09/30/2011 02:46 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2011

Chinese for Affirmative Action Mayoral Debate: Central Subway, Bruce Lee, and Zynga

The mayoral debate presented by Chinese for Affirmative Action on Wednesday September 28th heralds the beginning of the end for the sixteen candidates vying for the executive office. The event, held at the Chinese Culture Center in Chinatown, was a raucous affair, replete with booing, hissing, Mayor Ed Lee's late entrance in the middle of another candidate's opening remarks, and the eighty-minute late entrances of Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting and State Senator Leland Yee. The debate could not proceed, however, until several claims of Sinophilia were exacted. Perennial candidate Cesar Ascarrunz promised that he used to know Bruce Lee and that he really likes Asians. Cab driver Emil Lawrence assured the audience that he was born in Shanghai, just like some of them. Former Supervisor Tony Hall took a less flattering approach, arguing that he had to learn about "the Asians," because he ran against one once.

With the confused ethnic pandering out of the way, the candidates were able to focus on policy, and the central issue was the Central Subway. Though the future Muni line is extremely divisive, with ever-increasing criticism, the Chinatown neighborhood it will serve is not a hotbed of opposition. This was evidenced by normally outspoken and candid Public Defender Jeff Adachi's refusal to provide a firm answer when asked whether he supports the line. His only solid statement was that the Civil Grand Jury, which opposes the line, should be listened to. This was surely the closest one could come to opposing the subway without being booed by the crowd. City Attorney Dennis Herrera, a more vocal opponent to the Central Subway, attacked the ballooning costs of the project head-on, explaining that his previous support was under a price tag that has more than doubled. Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, whose District 3 encompasses Chinatown, decried the neighborhood's lack of transit access. Chiu's accurate statement, however, is hampered by the subway's lack of an effective Market Street transfer point connecting it to the rest of the city's subway lines, as pointed out by artist Terry Baum. The Central Subway is sorely needed and severely flawed. This nuance seemed lost on most of the candidates, save District 11 Supervisor John Avalos, who proclaimed his support while admitting being "squeamish" about the project's costs.

On the contentious subject of Twitter, Zynga, and payroll taxes, Herrera argued that payroll reform was needed for small business, not just the social media industry. Defending his controversial payroll tax cap that kept Twitter in San Francisco, Lee reminded the audience that the deal will fill a vacant mid-Market building, result in $95 million in construction revenue, and maybe even employ Asian janitors and custodians. When asked how this will help create jobs for city residents that might not be UX and GUI designers (there are a few of us left), Lee pointed to the Sunday Streets program, which he says recently brought ten thousand pedestrians to Chinatown. Though every economic deal or policy need not and cannot address all workers and industries, the mayor's response suggests a lopsided treatment of the city's poorer residents.

The superficial pillar of local politics is education, and no debate is complete without promises of reform and expansion. Herrera wisely stressed the need for expanding industrial and vocational training with the San Francisco Unified School District and City College of San Francisco. Chiu urged the passage of Proposition A, a $531 million education bond measure, and Proposition H, a measure that would ensure that proximity to a school is given the highest priority when assigning children to schools.

But amongst all these affirmations of the importance of education, it is worth noting that the final question of the night asked the candidates to provide one adjective that best describes themselves. A troubling harbinger of things to come: only a handful of the twelve candidates on stage were able to pick a word that was actually an adjective.