All 5 major SF mayor candidates make pitches for Milk club nod

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday May 22, 2024
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Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club President Jeffrey Kwong, left, listens to a response from Mayor London Breed at a May 21 forum. Photo: John Ferrannini
Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club President Jeffrey Kwong, left, listens to a response from Mayor London Breed at a May 21 forum. Photo: John Ferrannini

The news from Mayor London Breed may have not been what many members of the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club wanted to hear during a May 21 forum. Facing a dire budget this year, Breed would not commit to backfilling any federal HIV cuts.

Instead, Breed said her "goal right now" is to backfill an expected $500,000-$800,000 shortfall in HIV funding from the federal government, but stopped short of a full commitment at the forum, held at the First Universalist Unitarian Church. All five of the major candidates participated in separate one-on-one interviews led by Milk Club President Jeffrey Kwong and, occasionally, answered questions from audience members.

Breed also said she hopes to avoid cuts to social service organizations serving LGBTQ youth, such as LYRIC, which shared with the Bay Area Reporter that it, alongside Larkin Street Youth Services and the San Francisco LGBT Community Center, were seeing hundreds of thousands of dollars in cuts as the city stares down a $245 million deficit this coming fiscal year and a $555 million deficit the following year.

The mayor's statements at the forum were in response to a question from longtime HIV advocate Vince Crisostomo, a queer Chamorro man who is the director of aging services at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

"We pulled all our [HIV/AIDS] organizations together and what we decided is not to destroy the current safety net," Crisostomo said. "This year we're facing $500,000-$800,000 in CDC federal cuts. Can you commit to backfilling those federal funds with city money, and what can be done for organizations like LYRIC?"

Breed answered that she has long supported funding for the city's HIV services, noting in 2019, a year into her mayoral term, "one of the things I did was add a million dollars to help with housing stability, to support those living with HIV/AIDS in San Francisco, when there was a deficiency in financial resources."

A mayoral spokesperson had told the B.A.R. May 8, it was "too early to tell" if the federal HIV cuts would be filled by the city, as has typically been done in the past. Breed's office also told the B.A.R. an expected $1.6 million in new federal HIV funds secured by Congressmember Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) had already been factored into the city's budget.

At the Milk club forum, Breed said one aim with her budget proposal she is set to send to the Board of Supervisors next week is to see the city's Getting to Zero program reach is goal of reducing new HIV transmissions and HIV deaths by 90% by 2025, in addition to reducing stigma.

"Ever since I have been on the Board of Supervisors I have supported backfilling when the federal government made those cuts. My goal right now is to do so as well in our current budget," said Breed. "We are still having a lot of budget conversations, but my desire with the community is to get to zero [new infections] and I don't want us to go backwards either."

As for LYRIC and the other nonprofits, Breed said she is concerned and reminded the audience that "during the pandemic, no nonprofit organization received cuts and many actually received increases to deal with the challenges of the pandemic."

"I'm sorry I don't have an answer for you today," she added.

Breed also addressed the recent controversy over a $390 million bond measure that's expected to be on the November ballot. Initially, the bond included $25 million for the reimagining of Harvey Milk Plaza but no funds to relocate San Francisco City Clinic, which provides services for HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections. After an outcry from Milk club members and others, Breed included $28 million for City Clinic's relocation in the bond.

At the forum, Breed said that the money for City Clinic was not initially included in the bond because the plan was to move it from a privately-owned building to a city-owned building.

Each of the major candidates spent 20-30 minutes with Kwong, who said the purpose of the forum was so that the influential progressive club could make an informed endorsement decision next month.

"For the Harvey Milk club, we know that the power and voice of the LGBTQ community will hinge on this mayoral election — knowing which candidates will champion HIV funding, save programs that support queer and trans youth, and uphold district elections that ensure representation," Kwong told the B.A.R. after the forum.

Milk club President Jeffrey Kwong, left, posed a question to mayoral candidate Ahsha Safaí. Photo: John Ferrannini  

In addition to Breed, the other four candidates who appeared were: Levi Strauss heir and former nonprofit executive Daniel Lurie; District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí; Board of Supervisors President and District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin; and former supervisor Mark Farrell who served six months as mayor in 2018 after the death of then-mayor Ed Lee, when the Board of Supervisors chose him over Breed.

'Kids, not pandas'
Breed wasn't the only one to discuss the potential budget cuts. Safaí mentioned the B.A.R.'s previous reporting on the HIV cuts.

