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San Francisco's First Mayoral Debate

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From left, Manny Yekutiel, proprietor of the event space Manny’s and Heather Knight, San Francisco bureau chief of The New York Times, moderate the San Francisco mayoral debate featuring Ahsha Safai, Mark Farrell, Daniel Lurie, London Breed and Aaron Peskin at the Sydney Goldstein Theater on June 12, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

View the full episode transcript.

San Francisco’s mayor’s race kicked into high gear after 5 candidates took to the stage for their first debate last Wednesday evening. 

Today, in Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez’s last act as a KQED journalist, he opens up his reporter’s notebook to break down his key takeaways from the debate, and what it told us about the upcoming race ahead.


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.


Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra, and welcome to the Bay. Local news to keep you rooted. The race is on to see who will be the next mayor of San Francisco. And it all really kicked off after the five main candidates took the stage for their first public debate last Wednesday night.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: This time right now is like the official kickoff. I mean, that’s what this first debate was. This first debate was hello, everyone in San Francisco. Start paying attention to this today.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: In his final act as a KQED reporter, San Francisco’s own Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez joins me to break down the first debate of the campaign and what we learned about the race.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: So this is at the Sidney Goldstein Theater at the edge of like, Hayes Valley and Civic Center is hosted by City Arts and lectures, as their staffers noted, like, usually we just have two chairs on the stage and people are talking like, you know, very quietly about things. This is not this level of bombast.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: This is our usual thing. So I’m walking up, I get off a Bart because, you know, I live on the south side of the city. So I take Bart. I’m walking up past City Hall, past the gilded golden dome. Turn a corner, turn one more corner, and boom! I met by, like, hundreds of people with signs for mayor.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: It’s everyone’s jostling shoulders and elbows. And even when I first walked in a one of the kind of low turnout candidates, you could say a fringe candidate, Ellen Lee Zhao, was there shouting at a security guard, let me in.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: You should let me on stage. And inside, there are, backers of the mayoral candidates, but there’s also just regular people who came out to hear, from these folks. And, you know, I’m listening to conversations. I’m talking to people. People are like, yeah, I don’t know who I’m going to back. There’s a lot of undecideds.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Sounds like a pretty energetic scene. Whoo! Then Joe is up on stage. Introduce them for folks who haven’t been following.

Heather Knight: Every candidate will now have 60s to give their opening statement. And we will start right here with Supervisor Safaí.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: I’ll go left to right on how they stood up on stage. On on the far left starting was supervisor Asha Safai. He is, represents the Excelsior District and other southern districts. He comes out of the labor movement.

Ahsha Safaí: I have always fought for working people, and I have a unifying vision and track record of bringing people together across political divides.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Next to him is Mark Farrell. Born and raised in San Francisco from the Marina District. He has been a supervisor, two term supervisor, but also a mayor. He was appointed mayor by the Board of Supervisors after the death of Ed Lee.

Mark Farrell: San Franciscans have a spirit that is unique around the world, but the reality is we are in a tough spot right now and we need a change of leadership in City Hall.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Then we’ve got Daniel Lurie. Daniel Lurie: is an heir to Levi Strauss fortune, and he leveraged that to start a nonprofit called The Tipping Point, where he was a founder and CEO.

Daniel Lurie: I’m running because San Francisco needs accountable leadership and new ideas.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Next to him as mayor, London Breed, who may not need an introduction, but for those who may not know Mayor London Breed. She was a former supervisor of district five, which includes Japantown, the Hate, the Fillmore where she grew up.

London Breed: I look forward tonight to talking about what we have done and how San Francisco is on the rise because of the work that we have done and will continue to do together.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: And then last but not least, we have a supervisor, Aaron Peskin. She’s the supervisor of district three, which includes North Beach and Chinatown, where he enjoys a lot of support. But this mayor’s race is the first test of whether or not he gets support outside of his district.

