Leno, Migden, porn and sewer politics

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By Tim Redmond

I really, really wish I didn't have to write about this. But here we go.

I've spent far too much of the past few days researching a 2006 bill by Mark Leno that has led a local blogger to dub him a "Kiddie Porn King." I now understand exactly where this came from, and I've talked to all sides, and I can fairly conclude that it's a stupid, vicious, shitty little allegation that doesn't belong in San Francisco politics.

The guy responsible for this is Michael Colbruno, a former aide to Migden who now works for Clear Channel Oudoor. I finaly got a comment from Migden's campaign today; spokesman Paul Hefner told me Migden "does not approve of this" and "wants her supporters to run a positive campaign." Which is nice, but I think she should go a step further: If the senator called Mr. Colbruno and told him to take that shit down, now, I suspect he'd comply.

Anyway, let me lay out the background here, since it’s a case study in how political smears are created.

About a year ago, Republicans in the state Legislature started work on a bill that was aimed at cracking down on child molesters. It wound up on the ballot as Proposition 83, a draconian law that, among other things, would have barred any registered sex offender from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park and require them all to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet for life. The sensible people in law enforcement, like San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessey, said this was terrible public policy -- it would cost millions to enforce, have little positive impact and drive all the registered sex offenders into rural counties.

Leno and Migden both opposed it.

But in the meantime, while the bill was being debated, Leno, chair of the Public Safety Committee, tried to offer a less heinous alternative. His measure was called AB 50, and while it tightened laws on sex crimes, it didn’t include the bracelets or the 2,000-foot residency requirement.

It also said nothing about child pornography.

During discussions on the bill, Leno tells me, Assembly member Todd Spitzer, an Orange County Republican, approached Leno with an offer. “He told me that if I would accept several amendments, he’d support my bill,” Leno says.

One Spitzer amendment would have tightened the laws on child pornography. At the time, possession of kiddie porn was a misdemeanor on the first offense; Spitzer’s proposal would have made it a felony if the offender possessed more than 100 pieces.

Sure, said Leno. No problem.

Remember: Leno's bill with Spitzer's amendment would have tightened the kiddie-porn laws.

I talked to Spitzer today, and he confirmed this story. The child-porn stuff was his, he said, and he and Leno agreed on 100 pieces as a "starting point." Leno has always argued that it's possible for a perfectly decent person who's surfing for legal, adult web porn can wind up on a site with underage models by mistake, so he suggested that the felony threshold be greater than one picture. (The feds set it at 75).

Some other Assembly Democrats thought 100 was too high, so Leno changed it to 25.

In retrospect, the entire thing was probably a mistake: Leno should have guessed that this would set the right-wing media ablaze and be used against him. He figured that since a conservative Republican had brought him the proposal, he was safe. No go.

The Fox-news types like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly started calling Leno a shill for the kiddie-porn peddlers, saying that he though "99 pieces of child ponography were okay." That's where the "kiddie porn king" stuff came from.

In the end, on the floor of the Assembly, the bill was amended to make posession of even one piece of child porn a felony. Leno supported that amendment and voted for the bill.

Lord knows, I'm not a fan of the child pornography industry. I've got two kids of my own, and I'm all for shutting those creeps down. I understand Leno's argument about Internet smut; as a policy matter, I think one piece is probably not enough to charge a felony, and 100 is too high (you don't download 100 pieces of smut by mistake). But that's a policy disagreement, the sort of thing that's supposed to be hammered out in committee discussions -- and in this case, it was.

In fact, Spitzer, who was (later) a harsh critic of the 100-pieces threshold, told me that "it's unfair to characterize either of us as supporting 100 pieces. That was a starting place."

Of Leno, he said: "He and I were vigorously involved in this whole debate, and I have never known him to be supportive of child ponography." He said -- remember, this is a conservative Republican -- that the attack on Leno was completely unfounded and unfair.

So I called Colbruno. He got back to me right away. I told him what Spitzer had said and asked if he thought, given the true history here, that it was fair to call Leno a "Kiddie Porn King." He hemmed and hawed. The story of AB 50, he told me, "makes Leno appear to have extremely bad judgment. His name was on the bill."

Sure, I can accept the bad judgement argument, but that's not what Colbruno wrote. I asked again: Do you think your characterization of Leno was accurate and fair?

Well, Colbruno said, it was "just a headline .. and headlines are supposed to bring readers into the story."

Does that mean it was fair?

Hem. Haw. Finally: "I think it was a fair headline for this item."

No, Michael, it wasn't, and I think you know that, too. Leno may have made a mistake. He may have been duped by the GOP, or he may have wandered into a hornet's nest that he should have avoided. He may have been wrong to accept a measure under his name that wasn't as tough on child porn as it should have been. But again, though, remember: Before all of this started, the pedophiles could have all the smut they wanted and face only a misdemeanor. Leno's bill was an improvement. And besides, are we all supposed to be so terrified of right-wing backlash that we can't even discuss tricky criminal-justice issues on a rational level?

And none of this justifies a smear like "Kiddie Porn King."

In fact, that's a particularly harsh thing to say about a gay man in politics. Colbruno should know better.

The Alice B. Toklas club is meeting tonight to vote on a resolution condemning the statements and asking Migden to denounce Colbruno's post. I hope it passes, and I hope she does, and I hope this all goes the hell away so we can all start talking about real issues.

But the bottom line here is that this sets a terrible tone for the campaign, and what Migden should do is publicly tell Colbruno to knock it off -- and tell us all that she won't be attacking Leno over this kiddie-porn shit during the campaign.

And yes, to all you Migden supporters out there: If you can produce any examples of Leno or his allies doing nasty anti-Migden smears, I will give them the same treatement. I haven't taken sides yet in this race -- but I am going to try my goddamnest to keep this from becoming a political bloodbath that will will all regret some day.