"We got called by the B.A.R. and said we can't take a step back on HIV prevention," Safaí said. "We have to prioritize during the budget process."

Safaí impressed attendees by blasting the proposed cuts to nonprofits.

"Just last week, I'm sure you read all about it, the mayor and her administration cut $24-$25 million from youth programs in our city and a few days later, she announced she wanted to raise $25 million for pandas," Safaí said. "We put forward a resolution that says kids, not pandas. We can do both, but I think kids are more important so I've been a force for kids, a force for working families, on the front lines."

Safaí was referring to the confluence of two events — a $25 million potential cut in Department of Children, Youth, and Their Families funding at the same time as Breed's office is asking supervisors to pass a resolution allowing the city to raise money for a habitat for two giant pandas that would be on loan from China. Breed signed a memorandum of understanding with the China Wildlife Conservation Association for the pandas when she was in Beijing last month.

Peskin touted his long record in city government, saying "when Ryan White care dollars were being cut back by the U.S. government, we knew we had to backfill those funds come hell or high water."

Mayoral candidate Mark Farrell spoke at the Milk club forum. Photo: John Ferrannini  

Farrell repeated a commitment he previously made to the B.A.R. to backfill the HIV funds.

"When I was in office [as District 2 supervisor], I always supported then-supervisor [Scott] Wiener and [David] Campos' efforts to backfill our HIV/AIDS funding," Farrell said. "I did it as chair of the budget committee and you have my unequivocal support."

Farrell also reminded attendees that in the pre-same-sex-marriage era, he spearheaded legislation requiring the city to reimburse its employees for federal taxes they had to pay on benefits provided to their same-sex partners that were not considered taxable for married, heterosexual couples.

"I thought that was important to do," he said. "I don't believe the fight for equality is over. ... I acknowledge while I am lucky enough to be from here, San Francisco is a chosen family for many others, and it's a mayor's obligation to make sure the city is safe and welcoming."

Milk club President Jeffrey Kwong, left, listens to a response from mayoral candidate Daniel Lurie. Photo: John Ferrannini  

Farrell, Lurie defend their campaigns
But Farrell's record in office didn't pay many, if any, dividends with the crowd. The forum happened in the aftermath of a TogetherSF Action mayoral debate that had initially been scheduled for May 20 falling apart amid allegations TogetherSF Action was improperly coordinating with the Farrell campaign. Earlier this month, Mission Local published a report about a February text from a Farrell campaign consultant who stated that TogetherSF founder Kanishka Cheng was, in part, "guiding the ship" for him.

TogetherSF Action focuses on street conditions, public safety, and economic recovery — issues that have become increasingly salient in recent years, leading to the recall of progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin in 2022, and moderates being elected to the Board of Supervisors. It was launched with millions of dollars from venture capitalist Michael Moritz.

Independent political expenditure committees are prohibited from working with campaigns they have, or likely will, endorse in the future.

TogetherSF Action and Farrell have denied improperly colluding. Kwong asked Farrell about it. Farrell said many nonprofit advocacy groups have been formed in recent years.

"These are all organizations every single candidate up on stage is courting," Farrell said. "I am seeking the support of organizations all over San Francisco."

Gwenn Craig, a lesbian, former police commissioner, and former president of the club who worked with Milk in the 1970s, blasted Farrell, in one of the more dramatic moments of the forum, as the chasm opened up between the progressive club and the more moderate figures on stage.

"We all know about the crossover with Cheng and TogetherSF," Craig said. "We have a reason to be concerned about your reliance on TogetherSF and we know TogetherSF is intent on changing the political landscape of San Francisco and moving us to the right, moving us from the progressive vision Harvey Milk and so many others fought for. You seem to be aligned with the folks who want to change that."

Craig's remarks were a preface to a question about charter reform. Both Farrell and Lurie said they supported reducing the number of city commissions.

"You appoint someone to a commission for a four-year term and they are there for that term unaccountable to their appointing authority and unaccountable to the voters," Farrell said.

Lurie also championed a slimming down of the bureaucracy.

"There's three to four [commissions] overseeing housing and homeless services. That for me is a problem," he argued. "When you start a commission, it allows our elected leaders to point fingers and what we're getting from our elected leaders is a masterclass in finger-pointing. Next year, when I take office, if something goes wrong in this city, I'm going to be the one to hold myself accountable."

Kwong asked if Lurie was trying to "buy his way into City Hall."

