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Mayor Breed and Jeffrey Kwong
It was a tough time in the hotseat for all candidates at the Milk Club debate.

City For Sale: The Mayor’s Race

All five candidates show their hands

Doug Comstock
Doug Comstock

•••••••••• June 2024 ••••••••••

After TogetherSF’s much-ballyhooed first debate fizzled when Aaron Peskin and London Breed both declined to participate because of the group’s connection to candidate Mark Farrell, the second scheduled, a City Arts and Lectures debate, was postponed. All five candidates finally met at the Harvey Milk Democratic Club’s forum held at the Unitarian Church. It was, in fact, the first debate for mayor in the campaign season, with London Breed, Mark Farrell, Daniel Lurie, Aaron Peskin, and Ahsha Safai appearing on the same stage, though not together. It wasn’t so much a debate as it was an interrogation. Candidates were grilled principally by the moderator, Jeffrey Kwong, Milk Club President.

Kwong posed questions to each candidate sitting with him, alone, on the stage. Gone was the big table with a row of candidates that many expected. The questions were specifically designed for each candidate, saving a lot of time, though those who came to compare their opinions on certain subjects may have left a bit frustrated. Each applicant was forced to respond to questions peculiar to their candidacy. And Kwong did not play nice, in some cases beginning the interview with the most awkward question first.

Despite the challenging format, each candidate answered questions about the issue of homelessness, albeit in different ways. This format made it difficult for candidates to evade tough questions, a skill all four seasoned politicians are well-versed in. However, even the non-politician Lurie was not exempt from the tough questioning. This aspect of the “debate” provided a unique opportunity to observe the candidates’ political skills.

In their opening statements, all five candidates aptly announced their bona fides as LGBT-friendly politicians. Once that was out of the way, they proceeded to more specific Milk Club agenda issues. For those who may not know, the Milk Club is the most progressive of the LGBTQ clubs.

Daniel Lurie
Daniel Lurie

Daniel Lurie

Kwong started with a softball question, but then — regarding the billboards and mailbox stuffing that, to this date, characterize Lurie’s campaign — “There’s something very visceral for a lot of us I think, you’re someone who has family wealth — sort of like a Michael Bloomberg of San Francisco — trying to buy his way into City Hall?” It was a question Lurie expected, though not, perhaps, as direct as it was. “I really appreciate the way you put that question, and I get it,” Lurie answered, “I’m proud of my stepfather’s legacy (Levi-Strauss) … and I ask all of you to judge me on the choices I have made with my life …” He went on to disagree that anyone could buy the election, but he vowed to work harder than any other candidate to earn the support of everyone.

Kwong did not ease up in the next question regarding public schools vs. private schools. Lurie has two children; both attend private school. Noting that his nieces and nephews attend public school, Kwong posed that their life trajectories would be very different and that enrollment of white kids in SF public schools is down to less than 10% Caucasian. At the same time, in the general population, about a third are Caucasian and a third are Chinese — is this the San Francisco we can look forward to? Lurie pointed to his non-profit Tipping Point Community and its focus on early childhood education and stressed the responsibility of SF’

Kwong’s next question was percipient: “The whole message seems to be —lets rely on philanthropy, rely on businesses, when you’re running for mayor … you’re not running for Chief of Protocol to schmooze with the business community.” And, while Lurie’s answer, that he is the only candidate in the race who has actually built affordable housing at 833 Bryant Street was laudable, the premise of the question loomed over the interview.

Regarding commission reform, Lurie would not commit to which of the 130 specific commissions he would cut, though he decried the elected officials who blame commissions for their shortcomings. If elected, he would not engage in “finger-pointing.” He would continue to pursue reform, likely through the petition process. He would take a wait-and-see approach regarding TogetherSF’s petition that is now circulating to do that.

He concluded by admitting that he did not have all the answers but promising 15,000 more shelter beds immediately—with kids as a priority.

