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1st SF Mayoral Debate Continues to Crumble as 3rd Candidate May Drop Out

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Daniel Lurie announces his candidacy for Mayor of San Francisco at the Portrero Hill Neighborhood House in San Francisco on Sept. 26, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Daniel Lurie could become the third candidate to pull out of San Francisco’s first mayoral debate, saying the event’s planning has become increasingly disorganized as the group hosting it comes under scrutiny.

The May 20 debate was organized by political advocacy group TogetherSF Action, which faces questions over its ties to former mayor and Supervisor Mark Farrell, another candidate in November’s mayoral election. Mayor London Breed originally agreed to participate but changed her mind on Tuesday. Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin was in talks to participate but ultimately declined.

Journalists who were set to serve as moderators have also been dropping out of the debate; Lurie said Wednesday morning that he had only learned “in the last few hours” that the debate’s organizers lost their third such journalist, adding that they would need to find a moderator who is independent from TogetherSF for him to participate.

“The only remaining independent journalist backed out,” Lurie said during a press conference where he announced his emergency shelter plan to address street homelessness. “If they are able to find one, I’ll be there. I’m going back to debate prep right now. I want to debate these insiders.”

The event was planned as a blowout kickoff to the mayoral election, which will be in full swing after the June deadline for candidates to file. Roughly 1,000 people were expected to attend in person, and 2,500 RSVP’d to watch it online, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. KQED Political Correspondent Marisa Lagos was a planned moderator, but she said she pulled out when it was clear not all candidates would participate.

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Questions about the organization’s allegiances have led candidates to keep their distance.

State and city ethics commissions have long outlined rules barring political action committees and candidates from coordinating. Importantly, groups like TogetherSF Action are permitted to raise money in unlimited amounts and spend on advertisements against or in support of candidates. Individual donations to candidates, however, are limited to $500.

TogetherSF has repeatedly said it is independent. However, reporting from Mission Local last week revealed text messages from a political consultant for Farrell to an unknown second party, in which the consultant said that TogetherSF Action CEO Kanishka Cheng is “guiding the ship” for Farrell’s campaign.

Cheng did not return requests for comment by press time.

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Both Breed and Peskin shared concerns with KQED that Cheng would skew the debate to favor Farrell, whom she previously worked for as a legislative aide. Both Breed’s and Peskin’s campaigns said TogetherSF promised them only 20 tickets in a venue that seats 1,000, raising red flags over who would fill those other seats and whether they would be Farrell supporters.

“Ultimately, the collusion between the Farrell campaign and TogetherSF’s leadership gave the impression that Mark Farrell would clearly benefit much more from participating in this debate than all the other candidates on the stage,” said Joe Arellano, Breed’s campaign spokesperson. “Our campaign was not confident that TogetherSF’s leader, an individual recently mentioned as ‘guiding the ship’ for the Farrell campaign, could be trusted to organize a fair and balanced debate.”

Jim Stearns, a campaign consultant working on Peskin’s campaign, said TogetherSF staffers helped organize a small protest outside Peskin’s kickoff speech in Portsmouth Square last month.

“TogetherSF is a partisan organization masquerading as nonpartisan,” Stearns said.

The blistering critique from two mayoral campaigns of San Francisco’s topmost officials is a reputational hit to TogetherSF, a growing power player in city politics. It is part of a coalition of groups created in the last few years, including GrowSF and Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, that have collectively spent millions of dollars from deep-pocketed tech donors to back moderate Democrat causes and candidates in San Francisco.

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