Sometimes two political candidates are so similar, it’s a toss-up. Why even choose?
But the two front-runner supervisor candidates vying to represent the Western Addition, Haight and other District 5 neighborhoods in this November’s election are a different story. At their debate Friday night at the Korean American Community Center on Buchanan Street, Dean Preston and Vallie Brown couldn’t have painted themselves further apart.
Preston’s candidacy is one of bombast and idealism, while Brown argued for tangible, incremental change.
Perhaps few answers given on stage painted that split more than when debate moderator Nuala Sawyer, news editor for our sister paper SF Weekly, asked the candidates what they would do to help renters in San Francisco. Sawyer specifically cited The City’s largest corporate landlord, Veritas Investments, which has snagged headlines lately for allegedly trying to drum out its tenants.
Brown detailed the $40 million she advocated for in The City’s budget to buy existing buildings tenants live in to prevent evictions. That funding can save homes like an old Victorian on 520 Shrader Street that nonprofits working with The City purchased in May, ultimately saving seven affordable housing units.
“We need to do things so tenants don’t have to get a lawyer,” meaning preventative work is the answer, she said. “We need to look upstream.”
Some in the crowd nodded in approval while others groused audibly. “Seven lousy units?” I heard someone mutter.
Preston was having none of that.
Sounding like a verbal cannon, he stressed a need to fully implement Proposition F, the successful 2018 ballot measure that guarantees legal representation for San Franciscans facing evictions. He also wants to see a ban on “pass-throughs,” where landlords can pass on costs of bond measures onto tenants. And calling back to Veritas and other landlords who purportedly shake-down tenants, Preston held no prisoners.
“If you’re a rogue landlord we should run you out of town,” he said.
At that, the crowd cheered. Although it did leave me wondering — how exactly do you run a landlord out of town?
Do you ride horseback and whip ‘em, old-West style, shouting “yee-haw” at the top of your lungs? What’s the legal mechanism for ousting San Francisco’s largest landlord from the market?
Much of the night in the packed debate, sponsored by the San Francisco Young Democrats, mirrored that moment. Brown argued for some incremental improvement she had accomplished, or at least started, while in office — which, as the appointee of Mayor London Breed, is her advantage as the incumbent — while Preston made big pitches that often riled the crowd, but occasionally left me scratching my head.
When Sawyer asked the pair what can be done about traffic collision deaths (some of which, sadly, happened a stone’s throw from the debate), Brown again focused on neighborhood-level change. She rattled off a few intersections that need to be re-engineered with safety in mind, and described Fell and Divisadero streets in particular as “mini-freeways.”
Preston’s response also cast an eye to neighborhoods, at first. He advocated for traffic-calming measures near senior centers, correctly pointing out that most people who die in traffic collisions are seniors.
But he also trumpeted, “We cannot leave Uber and Lyft totally unregulated!”
There’s just one problem with that. While Preston is correct that the California Public Utilities Commission has been critiqued by many as taking a Laissez-faire approach to regulating the ride-hail industry, there’s also a reason no one in San Francisco has done anything about it — they can’t.
The regulatory power is entirely in the state, not in The City. San Francisco can pass no laws governing Uber or Lyft’s operations, and very few laws that govern their use of city streets.
Experience is the likely culprit in these contrasting styles. Both Brown and Preston have long resumes, but from where doing what is important.
While Brown does have some activism in her past, she was also a legislative aide for District 5 supervisors Ross Mirkarimi and London Breed. Perhaps, then, her pragmatism stems from the realm of what’s believed to be possible, as legislative aides are often the ones tasked with implementing their bosses big ideas. At the debate, she described what can be.
Preston, on the other hand, founded Tenants Together and is accustomed to pushing those big ideas himself — sometimes failing, sometimes winning — because advocates work in the realm of what should be.
The candidates did present some other contrasts Friday night.
Preston had Brown briefly on the ropes over her support for state Sen. Scott Wiener’s Senate Bill 50, which would see San Francisco zoned to allow taller developments across much of the West Side, due to neighborhood proximity to transit.
“I was one of the supervisors who didn’t say no to SB 50 as it was written,” Brown said.
The crowd hissed. Brown argued that her negotiations with Wiener ultimately led to some concessions.
“We need to rezone the West Side of The City,” she hit back. “You can’t build affordable housing on the West Side of The City … how is that possible?”
But Preston framed her efforts to compromise as a capitulation to developer interests, who are frothing at the mouth for SB 50’s future success.
“I’m not interested in … sitting down with Scott Wiener,” Preston said.
He noted that he’s not a candidate “supported by big developers. Surprise.”
Preston also countered that he wants to build 10,000 units of municipally owned and operated housing. Like his other ideas, that’s a tall order — but something that can be accomplished, should he identify the funding for it. “We can’t continue taking crumbs from developers,” he said.
And the two candidates were also split on the highly-controversial homeless conservatorship proposal. That was approved by the Board of Supervisors earlier this month, granting The City expanded powers to compel mentally-ill people with substance abuse issues into court-ordered treatment.
Preston waffled here a bit. He said he had “friends on both sides of the issue,” and pointed to Proposition C, the homeless funding measure approved by voters last year, as a solution to mental health problem plaguing San Francisco’s homeless. Much like that issue, “I’m very concerned our mayor opposes” Mental Health SF, a new ballot measure to fund city mental health services.
Brown defended her support of conservatorship, to more displeasure from the audience.
When someone is homeless and “they’re standing there with their pants down, screaming to the sky,” The City should be able to help, she said. Brown pointed out The City is using jail as a de-facto replacement for mental health institutions, which can’t and shouldn’t continue.
And she presented one of her own recent big ideas: City-run homeless services for people living in RV’s and their cars, on a city-run parking lot. She touted that as a needed solution even as city departments told her it was unnecessary, she said.
“When the homeless count came out, I was vindicated,” because the number of people living in their vehicles in need of help had boomed.
In this humble columnist’s view, Preston managed to energize the audience more, earning shouts and hoots and hollers with his proposals. Brown, on the other hand, tapped into that part of those attending who nodded, solemnly, in approval. I can imagine those people saying to themselves, “By Jove, that’s a sensible solution.”
Ultimately, both candidates coming up to the plate Friday night showed us exactly who they were. One is a politician hitting consistent singles and doubles, and the other is willing to swing for the fences, striving for that into-the-water homer — even when their bat meets nothing but air.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.
This story has been updated to reflect Preston referred to bond measurepass-through, not seismic pass throughs.