London Breed
London Breed

London Breed

Kwong asked her why so many San Francisco families could no longer afford to live here. Breed derided candidates for mayor who didn’t need to worry about paying rent; she said her aggressive approach to building housing comes from her experience as a child in the projects, citing the downsizing of public housing where she lived. Three hundred units were torn down to be replaced by two hundred units. She blames decisions that have made housing more difficult and expensive to build. She vowed to “deconstruct” those housing policy decisions — even if they are unpopular. We need to build 82,000 units right away, but we don’t need 80-story apartment buildings.” What the City does need is for its wealthy citizens to do their share; otherwise, there will be no money to build the housing we need but she wants to make sure rich people stay in SF and do their business here. “For me it’s about attracting, retaining and getting businesses interested in San Francisco and getting them interested in staying because they not only pay the taxes that help us with the programs that I know you care about, they also help us with the people they employ and the opportunities they provide.”

About priorities, Kwong noted that, while the Milk Club supported the improvements that were made to the Harvey Milk Plaza (at Market and Castro) its priority in the Prop A bond that she authored, over the dilapidated City Clinic seemed like the mayor was playing politics. Breed admitted that it was her communications mistake but that her office has identified a new building for the clinic and is working on that alternative and has found the money from a different source.

Corruption: “…as Mayor I put out a number of directives and made a number of internal changes in order to make a difference in terms of how people felt they could or could not get away with things that they chose to do… I do everything I can to ensure full transparency, to make sure that we are rooting out corruption.”

Responding to the question of criminal justice reforms, Breed remembered supporting Supervisor Malia Cohen’s work, and together, they got the US DOJ to come in and make needed reforms. Besides full staffing for the SFPD, she has led alternatives such as creating the Street Crisis Response Team as a different response for mental illness incidents.

She ended by promising to continue to backfill the CDC’s HIV resource cuts as much as possible and to explore the possibility of funding for LYRIC. She has been an ally and supporter of the LGBT community and will remain so.

Asha Safai
Asha Safai

Asha Safai

“It’s not about the resources; it’s about the leadership, management, and oversight from the Mayor’s Office,” Safai began as he laid out his case for election. He represents a working-class neighborhood and has spent his time as Supervisor advancing the needs of the labor movement, working-class and immigrant people.

Kwong asked if Safai supported the initiative to reinstate Citywide elections instead of district elections and other measures like eliminating Commissions that may be on the next ballot. Safai responded, “Which one? The Health Commission? The Immigrant Rights Commission? Or the Human Rights Commission? Those are the ones that are not embedded in our Charter and would be exposed.” He is totally opposed, mainly because it hasn’t been done with community input and process. “It’s been done in the back rooms, backed by millionaires — that’s not San Francisco.” He would support a community process, perhaps to consolidate a few. Observing that he came from District 11 – an area that didn’t get the resources it deserved, he was adamantly opposed to changing the district election system.

LGBT History Museum? “Let’s do it.”

He stressed restoring City College, especially classes for the elderly and immigrants.

Former Milk Club President Gwen Craig asked about the recent redistricting process and how to prevent that from happening again. Safai denounced the process—going to bed at night and waking up in a new district the next morning. “That’s not right—that’s not real community input—that’s not real community process. When members of the public went out to move their cars so it doesn’t get towed at 2 in the morning and then came back to find the entire City has been changed.” To further the point, “When I first won it was by 450 votes in 2016, some of my colleagues won by 100 votes. You adjust the lines by a few blocks that could change the outcome and I think that was the intent of what was happening and that’s not really fair representation—that’s gerrymandering at its worst.”

Aaron Peskin
Aaron Peskin

Aaron Peskin

Kwong began by disclosing that he had been Peskin’s first intern when he became District 3 Supervisor. Peskin led by remembering Harvey Milk and that today was the 45th anniversary of the “White Night” riots that profoundly changed San Francisco. “People could be what they wanted to be—it was a City of rebellion, a City of protest, a City of otherness, and after a third of a century of leadership that has not been progressive, I want to bring some of that back.”

“You have been characterized as an obstructionist,” Kwong challenged regarding the housing issue. “Millions of dollars have been spent by astroturf organizations and a handful of plutocrats trying to spin that narrative, but the facts are the facts… I’ve supported the Eastern Neighborhood Plan, the Rincon Hill Plan, the Shipyard, Candlestick Point, Parkmerced, Western SOMA, Central SOMA—over 100,000 units of housing…all in conjunction with the community. Mayor Breed is going about upzoning—repeating the mistakes we should have learned from Redevelopment. The issue is financing and access to money and we have actually introduced legislation where the City of San Francisco—and we’ve never done this before—can be the issuer of tax-exempt revenue bonds to build housing for middle-class people, that’s what this is really about. I think we are smart enough to grow San Francisco without destroying our neighborhoods—I think we’re smart enough to do that.”

