Candidates in San Francisco’s mayoral race fielded a range of questions from community college students eager to be a part of the city’s heated political discourse.
The New America Media-sponsored event was held Wednesday at the Diego Rivera Theater on the main campus of San Francisco City College. Emceed by NAM editor Kevin Weston, it drew 13 of the 16 candidates running in this year’s election, including Leland Yee, Jeff Adachi and John Avalos.
Speaking to a full house of mostly students and members of the ethnic press, candidates were given a series of 12 questions by a three-student panel. They ranged from ways to address rising poverty in the city to the state of public transportation and education.
Looking to connect with their audience, several of the candidates emphasized their own experiences in the community college system. Jeff Adachi touched on his time as a community college student in Sacramento, while Leland Yee stressed that he had received the “best education… better than Berkeley,” as a student at CCSF. Yee added that all of his four children attended City College.
Unfortunately, for many in the audience such rhetoric wasn’t enough to make a lasting impression.
“It sounded like the normal political jargon: we wanna do progress because it is in the best interest for all of us,” said student Obai Rambo. “But none of them to me had a clear cut idea of how to really make the system better and work for all of us.”
Rambo, 22, is double majoring in philosophy and political science. He says he is hoping to transfer to UC Berkeley next year. He noted that none of the candidates touched on rising tuition costs at four-year schools.
“Folks here at City College of San Francisco aren’t trying to just stay at City College, maybe some are, but a lot of other students want to go to UC’s and CSU’s and maybe out of state,” he said. “With the disproportionate amount of students getting higher tuition rates and fee increases it makes that dream, that goal unattainable. When you have to end up choosing between buying books and buying food -- that’s a problem.”
Others said they appreciated the fact that the event was held on the CCSF campus, giving them a chance to be included in a political discourse many of them felt largely excluded from.
“The political landscape is so large. Debates at campuses re-create that connection and involvement,” said Trevor Nissen, 19, a philosophy and political science major at CCSF.
Questions for the forum were submitted by CCSF students and selected by a student group from the school’s Political Theory and Ethnic Politics classes, with five candidates chosen to respond to each question by the three-student panel.
The forum opened with a question on how to keep jobs in San Francisco. Most took aim at the city’s payroll tax, under which businesses with payrolls exceeding $250,000 must pay a 1.5 percent tax to the city. David Chiu noted that upwards of 30,000 jobs had been lost in the city in recent years, while Green Candidate Terry Baum touted alternative energy as a critical source for job creation. Adachi forwarded his controversial plan to cut back on city pensions, rerouting the savings toward micro-loans for small businesses.
Next came a question on poverty, asking in part whether candidates would be willing to tour some of the city’s poorer neighborhoods. Avalos cited a study he commissioned 15 years earlier titled “Silencing Poverty,” as well as his role in authoring the city’s recently passed local hire ordinance.
None of the candidates spoke on touring poverty-stricken districts.
David Pena, 26, is a CCSF student majoring in sociology. He said after exiting the event that he was frustrated in what he felt was candidates’ indifference to the issue. “I guess I’m technically a homeless person. I don’t really have a place to live. It’s very important to me what they plan to do about that.”
Other questions revolved around homelessness and housing, as well as police abuse and MUNI, the latter drawing a flurry of responses from all the candidates.
Former city council member Bevan Dufty pointed to the fact that operators routinely miss one out of eight shifts, while Assessor Phil Ting said that estimates showed every minute saved on MUNI routes amounted to $20 million in savings for the agency, “the exact amount of the budget deficit.” Paul Currier promised to make MUNI “free.”
Chiu, who sits on the board of supervisors, drew a round of laughter from the audience by saying, “To fix MUNI, you need a mayor who actually rides MUNI.” Chiu regularly commutes by bus or bike.
While student reactions were mixed, most came away saying they had a better sense of the candidates after Wednesday’s event.
“A lot of candidates don’t really go to students directly,” said one 18-year-old, adding that candidates need to speak to as wide a spectrum as possible. Stressing the importance of education in this campaign, he added, “Students are the next generation.”
Additional reporting by Donny Lumpkins
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