10/07/2011 06:40 pm ET | Updated Dec 07, 2011

Commonwealth Club Mayoral Debate: Fringe Candidates Make a Big Splash (PHOTOS)

SAN FRANCISCO - The most important thing to note about Thursday evening's mayoral debate at the Commonwealth Club of California (other than the fact that Huffington Post co-sponsored)? The event included everybody currently running for mayor.

And that means everybody.

Up to this point, most of the debates have more or less exclusively consisted of some combination of the same eleven mainstream candidates (your Daivd Chiu's, your Leland Yee's, etc) with only the occasional sprinkling of Green Party candidate Terry Joan Baum to spice thing up with calls of "tax the rich, duh!"


This time, the debate featured everyone slated to appear on the November ballot—including the lower-profile candidates Cesar Ascarrunz, Paul Currier, Emil Lawrence and Wilma Pang.

And each and every person on the stage received the same amount of time to address the public as everyone else, including sitting mayor Ed Lee.

Wrangling so many candidates was no easy task. Moderator and HuffPost contributor, Melissa Griffin instituted a strict 30-second time limit on each answer, which involved cutting candidates' microphones off mid-sentence a large portion of time.

There have been dozens of debates so far and, at this point, there are really only so many ways for the same handful of people affirm their commitment to "making Muni a world-class transit system" before everyone involved starts to inadvertently settle in for a nice, long nap. But from the moment Email Lawrence kicked off his opening statement by pronouncing, "I'm running for mayor because nobody else here has the guts to terminate 25 percent of all San Francisco city employees," it was clear dozing off wasn't going to be an issue.

Lawrence, a taxi driver who paid the just over $5,000 filing fee to get on the ballot, said that as mayor, he would "cut up to 25 percent of the fat cat payroll; not the lower end, the fat cat end."

But when Griffin asked Lawrence if he would take a pay cut from his $250,000 mayoral salary, he paused, laughed and admirably worked to run out the remainder of this allotted 30 seconds as quickly as possible without coming within arm's length of something even resembling an answer. Later, when she asked former Supervisor Tony Hall, who currently collects 100 percent of his income from pensions accrued during his decades of work in city government, if as mayor he would forgo a portion of those pensions, Hall (ever the deficit hawk) unequivocally consented.

Shockingly, cutting the city's workforce by a quarter wasn't Lawrence's most extreme policy proposal. No, that would be his suggestion to privatize Muni and sell it to the individual drivers, each of whom would own their own bus and operate them in a manner to taxi drivers.

Needless to say, these were not words that would ever come out of Ed Lee's mouth.

Another interesting policy position came from venture capitalist Joanna Rees (who couldn’t help but crack a smile when nightclub owner and perennial mayoral hopeful Cesar Ascarrunz claimed to be "the only successful business owner" in the race). She advocated completely eliminating the city's payroll tax and not just cutting one-off deals (a la the controversial Twitter tax break).

Griffin had a pattern: She'd ask a candidate a question about one of their signature issues and then follow up with another digging into the problems inherent in their proposals. After asking a question inviting Rees to rail against parents sending their kids to public schools all over the city instead of confining them to the one in their neighborhood, Griffin asked if that contributes to gentrification and relegates minority students to sub-standard schools.

Next, Griffin paired up candidates on opposing sides of an issue for a series of mini one-on-one debates. She had Michela Alioto-Pier explain her support for the expansion of the Park Merced development—Alioto-Pier said she is in favor of the project because it increases the availability of middle-class family housing, something that's becoming increasingly endangered within the city limits. Leland Yee, her opponent on the issue, countered that he didn’t support it because of the increased traffic it would bring to the already-congested section of 19th Avenue boarding the development and because he couldn't be sure that enough of the units would be affordable for working class families.

Lee and City Attorney Dennis Herrera squared up to butt heads over the Central Subway. Lee is one of the project's most high-profile supporters and Herrera has recently become one of its most public critics. Lee defended the much-derided project as an important source of jobs and money for the city, while Herrera compared building the Central Subway just because the city is getting a billion dollars in federal money for the project is "like keeping Barry Zito in the starting lineup just because the Giants paid so much for him."

Just as their TV ads have been becoming more negative as election day draws closer, the candidates displayed an increasingly willingness to attack each other.

In this case, "each other" meant Ed Lee.

"If you watch the body language of all the other candidates," said the debate's Master of Ceremonies (and HuffPost blogger) Beth Spotswood, "you should get a pretty good idea of how they feel about Ed Lee running for mayor."

A number of candidates, led by Pubic Defender Jeff Adachi, directly attacked Lee for enabling a "culture of pay for play" in City Hall, as represented by a recent Bay Citizen article detailing suspicious donations to Lee's campaign coming from employees at a local airport shuttle service.

Check out this slideshow of pictures from the debate (courtesy of photographer Adrian Mendoza):