Who wants change?

Local endorsements of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama fall along familiar ideological lines
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steve@sfbg.com

On the rainy afternoon of Jan. 8, Mayor Gavin Newsom strode through the familiar Delancey Street Foundation complex's main courtyard — a bodyguard holding his umbrella over him — and entered a conference room filled with local political luminaries just as the taiko drummers finished their performance.

A few hours earlier Newsom had taken the oath of office and given his second-term inaugural address during a lavish ceremony at City Hall, where he told the crowd, "Here in San Francisco our point of reference is often our minor political disagreements." But now he joined his fiancée, Jennifer Siebel, in the front row of a relatively spare ceremony to watch District Attorney Kamala Harris take her oath of office.

Although Newsom and Harris are more like political rivals than allies, their speeches sounded similar themes — accountability, unity, addressing systemic problems with common sense governance — and were liberal by national standards but safely centrist by San Francisco's metric.

Yet these two top politicians, like many others in the Bay Area, have cast their lots with two very different national political movements, as the well-connected crowd was subtly reminded when Sen. Dianne Feinstein prepared to administer Harris's oath of office.

The choice of Feinstein already seemed notable to those who remembered when she publicly chastised Harris for refusing to seek the death penalty for a cop killer in 2004. It was the old, white, establishment stalwart hectoring a rising black star from a new generation for a gutsy decision to stick with her professed progressive values.

But Feinstein now spoke admiringly of how women run the District Attorney's Office and Police, Fire, and other departments. "San Francisco today is in the hands of women. Who would have thought?" the former mayor said, extending her hopeful assessment to mention that "a woman is likely to be our nominee for president of the United States."

There were murmurs from Harris's corner and an awkwardness that hung thick in the air. This was because unlike Feinstein, Newsom, and most of the powerful establishment Democrats in San Francisco, who have endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, Harris was an early and high-profile supporter of Barack Obama.

That difference seems especially significant to San Francisco progressives and others who are wary of another Clinton returning to the White House and excited about the upstart candidacy of a younger black man who got into politics pounding the streets of Chicago as a community organizer.

Political endorsements are often like ideological tea leaves. Sometimes support stems from a personal relationship with the candidate, but usually it signals more of a philosophical affinity, a desire to either take a chance with something new or stick with a known quantity, which seems to be the case with this presidential primary election.

"It boils down to this: are you part of the Willie Brown, John Burton political machine, in which case you're with Hillary, or are you part of the free-thinking folks who really want to see change?" Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin — who considers himself part of the latter group and has endorsed Obama — said to the Guardian.

Peskin noted that all of the elected officials in San Francisco who got their jobs through a Newsom appointment — Sups. Sean Elsbernd and Michela Alioto-Pier, Assessor Phil Ting, and Treasurer José Cisneros — have endorsed Clinton, whose campaign has been notorious locally for pressuring top Democrats to get on board.

"We are the campaign of inspiration, not obligation," said Debbie Mesloh, a former Harris spokesperson now on loan to the Obama campaign.