by Randy Shaw on May 20, 2024 (

Photo shows Mayor Breed and Aaron Peskin

Mayor Breed preferred to share stage with Aaron Peskin

San Francisco’s Moderate Disunity

Until last Thursday afternoon, there were two competing San Francisco mayoral debates set for Monday night, May 20. Mark Farrell, Daniel Lurie and Ahsha Safai were debating at the Tenderloin’s historic Hibernia Bank; London Breed and Aaron Peskin would be at Manny’s.

That the three “moderates” in the race were debating in different forums was telling. But weren’t two debates still better than none? After Manny canceled his debate Lurie pulled out of the Hibernia forum. Farrell and Safai remained willing to debate but after all that had happened the Board of TogetherSF Action pulled the plug.

In light of this debate fiasco can backers of the three “moderate” candidates still unite on an “Anybody But Peskin” ranked choice voting strategy?

I don’t see it.

I doubted that prospect before. (See “Can Breed and Farrell Unite to Stop Peskin?,” April 15, 2024). The debate shenanigans shows that the rift between the Breed and Farrell camps is now even deeper.

Here’s my take on the state of the race.

The Reason for Two Debates

Breed and Peskin were very transparent over their decision to skip the TogetherSF Action/GrowSF debate. Breed feels there are “troubling connections between the Farrell campaign and the leadership of Together SF. The public will not benefit from a debate that is orchestrated or unduly influenced by one of the campaigns.”  The mayor is referring to the two former TogetherSF Action staff who left to work for Farrell and that the husband of the head of TogetherSF Action tried to place people in jobs with Farrell’s campaign.

The mayor also said that debate planning was “marked by chaos” and had “tainted the debate beyond repair.” Peskin never agreed to participate in the debate. He understandably avoided an event sponsored by groups that openly oppose his candidacy.

The Larger Picture

The debate exposed conflicts among moderate candidates and moderate political groups.

Breed supporters often promote an “Anybody But Peskin” message. Abundant SF, an independent expenditure group backing Breed, is among them. Yet Abundant SF promoted the Breed-Peskin debate before it was canceled. It was not promoting the debate run by two moderate groups.

This two-debate lineup sounded like the mayor is pursuing an “Anybody But Farrell” agenda rather than an “Anyone But Peskin.” The debate would have likely encouraged Breed backers to make Peskin their second choice. After all, the mayor sent a message that she felt more comfortable sharing a stage with Peskin—who she just collaborated with on a major tax reform ballot measure— than with her moderate opponents.

AbundantSF, Neighbors for a Better San Francisco and GrowSF are all running independent expenditure campaigns for moderate mayoral candidates (these “IE”campaigns supposedly are unconnected from candidates). TogetherSF Action seeks funds from similar sources for its advocacy efforts.

AbundantSF can seek donations from Breed supporters on the basis that it was the first of the above groups to endorse the mayor. But will AbundantSF recommend voters make Farrell their second choice? Will Farrell donors to independent groups want mailings to recommend second place votes for Breed? After all, the mayor canceled a debate arguing that it was being run by people close to Farrell.

I wouldn’t bet on either. Breed’s attack on TogetherSF Action reduces the chances that Farrell supporters make the mayor their second RCV choice.

Who Will Debates Help?

I saw Daniel Lurie and Ahsha Safai as benefiting most from not having to share time with Peskin and Breed. Lurie needs more exposure. He would have gotten that had he not pulled out of the debate. Running as an “outsider,” Lurie should not have gotten ensnared in  debate politics; that’s what “traditional” politicians do.

Lurie’s withdrawal also alienated a TogetherSF Action crowd that shares his moderate values. He he could have won them over as supporters instead of alienating them by helping kill the debate.

Ahsha Safai would have greatly benefited from having the stage to only himself and Farrell. Safai’s message has been hampered by his inability to raise enough money to be seen as a potentially winning candidate. On issues from combating coordinated retail theft to funding drug-free recovery housing, Safai has been a Board leader. The debate could have jump started his campaign.

I’ve been very impressed with the energy of Farrell’s campaign. The over 1000 people who signed up for the Hibernia debate will likely feel more positive about Farrell for his willingness to proceed with the debate even as other candidates left.

Peskin benefited from the mayor agreeing to join him at Manny’s even though the debate was canceled. After all, if he’s as destructive as some moderates say why would Mayor Breed share a platform with him?

Breed didn’t need the four candidate debate. She clearly benefits from its cancellation . Why should the mayor subject herself to attacks from multiple candidates? The mayor doesn’t need to go through this over five months before the election (Breed is scheduled to join the other candidates in a June 12 debate co-presented by Manny’s and City Arts & Lectures. Manny canceled the Breed-Peskin debate so as not to conflict with this event).

State of the Race

GrowSF released a poll last week with some curious results. The most unlikely found most of Peskin’s second place votes going to Breed. I asked GrowSF’s Sachin Agarwal about this on Twitter and he replied, “Perhaps it’s because name recognition for Lurie and Farrell is still pretty low, so many voters are picking the two names they know.”

I don’t think many Peskin voters will make Breed their second choice. If any do at all. At this point—and we are still five months out– Peskin could get more of Breed’s second place votes than Farrell does.

The poll found Peskin getting only 16% of active ballots and 12% of overall ballots. He was easily surpassed by Lurie, who has nowhere near Peskin’s name recognition or clear constituency support. Breed, Farrell and Lurie finished in the top three.

Peskin is a much stronger candidate than these poll numbers show. I don’t see these results as reliably assessing the race.

I see Mayor Breed again showing that she is a great campaigner. I see Farrell’s campaign building support, Lurie strengthening his campaign team, and Peskin recognizing that voters of all political stripes really want someone who can manage the city. Safai is still not being seen as clearly in the “moderate” or “progressive” camp; that’s why the debate had such upside for him.

I just read former New York City Mayor John Lindsay’s 1970 book, The City.  It covers his successful 1969 re-election campaign. He felt he got a huge boost from the New York Mets—long seen as lovable losers—surprising everyone and winning the World Series a few weeks before the election. Everyone in NYC was suddenly happy. They felt better about their mayor.

The Giants are unlikely to provide a similar boost for Mayor Breed this November but unforeseen events could still alter the race. There’s a long way to go.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw’s latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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