Leno vs. Migden: A meditation

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By Tim Redmond

The Harvey Milk LGBT Club is all tied in knots over this race. A lot of progressives are arguing that it’s split the community. A lot of people don’t even know how to approach it – two queer community leaders with progressive politics are fighting it out, and in the end, we all have to pick sides (or at least vote for one of them and not the other).

It’s tough: Both have been right sometimes and wrong sometimes. Leno used to be more associated with the moderate side of queer politics, and Migden with the more progressive side, but that’s not entirely accurate today: Leno has moved to the left (in part, no doubt, because that’s easier to do in Sacramento) and has become one of the most accessible, hard-working politicians in town. He’s proven himself trustworthy (although his political consulting firm, BMWL, is involved in some of the worst and sleaziest pro-downtown stuff in the city.

Migden, meanwhile, endorsed the more conservative Steve Westly over the more liberal Phil Angelides for governor. She’s done a few truly embarrassing things, like promoting for state school board a downtown Republican who wants to privatize public schools.
A lot of people say there’s no ideological difference between the two today, that the race is all about style (Migden brash, confrontive, an insider deal-making pol; Leno friendly, conciliatory, able to work well with others). Some say the criticisms of Migden’s style are sexist.

Over the next few months, as this gets more and more competitive and (I fear) ugly, there will be lots of trash talked about both of them. The two candidates will talk about history, records, and (maybe) positions on the few issues on which they don’t agree. They’ll both argue – and they can both make a case – that they will be more effective in Sacramento, better advocates for progressive causes and the city’s needs.

I’d like to offer a different lens.

Let me suggest that we look at this race not just in terms of who will be the best member of the state Senate, but who will be the best person to help build the progressive movement -- not just in Sacramento but at home. Because the winner of this race could wind up having far more influence over what happens in San Francisco than what happens statewide.

San Francisco’s reps in the Legislature can only do so much: This is a state run by big money. Democrat or Republican, the governor’s going to be a captive of powerful interests; that may sound cynical, but it’s also reality. Much of the Legislature is going to be either Republicans or moderate Democrats. We can swing some of them some of the time, just as we can make occasional progress in Washington, but in the end, on tough economic issues, San Francisco has to be prepared to fight it out on its own.

When Quentin Kopp was in the state Senate, he chaired the Transportation Committee, created the High-Speed Rail Authority, and did a lot of other statewide stuff – but he was also one of the most powerful people in San Francisco. He raised money for and used his political capital on local issues he cared about. He didn’t try to build some sort of machine – that wasn’t his inclination, and as a fiscal conservative, it would have been hard in this town – but anyone who was around during his tenure in office knew that he was a force to be reckoned with on local ballot measures, local races, and even local legislation. I didn’t always (or even often) agree with Kopp; he wasn’t exactly a raging progressive – but he showed what a state legislator could do back home. And I’ve often thought about what it would mean to have a strong progressive doing for the left what Kopp did for the fiscal conservatives.

I have no doubt whatsoever that Sup. Tom Ammiano, who is running for the seat Leno is vacating, will be a consistent leader on progressive causes and candidates. That’s one of the many reasons I’m happy to support him.

But as we evaluate this contested state Senate race, let’s ask both the candidates: What are you going to do for us – us being San Francisco progressives who need money, support, energy and credibility for our causes and candidates?

When there’s a measure on the ballot calling for strict limits on new market-rate housing – a Prop. M for housing – and the downtown developers are screaming bloody murder, where will Migden and Leno be? When the public-power movement needs help to raise half a million dollars or more for a battle against PG&E, who’s going to be holding the fundraiser? When someone like Ross Mirkarimi is running for mayor against a Newsom-and-downtown-backed candidate in four years, who’s going to be on our side? When control of the Board of Supervisors is up for grabs in November, 2008, with progressives like Eric Mar, John Avalos, David Campos, Mark Sanchez and Eric Quezada up against Newsom-backed moderates, and two years later, when Debra Walker is running for the District 6 seat against someone like Rob Black, who’s going to be standing with the left?

Neither of these candidates can claim a perfect history on this sort of stuff. Leno as a supervisor often went along with Willie Brown, who was one of the most corrupt and dangerous politicians this city has ever seen. Now he’s a Newsom supporter. I have a problem with that; Newsom brought us Care Not Cash, which is absolutely the wrong way to address homelessness. In fact, I don’t see any signs that Newsom cares about the fundamental problem facing San Francisco – the fact that it costs too much for anyone but the rich to live here. This is a severe, catastrophic crisis at this point, and the mayor seems to think we can address it more or less with business as usual. That’s alarming – San Francisco needs big, radical, dramatic moves to save us from the fate of becoming a town of nobody but the rich and a few homeless poor – and Newsom is plucking his sad little fiddle while the conflagration approaches.

Migden, on the other hand, is pals with Don Fisher. Fisher isn’t just one of the enemies of a better San Francisco; he is probably the single biggest enemy. No politician who wants progressive support should even smile at him in public, much less take his money and announce that he’s a wonderful guy who should be on the state school board. The video of her promoting Fisher is a damn disgrace, and she’s going to have to live with it forever. It raises severe questions about her judgment.

Now that I’ve taken a swipe at both of the candidates, let me say for the record that they both have a lot to offer. Honestly, on a personal level, I like them both.

But I want to put this out to everyone who’s thinking about how to approach this election. The city’s in a crisis. We don’t just need a decent state senator. We need someone who is going to be there, with the money and influence that comes with this bully pulpit, when we need him or her at home.

That’s what I’m going to consider when I think about our endorsement.