Lee's candidacy eclipses Castro debate
by Matthew S. Bajko
It had been carefully planned, with 10 questions culled from neighborhood concerns to be parceled out amongst nine leading candidates to answer. But Monday night's mayoral debate at the Castro Theatre went off script with interim Mayor Ed Lee's declaring his candidacy that morning.
The reversal by Lee, who for months insisted he would not seek a full term as mayor, jolted what had been a rather ho-hum race and brought out a packed, boisterous audience to the city's LGBT neighborhood movie house for the August 8 forum.
The introduction of Lee on stage was met by prolonged boos and catcalls of "liar" as well as applause. He wasn't alone in engendering ill will from the audience; state Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) also received a fair amount of booing when he was introduced.
But Yee later won over many in the crowd when he called on Lee to resign as mayor now that he is a candidate for the office.
"Had the mayor said he would in fact run," said Yee, "he wouldn't have gotten the votes" to serve out the remainder of former Mayor Gavin Newsom's term.
City Attorney Dennis Herrera also needled Lee for his about-face. While he noted he believes Lee to be an "honest man," Herrera also questioned "will he be his own man and stand up to powerful interests?"
The answer, Herrera implied, is no.
"He said he wouldn't run for a full term. After months and months of talking to powerful people he changed his mind," said Herrera.
Openly gay former Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who represented the Castro at City Hall for eight years, quipped that, "If you can't get booed on the stage of the Castro Theater you are not breathing."
Throughout the night Lee maintained his composure, despite being repeatedly interrupted by name-calling and blasts from an air horn someone had brought with them. At one point moderator Liam Mayclem, a host of Eye on the Bay on the local CBS affiliate, implored the audience to "please stop booing the mayor."
In his responses Lee largely avoided the personal attacks on his character until the end of the two-hour debate. Noting that he worked with supervisors to pass a balanced budget and helped forge a pension reform measure by working with city leaders and union officials, Lee said he entered the mayor's race in order to continue having a more collaborative atmosphere at City Hall.
"We can get a lot done if we set agendas aside," said Lee.
Just prior to the debate District 11 Supervisor John Avalos, a former Castro resident, sent his supporters an email explaining that, unlike most of the other opponents, he didn't spend time "embroiled in political wrangling" to keep Lee out of the race. His reasoning, he said, was "because I don't think his announcement changes much for my campaign."
Avalos, nonetheless, didn't hold back in attacking Lee during the debate, painting him as bereft of his own ideas. The unions are owed credit for the pension deal, said Avalos, while holding balanced budget hearings and enforcing local hiring rules are proposals he has long championed.
"What is his vision?" asked Avalos.
Former Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier also questioned what proposals Lee had come up with on his own, arguing that the tax break he pushed for Twitter was initially proposed by Newsom last fall. In terms of the pension deal, she said the politician deserving of praise is District 7 Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who has long urged the city to grapple with its ballooning pension obligations.
"Mayor Lee was at the right place at the right time," said Alioto-Pier. "This race is about innovation and about looking forward to what we can do for San Francisco. There is innovation and there is a placeholder. We want to move forward not backward."
Gary Virginia, a gay man and fundraiser for a number of LGBT nonprofits, said he entered the debate undecided. After hearing from the candidates, he said he was most impressed by Herrera, Avalos, and venture capitalist Joanna Rees.
Yet Virginia said he remained unsure whom his first, second, and third place choices would be under the city's ranked-choice voting system. He likely won't make up his mind until closer to Election Day.
"I will be looking at the polls to determine who is electable. I don't want to waste my vote," said Virginia.
Wayne Friday, the Bay Area Reporter's former political editor and columnist, said he didn't believe Lee had won over many in the audience at the debate.
"The big story there is Lee proved he is just a politician. I didn't believe him from the beginning he wasn't going to run," said Friday, adding he plans to vote for Herrera as his first choice and Dufty as his second.
While Lee is leading the pack in the most recent polling on the race, Friday said the mayor's numbers will likely fall now that he is a candidate.
"I think it is anybody's game now," said Friday.
Lee's addition to the debate inspired another bit of political theater Monday night, as lesbian Green Party candidate Terry Baum, who had not been invited to take part, showed up anyway with her own chair and refused to leave the stage.
"They told me there was no room on stage for me and now Lee will be here. I will be in this debate unless the police drag me away," Baum told the audience prior to the start of the forum, which was hosted by the Duboce Triangle and Castro/Eureka Valley neighborhood associations.
Having been 86'ed from a debate held by police and firefighter unions due to his calling for more drastic reductions in pension benefits for city employees, former Supervisor Tony Hall commiserated with Baum over her exclusion.
"The last forum I was not included. As many people know in this room, not being included is not nice," said Hall, who also welcomed Lee to the race so that there can be "a real debate" about the policies he has enacted. "I thank you Ed Lee for coming here tonight."
Organizers allowed Baum to remain on stage but did not include her in the answer and question portion. She did end up answering several questions due to Rees and Dufty deferring their time to Baum, and Yee opted to give his allotted two-minute closing statement time to Baum.
"We need to send a message to the people in power," said Baum. "If you elect a Green mayor it will clear the sinuses of everybody in San Francisco."
Rees used Baum's muscling herself into the forum to launch one of the better attacks against Lee. After telling Baum she deserved to be there, Rees said she at first thought Baum's folding chair was meant for Chinatown power broker Rose Pak, a close friend of Lee's who was instrumental in pushing him to enter the mayor's race.
"I thought the seat was saved for Rose Pak to help Mayor Ed Lee answer questions," said Rees.
The attacks against Lee keep coming, as the morning following the Castro debate Herrera's campaign announced that former Mayor Art Agnos, who first hired Lee to work in city government, had endorsed the city attorney. A press release sent to reporters quoted Agnos as saying that the city's next mayor needs to be "independent of special interests" – a clear dig against Lee.
In a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter , Agnos said that he doesn't consider Lee to be a liar since he can change his mind about running for office.
"I respect his right to do that. I think Ed Lee is an honorable man who obviously was pressured by a number of forces that required him to change his mind," said Agnos, who served as mayor from 1988 to 1992.
He said he based his endorsement on who would be the best person to maintain their independence in the mayor's office over the next four years. Agnos also said he has no plans to make second or third place endorsements, referring to the city's ranked-choice voting as "a form of political polygamy."
"I am just endorsing Dennis Herrera. I think he is the strongest independent voice for every neighborhood in this city," said Agnos. "I don't like the structure of ranked-choice voting. I think it dilutes and encourages too much sameness among candidates."
The attacks against Lee will likely continue tonight (Thursday, August 11) at the next LGBT-centered mayoral debate. The Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club is co-hosting two mayoral debates, the first of which begins at 6 p.m. tonight at the African American Art and Cultural Complex, 762 Fulton Street.
The second will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, August 24 at the Jewish Community Center's Kanbar Hall, 3200 California Street.