Opinion » News

Wiener, Fielder face off in state Senate debate

by David-Elijah Nahmod

State Senator Scott Wiener and his challenger, Jackie Fielder, participated in a wide-ranging debate Saturday, October 3. Screengrab via Zoom
State Senator Scott Wiener and his challenger, Jackie Fielder, participated in a wide-ranging debate Saturday, October 3. Screengrab via Zoom  

The two out candidates for San Francisco's state Senate seat faced off Saturday in a wide-ranging debate.

Incumbent state Senator Scott Wiener (D), a gay man, is battling for reelection against a strong challenge by queer educator Jackie Fielder, a democratic socialist. The 11th Senate District also includes parts of northern San Mateo County, and over the weekend the San Mateo County Stonewall Democratic Club endorsed Wiener in the race.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the October 3 debate, which was hosted by Manny's Cafe, took place on Zoom and was also simulcast on Manny's Facebook page. Manny Yekutiel, owner of the Mission district establishment, moderated the debate, which occasionally got contentious, though Yekutiel was able to maintain the peace.

"I am not hosting this debate for the candidates, I am hosting it for you all," Yekutiel said. "The goal for me here is for all the people listening in, whether now or in the future, who are trying to figure out who should I vote for, who are these people running for state senate, this is for you, this is about informing the people of District 11."

The debate comprised of five issues: criminal justice reform, response and recovery of COVID-19, homelessness and mental health, climate change, and housing.

Criminal justice reform
Wiener said that the criminal justice system, which he called racist, needs to be structurally changed. Policing needs to be reformed, but he also called for changes to the jury system, how people are sentenced, the prison system, and how people are reintegrated into society after they serve their time.

"We need to remake and right size this broken and bloated system," Wiener said. "And we need to shift funding from armed police to unarmed first responders who are trained to respond to crisis situations around mental health, addiction, homelessness and other areas where we do not need armed police officers. My votes are 100% on the side of both reforming and the system as a whole, and I have repeatedly gone into legislative battle against law enforcement."

Wiener noted that he has authored aggressive legislation to reverse mass incarceration, to decriminalize HIV and sex work, to stop using biased line-ups, to restructure what he called the "broken and homophobic" sex offender registry, to make juries more diverse and to protect trans people who are in prison.

Among other legislation, Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed Wiener's bills on the sex offender registry, jury changes, and trans prisoners.

"So many of these bills had law enforcement opposition," he said. "We stood up to law enforcement. We didn't always win, but often did."

Fielder accused Wiener of defending racist and misogynistic cops when he worked in the San Francisco City Attorney's office. Wiener called Fielder's statement "distorted." He said that he had settled many police and Muni cases when city workers "messed up." He also noted that when he was in private practice, he had sued law enforcement when they illegally reported an individual to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation.

Fielder then accused Wiener of taking contributions from law enforcement unions. Wiener responded by saying that he had donated his law enforcement contributions to nonprofits serving youth of color and that he had vowed not to accept any further donations from law enforcement unions.

Fielder said that her platform calls for defunding the police.

"We have to redirect police funding to Black and Brown communities," she said. "I support demilitarizing law enforcement agencies by banning the use of military grade weapons, removing law enforcement personnel from schools."

The San Francisco Unified School District voted earlier this year to sever ties with the San Francisco Police Department.

Fielder is against the death penalty and mandatory sentences for minor offences. She supports the decriminalization of homelessness and sex work.

"And the way we get that done is to have someone who has been 100% independent of law enforcement unions," she said.

The pandemic
COVID-19 recovery was the next topic. Fielder called for the cancellation of rent and mortgages on small businesses, renters, and homeowners who have been affected by the pandemic. She also called for single-payer health care.

Wiener pointed out that Latinx and Black communities had been impacted by COVID-19 in far greater numbers than white communities. He spoke to his work to bring about eviction moratoriums, as well as in helping people get unemployment and access to food resources. He has also passed legislation to have the state collect LGBTQ data around COVID and other infectious diseases.

Fielder said that she would like to see wealthy corporations and individuals contribute their "fair share." Wiener would like to see a new federal government that will support California. He was accused by Fielder of being "the most real estate-backed politician in California." Fielder supports San Francisco Proposition I, the real estate transfer tax, while Wiener is opposed to it. Prop I would apply to those selling property valued at $10 million or more, who would pay a higher tax when selling.

Homelessness, mental health
Wiener was then asked what he would do to address the city and state's homelessness epidemic and its connection to mental illness.

"Homelessness is a huge issue and it's getting worse," he said. "The root cause of this problem is a lack of available housing. We will not solve homelessness until we get it together and acknowledge that a 3 1/2 million home shortage is going to drive people into poverty and homelessness. We need to triage and help people transfer off the street and into stability. I have aggressively pursued ideas to move us into a positive direction. My housing law, SB 35, is streamlining almost 2,000 affordable housing units in San Francisco alone, many thousands throughout the state, and it is streamlining supportive housing for formerly homeless people here in San Francisco and elsewhere."

