I don't think anyone has seriously challenged an incumbent San Francisco Democrat for a seat in the state legislature while I've lived here, and that's going on 25 years. So we all know that the race between Mark Leno, the challenger, and Carole Migden, the state senator, marks a change in local politics.
For one thing, it's a major race, for a key political position and there's no official establishment candidate. Both Leno and Migden have ties to some very powerful interests in town; both of them will be able to raise a lot of money and line up an impressive list of endorsements. But as we saw from Leno's campaign kickoff March 2, the political split is going to be highly unusual in a town where grassroots progressives versus the downtown machine has been pretty much the political mantra for a generation.
Five years ago, when then-supervisor Leno and former supervisor Harry Britt fought for the open District 13 assembly seat, it wasn't hard to take sides. The progressives were behind Britt (and so was Migden); the moderates, the business types, and kingmaker Willie Brown were behind Leno. But Leno has moved considerably to the left over the past few years and has been a good legislator. A lot of the former Britt supporters may well wind up in his camp this time around.
At his kickoff, though, that wasn't what you saw: District Attorney Kamala Harris was by his side, along with Treasurer Phil Ting, Assemblymember Fiona Ma, and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission boss Susan Leal. Harris and Leal are decent people who have taken some good progressive stands, but they aren't exactly a definitive lineup of San Francisco's left leadership. Ma was a horrible supervisor. Community college board member Natalie Berg is nothing if not an old machine hack.
Migden isn't exactly pals with everyone on the left in this town either: she pissed off a lot of party activists by supporting Steve Westly over Phil Angelides for governor (although she could certainly argue now, given Angelides's rather poor showing, that the centrist Westly was a more practical choice). And she's been far less visible in town than Leno, who really works the San Francisco constituency.
Neither Leno nor Migden has done anything remotely close to what Brown and Phil and John Burton did in their days in the state legislature (and later Congress). The level of fear and intimidation from the top dogs in the Democratic Party is well on the wane.
It's going to be hard for local politicians to make a choice in this race but not because they fear the consequences of defying one side or the other. Frankly, if you're a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors or the school board or community college board, or a prominent fundraiser in the Democratic Party, neither Migden nor Leno is terribly scary.
This is a good thing. We're making progress.
For the grassroots activists who will be propelling the campaigns on the ground, the challenge will be not just to promote their own candidates but to avoid a queer-left schism that will last beyond the election. Queer-labor activist Robert Haaland has a proposal, which is posted on the politics blog at www.sfbg.com: he suggests that everyone not just the candidates but also their supporters promise not to resort to sleazy attacks and to remember that we will all have to work together another day. Migden and Leno have both signed on. Now let's see if they can force their campaign consultants and political allies to get with the program.
That would be progress indeed. *