As a candidate, Lee takes a few lumps

The Duboce Triangle/Castro/Eureka Valley Neighborhood Association hosted the mayoral candidate forum at the Castro Theater

It was a lively scene at the Castro Theater Aug. 8 as leading mayoral contenders -- including interim Mayor Ed Lee, who that morning announced he had changed his mind and was going to run after all -- squared off before a jocular crowd that peppered the politicians with cheering, clapping, booing, hissing, and shouting out of turn. 

"If you can't get booed on the stage of the Castro theatre, you're not breathing," quipped former District 8 Sup. Bevan Dufty, drawing laughter and applause.

The candidate forum featured District 2 Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier, District 11 Sup. John Avalos, Board President David Chiu, Dufty, former District 7 Sup. Tony Hall, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, state Sen. Leland Yee, Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting, venture capitalist Joanna Rees, Lee, and green party candidate Terry Baum.

(Baum wasn't invited, and she was initially informed that there was not enough room for her onstage. But then Lee announced his candidacy, and accommodations were made for him. Incensed, Baum showed up to the candidate forum with her own chair, claimed a spot onstage, and even got in about two minutes of microphone time when Rees and Dufty donated their allotted time to allow her to speak.)

The real fireworks went off when Yee, Chiu, Avalos, and Herrera piled up against Lee for deciding to enter the race after saying he wouldn't. Yee took his criticism the farthest, calling for the mayor to resign from his post in order to run for office. "Had the mayor said that he would in fact run, he may not have gotten the votes for interim mayor," Yee said, asking, "Will you resign from your post in order to then run for mayor?" He also attacked Progress for All, the now-disbanded committee behind the "Run, Ed, Run" campaign, saying it was a "burning" concern for him. "That committee is just out there flouting the law," he charged, "and [the Ethics Commission] should do something about that."

Criticism of Lee's decision to enter the race wasn't limited to "anyone-but-Leland," to borrow a tag for Yee that's frequently repeated by Lee's influential backer, Rose Pak.

Herrera pounced, too. "We need to make sure that someone who's in Room 200 is their own man," he said, letting a gendered statement fly on a stage where men outnumbered women by more than two to one. Referring to Lee, Herrera went on, "My question is, is he his own man? I welcome him to this race, but I think that is a question we have to ask him. Will he be his own man in the future?" Just weeks before, Pak told the SF Weekly that if Lee did not enter the race after all, she would likely back Herrera.

Chiu also hurled criticism at Lee, but focused his statement on what he perceived as a betrayal. Speaking about accomplishments of city government under Lee's term thus far, he said, "Those successes have been based in fundamental trust, and unfortunately, I'm not sure whether that trust exists at this time."

As he was talking, though, some one yelled out, "You put him in office!" This wasn't nearly the most bombastic outburst of the evening. When Lee himself started to speak, he was greeted by boos, hisses, noisemakers, applause from supporters who tried to drown out the detractors, and someone who cut through the cacophony by shouting, "You lie!"

Even Avalos threw a few punches. "Mayor Ed Lee did not change his mind -- he broke his word," he said. Reminding people that he had called for postponing the vote for interim mayor back in December because he hadn't even had a chance to sit down and meet with Lee, who was in Hong Kong at the time, Avalos charged, "We saw City Hall turning into one big back room."

Lee, for his part, reiterated the point in a speech he'd delivered that morning upon announcing his candidacy, saying, "I enjoy working at city hall ... because we've worked to change the tone of government." He also referenced his many years of experience in city government, and pointed to his collaborative style for passing the budget and working with stakeholders on a pension-reform package.

Aside from the raw and bitter feelings about Lee's newly announced mayoral candidacy, there were actually some issue-focused questions, too. Avalos distinguished himself from the others when asked about affordable housing by railing against a system that builds luxury homes with affordable housing as an afterthought. "That is a model that is completely failing this city," he said, and advocated for an affordable housing bond. Herrera answered the affordable housing question by stressing the need for economic opportunity, and Lee emphasized a link between affordable housing and the redevelopment agency, which he fought to preserve.

On the question of the Central Subway, Hall did not hold back, characterizing it as "complete pork gone astray," and saying that the price tag had risen considerably since when the transit project was first proposed. Lee defended it, calling it smart transportation that had been in a planning phase for years. Yee also spoke favorably about the plan, acknowledging that it was costly but saying, "What you need is a mayor who is going to watch every single penny." Dufty also voiced support for the Central Subway, saying, "Chinatown deserves our support to be sustainable into the future."

When asked to provide an example of standing up to defend an issue on principle even if it was controversial, Ting gave the strongest response by saying he was one of the few assessor-recorders in the country who'd championed Prop. 13 reform. "Prop 13 was probably the primary reason our schools went from first to worst," Ting said.

Differences between candidates also showed through when the question of the Twitter tax break came up. Rees voiced support for the idea, saying, "We need large employers in the city." But she also said she'd heard from many regular people in the aftermath of the Twitter deal that their voice wasn't being heard in government.

Lee offered praise for Zynga and Twitter as “the new economy in San Francisco," adding, "We need to innovate with these companies and back them up." But Yee railed against the Twitter tax break, calling it a slap in the face to small business. Herrera answered the Twitter question by saying, "This city has fallen asleep at the switch when it comes to having responsible tax policy."

Avalos, meanwhile, pointed to his successes at passing the local hire ordinance, working with various stakeholders to pass a budget as former chair of the Board of Supervisors Budget & Finance Committee, and authoring a real-estate transfer tax that had softened the blow of cuts to city services. "Mayor Lee would not have been able to balance the budget" if it weren't for that extra revenue, he said. Speaking to a question about whether he supported Lee's pension reform deal, Avalos said, "It wasn't Mayor Lee that put that on the ballot. It was done with a great deal of support from public sector unions."

Hall stood alone in voicing support for Public Defender Jeff Adachi's pension reform package instead of the consensus plan that city officials and labor put together, saying the consensus plan would not save enough money and would continue to "kick the can down the road."

When candidates were asked to identify half-truths they had heard that night, Herrera praised the Chronicle's "Campaign Check" column that had inspired the question, saying, "I'm glad that the press keeps us honest."

Hall chuckled a little at the question. "I have heard a few half-truths here tonight, folks," he said. "But that's okay. That's politics."