Aaron Peskin: I’m running for mayor to make San Francisco a city where diverse working people and middle class families can afford to live a city for everyone, not just the wealthy.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Let’s talk about how the debate went. I know you wrote a piece about your key takeaways from this debate, and your first takeaway says Mark Farrow continues to move London Breed’s messaging. Right word. Can you just remind us again who Mark Farrell: is as a candidate and what it is that you mean by that?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: This is Farrell’s moment. Frankly, he’s taking advantage of it. San Francisco has moved more to the Democratic Center and has some conservative policies. People will say, oh, it’s just the center. But no, no, no, no, no. Some of these policies are outright conservative.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Drug testing welfare users is a staunch Republican position. And so we have adopted as a city some of these Republican positions. And while Farrell: is a Democrat, he certainly is not afraid of pushing the conversation in a more conservative direction on certain issues like crime.

Mark Farrell: When I was chair of the budget committee for four years, I partner with mayor Lee and I continue these policies. When I became interim mayor, and we grew our police department every single year to record staffing levels. Since I’ve left office, we are down over 600 officers in our police department. That is a problem.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Farrell will say something just so out of left field, I want to say, but really out of right field. Fire. The police chief put the National Guard to patrol the tenderloin up and down our National Guardsmen.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: You know, let’s get rid of harm reduction, which, you know, many drug experts say is the only way to get people out of drugs, which is to allow them to still use while they seek treatment so that you could save their life when they overdose, which is super important. And just go to an abstinence only model. These are things he’s saying on stage. He called harm reduction of failure.

Mark Farrell: We are treating it like the meth and heroin issues of a decade plus ago, a harm reduction approach where literally every single day there are city funded workers in the tenderloin handing out free packets of tinfoil to those suffering from drug addiction. That is not the right approach.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: It is, by the way, the drug policy position of the Biden administration. This is not crazy lefty San Francisco. This is a Biden policy position, and Farrell:’s calling it a failure. And on stage, it gets undone. Breed: on stage and say we’re pursuing absence treatment. Don’t tell me we’re not doing absence treatment.

London Breed: We are not just using harm reduction to help people with treatment. We are using abstinence based treatment, which was never a part of our public health response. We’ve already invested over $20 million for seven new programs helping people to get treatment.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: What we’re seeing is Farrell: being able to kind of, for lack of a better word, out cop Breed: and push Breed: to the right, because if she doesn’t take the bait, she will look like she is not being strong enough on crime, but sometimes she moderate her position. One time he said, hey, you’re not hiring enough cops, you’re failing to hire cops. She says, hey, we’re funding the police for $200 million. But there are alternatives to police.

London Breed: To be clear, public safety isn’t just about police. It’s about alternatives to policing as well, and having ambassadors and other resources and responses to calls for service in the city, which is something that I have led on.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: I don’t know if that message resonates with voters or not. It’ll be interesting to see if she fully takes the bait every time Mark Farrell: goads her. She did quite a lot on stage, but if we’ll continue to see this through the campaign.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And I mean, it’s really candidates like Mark Farrow who kind of get to come in and say, look at all that’s wrong with San Francisco. Here are all the ways I want to change it. Right. But then it’s. London Breed: who gets, the privilege of having to justify and explain how things are actually kind of. Okay. I mean, how has London Breed: tried to address San Francisco’s image problem on the campaign trail? As the incumbent in the race.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: You put your finger right on the on the problem for Breed, right? Because mayor Breed’s chances as a candidate are intimately tied with how San Francisco feels the city is doing. If San Franciscans feel they’re afraid to go out of their house, they’re afraid of crime, homelessness and fentanyl are scaring the heck out of them, then they’re not going to vote for Breed.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: And so it’s in Breed’s best interest to make sure that we feel good about San Francisco. So Breed on the campaign trail to your question, has been saying San Francisco’s back.

London Breed: These guys have one thing in common. They want us to feel bad about San Francisco. They want to take us backwards. They don’t. They? They are working against San Francisco. I’m the only one on this stage working for San Francisco.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Longtime political watchers might find that interesting, because when Chesa Boudin was the district attorney before he was recalled in 2022, London Breed was certainly among those saying that San Francisco was moving in the wrong direction. So some might say that she kind of laid the groundwork for the mood of the city right now, which ultimately is hurting her.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, I want to talk about, another candidate on the debate stage. You wrote about Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, who we’ve talked about with you on the show before, as really the only candidate from the city’s progressive camp running for mayor. And you wrote that he really leaned into that in the debate. What did Peskin talk about?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Peskin has a tough job as a candidate. There is a current of fear that we’ve been talking about in San Francisco of folks who want to see crime dealt with, and that is like their chief concern. There’s a certain segment of people who just want to see it happen, even if rights are trampled, whatever or what have you.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Peskin is a candidate who doesn’t want to see that happen. Peskin, from the progressive angle, is like, no, we need police reform. We need to make sure that folks who are afraid of police are also honored and protected. But he has to appeal to those people still, because he needs their votes. So what does Peskin do? He talks about both.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: He gets up there, and when he’s talking about police, he says, yes, we need more officers. We absolutely do. He says we also need to make sure we’re arresting drug dealers and not drug users. So he’s kind of walking the line of what progressives want to hear and what moderates want to hear until the end.

