Editor's Notes

Light rail trains and state Senate campaigns
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tredmond@sfbg.com

It's funny: the transcontinental railroad was born in San Francisco, and it transformed California. But the West Coast has pretty much lost the train thing. You want to go from here to Los Angeles, there are pretty much two choices: you can fly or you can drive. In theory, you can ride Amtrak, and I've done it, but it doesn't run very often and takes about 12 hours. Fun, if you like that sort of thing, but not at all practical.

But on an early Sunday morning last week, I was traveling from Washington, DC, to Philadelphia, and between 8 a.m. and noon there were about half a dozen trains running on that route. The high-speed Acela got me to Philly in 90 minutes, downtown to downtown, way faster than I could drive. Another hour or so, and I could have been in Manhattan.

There are flights from Washington, DC, to New York, but these days it seems kind of silly to fly: by the time you arrive at the airport, get through security, go up, go down, deplane, and get from the airport to the city, you're well beyond three hours. The train's way cheaper too.

Yeah, I love trains (actual legroom, no seat belt signs, scenery, bar cars), so I'm biased, but it seems silly that California is spending billions of dollars on highway projects (including a new bore for the Caldecott Tunnel, a colossal waste if there ever were one), and we still aren't talking seriously about high-speed rail to Los Angeles, which would probably bring more environmental and economic benefits than all of the other transportation projects in the state put together.

There are plenty of reasons to wring your hands over Assemblymember Mark Leno's decision to challenge incumbent state senator Carole Migden in 2008. The race will almost certainly be bitter and ugly; both sides have an incentive to go negative. It could split the queer community, leave progressives wondering whom to support, and turn political allies into enemies.

Or maybe it won't: I wonder if San Francisco's progressive community is mature enough today to handle this without any bad long-term impacts. Some of the city's left leaders will back Leno, and some will back Migden, but in the end, neither one of these candidates is the enemy, and if everyone keeps a sense of perspective (the way we were able to do in the District 5 race in 2004), it doesn't have to be a bloodbath.

I realize that Leno is running in part because of term limits, which might not be the most noble of motivations. And I'm against term limits. But there's actually a reason to be happy about this race: it's a demonstration that old-style machine politics is dead in San Francisco.

Ten years ago this race would never have happened. Willie Brown was in charge — really in charge — and no local Democrat would have dared to defy his will. Brown didn't like contested races between Democrats, and he would have told one of the two candidates to back off, and that would have been that.

We live in a different political world now. Mayor Gavin Newsom will probably support Leno, but he has way too much on his mind right now to be involved in any kind of backroom deal. Neither Migden nor Leno has the kind of clout to scare the other away, and nobody else in this town does either.

Democracy isn't always pretty, but after living under the machine for a couple of decades, I find this almost refreshing. *