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Sparks fly at District 9 candidate debate
Roberto Hernandez (left) moderates a debate between the four candidates for District 9 Supervisor, (from left) Iswary España, Melissa San Miguel, Hillary Ronen and Joshua Arce. Photo Erasmo Martinez
Roberto Hernandez (left) moderates a debate between the four candidates for District 9 Supervisor, (from left) Iswary España, Melissa San Miguel, Hillary Ronen and Joshua Arce. Photo Erasmo Martinez

The candidates vying to replace District 9 Supervisor David Campos, who is termed out this year, gathered at Brava Theater Center Sept. 28 to discuss the issues that affect the district, which includes parts of the Mission, Bernal Heights, St. Mary’s Park, and Portola.

All four candidates—Hillary Ronen, Joshua Arce, Melissa San Miguel and Iswari España—were asked to weigh in on a variety of topics including the screaming housing crisis, growing homelessness, police brutality, employment opportunities, small businesses and immigration policies. But the debate was largely dominated by Arce and Ronen, who are seen as frontrunners and whose well-funded campaigns dwarf those of España and San Miguel.

Housing, which came up again and again, was perhaps the most contentious point of debate. Throughout the evening, the candidates repeatedly used the issue to criticize Ronen, who they sought to characterize as the incumbent and thus personally responsible for District 9’s problems.

“I won’t sit here like Ms. Ronen and make false promises about how many units I’m going to build in a certain amount of time,” said San Miguel, an education advocate. “She, as chief of staff to our supervisor, had the opportunity to build these units, but did not.”

Ronen, who for the last six years served as Supervisor Campos’ Chief of Staff and who before that worked as an employment law attorney at La Raza Centro Legal, has promised to build 5,000 units of affordable housing over the next ten years.

“The way I’m going to do that [build 5,000 units] is by finding revenue to build 100 percent affordable projects, and working with the developers to build good market-rate projects with lots of affordable housing in it,” she said.

Ronen then mentioned that she was currently working on a plan with an unnamed developer for a privately funded project that would that would be 100 percent affordable.

Arce, a civil rights attorney who is waging parallel campaigns for District 9 supervisor and Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) member, didn’t miss the chance to take a jab on Ronen.

“I’ve built affordable housing as the secretary of the board with Mission Housing [Development Corporation,” he said, referring to the 165-unit affordable housing development at 1950 Mission St., which is set to break ground in 2017. “We don’t have to look or find the resources or try to build the more houses than have built in the past 6 years.”

Each time Arce spoke, his proclamations were met with loud applause by a group of supporters belonging to a community organization in the Bayview district known as the Aboriginal Blackman United (ABU). Arce, dating back to his time as Executive Director of Brightline Defense Project in the Bayview, is an ally of ABU. Even though they are not District 9 residents, the ABU members continually booed Ronen throughout the evening, frequently drowning out her attempts to defend herself.

Tensions flared when Arce and Ronen attacked each other’s campaign finances. While expanding on his plans for dealing with the housing crisis, Arce stated his “big concern” about Ronen’s campaign.

“The developers of all the major high-end projects in the Mission … have been donating to Hillary Ronen’s campaign. I’m not taking a dime from the developers,” Arce exclaimed to huge applause.

Ronen, who has been endorsed by the SF Tenants Union, admitted that a small portion of her campaign was funded by development lobbyists, approximately one percent. But she stressed that she had helped spearhead multiple ballot initiatives to fight big developers and eviction including 2014’s Proposition G, a housing tax on real estate speculators, 2015’s Proposition I, a luxury housing moratorium in the Mission District, and 2015’s Proposition F, which would have placed tight restrictions on Airbnb.

“If you are worried about special interests affecting this election, you should look at who is spending money at Joshua’s campaign,” Ronen said, referring to the support the Arce campaign has received through the Police Officers Association (POA).

Throughout the night, Arce defended his campaign by denying that it had received donations from lobbyists, developers and the POA.

“SFPOA isn’t supporting any candidate in this race,” Arce said, which was followed by more anti-Ronen boos.

According to the Ethics Commission for City and County of San Francisco, Arce’s campaign did  receive $10,000 in ads from an independent expenditure outfit called San Franciscans for a City that Works, which is funded in part by the San Francisco Police Officers Union.

The candidates will meet again on Oct. 9 at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts for another debate sponsored by Mission Local.

Story by: Shajia Abidi