Commenting on his opponents (“without casting aspersions”), Peskin pointed out Breed’s opposition to Prop C, the major funding source for homeless programs, and Prop I, which would have taxed the richest San Franciscans. To Lurie, he explained that “it takes a long time to figure out how this government works, and it’s not all going to be solved with philanthropy.”

Kwong challenged Peskin regarding his struggle with alcoholism. “I’ve learned a lot, and recovery is not a one-and-done thing. It’s something you do all the time, and I’m remarkably grateful. every day I wake up much more grateful than I used to and It’s something you do not do alone.”

Peskin reminded the Harvey Milk Club that it had endorsed him every time he had run for office, in fact that Tom Ammiano first urged him to run for Supervisor.

His reply to corruption? “The tone from the top has got to change—and the tone, depending on what mayor you want to pick over the last 25 years—has either been openly encouraging of nepotism and pay-to-play and insider trading or the current administration where there has been deafening silence.” Tolerance for corruption would end if he is elected, Peskin said.

Public safety was the final question. Peskin cited the demands that the people of Chinatown made to have community policing— “with beat officers who came from the community, who know the shopkeepers and their grand-mamas…that quality of community policing really needs to be spread all over San Francisco. I’ve got it in the northeast corner of the City, but the rest of the City does not.”

Mark Farrell
Mark Farrell

Mark Farrell

After Farrell established his LGBT bona fides, Kwong asked him who among his top ten advisors was LGBTQ. Farrell was frank, saying he has many friends and associates in the community, but essentially he dodged the question.

Regarding public schools, Kwong asked the question he had asked Lurie. About a third of the kids in San Francisco are Asian, and about a third are white, but in public schools today, only about a tenth are white. “My nieces and nephews are not growing up with your kids in the same classrooms.” Farrell replied, “we are a Catholic family, and we are raising our kids in Catholic schools.” He emphasized third grade reading proficiency and that, as mayor, although he could not replace the responsibility of the school board, he would increase funding for the Department of Early Childhood Development and make reading proficiency the department’s first priority. He would coordinate MTA with public schools to get kids to school more efficiently, not only regarding frequency but routing as well, and he wants to make free MUNI permanent.

Asked about income inequality and his treatment of the poor, Farrell stressed the need for increased public safety “that affects people of every income.”

But what will you do to keep working-class people in the City and make it more affordable for people working minimum-wage jobs? “I’m unapologetically pro-housing here in San Francisco—we need to build more housing, plain and simple,” he said.

Campaign financing: “We know you have received a lot of money from TogetherSF and GrowSF… something, historically, that has been predictive of policies that you will pursue? Farrell answered, “we are not getting money from groups, these are individuals that have contributed to our campaign, and we are very thankful for the individuals and the contributions they have made…by running for mayor I believe I’m setting an example for my children of living up to the Jesuit value of being men and women for others,” he went on to discuss his community engagement.

Kwong followed up, noting the $121,000 Ethics Violation for illegal independent campaign expenditures that was filed against his campaign in 2010, “…a lot of San Franciscans are sick of this kind of money in politics and the corruption in the election cycle—where are you with that? Farrell responded, “I’m unaware of any independent expenditures committees that have been formed. These are all organizations that every single candidate is courting, and they have independent boards, and I hope to earn their support as well as the support of organizations throughout San Francisco.” He added, “it’s not something that is unique to a Mark Farrell campaign.”

Gwen Craig got the final question, which was about groups like Together SF and their goal of moving the city to the right, “reforming commissions,” and getting rid of district elections. Where are you concerned about these issues? “I’m a very big supporter of Charter reform.” He added “what we’re doing is not working.” He did not answer about district elections.

All the candidates appeared to be great supporters of San Francisco, but all differed in their approach to making it a better City.


Doug Comstock serves as editor of the Westside Observer

June 2024

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