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Politics & Policy

5 fun takeaways from the first San Francisco mayoral debate

Five people stand behind podiums on a stage, participating in what appears to be a debate or panel discussion.
Five mayoral candidates participated in the first debate in the November election in front of a sold-out crowd at the Sydney Goldstein Theater on Wednesday night. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Five major candidates for mayor of San Francisco stepped onto the stage Wednesday at a packed Sydney Goldstein Theater for the first debate ahead of November’s election. The candidates cited no shortage of statistics on crime, housing and drug overdose deaths, but there were also moments of levity, a brief interlude to escort out protesters and some genuine zingers.

Here are five fun things we took away from the first debate in what is sure to be a feisty race to November.

An overhead view of an audience seated in red theater chairs, clapping enthusiastically. The image captures a mix of people, some mid-clap, creating a blur of motion.
Hundreds of San Franciscans attended Wednesday’s mayoral debate at the Sydney Goldstein Theater. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

The double-edged sword of experience

Daniel Lurie, an anti-poverty nonprofit founder and heir to the Levi Strauss fortune, has never served in elected office, which made him an easy target for the other candidates. After blaming Mayor London Breed and Mark Farrell—who was briefly appointed mayor in 2018—for crafting budgets that Lurie said contributed to the police staffing shortage, Farrell shot back: “Daniel, this is where your inexperience shows.”

Safaí was next in line to take a whack at Lurie, noting that San Francisco doesn’t have time for a mayor to be learning on the job.

Two men in suits stand behind podiums on a dark stage, wearing microphones on their faces. One man wears glasses and a pink tie; the other man wears a light blue shirt.
Mark Farrell, left, and other candidates picked on nonprofit founder and Levi Strauss heir Daniel Lurie for his inexperience during Wednesday’s debate. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

But Lurie knew the jabs were coming and had one of the better lines of the night, noting that the four other candidates have a combined 70 years of experience as elected officials.

“Look at where it’s gotten us,” Lurie said.

The crowd ate it up.

Corruption is in the eye of the beholder

It’s quite possible Breed’s first term as mayor would have been completely derailed by the Mohammed Nuru corruption scandal that rocked City Hall in February 2020. But just a month after the pervasive bribery scheme came to light, the pandemic shut down San Francisco and the rest of the world, and people were more worried about their next paycheck—and last roll of toilet paper.

Manny Yekutiel, a co-moderator with New York Times reporter Heather Knight, asked Breed about the corruption scandals that have been uncovered in her departments, and the mayor didn’t miss a beat in reframing the question.

Three individuals stand at podiums on a dimly lit stage. The woman in the middle speaks with a hand raised, while the two men on either side listen intently.
Mayor London Breed defended her record and deflected blame for corruption scandals that took place on her watch. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Breed, who paid an ethics fine for accepting gifts from Nuru, said that voters should see her as overseeing the “biggest corruption cleanup” in city history while noting that she did not hire any of the people who have run afoul of the law.

Public safety, housing, and the local economy are among the top issues for many voters, so it’s possible the corruption scandals will once again take a backseat this election cycle.

What do you love most in San Francisco?

Near the end of the debate, candidates entered the “lightning round” and were forced to quickly answer questions like what is their favorite burrito joint or bar. But the first question focused on each candidate’s favorite San Francisco tradition.

Safaí said he loves riding the cable cars, Breed gave a nod to the Juneteenth Festival in the Fillmore and Lurie went with Opening Day for the San Francisco Giants. Farrell caught nearly everyone in the audience off guard by saying his favorite tradition in the city is visiting Alcatraz, because who doesn’t love getting the kids together to go visit a defunct prison?

Seeing an opening, Peskin pounced with the last answer, saying his favorite pastime is swimming from Alcatraz. It was a pretty gangster response until one remembers this photo.

Aaron Peskin with a beard and goggles, wearing a yellow swim cap, swims in water with vegetation on a hill, a sign, and a lighthouse in the background.
San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin gets his workouts by swimming to Alcatraz and then back to the city. | Source: Photo courtesy of Aaron Peskin

If I ruled the world

One of the last questions of the debate focused on the candidates’ pipe dreams. Easy, Panama red! We’re talking more of the make-a-wish variety, as each candidate was asked for one thing they wish they could change overnight about San Francisco.

Peskin said he would fix the civil service system to help fill vacant city positions, which is important but felt like a bone for labor unions. Lurie said he would fix the schools, which is also important but a little off-topic since that’s not really the mayor’s job. And Farrell said he would bring the San Francisco 49ers back to town, which is not important but would save thousands of people the time and energy of visiting the desolate wasteland that is Santa Clara.

A woman is speaking at a podium, wearing a blue top, with a headset microphone on. The background is completely black, focusing attention on her.
Mayor London Breed said the top thing on her wishlist would be 100,000 new units of housing in San Francisco. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Safaí and Breed seemed to better understand the question, with the former noting that he would like to be able to wave a wand and fix the drug overdose crisis. Meanwhile, Breed said she would snap her fingers and have 100,000 more units of housing. One can only assume how lit the YIMBY slack channel got.

Who won the debate?

The only correct answer seems to be … nobody. But no one lost either.

Breed, the lone woman candidate on stage, noted in her opening statement, “These guys have one thing in common: They want us to feel bad about San Francisco.” But when it comes to making people feel good about San Francisco, Breed has a tough task and her strongest trait has always been roasting her opponents.

One issue the mayor faces in these debates is that the bar is higher for an incumbent. Breed needs to be head and shoulders above her challengers after six years in the Mayor’s Office.

An audience in a theater watches six people at podiums on a stage. The setting is dimly lit, with the focus on the stage and the audience seated in semi-darkness.
There were no real winners—or losers—in Wednesday night's debate. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Peskin and Safaí both touted their legislative chops and had fine showings—although early in the evening, Safaí had to interrupt moderator Knight when she was about to skip his turn on a question about the drug crisis. It felt a bit on brand considering Safaí has often been an afterthought in the race.

Peskin combatted his reputation as a NIMBY to questionable effect, but he made a savvy move at the end of the debate by using the final closing statement to roast his opponents when they no longer had a chance to respond.

Farrell, a former supervisor and mayor, scored points on public safety but also drew scoffs when he said putting cars back on Market Street could create a bustling hub that recalls the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

Lurie’s campaign sent out an email blast after the debate saying he “dominated” the event. But earlier in the evening, he also said he had recently used the controversial $1.7 million public toilet in Noe Valley. His review: “It wasn’t bad.”

More likely, each of the candidates’ performance was somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.