Though Mayor Ed Lee is widely predicted to win re-election this November, he faced staunch opposition from five candidates at a forum Thursday night as opponents zeroed in on suspected corruption in city hall and a failure to address San Francisco’s worsening housing crisis.
“We need to take our city back,” said candidate Stuart Schuffman, better known as comedian and blogger Broke Ass Stuart. “We need to get the money out of politics. This corporate money is ruling our city. We need to start thinking about our communities and the best sustainable ways of keeping them together.”
Some 300 people, many of them hissing and booing at Lee’s points, tried to squeeze into the small auditorium on the University of California San Francisco campus. About a third of the crowd were sticker-wearing Lee supporters, while the rest came to support alternative candidates. Of these, Amy Farah Weiss, founder of Neighbors Developing Divisadero and a self-proclaimed “YIMBY” candidate, consistently received the most raucous support.
“How many people want a mayor who has the political will to demand more than 50 percent affordable housing?” she said, to cheers and applause. “That’s what you need in city hall. You need political will in order to make sure that development is supporting the needs of the people who work in San Francisco.”
All six candidates — Kent Graham, Francisco Herrera, Lee, Reed Martin, Schuffman, and Weiss — fielded questions submitted to the moderators before the event. Candidates were barred from entering into debate with one another, and had only one minute to answer each question.
Housing dominated the discussion and became central to every candidate’s position, though Lee made several attempts to shift the focus to the city’s economic growth during his tenure, especially around the hub of tech companies like Twitter in Mid-Market.
“The reason that I concentrated on Mid-Market was [in] that portion of our most famous avenue, every third storefront was empty,” he said. “[There were] porno shops on every block, cash centers that fed on our welfare recipients, and there was misery on that whole site.”
Lee acknowledged tech companies had received multi-year tax breaks as an incentive to move in, but said they had helped in “revitalizing” what was previously a derelict neighborhood.
“A lot more small businesses are coming in. The stores that have been there historically have increased their patronage by three or four fold,” he said. “I think and I continue to say that a strong economically founded city is going to be able to help a lot more people, and we’re demonstrating that with a lot of the programs that we have.”
Herrera shot back on this assertion.
“[There are] jobs, but for people who don’t live here,” he said. “Ten thousand people have been kicked out of the Mission. The Bayview Hunter’s Point has been completely devastated. People are feeling an angst, a general angst at what this has created. This planning is not for us, we have to come back to plan and develop for our community.”
On the topics of combating the decline of San Francisco’s black population, homelessness, plans for development on Treasure Island, climate change, and human trafficking, Graham, Herrera, Martin, Shuffman, and Weiss all homed in on housing and gentrification.
“There’s roughly 10 thousand homeless people on the streets of San Francisco, and there’s roughly 10 thousand Airbnb rentals out there. I’m just saying,” Shuffman joked.
“I think there’s been some sort of redlining that’s been happening to the African-American community,” said Herrera, a Mission activist and folksinger. “We need to not just hold the fort, but bring people back. Over half of city workers cannot afford to live in San Francisco…so we need to invest in housing that let’s our people come back, particularly the African-American community.”
“[Merchants associations] are trying desperately to keep [small businesses] in their neighborhoods,” said Graham, a retired hospital administrator. “We need to support any kind of legislation we can get to keep San Francisco looking like San Francisco.”
“The last three administrations have talked about trying to solve homelessness and really we have not seen that happen at all,” said Martin, a former tech worker. He later said that the Navigation Center that Lee’s office of homelessness pioneered was “an interesting model.”
“We need to support people who have certificates of preference [for affordable housing] who have been displaced through redevelopment to be able to come back into the city, and to be able to focus on the Bayview Hunter’s Point and the Fillmore Western Addition and figure out how we can be creating more housing [and] link [it] to our African-American neighbors,” Weiss said.
Much of the opposition to Lee’s campaign was also focused on perceived corruption and favoritism, given the mayor’s close relationship to Silicon Valley investor Ron Conway and the tech world.
“San Francisco has a money problem,” said Martin. “We have a corruption problem at our core. We don’t really have a tech problem, we have a corporate tech problem.”
“It’s important for us to understand that the only tool available to us to be able to acquire power is grassroots democracy,” said Weiss.
Weiss, Shuffman, and Herrera have formed a campaign to oust Ed Lee using the city’s ranked-choice voting system, with the slogan “Vote ‘1-2-3’ to replace Ed Lee.” Voters can rank the Weiss, Shuffman, and Herrera in any order they like, the candidates say, because the ultimate goal is to remove Lee from office.
Shuffman acknowledges those chances are slim, but lamented the lack of a more viable opposition to the incumbent.
“It’s sad that there’s a guy named Broke Ass Stuart who’s doing well in this election,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to be doing this, but I’m doing it and I’m proud to be doing it. We need to take our city back. We need to get the money out of politics.”
Nonetheless, some voters were impressed by what the underdogs had to offer.
“I was sort of thinking that they were protest candidates that don’t know what they’re talking about,” said Jennifer Wade. “But I was terrifically impressed by [Weiss’s] command of the issues.”
“What stands out to me most … is that you heard a lot of candidates agree with each other,” said Jed Holtzman. “It’s easy to see how a multitude of these individuals could work together in one administration.”
“I already liked Francisco,” said Mission resident Danielle McVay. “But I hadn’t heard him speak on the topics. I thought his responses seemed very honest.”
“I know that Lee is a seasoned politician, but they totally killed it,” added Tara Spalty, another Mission resident.
Others were just there for the show.
“I don’t really regard politics with much importance myself,” said Kenzo Mesquit. “I’m not a voter. I guess it’s more fun to watch.”
Spectators and political wonks alike will have another opportunity to hear the candidates speak on hot-button issues at a second debate, for which a date has yet to be set.