By Steven T. Jones
Mark Leno lost the debate, but won the vote, showing that Carole Migden has some work to do if she's going to keep her Senate seat. The takeaway here is that charm and gravitas are not good substitutes for the attentiveness to constituents and diligent relationship building that have been Leno's strong suits, particularly in the last couple years. The two candidates squared off in front of the San Francisco Young Democrats for their first debate last night, and Leno initially appeared tentative, apologetic, and inarticulate, almost as if he was scared of Migden. He started off trying to explain why he was taking on a fellow Democrat in a primary challenge and could only mumble some vague appeal to challenging the status quo. Then Migden introduced herself, "Hello, my name is Carole Migden and I'm the status quo," before going on to sound as strong, clear, and charming as I've ever seen her, describing herself as "a woman with a lot of gumption and a lot of tenacity." Her approach seemed to put Leno back on his heels even more, as he offered a bad joke that fell flat and descended into wonky details before finding his form late in the debate. But it didn't seem to matter. Despite Migden's efforts to call in the votes -- during which she likely learned the lesson that she can't count on as much support as she assumed she had -- Leno had this endorsement won before either of them started talking.
As Leno supporter Paul Hogarth noted over at Beyond Chron, there were some defining differences that emerged during the debate. Leno was the idealist and Migden the realist, a theme that came through whether the issue was gay marriage or local taxation. When Leno pitched his "wild and crazy idea" to allow San Francisco to do a 2 percent vehicle license fee, Migden countered, "I think that's a great plan, but the governor's going to veto it again." She supported the measure, which progressives generally love but the Republican governor opposes, and said, "We've tried to locally tax ourselves and it's not allowable."
Leno seized on the statement and said earnestly, "Yes, the governor vetoed our bill, but I'm not giving up."
"And you shouldn't," Migden said. "It's a good bill, I love it."
But she said such idealistic fights need to be mixed with practical approaches that can become law.
"We need to keep fighting, but then there are things we can do that are solutions for today," Migden said.
The discussion then segued into Leno's bill to legalize same sex marriage, which also got vetoed last year and is likely headed for another one this year. Migden noted that she authored domestic partner legislation and a list of other reforms that temper the discrimination against same sex couples.
"It's paved the way for the foundation of marriage equity," she said.
But Leno stuck to his guns: "We're raising consciousness, we're changing minds and hearts."
Migden agreed that same sex marriage will be legal, but probably not through Leno's bill this year. "It's within reach, it's two years, three years, four years [away]."
Here at the Guardian, we're also fairly idealistic, so to understand my view (as someone not committed to either candidate) that Migden sounded stronger at the debate -- a purely stylistic assessment -- go check it out for yourself at the Calitics website and post your comments here. I'm curious to hear other impressions (most I've heard also favored Migden, although it's tough to sort through the partisanship on this race).
One final thought: Migden is a big personality who can be a little condescending at times, and that's one of the reasons that Leno got into this race, because many have soured on Migden and/or have a hard time reaching her. Even in this debate, Migden started very strong and seemed to be emboldened by giving Leno the rope-a-dope treatment, maybe smacking him one time too many. Sometimes she overreaches and can come off as mean. It will be interesting to watch as this race unfolds whether she can keep her passions and putdowns in check and repair her relationships with the many influential individuals and clubs around town, which will be the key to winning.
For Leno, he's going to have to better articulate why he's running, particularly if Migden can solidify her standing. Yes, he has the right to run, and yes, primary challenges in a one-party town are to be expected. But for a race that has the potential to be so nasty, so divisive, and such a waste of resources that could be better spent going after the bad guys, Leno is going to have to find his voice and give us a good reason why we all have to go through this.