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SF Mayor Candidates Speak to Their Bases and No One Else at 1st Debate

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San Francisco mayoral candidates Ahsha Safaí, former Mayor Mark Farrell, Daniel Lurie, Mayor London Breed and Aaron Peskin participate in a debate at the Sydney Goldstein Theater on June 12, 2024.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Housing and homelessness. Mental health and fentanyl addiction. Public safety, public transit and police staffing.

The first opportunity for San Franciscans to see mayoral candidates make their case to be the city’s next mayor on a shared stage was Wednesday night. Hosted by City Arts & Lectures at the Sydney Goldstein Theater, the debate sold out the 1,600-seat auditorium. The YouTube audience hovered around 1,200 for most of the event.

Between rattling off statistics, trading barbs and talking about their favorite burritos and drag queens, Mayor London Breed, former Mayor Mark Farrell, Daniel Lurie and Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Ahsha Safaí argued their visions for San Francisco’s future.

Breed painted a rosy picture of the city, claiming that crime is down, homeless encampments are disappearing and businesses will soon see tax relief. Peskin dug down on positions partial to progressive Democrats, like funding affordable housing and hiring more union city workers.

Farrell and Lurie described the city as a haven of crime, drug use and homelessness. Safai, an underdog candidate who lags in fundraising, struggled to raise his profile.


The stakes couldn’t be higher for San Francisco, a city with seemingly intractable problems that have made national headlines.

In her opening remarks, Breed said her opponents are tearing down San Francisco to win office.

“These guys have one thing in common — they want us to feel bad about San Francisco,” she said.

People fill the sidewalk in front of the Sydney Goldstein Theater before a San Francisco mayoral debate on June 12, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Farrell drew first blood, rebutting Lurie’s critique of his record funding the San Francisco Police Department. Lurie, the Levi Strauss heir, said the late Mayor Ed Lee wanted $6 million for the police, money Farrell allegedly refused to allocate when he was on the Board of Supervisors.

“Daniel, this is where your inexperience shows,” said Farrell, landing a zinger that caused a crowd eruption. “You have not been part of the budget committee in City Hall or mayor of San Francisco.”

Safai swiped at Lurie’s lack of government service. Lurie responded by echoing a line he has used on the campaign trail.

“They’re going to talk about experience all night long. They’ve got a combined 70 years of experience on this stage. Look where it’s gotten us,” he said as he spread his arms in exasperation.

Farrell and Lurie struggled at times to offer solutions that differ from what current elected officials are already implementing. When the candidates were asked what they could do to revive downtown, Farrell said San Francisco should give tax incentives for businesses. Breed and Peskin teamed up to put forward a ballot measure in November that would exempt 2,500 businesses from some city taxes while lowering taxes for hotels and entertainment organizations.

“I think we need to be incredibly pro-active with our business community and bring them back to the downtown core,” Farrell said.

The debate was moderated by Manny Yekutiel, proprietor of the event space Manny’s and Heather Knight, San Francisco bureau chief of The New York Times. Yekutiel told the audience “not to clap, sneer or jeer.” That didn’t stop the crowd from intermittently booing. The candidates were civil even as they criticized their opponents. The exchanges between the moderators and the candidates were much lighter, providing comic relief.

“Are you a NIMBY?” Knight asked Peskin, using the acronym for Not in My Backyard, shorthand for homeowners who oppose housing construction.

Peskin said his policies led to more housing construction than any other candidate on stage. He critiqued Farrell, ticking off affordable housing projects Farrell opposed while he was a supervisor. In his retort, Farrell said that Peskin relies too much on voter-backed bonds to build affordable housing instead of the free market.

Knight also drew laughs after forgetting to ask Safai a question she asked the other candidates.

People fill the sidewalk in front of the Sydney Goldstein Theater before a San Francisco mayoral debate on June 12, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Breed seemed taken off guard when Yekutiel asked what she had done to solve corruption in her administration. Breed said she had not hired any of the people who were ensnared in the corruption scandal, omitting that former San Francisco Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru and Harlan Kelly, the former general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, were close allies. Both were found guilty of taking bribes and sentenced to prison.

“As mayor, I’ve had to oversee the biggest corruption cleanup in city history,” Breed said.

Knight, who rode every bus, train, cable car and street car in the city in one day during her time as a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, pressed the candidates on their solutions to save BART and Muni.

Peskin touted his tax on Uber, Lyft and similar companies to help fund the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and said pedestrian safety should be a priority. Lurie said it was important to make sure Muni is safe, noting that many Asian seniors are afraid to ride after some have been physically assaulted and endured racist slurs.

Farrell said Muni needs to focus on its existing operations, not expansion.

“I believe strongly in our city’s transit-first policy,” said Farrell, who wants the cars that were banned in favor of transit and pedestrian safety back on Market Street.

“When was the last time you rode a bike or Muni bus in San Francisco?” Knight asked Farrell. When he said he rode a bus just a few weeks ago, she requested the line.

“The 1-California,” Farrell said, almost triumphantly.

Approaches to homelessness by Lurie and Peskin represent a fundamental difference in views: Lurie’s solution assumes unhoused people flock to San Francisco for services, while Peskin’s asserts people who fall behind on rent are vulnerable to becoming homeless.

“We need to send the message to the country, to the world: You do not come to San Francisco to do drugs, to deal drugs or to sleep on our streets,” Lurie said.

Peskin noted that 69 percent of people who are homeless lived in San Francisco before they were homeless, adding that rent assistance can be a powerful tool to prevent homelessness.


“I will make it my mission to prevent more homelessness before it happens,” Peskin said. “Every family we save from eviction is one less person living on our streets.”

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