San Francisco On Fence In High-Drama Race

Voters focus on issues - crime, homelessness, and city services - more than colorful cast in mayoral contest

SAN FRANCISCO'S mayoral race has all the elements of high drama: a down-to-the-wire three-way tie between extraordinarily diverse and unusual candidates, each of whom promises to solve the critical issues facing the city, one of the country's last bastions of urban liberalism.

Yet, despite early predictions, the race isn't captivating voters. With the election only one day away, voters are just now grappling with the choices before them: incumbent Mayor Frank Jordan, a former police chief who came to the job in 1991 with no political experience; former Speaker of the California Assembly Willie Brown, one of the most powerful and flamboyant black politicians in the country; and Roberta Achtenberg, a former city supervisor and federal housing official under Clinton, who would be the first openly lesbian mayor of a major city.

But beyond the race's colorful cast of characters, the front-runners offer three distinct backgrounds in political experience that offer a test of voters' attitudes about the effectiveness of citizen vs. career politicians.

Can a relative political newcomer such as Jordan be reelected? Will voters select Ms. Achtenberg, running as a political outsider promising government reform? And, with voter's low regard for California government, can Brown - the consummate dealmaker - be elected in the hope that he can apply his 15 years of experience as Speaker to steer San Francisco through lean times?

The race is also being watched as an indication of the strength and staying power of liberal politics. "If liberal candidates, even in San Francisco, are defeated, it will cast a pall over those who look to the city for hope and inspiration as the Democratic Party is collapsing and Republicans are gathering steam," says Richard DeLeon, a political scientist at San Francisco State University.

Most residents believe the city is on the wrong track and that the election is critical to its future. Instead of the race or sexual orientation of the candidates, voters are focused on several key issues: homelessness, crime, the local economy, and city services. Of paramount concern is the $600 million in federal funding the city stands to lose over the next seven years.

But American voters, including San Franciscans, are increasingly cynical about the election process. Polls suggest city voters remain ambivalent because the candidates have not provided thoughtful solutions to serious problems. They also show voters remain disenchanted with what they perceive as the negatives of the candidates.

The biggest challenge for Mayor Jordan, who is considered a conservative here and who campaigns primarily on law-and-order issues, is to convince voters that San Francisco has made "quiet, steady progress," says Jordan aide Sean Clegg.

Jordan highlights a reduction in city crime, four balanced budgets, increased employment, a crackdown on homeless people through a controversial Matrix program, and a plan for a youth curfew. But many voters feel the city is drifting under Jordan and find him predictable and dull - an image he tried to dispel with the release of a photograph showing him and two radio reporters, all ostensibly naked, in his shower. (The photo was cropped from the waist up.)

Since June, when he entered the race to widespread fanfare, Brown has been subjected to relentless scrutiny by journalists and nonstop attacks by Jordan. The mayor has shifted the focus of his campaign from his own record to Brown's as a state capital power broker with ties to special interests.

But Brown can withstand the spotlight far better than most politicians, analysts say. He has hit back at Jordan and questioned his effectiveness. He wants to dismantle the Matrix program, arrest crack dealers, revamp city hall, and boost the economy.

Brown has the endorsement of the Democratic Party and has raised the largest amount of money. He has toned down his flamboyance and tried to convince voters that his political expertise, energy, and connections can be harnessed for the city's good. Although expectations about Brown were high, polls show that many voters remain undecided about him and will make a last-minute decision. "He's moved from working the cloakrooms of Sacramento to the fishbowl of San Francisco," says DeLeon.

In contrast to the character attacks between Brown and Jordan, Achtenberg has run a restrained campaign. She pitches an idealistic platform of city reform and grassroots activism with few specifics.

Because Brown is so well-known, Achtenberg has had to "run against two incumbents," says aide Darren Seaton. Yet she has benefited from Brown's troubles and has syphoned some of his support. Many voters, however, worry about her inexperience, question her motives for leaving a hard-won Washington job, and find her uncharismatic.

The candidates have been criticized for waging lackluster campaigns. But they have had to work hard to reach San Francisco's diverse communities. "Unlike other cities, San Francisco demands a very serious level of grass-roots politics," says John Whitehurst, a Democratic strategist, who notes that more than 200 groups have held forums for the candidates over six months.

Pollsters predict that none of the candidates will win a majority Nov. 7 and that the two who qualify for the December runoff will be decided by the crucial 15 to 20 percent of still undecided voters. Polls also show that both Brown and Achtenberg would defeat Jordan in a one-on-one match-up.

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