Political Notes: SF D7 supervisor debate highlights candidates' differences
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A debate with five candidates seeking to be San Francisco's next District 7 supervisor highlighted the various policy differences — and a few agreements — between the quintet of contenders for the open seat.
The nearly 120-minute virtual get-together Thursday, August 6, was hosted by the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, which will be voting on its endorsement in the race and other local contests Monday (August 10). Moderated by gay small business commissioner Manny Yekutiel, the debate focused on three of the most pressing issues facing the city at the moment: the economic fallout brought on by the coronavirus outbreak, affordable housing scarcity, and transportation concerns.
With District 7 Supervisor Norman Yee, currently president of the board, termed out of office, the city's moderate and progressive political camps are waging a strong battle for the seat that covers the neighborhoods west of Twin Peaks. Many progressives' preferred candidate in the race, Deputy Public Defender Vilaska Nguyen, was blocked last month from getting the local Democratic Party's first choice endorsement.
Instead, he ended up with the party's second choice endorsement, as voters will be able to rank their choices on their ballots due to the city using instant runoff voting to determine the winner of the supervisor race. Securing the party's number one endorsement was former planning commissioner Myrna Melgar, who is endorsed by Yee and a host of moderate and progressive leaders.
Originally from El Salvador, Melgar and her husband have lived in the District 7 neighborhood of Ingleside Terrace since 2011. They have three daughters, one of whom is at college and came out as a lesbian last year. Their oldest works for the city's Public Utilities Commission and their youngest is in elementary school.
Melgar would be the first woman elected to the District 7 supervisor seat and the first Latina elected to the board since lesbian former supervisor Susan Leal, who was first appointed in 1993 and later won election to a four-year term in 1994 when the supervisors ran citywide. (Former District 5 supervisor Christina Olague, a Latina and the first bisexual member of the board, was appointed to the seat but lost her bid for a full term in 2012.)
Making his third run for the seat is gay former journalist Joel Engardio, who has racked up endorsements from various moderate leaders like gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco). His candidacy is seen as the best chance this year for doubling LGBTQ representation on the Board of Supervisors; Engardio would be the first LGBTQ person to represent District 7 at City Hall.
The board's lone out member is gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who has solely endorsed Melgar. Having twice lost to Yee but remaining active in the community, Engardio is hoping the seeds he planted during those past campaigns will give him an edge this fall, particularly with campaigning now curtailed by the pandemic.
Also running again is tech investor Ben Matranga, who fell short in 2016. Matranga, a managing partner at Connectivity Capital, and his wife live in West Portal and have an infant daughter.
The fifth candidate who took part in the debate was Emily Murase, Ph.D., who two years ago was blocked from seeking reelection to the city's school board after failing to file her paperwork in time. She and her husband, who have two grown children, live in the Lakeshore district.
One of the biggest divides among the five candidates is how they would deal with balancing the city's budget. Due to the health crisis, City Hall is projecting a $1.7 billion deficit over the next two years.
Melgar and Nguyen both voiced opposition to cutting either city services or staffing levels. Engardio, Murase, and Matranga all said they support making cuts to the budget, but none pinpointed what city departments or programs they would target.
"I do not support cuts in any department," said Melgar, adding it was not appropriate to be culling the jobs of city workers caring for the homeless and the hungry "when the rest of us" are sheltering in place. "We need to take care of those city employees and not throw them under the bus when they are out there doing what they are suppose to be doing."
Engardio said city department heads should take a 30% pay cut and "duplicative jobs" in the mayor's office and elsewhere should be eliminated. He also said it was not the right time to raise salaries for city employees.
"The budget is too big and too bloated in the first place. It has doubled in the past decade," he said. "We are going to have to cut salaries and cut positions."
Murase said despite the growth in the budget, services haven't gotten better and issues like homelessness have only worsened.
"I do think there are lots of things we can do to cut back," she said.
Matranga, who at one time led the city's efforts to prevent pedestrian traffic deaths, called for imposing hiring freezes in addition to making targeted cuts.
"We can get through it without going after city employees providing important services," he said.
Engardio raised concerns about the various ballot measures on the November ballot aimed at increasing the city's revenues. The mix of tax measures, he warned, could result in companies opting to leave San Francisco "even faster" and further adding to the city's financial woes. He particularly questioned the measure that would tax executives who earn 100 times or more than the median pay of their employees.
"We risk killing the golden goose," warned Engardio, who owns a home near Lake Merced with his husband, Lionel Hsu.
City Hall should instead, Engardio argued, be making it easier for businesses to operate in San Francisco.
"We need to get rid of the fees, permits, and regulations that make it so hard to operate a business here in San Francisco," he said.
Nguyen, a married father of two who also performs as a standup comic, noted he and Engardio "fundamentally disagree" on addressing the deficit. He argued the city should tap into its rainy day funds to help it weather the current fiscal crisis until the pandemic passes.