Aaron Peskin: There’s an old saying in politics. Follow the money.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Peskin was the last speaker of the night. In fact, Heather Knight: almost made him speak first for closing remarks. And he was like, no, no, no, no, no. We agreed I was last and he was right. And that’s when Aaron went scorched earth.

Aaron Peskin: Mark Farrell’s first contribution came from hard right Republican Bill urban. Dorff, who has given 13 million to extremists who pass abortion bans and anti-trans laws. London Bridge ballot measures and independent expenditure campaigns are funded by crypto kings and venture capitalists. Daniel Lurie: has refused public financing so he can spend his fortune on his own campaign. I’m proud to be a grassroots candidate with over 1000 contributions from artists.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: That was his moment to make his case to people who would not already vote for him, and instead he chose to, give a speech that would electrify his core base but might actually turn off moderates. And that’s a risky bet. It’s a risky bet.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Peskin’s record on housing Joe is also a really big issue in this campaign. Right. And I know there was a moment where, the moderator, Heather Knight, straight up asked him, are you a Nimby? How did he respond to that?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Oh man, that is my favorite thing to do, by the way. Like, don’t tiptoe around the question. You got a question? Ask the damn question.

Heather Knight: Supervisor Peskin, I have a follow up for you. Your housing policies differ most from the other candidates, and your critics call you a Nimby because of your efforts to keep your own neighborhood. North Beach and Telegraph Hill preserved as it is. Are you a Nimby?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: The definition of Nimby is not in my backyard. And so urbanist critics who want more housing built will say, well, Aaron, sure, you’re responsible for thousands of housing units being built everywhere else but your own backyard, like you passed height limits on the hill behind where his house is. But his answer at the debate actually talked a lot about affordable housing that he helped build.

Aaron Peskin: Heather, when I first came into office, when the Embarcadero Freeway was torn down and the three parcels that we got from the state of California were slated to be hotels and other uses, I insisted that each and every one of those parcels be built as dense, affordable housing. And today each of those parcels are dense, affordable housing.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: So he actually came prepared with a lot of examples of housing that he’s backed in his backyard.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Coming up, Joe tells us about the rest of his takeaways from the debate and what he’ll be watching for next. Stay with us.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Moving on here. There was, of course, Levi Strauss heir, Daniel Lurie, the only one on stage without experience in local government. How did he do? Because I know you wrote that he needed a grand slam.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Let’s see. Here’s the thing. People don’t know Daniel Lurie yet. He has a lot of money. He’s going to self-fund his campaign. He has said publicly, and he is going to blanket all of our mailboxes and TV. Our phones will be blown up with Daniel Lurie’s face. But in a real way, we don’t we still don’t know who he is, what he’s about.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: So the debate was really an opportunity before TV cameras, before 1600 people live, before another 1200 people watching online, before all the media to really show that he could come prepared and hit it out of the park, as well as any of these folks. He had the cards stacked against him, and I’m not sure that he really he really accomplished that.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Since we don’t know him very well. What issues does Lurie: talk about the most on the campaign trail and on at this debate?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: If there had to be like a central thread that went through all of his discussions, it was that government, is failing right now that these folks have all the ideas and that he could bring kind of an outsider’s perspective. And, you know, one way of doing that is homelessness.

