Thirty minutes into a March 8 mayoral forum organized by the San Francisco Democratic Party, Board of Supervisors President and mayoral candidate London Breed stood up and walked off stage.
The event — which drew around 100 people — was marketed as “A People’s Forum,” and candidates Michelle Bravo, Amy Farah-Weiss, Angela Alioto, Mark Leno, and Jane Kim all attended. Breed’s disappearance rattled the commenters on Facebook who had tuned in to
“Does anyone know what happened to London?” one woman asked.
“I’m disappointed that London left. I lean more towards Jane, but I really wanted to hear what London had to say,” another said.
For those who tuned in late, her disappearance seemed random and unexplained, but San Francisco Democratic Party President David Campos mentioned it in his welcoming statements to the crowd before the forum began.
“When we set up the debate back in February, we found a time that every candidate confirmed could be here: March 8,” Campos said. “We were informed a couple of days ago that President Breed would not be able to be here for the entire forum.”
Turning to Breed, Campos urged her to reconsider.
“We have a chair for you. We would love to hear from you,” he said. “I would ask the candidates to stay for the whole thing. It’s the San Francisco Democratic Party; there are 250,000 San Francisco Democrats who want to hear from all of you.”
But Breed did leave, with nary a mention of her other commitments. One livestream commenter had a theory why. “She had a fundraiser in Fillmore (her turf) and another after that. Cecil & Jan Williams. Many JTown politicos in attendance,” they said.
As we move toward June’s mayoral election, an attendance pattern has begun to appear for Breed. Out of 12 community mayoral forums that have taken place since Feb. 3, Breed has missed five — not including her disappearance from the San Francisco Democratic Party forum above. In comparison, Kim has missed only one: the YIMBY Party’s Urbanist Housing Forum on March 8. Leno has also had a good attendance rate, missing only KQED’s event at the Castro Theater due to a last-minute injury to his right eye.
To be fair, it’s not easy running a diverse district with tens of thousands of residents, being president of an argumentative Board of Supervisors, and running a mayoral campaign. And, as this is the first mayoral election without an incumbent in more than a decade, there are an exceptional number of forums taking place, with every imaginable neighborhood organization and political group jumping into the fray.
But the types of forums Breed is skipping, and what she’s choosing to do instead, sends an interesting message about her campaign priorities.
On Feb. 14, she backed out of one of the first large-scale forums. For weeks, the S.F. Progressive Coalition Mayoral Forum advertised the Valentine’s Day event as one that would include Breed, but behind the scenes, coalition members had a hard time pinning her down. Each candidate had 30 minutes to speak, and out of respect for Breed’s tight schedule, organizer Ben Becker from San Francisco Berniecrats gave her priority on a time slot.
“We gave her anytime that entire evening. We couldn’t get her to agree to a single time for weeks,” Becker says.
Two days before the event was to take place, Breed’s campaign staff asked Becker to remove her name and photo from materials advertising the event, saying she couldn’t make it.
“They wanted to review the messaging that I was going to send out,” Becker says. “They were very concerned that the messaging would display her in a bad light.”
Three weeks later, Breed skipped another large-scale forum at Mission High School. The Community Mayoral Forum on March 4 was organized by S.F. Rising and Jobs with Justice, specifically to address the needs of low-income communities of color. According to a Facebook post on the event page, Breed’s team only notified the organizers that she wouldn’t be attending on March 3.
On March 8, Breed walked out of the DCCC event, and six days later, on March 14, she opted out of a Latino-focused forum organized by the Latino Democratic Club, San Francisco Latino Parity and Equity Coalition, and Latin@ Young Democrats of San Francisco. The event was particularly welcoming to working Mission families — free childcare was provided, refreshments served, and Spanish translation services offered for non-English speakers.
Lila Carrillo, president of the Latino Democratic Club, tells SF Weekly that she reached out to Maggie Muir from Breed’s campaign weeks in advance about the event.
