Local endorsements of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama fall along familiar ideological lines
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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. "I think people are really tired of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton."
But Elsbernd like many other Clinton endorsers played down the differences between the top two candidates and doesn't see much symbolism in the endorsements, although he does acknowledge that those who prefer to work within the system tend to support Clinton, while those "who are always pushing the system to go further" seem to be backing Obama, or John Edwards in some cases.
"If Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton were on the Board of Supervisors, they'd probably be to the right of me," said Elsbernd, whom most observers consider the board's most conservative member, later adding, "Whoever wins the nomination, San Francisco will be heavily supportive of [him or her]."
But Sup. Chris Daly who, like Peskin and many others, backed Edwards four years ago and supports Obama this time thinks an Obama victory would be hugely important both locally and nationally in terms of opening up the Democratic Party and the country to new ideas.
"Hillary Clinton clearly represents the establishment, closely aligned to the [Democratic Leadership Council], and Obama represents a change from that. If Obama wins, it would send a serious wave of change through the Democratic Party and open up opportunities for progressives," Daly told us.
He also said progressive Democrats are "like the redheaded stepchildren of the party," consistently marginalized by leaders like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Feinstein, and Newsom. Daly said he liked the policies and messages of Edwards and Dennis Kucinich but identifies with Obama's roots as a community organizer and feels he's the best hope for change. Daly said an Obama victory would "mainstream activist politics, which is what I practice."
Many Clinton supporters aren't afraid of the establishment label, which progressives often use as an epithet and indicator of a brand of politics mired in status quo constructs.
"To me, that's one of her strengths. She knows how government works and will be ready to lead on day one, and if that's called establishment, that's OK with me," said Laura Spanjian, a vocal Clinton campaigner and elected member of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee.
There are some mainstream candidates who have bucked the norm. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who is definitely to Feinstein's left, and Pelosi have decided not to endorse any of the Democratic primary candidates. And Sup. Bevan Dufty, who is often a Newsom ally, has endorsed Obama.
"I truly feel he is unique among the candidates as far as being able to repair our relationship with the rest of the world," said Dufty, who said he identifies with African American politics, having been raised by a civil rights activist and later working for groundbreaking Congressperson and presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm and former mayor Willie Brown. "I think Obama is much better situated to bring about a new dynamic."
Eric Jaye, owner of Storefront Political Media and the top consultant to Newsom's two successful mayoral campaigns, told us, "There's no doubt that prominent endorsers, like Kamala Harris for Barack Obama or Gavin Newsom for Hillary Clinton, stake some political capital in their endorsements. But I don't think it matters that much."
In fact, rather than altering local political dynamics or the careers of aspiring politicians, Jaye said, the split endorsements of local officials is positive: "We've hedged our bets, so whoever wins is going to love San Francisco and our top leaders."