Daniel Lurie: We made a big, bold bet in 2017 to cut chronic homelessness in half in five years, partnering with the city. In many cases, we made some great strides. We actually reduced chronic homelessness by 13%. I’m proud of the work that we did, a tipping point. We held groups accountable. We cut funding to groups that weren’t.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Performing, too, talking about partnering with, nonprofits and maybe, private industry in order to build small homes, for homeless folks that, you know, San Francisco has been perhaps looking at things too much in a shelter based approach or a long term housing approach, and that we need short term housing as an interim middle.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: He’s probably found a bit of a better thread in talking about outsiders versus insiders a little bit, but also he’s a little all over the place. Sometimes he’ll talk about issues in a complex way that goes a little bit too much into the weeds, and sometimes he’ll really reduce things to a single talking point that I just find not nearly as deep as his other points.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: For example, he would talk about drug dealing and the homelessness crisis, and he said, pretty emphatically, we need to show that San Francisco is like closed for business. You can’t do drugs here. You can’t deal drugs here. Under the idea that homelessness is driven by people coming here from other places.

Daniel Lurie: We have to send a message to this country and to the world that you do not come to San Francisco to deal drugs, to do drugs, or to sleep on our streets.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: I know a lot of San Franciscans feel like that’s the case, like San Francisco is some sort of beacon for homeless people to go to, to be homeless on our streets. But they’re not from here. As if that’s a reason to turn them away. But I’ll tell you what every city thinks that when we actually look at the numbers, 70% of people homeless in San Francisco were housed in San Francisco previously.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: The game here is to be as good as or better than London Breed or Mark Farrell: when talking to a lot of people and, you know, just on a gut level, on an emotional level, I’m not sure that he he hit that. He had one good line. He said that the stage had a combined 70 years of experience, in City Hall. And look where it’s got us.

Daniel Lurie: Listen, they’re going to talk about experience all night long, and they have over 70 years of combined experience on this stage. Look at where it’s gotten us. Are we happy to have you guys?

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well moving on Joe. There was also supervisor Ahsha Safai, who at one point got skipped over for a question by the moderator, which seemed kind of like a good summation of his status in the campaign. Can you talk more about that?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: I mean, I feel bad like people want to run for office. They want to make a difference. That’s a great thing. But I will say that his campaign has struggled to find its central narrative. Everyone kind of has an elevator pitch. London Breed: is the comeback kid. San Francisco better?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Mark Farrell’s like, you know, got this idea that progressives have led us astray. And I’ve got the common sense ideas that put us back on track. Has got his outsider thing, but somehow he doesn’t have that. He talks a lot about community policing, as one way to address crime and other policies. I. It was Muni MTA the lack of outreach into neighborhoods.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: You know, Ahsha did talk about putting a student success fund on the ballot, which created about $60 million a year to support public schools. You know, he talked about, supporting, afterschool programs and school unions. He kind of has gone through the labor route a little bit, but he hasn’t thread that narrative through his different ideas.

Ahsha Safaí: How can you get labor and business together in all different aspects of what we’re trying to do in the city? Because this is a labor town. That’s where the history of this city and the political movement in this city began. And I’m proud to be come from that movement. And I know as mayor, I can get all the parties to the table to get to. Yes.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: So he’s kind of struggled to find his identity. And I think that was, like you said, exemplified by people just forgetting to call on him on stage.

Heather Knight: And mayor Breed, I had a follow up for you on this topic. As a supervisor. Oh, I’m so sorry. Go ahead.

Ahsha Safaí: Thank you.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, I want to ask you about one more takeaway here, Joe. You wrote Mark Farrell: needs more gay friends. Tell me a little bit more about that one.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: So this was something I noticed. I’m just going to give a little more context. Mark Farrell: and I grew up. Very near each other in the Marina slash cow hollow. I was in the Cow Hollow. Our neighborhood is kind of like the the Marin County of San Francisco.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: You know, it’s a little divorced from San Francisco vibes of, like, you would that you would expect of like the gay community. And it’s a little less diverse. So, you know, he he has a little bit of a struggle sometimes, I have noticed, of connecting with San Francisco outside of that, you know, Marina, Park Heights, Cow Hollow, bubble. Then we come to the debate.

Speaker: Can you please name your favorite San Francisco drag queen? Starting with you Ahsha.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: So Ahsha Safaí answers honey mahogany. And lots of people in San Francisco know honey mahogany. She was on RuPaul’s Drag Race very famously. She was chair of the Democratic Party, which is how all these politicians know her. She was a legislative aid. She ran for supervisor and then Mark Farrell: goes next and his answer gets a big laugh.

