San Leandro Councilmember Benny Lee’s
mayoral campaign already has $63,000 in
contributions built over the past few years.

Backed by the city’s burgeoning Asian American demographic and already stocked campaign cash reserves, San Leandro Councilmember Benny Lee said Monday that he’s running for mayor this fall.

Although Lee’s interest in the mayor’s office had been known ever since he won an unopposed re-election to the council in 2016, he started notifying supporters and other elected officials in recent weeks of his desire to challenge incumbent Mayor Pauline Russo Cutter.

But a flyer for an upcoming campaign fundraiser supporting his nascent mayoral run blew his cover, whisking through social media and among East Bay politicos over the past weekend. The flyer for the May 3 event also raised eyebrows for the inclusion of a campaign slogan that reads, “Moving forward with integrity.” Some took the phrase as a shot at Cutter.

“It’s a strong word and folks will read it in different ways,” said Lee. However, he said the use of the word “integrity” refers to himself, not Cutter or anyone else.

Early in Cutter’s term, she faced strong criticism after her daughter was hired to work for the city. San Leandro City Manager Chris Zapata, however, took responsibility for the hiring, for which he admitted created poor optics for everyone involved. He also noted the Charter empowers him not the mayor to make personnel decisions.

Housing and transportation issue will be a focus of Lee’s mayoral campaign, he said, while describing himself as a councilmember and candidate that is transparent and willing to be flexible in his beliefs.

“I stand by my word. If I’ve made changes it was because I saw the writing on the wall,” he said. For instance, on cannabis, Lee resisted pushes in San Leandro for approving medical cannabis dispensaries, but later softened his opposition in recent years, instead, balking at the city’s approach for approving its second and third applicants without a bidding process.

“On cannabis, I said I wanted a vote on the issue,” said Lee. Later, a statewide ballot measure legalized cannabis in 2016 with wide support from the public. “I took it as a wake-up call. I’m not going to be against the voters. So let’s find a way to make it work.”

Lee’s mayoral challenge should be formidable. His support among local and regional Asian American political groups is strong, as is his early campaign coffers. In part, because he ran unopposed two years ago, he hardly made a dent in his campaign coffers, which totals $63,000. The amount, at this early stage of the election cycle, is a significant head start for any candidate in San Leandro.

His list of early endorsers is also noteworthy, including California Treasurer and gubernatorial candidate John Chiang, State Board of Equalization member Fiona Ma, Assemblymember Kansen Chu, Fremont Mayor Lily Mei, and Oakland Councilmember Abel Guillen.

In 2012, Lee easily won the District 4 seat representing the Washington Manor, Heron Bay, Lewelling Boulevard residential areas of Southern San Leandro.