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SAN FRANCISCO — In the bluest of blue cities, it can be hard to tell political candidates apart. The four front-runners in the June 5 San Francisco mayoral election, all Democrats, talk about the importance of protecting immigrants and the pernicious effects of income inequality. It goes without saying that they support gay rights, legalized marijuana and more funding for public transportation.
Ron Turner, a book publisher and longtime San Francisco resident, compares the election to “trying to pick a leader at a family picnic.”
And yet on one issue — the roughly 7,000 homeless people and the tent encampments that many of them live in — there are shades of discord. Two of the candidates, London Breed, the current president of the board of supervisors, and Angela Alioto, a past president of the board, speak about using a harder edge when it comes to restoring order to the streets.
“This is an iconic city that is being totally devastated by poverty, filth and crime,” Ms. Alioto said in her law offices across the street from Transamerica Pyramid, the building that defined the San Francisco of a generation ago, when the city still occasionally elected Republicans.
San Francisco has long represented a certain liberal ideal — an activist city government that led the country on a host of progressive causes, including gay marriage and parental leave. But for the past several years the city has also become a symbol of the failure of America’s wealthiest communities to care for their poorest residents.
San Francisco, fueled by money from the technology industry, has become unaffordable to all but the very rich, with a median home price of $1.3 million. The contrast with this wealth is sprawled on the sidewalks across the city in tent encampments and cardboard boxes. Sidewalks double as public bathrooms, and a rash of car break-ins has given San Francisco one of the highest property crimes rates of any major American metropolis. In a city that is only 47 square miles, there are roughly 7,000 homeless people, many of them suffering from mental illness and drug addiction.
For the city’s Democratic establishment, the mayoral election is a look-in-the-mirror moment. The last Republican mayor left office in 1964. The Democrats own the problem.
The eight candidates have proposed varied approaches. Ms. Breed and Ms. Alioto both unflinchingly say they would hire more police, not a reflexively Democratic position. Both appear to be betting that voters are so tired of what is euphemistically called the “street conditions” that they are willing to depart from the live-and-let-live San Francisco ethos and work more forcefully to put an end to the many tent encampments and public drug use.
Ms. Breed, whose brother is in prison and whose sister died of a drug overdose, says she would remove encampments from the streets within a year. She has vowed to crack down on vandalism and graffiti, and is proposing to increase the use of legal conservatorship, essentially forcing mentally ill and drug dependent people off the streets.
“Taking away someone’s civil liberties is not something that I take lightly, but if we want to see a change on our streets we have got to do something different than what we’re doing now,” Ms. Breed said in a campaign speech last week at a Jewish community center. “I plan to introduce the kind of solutions that in some ways can be quite controversial, but are necessary.”
Ms. Alioto, whose father, Joseph Alioto, was mayor in the late 1960s and 1970s, is critical of what she calls leftist politicians out of touch with the concerns of San Franciscans. She uses the example of the decision by the board of supervisors to ban fur clothing and products in March.
“People are dying on the street, they are shooting up, they are slumped over in their own vomit, other people are walking right by them to go to their jobs every morning — and the board of supervisors is spending time on banning fur,” she said.Here are the pieces you need to read to understand the state, and what may happen there on Tuesday.
Ms. Alioto broke with the three other front-runners early in May by proposing a change to the city’s so-called sanctuary policy, which puts strict limits on cooperation between city officials and federal immigration authorities.
The law does not protect illegal immigrants who have committed a serious felony within the past seven years. Saying the city’s current law “attracts dangerous felons,” Ms. Alioto proposed making it any serious or violent felony, not just those committed in the past seven years.
“It’s a safe place to come if you beat the hell out of people,” she said, citing the concerns of a domestic violence organization.
Mayoral elections normally happen in November, but this election was triggered by the sudden death of Mayor Ed Lee in December. Whoever is elected will serve out the remaining 19 months of Mr. Lee’s term. A new election will be held in November 2019.The two other leading candidates, Mark Leno, a Milwaukee-born former rabbinical student and longtime California state legislator, and Jane Kim, a New York-born member of the board of supervisors, have staked out more traditionally liberal positions.
Mr. Leno said he was very troubled by what he perceived as Ms. Alioto’s implication that illegal immigrants were criminals.
“The words that she used were very destructive,” Mr. Leno said. “It was just so inflammatory and unnecessary.”
Mr. Leno and Ms. Kim are both more hesitant about the idea of adding police officers in the city and Ms. Breed’s proposal to forcibly take people off the streets through conservatorship.
“I’m not here to tell you I know what the needed number is,” Mr. Leno said about police officers. He said he would end street homelessness by 2020 by increasing the capacity of the city’s shelter system and increasing subsidized, supportive housing.
Ms. Kim calls conservatorship a “very heavy-handed tool” and hedges on the question of police officers.
“Police officers and prisons have always been the easy answer to politicians,” she said. “I think we need some more officers; I’m not sure we need as much as other folks are pushing for.”
Ms. Kim proposes doubling the number of street cleaners, partly by hiring the homeless to do the job. She also vows to increase the capacity of shelters and supportive housing.
The alliance between Ms. Kim and Mr. Leno was a pragmatic deal born of the city’s ranked choice electoral system: Voters are asked to choose three candidates, and as candidates with the least number of first choice votes are eliminated, the second and third choices from their supporters’ ballots are added to the tallies of remaining candidates.
Mr. Kim and Mr. Leno are essentially hedging their bets, hoping that mutual support will give one of them the majority of support needed to win. The possibility of multiple counts means the election results may not be known for days.
Whatever the outcome, the city will almost certainly mark a first.
Ms. Breed would be the city’s first female black mayor; Mr. Leno, the first openly gay man; Ms. Kim, the first Korean-American.
“How about the first Sicilian woman?” Ms. Alioto added.In addition to the four front-runners, the ballot also includes Amy Farah Weiss, a homeless advocate, who wants to redeploy money spent on tent encampments for more permanent housing. She also proposes recruiting heroin and methamphetamine dealers into the medical marijuana industry to give them jobs. The other candidates are Ellen Lee Zhou, a social worker; Michelle Bravo, a holistic health practitioner; and Richie Greenberg, the lone Republican in the mix.
Mr. Greenberg spoke to a group of landlords last week, a potentially sympathetic audience. He made the case that voters were tired of San Francisco being a one-party town.“The voters are beginning to flock to our side,” he said. “Can you imagine that?”The question was greeted by silence.