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San Francisco's 1st Mayoral Debate Is Here. The Stakes Are High

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San Francisco Mayor London Breed speaks with guests during an SF Dems for Change Super Tuesday election night party at Anina in San Francisco on March 5, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

After the collapse of an early debate amid a contentious start to the San Francisco mayoral race, the first debate is finally here — and it’s shaping up to be the local political event of the summer.

Hosted by City Arts & Lectures at the Sydney Goldstein Theater in Civic Center, the Wednesday night event is already sold out to watch in person with 1,600 people set to attend. Hundreds more have signed up to watch virtually.

Between now and the November election, debates aplenty will pop up in neighborhoods across the city, giving voters the chance to see Mayor London Breed, former Mayor Mark Farrell, Levi Strauss heir Daniel Lurie and Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Ahsha Safaí argue their visions for San Francisco. However, the first holds a particular power: a candidate’s debut performance can sway people to donate in large numbers or volunteer. It can also lead to vital endorsements, said Jim Ross, a political consultant who led Gov. Gavin Newsom’s successful 2003 mayoral campaign.


As the first opportunity for the public to get a sense of how the candidates perform in a tense situation, the opening debate can shape the idea of a candidate in people’s minds.

“The key thing about a debate like this one coming up is not the debate itself, but the story that comes out of it,” Ross said.

Mark Farrell announces his run for San Francisco mayor during a press conference at the San Francisco Baseball Academy in San Francisco on Feb. 13, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The high stakes explain the acrimony over the first proposed debate organized by TogetherSF, which imploded over allegations that the political group’s CEO was working for Farrell in secret. Breed and Peskin both backed out of the May 20 event, citing concerns over the group’s impartiality.

“These first debates can be so defining,” Ross said. “If it were the fifth debate or sixth debate, I don’t think anybody would have cared.”

While it’s still early in the mayor’s race — the deadline to declare candidacy was just Tuesday — it’s clear Farrell’s campaign has emerged as a threat to Breed. A May poll from moderate-leaning Democratic group GrowSF shows the mayor and Farrell in a statistical dead heat.

Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin poses for photos after a rally to announce his campaign for mayor of San Francisco in Chinatown’s Portsmouth Square in San Francisco on April 6, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Usually, the power of incumbency gives politicians holding office a comfortable lead. These are not ordinary times, as San Franciscans’ concerns over crime, drug use and homelessness have tarnished Breed’s image. A San Francisco Chronicle poll from February showed 71% of San Franciscans did not approve of Breed’s job performance as mayor.

There’s still time for Breed to catch up, and winning significant endorsements will be key.

Jane Natoli, organizing director of the pro-development group San Francisco YIMBY, is buying popcorn, gluten-free snacks and non-alcoholic drinks for a virtual watch party at the group’s regular meeting space in South of Market (though she won’t begrudge her members for bringing libations). Her members are watching with an eye toward making their endorsements, which carry weight among younger voters and people with urbanist values.

Every candidate except for Peskin — whose stance on new housing has irked the pro-development crowd — has met with SF YIMBY members to discuss their housing plans, but Natoli thinks there’s added value in the debate format. She’s particularly interested to hear if the candidates will commit to building more developments, more densely, on the city’s suburban west side to solve the housing crisis.

“So far, everyone’s tiptoed around that a little bit. Where are they going to stand? How are they going to differentiate themselves?” she said.

Peskin recently drew accolades from neighbors opposed to dense housing on the west side, according to Mission Local, which may emerge as an attack from other candidates on stage.

Supervisor Ahsha Safaí speaks with Marisa Lagos and Scott Shafer for Political Breakdown at KQED headquarters in San Francisco on May 16, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Nancy Tung, chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, warned voters to ask themselves a few key questions when candidates profess grand ideas to move the city forward.

“How reasonable are the plans that they’ve laid out? Is that type of plan workable within the city bureaucracy? Is there funding for that?” she said. “It’s easier said than done, I think.”

Multiple campaigns told KQED they’re deep in debate prep. Four of the candidates are regular public speakers in political life — at this point, they’re more focused on compressing their answers down to the one-minute allotment than they are on learning to speak more eloquently about their records. The night will be moderated by Manny Yekutiel, proprietor of the event space Manny’s and Heather Knight, The New York Times’ San Francisco bureau chief.

The candidates’ messaging on the campaign trail so far offers several clues to what could play out onstage on Wednesday night.

They have shown they’re fond of critiquing each other’s resumes: Lurie may lump all the elected officials together and call them “insiders” who have ruined the city. Farrell, Peskin and Lurie may argue that Breed has had years to enact her vision and failed. Peskin might be attacked for his penchant for yelling at staffers in overnight phone calls. Farrell may draw fire for flipping to support a 2018 childcare tax measure that he previously opposed. And the rest of the candidates may hammer on Lurie’s lack of government experience.

San Francisco mayoral candidate Daniel Lurie at KQED on June 4, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Ross said the candidates will try to create a contrast between themselves and their opponents. In that respect, he said, Breed’s history of growing up impoverished in San Francisco’s Fillmore district may still stand out when people hear from her live, despite San Franciscans’ wavering fondness for the mayor.

“London Breed is a living, breathing contrast to everybody else in this race,” he said. “You have one woman of color, an African American woman. And I think her ability to stand out, to talk from her experience growing up in San Francisco. Her story is so powerful.”

Even if Breed has no standout moments, Ross said, that’s not necessarily a bad thing — especially if her opponents are equally as lackluster.

“Basically, incumbents are usually playing not to lose in debates,” he said.

The debate is set to kick off Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. To watch virtually, get your tickets here.


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