“I texted her and gave her a call,” Carrillo says. “She replied saying, ‘Thank you for the invite. We’ll process your request and let you know.’ ”
But after that, there was radio silence. Carrillo reached out a few more times, offering Breed her pick of time slots. In the end, after multiple efforts to contact Muir, the event went forward without Breed.
But the story doesn’t end there. According to Carrillo, after word got around that Breed had seemingly blown off the forum, a member of the Latino Parity and Equity Coalition received a call from her campaign office angrily claiming that no one had reached out to them. Carrillo ended up taking screenshots of her conversation with Muir to prove contact had been made with Breed’s campaign.
The night the Latino community forum took place, Breed instead attended an event held by the San Francisco Women’s Political Committee, who a week later announced she was their #1 endorsement for mayor (followed by Kim as #2, and Leno as #3).
One day after the S.F. Latino Forum — on March 15 — Breed backed out of another event, held by the Bernal Heights Democratic Club.
“We let all of the candidates know the date of our endorsement meeting when we sent out the candidate questionnaire on Jan. 22,” a representative from the club told SF Weekly in an email. “We confirmed our invitation to the Breed campaign on Feb. 18.”
She didn’t make it. The Bernal Heights Democratic Club ended up jointly endorsing Jane Kim, Mark Leno, and Amy Farah Weiss, all of whom attended.
Last but not least, Breed took a pass on the Mayoral Candidates’ Town Hall on Housing on March 17, held in the Tenderloin specifically to address affordable housing needs in San Francisco. Later that evening, however, she did manage to visit the scene of a four-alarm fire in North Beach to talk to the media, despite it not being in her district.
Reading between the lines, it’s not difficult to deduce that Breed may be picking her forums based on the friendliness of the audience, theme, and organizers. Avoiding the Progressive Coalition’s forum is transparent — Breed is a moderate candidate, and would probably not have had a warm reception from attendees. The Bernal Heights Democratic Club has also historically leaned toward progressive candidates, endorsing Supervisor Hillary Ronen during her campaign in November 2016. And it was known in advance that angry residents of Midtown, a low-income housing project in the Western Addition, would attend the Town Hall on Housing.
Making the choice to skip forums where she may not have an impact on attendees who’ve already made up their minds is one thing, but Breed comes off badly with the others. She’s campaigning hard for Chinese American support, but if her choice of forums is any indication, she’s shown little interest in wooing the Latino vote.
By SF Weekly’s count, there are 11 more mayoral forums between now and June 5. Based on her campaign website, Breed has committed to five of them: a Chronicle forum on April 9, three on April 26, when the Aging and Disability Forum takes place at 10:30 a.m., the API Council Forum at 5 p.m., and the Westside Mayoral Forum at 6:30 p.m; and the Commonwealth Club forum on May 14.
She’s not pussyfooting around the events she’s skipping. Despite rushing to the scene of a fire in North Beach, she doesn’t appear too enthusiastic about winning the votes of that neighborhood, having already turned down an invitation to a North Beach forum on April 2.
“I was not given a particular reason,” event organizer Bethany Golden said.
On Monday, SF Weekly reached out to Breed’s campaign to fact-check the list of forums she’d attended. Included with the list was a justification for her absences.
“She’s been speaking at protest rallies. She’s been on the streets with volunteers every weekend,” campaign spokesperson Tara Moriarty said. “There are a variety of ways to meet with voters, and forums are an important one, but not the only one. She is balancing her commitment as a supervisor with campaign opportunities and looks forward to the remaining forums and being engaged with voters.”
Campaign choices aside, Breed’s attendance record raises the question of what we want in a mayor. In a city that’s becoming increasingly divided over issues of housing, homelessness, transportation, and politics, it’s important for our next mayor to be skilled at building bridges across communities in conflict. It’s not fun, but part of that has to include showing up to events where people disagree with you.
Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor.
firstname.lastname@example.org | @TheBestNuala