The mayoral debates are finally heating up. So far, most of the candidates’ potshots are being aimed squarely at Board of Supervisors President London Breed.
In a marked departure from the first few kumbaya-singing, snooze-fest mayoral forums, Tuesday night’s debate at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House saw the San Francisco mayoral candidates finally raise their hackles.
Candidates Amy Farah Weiss, former state Sen. Mark Leno, former Supervisor Angela Alioto and Supervisor Jane Kim mostly knocked Breed for supporting Airbnb, her “evolution” on arming police with Tasers, her affordable housing record and support by Super PACs. (In San Francisco law, they’re called independent expenditure committees, but the candidates tend to say “Super PAC” because only geeky political wonks know what an IE is.)
And, yes, the spectre of the ever-villainous tech investor billionaire Ron Conway was raised, as well. So as the other candidates mostly played nice with one another, Breed was forced to defend herself.
At the forum, hosted by the ever-talented KQED state political reporter Marisa Lagos, Weiss led the charge.
Weiss dinged Breed for voting against former Supervisor David Campos’ legislation to add a 60-day cap to Airbnb and other similar platforms in 2015, which was proposed to stop the proliferation of apartments taken off the rental market to become Airbnb hotels.
“Let’s be clear that thousands of units have been kept empty because of Airbnb legislation that London Breed actually allowed, that didn’t have commonsense regulations,” Weiss said.
Breed reminded the audience that she later introduced her own 60-day Airbnb cap legislation, which was vetoed by the late Mayor Ed Lee. But her critics have long alleged she counted the votes at the Board of Supervisors and saw that veto coming a mile off.
Alioto framed Breed as a flip-flopper on arming police with Tasers.
“London Breed, when I first met you, you were very much against Tasers … in fact, you tried to convince me of the many reasons why,” Alioto alleged. “You told me at the time officers were so out of control. I want to know why you changed your mind.”
Breed retorted, “That’s an exaggeration.”
Breed told Alioto she had concerns about Tasers “in general,” if they were implemented without use-of-force reforms to the San Francisco Police Department, which now have or will soon be implemented, she said, making them an acceptable option.
“I hate guns. If a Taser is going to stop that, if a Taser is going to change that, I will support Tasers,” Breed said.
Next up, Kim took Breed to task for her “right to counsel” ballot measure, which would offer attorneys to those facing eviction. It includes a means test to determine if someone can afford attorneys on their own, which Kim said would disenfranchise the middle class. A competing measure posited before Breed’s, by progressives, has no means test.
Breed’s measure, Kim said, “is a right to counsel for some tenants, not all.”
But the most fireworks came when Leno raised the issue of Super PACs, as the only such bodies organized in San Francisco are supporting Breed.
“Common Cause has stated that Super PACs are a disaster for democracy,” Leno alleged, and that with laws allowing that they accept unlimited amounts of donations — unlike traditional campaign committees, which are limited to $500 contributions — “they are by definition corrupt.”
Leno asked Breed to sign a pledge to denounce and reject Super PACs, as Kim and Alioto had, right there and then. Gauntlet thrown — but Breed wasn’t having it.
Breed said the question was “interesting” because Leno has benefitted from PACs in years past.
“I just wonder why all of a sudden there’s a pledge,” Breed said.
“Today, I denounce them,” she added. But she would not sign the agreement.
“No, I won’t tell women to be quiet,” Breed said, saying the Super PAC in question had committed to being a “voice” for San Francisco women.
Breed alleged Leno’s campaign netted $14,000 in funds from local lobbyists in 2017, which became illegal in 2018 after the voter-approved Proposition T took effect. But it was not illegal when Leno began his campaign last year.
“Will you return the money you received from lobbyists?” Breed asked.
Leno performed some semantic gymnastics that judges would no doubt score a solid 8.
“If there’s anything illegal in the money that I raised, I would gladly return it,” he said.
Alioto called B.S. on Breed’s “standing up for women” argument in not denouncing the Super PAC.
“The point isn’t you won’t ‘let women stand up’ for you,” Alioto said. “The point is it’s corrupt and it’s an unlevel playing field.”
Boos erupted from the crowd. Hisses.
One audience member shouted out, “No! No! It’s never level!” (I’m going to read between the lines here and venture a guess they meant that, because Breed is black, the deck is historically stacked against her. Super PACs for her, then, are A-OK.)
Breed largely gave up responding materially to the accusations and pivoted.
“All of a sudden in the political world, I’m beholden to someone,” she said. “What will happen when I am mayor is I will continue to do everything I can to lead this city with my heart and my soul.”
Translation: Still a “no.”
If Tuesday night was any indication, the candidates have fewer issues with each other, and more with Breed, who is perceived to be neck-and-neck with Leno — or even slightly ahead. But the candidates should beware: Breed is at her fiercest when she’s backed into a corner.