While Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton continue to wrestle for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, San Francisco is in the middle of an internecine battle between three candidates for the State Senate. Current State Senator Carole Migden is running against Assemblyman Mark Leno and former Assemblyman Joe Nation. San Francisco Police Commissioner Joe Alioto Veronese dropped out of the race last month. All of the candidates are Democrats, which has the curious – though in this one party town, familiar – effect of narrowing the campaign’s focus to principally personality issues. At a recent debate sponsored by the Potrero Hill Democratic Club, all four then candidates vied to be the toughest, most ethical and honest, and political savvy individual in the room. Of lesser concern were the candidates’ views on particular issues, since, after all, they’re all Democrats.
In the presidential race much noise has been made about Clinton’s, McCain’s, and Obama’s suitability to being woken-up in the middle of the night to solve an impending crisis. One imagines a sleepy president, rubbing their eyes, being told that a meteor is heading towards earth, or war is breaking out in Eastern Europe, and quickly jumping to full wisdom and command. This is an apt character concern for a president, who, at least according to the West Wing and Godzilla movies, regularly has their sleep disrupted to fight evil.
It’s harder to see the importance of the midnight wake-up call for a state senator, except perhaps as a metaphorical device. If a lobbyist wakes the senator up to offer a fat cash bribe, would they take it? If the governor calls at 3 a.m. to see if they’ll switch political parties, would they? Character obviously matters for all political leaders, but it’s harder to suss-out the importance of personality differences to legislative performance.
If the Democratic Club debate, which drew a standing room only crowd to the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, is any indication, the senate candidates do have distinct personalities, which shape the way in which they hold office. Leno, who attended rabbinical school, has always come off as a superlatively honest, ethnical, and hard-working guy. In an all-out fight, which is what this race is, Migden seems the toughest, a trait that she’s displayed, perhaps to a fault, throughout her political career. Nation may be the person most likely to look good in a congressional seat, but he lost that chance when he failed to unseat incumbent Lynn Woolsey.
Leno has been tilting against the prison industrial complex for some time, and promises to continue his head-banging in the name of justice and balancing the budget. Migden likes to talk about Community Choice Aggregation, legislation she championed that would allow municipalities to sell wholesale power to their citizens, but has yet to be actually implemented anywhere. Nation, who was chiefly responsible for Assembly Bill 32, which calls for steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, is anxious to see its provisions implemented. During the debate Veronese seemed to catch most wind when he talked about changing the system. Change, as we know, is good, particularly in politics and panhandling.
As with Barack and Clinton, all of the candidates are good and decent people, who undoubtably would do their best to represent us in the legislature. And they certainly all seem to really want the job. The possibility that they’ll be ousted from politics doesn’t improve a politician’s mood, and the Democratic Club debate was most notable for its complete lack of humor. Even moderator and funnyman Philip De Andrade had a hard time pumping some fun into the very sincere and frequently intense debate.
Chances are, unless San Franciscans unify behind a candidate – which is as likely as Mayor Gavin Newsom placing an actual small business person on the City’s Small Business Commission – Leno and Migden will split the City’s vote and Nation will emerge as the top vote getter. Unfortunately, Nation knows little about our neighborhood, and didn’t show much indication that he’s eager to learn more.
The Potrero Hill Democratic Club has yet to endorse a candidate, with Leno’s anxious performance putting him two votes shy of the 60 percent he needed for the endorsement post-debate. Migden might be better at playing politics, and has compiled a solid track record supporting San Francisco issues during her first term in the senate. However, she was recently fined $350,000 by the California Fair Political Practices Commission, the largest penalty ever levied against a candidate for state office, for dozens of violations ranging from taking campaign funds for personal use to failing to itemize political expenses. And it’s hard not to like and respect Leno: he’s who I’ll vote for. Either way you cast your ballot, make sure you do: the only way one of our “homeboys” is going to win is if San Franciscans turn out in substantially higher numbers than our neighbors in Marin.