Mark Farrell: Mark Farrell: I’m going to give the same answer. Honey. Mahogany.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Because he basically couldn’t name another drag queen.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: To me, it sounded like Mark Farrell: could not name another drag queen in San Francisco. People might ask, why is it important? San Francisco is the birthplace of the gay movement and the LGBTQ plus movement in the United States. Before Stonewall, there’s Compton cafeteria riots for trans folks. We went through the Aids crisis.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Drag queens were key in raising money and raising awareness in making sure that people cared about the issue. So drag and drag queens have far more history in San Francisco than that. There are wonderful pieces out there you can read to to not be able to name one. To me, it’s just just kind of shocking.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And I mean, there are a lot of questions like this in debates, right? I mean, I know they also asked like, what’s your favorite bar in San Francisco or what’s your favorite burrito? I mean, why do you think these questions matter?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: And that’s an important question, because a lot of people on social media were saying to me, like, why does it matter that you could name your favorite bar, your favorite drag queen? And I will say that these answers can often be very revealing about the character of these people, but also the social spheres they live in.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: You want a mayor who you know can see you and see your perspective and see where you’re coming from. And so, you know, like when Daniel Lurie: Yeah, they asked you, what’s your favorite, you know, watering hole in the city? I think you meant bar. Daniel Lurie: answers. Blue Light, which is a place on Union Street in the Cow Hollow.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Like that doesn’t you know, Cow Hollow is one of the wealthiest enclaves in San Francisco. And I say that as someone who is who was raised there in a rent controlled apartment and it doesn’t exactly scream everyman, right, right. You know, and, and, those kind of things, they tell you a little bit about the person.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, Joe, were there any clear winners or losers in this debate, you think?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: I’ll say in a debate where no one clearly won or clearly lost, where no one did any major flubs that became social media moments necessarily. I think Mark Ferrell’s drag question was probably the closest we got to it, but it didn’t really reverberate that badly. Where there was no major breakout moments of positivity for any of them.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: In that scenario, I would argue to you that the winner was London Breed:, because when debates don’t have a clear winner, a loser, the incumbent is the one who wins because no one got more recognition and the incumbent walks into a situation with a lot of recognition. So I would say London Breed: won, but by default.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, Joe, this is your last day watching this race as a KQED reporter and as a lifelong resident of San Francisco. What will you be watching in this race over the next couple of months?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Even if I’m just watching as a San Franciscan who cares about my city? I think what I’ll be watching to see is how the conversation shapes up more than any individual candidate. How do we, as a city, talk about the issues of crime and homelessness and drug use?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Who do we center in these conversations and? And how do our fears shape what we say and what we do as a city? That’s that’s really what I’m looking to see. How driven by fear are we and how driven by unity and the values of San Francisco are we?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: We are named after Saint Francis de Assisi. Saint Francis really was someone who gave, who cared, and who made sure folks, even the people who had the least, had the most. And so do. Do we embody that?

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, Joe, I just want to say I’ve just really appreciated being able to work with you these last couple of years, and I’ve always appreciated the love that you have for San Francisco and always shines through in our episodes with you, and we’re going to miss you here at the Bay. Thank you.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: I always love what you all do with the Bay. And thank you for what you do. Everyone subscribe.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, a now former KQED reporter. Joe, we wish you the best with whatever is next. By the way, if you’re listening to this on Monday the 17th, the second San Francisco mayoral debate is today at 7:30 p.m. we’ll leave you a link to that in our show notes.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: This 45 minute conversation with Joe was cut down and edited by senior editor Alan Montecillo. It was produced and scored by me music courtesy of the Audio Network. By the way, if you liked this episode, consider leaving our show a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Thanks for listening. Talk to you next time.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Can I be indulgent a little bit? Ericka? And may I say my favorite drag queen?

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Let’s hear it for your last episode with us.


Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Sister Roma has always been my absolute favorite sister Roma. That’s just been there at just about every cause I’ve seen. She’s a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a radical drag nun group that just do everything they can to uplift San Francisco fundraising for homeless, LGBTQ youth, being just champions of fun and positivity. And sister Roma has been at it for more than 30 years. I gosh, just touches me, just touches me.

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