"We see the big billboards around the city," Kwong said. "There's something very visceral for a lot of us who hear someone with a huge family wealth coming in like a kind of Michael Bloomberg of San Francisco," referring to the billionaire former New York City mayor and philanthropist.

"I'm going to ask all of you, really, to judge me on the choices I've made with my life and at every single turn I have devoted my life to serving the community," Lurie responded. "Every door that has been opened for me I have tried to bring as many people along with me as possible. ... We were knocking doors in the Excelsior last night. I am loving this. I am going to work my tail off and nothing is given. Nothing is given."

Later, after Farrell brought up going to a Roman Catholic parish inclusive of LGBTQ people and mentioned his kids were in Catholic schools, Kwong, also Catholic, challenged the former mayor's convictions.

"I like to joke Pope Francis turned me into a socialist," Kwong said. "You're one of the candidates I listen to and read in the news and it seems your politics are the most opposite of what the church is teaching about economic justice and those inequalities we see in the city."

"As a fellow Catholic, I couldn't disagree with you more. Public safety has become the No. 1 concern across our city," Farrell replied. "Public safety is queer safety. I talk to so many people who feel vulnerable in the LGBTQ community, especially in the trans community. I don't believe that is antithetical to income inequality or anything else you're discussing."

Kwong mentioned tax breaks for real estate interests as an example, to which Farrell replied by mentioning his support for District 2 housing projects while he was supervisor, before his brief time as mayor.

Mayoral candidate Aaron Peskin spoke at the Milk club forum. Photo: John Ferrannini  

Breed, Peskin talk police reform, corruption
But though Farrell was the target of the most pointed questions, it was Breed who herself challenged the club. Kwong congratulated Breed for attending considering the sometimes-acrimonious relationship between her and the club.

"I'm not scared of nothing," she said.

In response to a question about housing, the mayor made a dig at Lurie, saying, "having a mayor who never had to pay rent is not a solution."

Breed defended her record as a pragmatist. When Kwong said that "the perception is Mayor Breed is supporting policies that prioritize the rich," Breed mentioned her support of Prop A (the affordable housing bond that passed in March) and added "let's be honest. Where are we going to get all the money to build the affordable housing we so desperately need? It's not about a giveaway for the rich."

Breed said that the presence of large businesses helps with the city's budget.

"There are a lot of businesses who make a lot of money and we know this, and they make enough money to pay the taxes that we charge, but you know what? They're not staying here. So it's about finding balance," she said.

After an attendee shouted "defund the police" at Breed, she got applause with the line "people are hollering 'defund the police' but let something happen to you and the first thing you're doing is calling 911."

In asking Breed why she is so supportive of a fully-staffed police department, Kwong noted, "When there are bad apples we need to hold them accountable. We don't want another case like George Floyd in San Francisco." (Floyd was the Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis back in 2020.)

Breed accused some activists of not going deeper into police reform than attending rallies, bringing up that she and then-supervisor Malia Cohen helped implement reforms to the San Francisco Police Department. (Cohen later served on the police commission before becoming elected as the state controller.)

"When I was growing up in San Francisco, gun violence was at an all-time high and we didn't have the best relationship with the police department and we worked really hard to work on those relationships to save lives because of what was happening in our community," she said.

"It was a lot of work with the community and people who were consistently at the table to implement those reforms," the mayor added. "There have been people who rallied and protested but they weren't at the table, but my office was, the police were and some members of the community were."

Peskin got applause when he said that "after a third of a century of leadership that has not been progressive, I want to bring some of that back" — referring to the city having had moderate mayors since progressive Art Agnos lost to Frank Jordan in 1991.

Peskin said he's concerned about police reform being rolled back, and said Breed hasn't taken crime seriously enough in city government. Almost two dozen people were implicated in the San Francisco Department of Public Works corruption scandal, leading to Public Works director Mohammed Nuru and others being convicted on charges of corruption.

"The tone from the top has got to change," Peskin said. "Mayor Breed has not gotten in the way of any of these indictments but there has not been a clear tone from the top: this kind of behavior will not be tolerated. It will be rooted out."

Peskin was the only candidate asked about supervised drug injection sites, and said the city should find a way to provide for one. He also said he has both the knowledge and the work ethic to bring order to the bureaucracy.

"This job is hard work," Peskin said. "It's not fun. It's not sexy. It's not about making speeches. It's about staying up until 2 a.m. with smart people with a high level of care for the details. That's what executive management is about."

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