"If this is not a scenario to use it, then I can't see where it would apply," he said, adding the ballot measure that will tax overpaid executives "is necessary right now" as it could net the city $60 million to $140 million annually.
"The only way out of this is revenue, revenue, revenue," said Nguyen.
Murase argued for the city to purchase more from businesses in San Francisco in order to prop up the local economy. As the former head of the city's Department on the Status of Women, Murase noted she was responsible for finding ways to trim her budget and make do with less.
The city should also empower all of its employees to each suggest how to save $1,000 as one way to resolve the budget deficit.
Matranga also advocated for tapping the city's rainy day fund while also promoting caution in imposing more revenue generating ideas.
"I do believe we need to be thoughtful about taxes and fees," he said. "We can't just say tax business. We need to be smart."
Housing views differ
All five candidates agreed more housing needs to be built within the district, but they differ on the policies to achieve that goal. Seeing 100% affordable housing be built needs to be the top priority, argued Nguyen, as solely pushing for more units to be built doesn't ensure residents will be able to afford them.
Melgar and Engardio agreed that commercial corridors such as West Portal and Ocean avenues can and need denser housing to be built. They both support up-zoning West Portal to allow for five-story buildings with housing above ground floor commercial spaces.
"Not only do we have to produce more housing, it is essential for the businesses to have more customers," she said. "It is not enough with what we have right now."
It makes more sense to site dense apartment buildings in those areas, argued Engardio, than in the district's neighborhoods that sport single-family homes.
"There is no reason why we can't have five stories the whole length of the avenues," he said.
The other three would not outright back such up-zoning, though Matranga didn't rule it out. He said he needed to hear from the community first before committing to such a policy. Addressing the housing issue needs to be done with a regional focus, he added.
"It is necessary but not sufficient to only focus on housing in San Francisco. This is a regional issue," he said. "We are not going to get out of this on our own."
Enacting eviction moratoriums needs to be done smartly, noted Matranga, so renters who can pay don't take advantage of it and small property owners are not hurt to the point they lose their buildings to foreclosure.
"There is a difference between a small landlord with one or two units and someone managing 10-plus," said Matranga. "We too often throw them in the same bucket."
Nguyen agreed, noting that it "is not an issue where a rent moratorium and mortgage moratorium are mutually exclusive."
It was a position voiced by all of the candidates that smaller landlords need assistance just as much as their tenants who have lost income due to the health crisis. In terms of missed rental payments, Engardio said he favored allowing tenants to enter into a payment plan but opposed their having their missed rent be "totally forgiven. There needs to be a limit to it."
Murase called for allowing smaller property owners impacted by the pandemic to either pay their property taxes over a 10-year period or be granted partial forgiveness of their missed payments. Melgar also voiced support for assisting smaller landlords so they can hold on to their buildings.
Otherwise, she worries bigger landlords like Veritas "will swoop them up" if they are put up for sale.
In terms of one of the larger housing developments in the district, the Balboa reservoir site next to City College of San Francisco's main campus off Ocean Avenue, all the candidates but Nguyen voiced support for the current plan that will see 1,100 units of housing be built, with half set aside as affordable. He contended the project should be 100% affordable since it is publicly owned land.
But when pressed on how he would have the city finance such a project, Nguyen was vague on specific revenue sources other than to say federal funding could be sought for it.
Asked about her past comments about the project, Melgar explained she wished it could be fully affordable but is OK with seeing half the units be below market rate. Because developers of market-rate housing help finance affordable units, she said the project strikes the right balance between the two.
"In this project we are getting 550 affordable housing units more than we would get if we were to build it on our own and will get them right now," said Melgar, "that to me is good enough."
As for opening a Navigation Center for the homeless in the district, only Nguyen expressed outright support. The other four candidates called for other solutions, with Murase arguing the money would be better spent on actual units than "temporary cots" for people to sleep on.
Melgar said a site is needed in the district for people living in their vehicles to park overnight and access services. While Engardio supported a site for RVs and other vehicles, he argued it made more sense to be in a more centralized location like the Cow Palace parking lot.
There was wide agreement among the candidates when asked about defunding the police department that officers should not be the ones responding to calls about homeless individuals or people having mental health crisis. And the five were also aligned when it came to the need for improved bike lanes and transit options in the district.
Where they differed was on if the city's Muni service should be free for passengers to ride. Melgar argued the city should stop charging riders fares, while Matranga was resolute doing so doesn't make financial sense. Engardio and Murase both favored offering District 7 residents some sort of voucher program for them to use a car service or taxis as a way to improve their transit options.
The District 7 debate was the last of three such forums the more moderate Alice club hosted this summer focused on the most competitive of the odd-numbered supervisor races on the November 3 ballot. They also brought together the supervisor candidates running in District 11 and District 1.
All three debates can be watched via the club's Facebook page.
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