Forum an exercise in political theater? 

Mayor Gavin Newsom held up the start of a mayoral candidate forum by arriving 10 minutes late, strolling down the center aisle of Koret Auditorium to a mixture of cheers and boos in the first and perhaps only independently sponsored forum of this election season.

With only weeks before Election Day, Newsom — expected to win re-election handily — participated with a group of 11 of the 12 challengers that included a nudist, a homeless taxi driver and a self-described showman. Billy Bob Whitmer did not attend.

But with 30-second time restrictions that cut off complex responses and a format that ruled out debate, Thursday’s event was a civil affair that gave the audience just a hint of each candidate’s personality and platform.

In Thursday evening’s event, sponsored by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, each candidate was asked questions — ranging from how to address the problems of homelessness to their position on surveillance cameras as crime-fighting tools — but there was no process for any candidate to make a rebuttal to an opponent’s argument. Each candidate was given a maximum of 30 seconds for his or her responses.

Newsom used each question as a springboard to highlight accomplishments of his administration, while also conceding on some issues — such as solving homelessness — that there were still "challenges ahead."

Oftentimes, questions elicited similar responses from several candidates: A question about defining violence, for example, resulted in most candidates talking about the root causes of need, poverty, hopelessness and alienation.

Other questions helped to define each candidate. Harold Hoogasian, a business owner, said the most important issue facing The City was government waste and inefficiency. City College teacher Wilma Pang said if she could change one thing about City Hall she would appoint more women and people of color to the administration. Chicken John Rinaldi lived up to the title of showman when he said he’d run Muni on coffee grounds so when it would eventually break down, there would be a "good excuse for being late."

Newsom stood alone when other candidates said they’d move more cautiously with the redevelopment of Bayview-Hunters Point, an effort riddled with such accusations as environmental hazards at the Superfund site and city-sponsored gentrification. Physician Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, a Bayview resident, accused Newsom of "poisoning this community."

There were also several calls for a rematch. Responding to a question about Muni, nonprofit director Quintin Mecke said it was too complex a problem to answer in 30 seconds.

"Why don’t we do this again?" Mecke said to cheers. "There are still three weeks."

A full slate

Mayor Gavin Newsom faces 12 challengers for his seat at City Hall:

Harold Brown: http://sfbulldog.com blogger

George Davis: author of "Naked Yoga"/nudist activist

Lonnie Holmes: San Francisco Juvenile Probation manager

Harold Hoogasian: owner of Hoogasian Flowers

Alec "Grasshopper" Kaplan: taxi driver

Quintin Mecke: director, Safety Network Program, a San Francisco nonprofit

Wilma Pang: ESL and music teacher at City College of San Francisco

Michael Powers: owner of Power Exchange sex club

Chicken John Rinaldi: showman

Ahimsa Porter Sumchai: physician

Billy Bob Whitmer: educator

Josh Wolf: CNET blogger, outreach coordinator, Peralta Community College

beslinger@examiner.com

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Bonnie Eslinger

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