Former Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 35 in 2017.

Wiener also mentioned that he was a joint author of Senate Constitutional Amendment 1, which would repeal Article 34 of the California Constitution and make it easier to build public housing. He added that building Navigation Centers needs to be expedited to help homeless people transition off the street and into stability, and that his legislation, SB 48, which was passed, does that. He told Yekutiel that he also passed SB 855, which mandates that insurance companies cover a much wider range of mental health and addiction treatment.

Fielder said that domestic violence was a major cause of homelessness, and that many unhoused trans and LGBTQ are subjected to great levels of violence. She called for eliminating for-profit insurance companies and bringing about a single-payer system that would cover mental health and recovery from substance abuse.

She accused Wiener of criminalizing homelessness by supporting the "sit lie" ordinance that was passed by 54% of city voters in 2010. The law allows police officers to issue tickets or misdemeanor citations to anyone sitting or lying on the street between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. In recent years it has rarely been enforced by the police.

Climate change
The opponents then talked about climate change.

"Climate change is truly an existential threat to the planet," said Wiener. "With the acceleration of wildfires being the latest horrific example of what happens when we strangle the planet. The world has not done enough, our country has not done enough, and California has not done enough. I am a strong climate vote in the Senate. I support the Green New Deal. I have a 100% anti-oil voting record, I've been a leader in the Senate on clean energy, including SB 700, which is the largest clean energy which is the largest clean energy storage investment in California history, I joint authored SB 54 to phase out single-use plastics, I have recently announced after the governor announced it that we're going to work to ban fracking."

Wiener also reminded people that he was a leader in sustainable transportation since his time on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, when he represented District 8. He has also co-authored SB 1, an increase in the gas tax and the vehicle registration fee. Wiener pointed out that housing is a climate issue, and that their needs to be new housing near transportation and near jobs.

Fielder said fracking is alive and well in the state.

"Even in a state as blue as ours 40 fracking permits were approved this year," said Fielder. "We need a just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and that means centering frontline communities, including Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color facing environmental racism. It means ensuring that workers aren't left behind. And it means protecting the creatures with whom we share this beautiful state."

Fielder brought up the fact that Chevron had contributed to a mailer in support of Wiener and asked the senator why he thinks Chevron wants to keep him in office.

"Anyone who takes a minute to look at my record knows that I am one of the most anti-oil votes in the Legislature," said Wiener. "Chevron has no love for me, does not support me, I have never taken a dime in oil money and I doubt that I've ever been offered a dime in oil money, because I am so intensely anti-oil in the bills that I author, and in my votes.

"If there are outside groups that take whatever money they take and send out mailers, I don't control that, and I doubt that Chevron even knew that a contribution they made would be used for me, because there is no way Chevron would ever have any reason to support me," he added. "I am the opposition to the oil industry in the Legislature."

Wiener then pointed out that Fielder's allies took contributions during the primary from the San Francisco Deputy Sheriff's Association, which found their way into mailers supporting her.

"That doesn't lead me to say that you support the deputy sheriffs," added Wiener. "It just means that you can't control what money flows where and makes it into an outside committee that you don't control."

Housing
Housing was the final topic of the debate. The candidates were asked what they would do to make housing more affordable for anyone who wants to move to District 11 or to California more broadly.

Wiener pointed out that he has authored numerous pieces of legislation to build new, affordable housing, which is forcing some of the wealthiest communities in the state to build new housing. He also mentioned that he is co-authoring a bill to make it easier to build public housing, and that he co-authored all the major rental protection bills.

"I will never give up on the fight for a brighter housing future for our community," he said.

Fielder then spoke of her housing plan.

"My plan for affordable housing is called California Homes For All," she said. "It is a fresh approach to the housing crisis."

Fielder said that her plan would cancel rent and mortgages for people impacted by coronavirus and a $100 billion housing emergency fund, expanding rent control by repealing Costa Hawkins, a state law that prevents cities from establishing rent control on units constructed after February 1995.

Fielder also calls for the repeal of the Ellis Act, a state law which states that landlords may evict tenants in order to "go out of business." Tenants would also, under Fielder's plan, have a universal right to counsel when facing eviction, and a vacancy tax, as well as an anti-displacement act to prevent gentrification. She accused Wiener of not supporting the cancellation of rent or mortgages and accused Wiener of being funded by real estate developers.

San Francisco voters passed a right to counsel law for tenants in 2018. California Proposition 21, a local rent control initiative, is on the November ballot.

Wiener pointed out that he's repeatedly done battle with the real estate industry, such as when he implemented a small business eviction moratorium earlier this year.

"You have to be willing to fight, even if it makes people upset with you," he said. "And I did that with SB 939 because I'm here to advocate for my community, including our small businesses and nonprofits. And yes, there are people in the real estate industry who support me, because I support building more housing."

"He backs ideas that he thinks is best for our community," said Fielder. "You can't pass bills that you don't have the support of affordable housing groups."

The entire debate lasted for about 95 minutes. It can be viewed here.

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