Cool.

But caricature requires physical exaggeration. And it requires the subject to have some relative fame. In the past, when all the big power held among a homogenous circle, it was no big deal to make fun of public figures’ bulbous noses and hairy eyebrows. And besides, everyone knew what aspects of these figures were worth satirizing.

But in the SF Mayor’s race, when you have an unprecedented amount of diversity (Asian-wise) you’re asking for trouble.

In Washington, D.C. in the late 80s, Regardie’s Magazine got in trouble for depicting then Mayor Marion Barry on it’s cover. The caricature accentuated his big lips.

On SF Weekly’s cover only Adachi’s big head and slicked back hair get exaggerated here, fortunately. The Asian eyes and nose look normal, somewhat realistic to me. No slits, slants, or pug, thank goodness. But again, why risk it? Adachi’s not that famous to warrant the treatment. In fact, show the photo and most would say, “Whodat?” Besides, the caricature has to be more realistic than not so that people will “get it.”  So what’s the point? Why not just run a real photo so people will say, “Oh, you mean that guy.”

We are in a unusual time when there are 5 major Asian American candidates for mayor including the incumbent who still isn’t exactly widely recognizable.

Until all the candidates are, photos please.

Now about the articles:

The Weekly’s article frames the race for mayor as a parallel issue to the ballot measure on pension reform.

Adachi, with big backing from billionaire (and former journalist) Michael Moritz, wants to make workers contribute more into their city pensions. It would save the city huge amounts in the short term but it may not be legal, and it could be thrown out in court. So why bother?  Could it just a  grandstanding play that gins up instant mayoral credibility for Adachi?

The article compares Adachi’s plan with the city’s plan which is being pushed by current Mayor Ed Lee.

Lee’s plan is apparently loved by all the bureaucrats, is very technical, and likely more defensible in court. It just doesn’t go as far to deal with the ongoing issue of unfunded mandates like city pensions. Or at least not far enough for Adachi/Moritz.

Framing the mayoral race in terms of pension reform however is only valuable if you think Jeff Adachi has a real chance at winning.

At this point, it’s likely not, especially if few people recognize the  caricature without prompting. Adachi will need a lot of money to fuel a two-headed race for mayor and reform. This may not be his time.

The Bay Guardian’s piece on Leland Yee is a more useful piece because it goes into Yee’s record and his evolution from conservative supe, to corporate legislator, to a hopeful among some progressives for mayor.

Tim Redmond’s piece is comprehensive and mostly fair, but focuses on the writer’s own bias. Like many longtime SFers, he hates what Willie Brown and the Democratic machine did to the city. He hates that it has become a playground to the rich and corporate and so unfriendly to working families and the poor.

As a native SFer, I tend to agree.

By talking to Rose Pak, the Chinatown activist, Redmond touches a nerve. Redmond smartly avoids the dirt Pak has Yee. “She told me a lot of stories and made a lot of allegations that we both knew neither she nor I could ever prove,” the story reports.

I’ve heard the same stories. Vicious, nasty stuff.  But I expect it from Pak.

Yee is an outsider to those inside the Chinatown/Willie Brown axis, and it scares them.

Their candidate is Mayor Ed Lee, a close friend of Pak’s and a late addition to the campaign. He had promised not to run. Who talked to him? Brown?

That connection may be the better frame to view the race than pension reform.

Redmond determines Yee to be fairly free of Brown machine taint.

Redmond: “For all his obvious flaws, at least Leland Yee isn’t part of that particular operation. If there’s a better reason to vote for him, I don’t know what is.”

So the two alt-weeklies have begun to frame the campaign.

No mention of David Chiu, or Phil Ting, or Wilma Pang.

Remember it’s Ranked Choice voting.

If you’re Asian and you vote Ed Lee, your second vote isn’t likely to be Yee. It might be Chiu.  Unless you don’t want Chiu or Ting, then it may be a Dennis Herrera or John Avalos. But then an Asian may not win at all if it goes to the second ballot.

I think it’s fairly clear no one will get a majority on the first ballot.

That’s why I still think Chiu may be best positioned to win…as a strategic second choice.

The race should also make people legitimately rethink rank-choice voting. It may save money, but it sure turns Democracy into a different game.