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Ed Lee Blows Off Mayoral Debate For Lower Haight Pub Crawl

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During Ed Lee's first few months as mayor, his mantra was, "I am not a politician."

At the time it made sense; the former City Administrator had only reluctantly accepted the offer to temporarily take up residence in City Hall's Room 200 and his pledge not to run for a full term precluded him from having to make the normal political calculations usually required of an office-holder beholden to voters.

Now that Lee has jumped into the race, the flip-side of his once-vaunted "not a politician" credo is starting to show—the mayor's political instincts haven't proved as sharp as those of some of his rivals, for whom the tricky dance of campaigning has become second nature.

Take, for example, Lee's decision to sit out of Thursday night's debate at the West Bay Conference Center sponsored by the Fillmore Neighborhood Association and the District 5 Democratic Club focusing on issues of concern to San Francisco's African American community.

Lee wasn't the only invited candidate to skip the debate—Supervisor David Chiu, City Attorney Dennis Herrera and City Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting also didn't attend (although Chiu and Herrera submitted videos of themselves answering questions). But Lee's excuse was the one that seemed the most like a slap in the face of the African American community. Instead of attending the debate, Lee was less than half a mile away chatting with constituents and downing pints during an impromptu pub crawl in the Lower Haight.

When word got out about Lee's alternative activity during the debate, the mayor was immediately pilloried by the other candidates. Fog City journal reports:

“As we sat up here, we got a Tweet,” announced former Supervisor and mayoral candidate Michela Alioto-Pier...“[San Francisco Chronicle columnist] Chuck Nevius just tweeted that he’s on a pub crawl with Ed Lee and Ed Lee says, ‘It’s more fun than debates.'"

"As we sit here in the middle of the African-American community talking about issues of extreme importance, looking you in the eye knowing that you are up against the world, running for mayor and being the mayor of San Francisco is not always going to be a party,” a visibly infuriated Alioto-Pier added.

The previous debates Lee has attended since beginning his campaign haven't exactly been cake walks for the mayor. While things have calmed down since Lee's initial post-announcement air-horn filled razz-fest at the Castro Theatre, subsequent debates have seen the mayor used as a punching bag by the other candidates, who were otherwise largely cordial to each other.

At a forum earlier this month, when moderator (and Huffington Post contributor) Melissa Griffin asked about the unforgivable sins a politician could commit, Herrera said in a statement clearly aimed at Lee, "when you don't live up to your word, I don't think there's anything more corrosive to the public's trust."

Knowing this would be his reception, it isn't surprising that the mild-mannered Lee might be reticent to go another round when he could be reaching out to voters directly—and drunk ones at that.

In a recent column in the San Francisco Chronicle, Willie Brown suggested mayoral hopefuls should be doing more of this very thing. "The best merchant walks are the ones that turn into bar crawls," wrote the former mayor, "where you order a round for the house, then work the room."

“I needed a break” from the debates, Lee told the San Francisco Examiner. “If I get the opportunity to hang out with people, I’d rather do that.”

SF Appeal reports:

[Lee campaign spokesman Tony] Winnicker defended the decision, saying Lee will be doing many more pub crawls in the future.

"The mayor talked directly and in-depth to dozens of real, undecided voters—not political insiders—about the issues they care about," he said. "They're also fun."

"We totally agree with Ed on this one—we’d much rather have drinks at Toronado and Mad Dog than participate in a mayoral debate. Heck, we once skipped a job interview to go to the beach," noted Lower Haight neighborhood blog Haighteration. "And we were definitely not surprised when we didn’t get that job, either."

If, in the future, the mayor has a hard time choosing between mayoral debates and getting drunk, he can always play the Huffington Post's Official San Francisco Mayoral Debate Drinking Game. Just a suggestion.

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Filed by Aaron Sankin