Did Perata intervene in potential Leno-Migden race?

Did Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, advise Assemblyman Mark Leno against taking on fellow San Francisco Democrat Senator Carole Migden for her seat in 2008? One of Perata’s top political advisers said he did–but Leno said he didn’t.

“He’s made it clear to everyone involved that Senator Migden, as a sitting senator, he would come to her defense, just as he would any member of the caucus,” said Perata political adviser Paul Hefner. He said that the pro tem had spoken to both Leno and Migden and warned Leno not to run.

Leno said that he spoke to Perata about a week and a half ago to tell him about a poll he commissioned to test the waters of the race–and that Perata gave him no such warning.

“No, he did not,” Leno said. “It was a very brief conversation. He just told me to be in contact with him before I made any formal decision.”

Leno commissioned the David Binder telephone poll of 600 voters in the district, conducted in the first weekend of December. He characterized the results as “very encouraging.” When asked whether it was Migden’s negatives or his own positives that were the most encouraging, Leno replied: “A combination.”

In an age where few California Legislature races are competitive, it’s unusual to be talking about a sitting senator being vulnerable in her own primary–particularly one with Migden’s experience and tough reputation. But the combination of Leno’s star rising after his gay-marriage legislation with some well-publicized gaffes by Migden may put the seat into play.

“She understands this is one of the unfortunate realities of term limits,” said Hallye Jordan, a spokeswoman for Migden.

If Perata does come out with a public vote of confidence for Migden, it would mark a notable thawing of a sometimes-contentious relationship between the two. He is widely believed to have pressured Migden to step down as chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee just over a year ago. This incident followed a widely publicized “ghost voting” incident two months earlier when she went onto the Assembly floor and voted for one of her own bills using the desk of Assemblyman Guy Houston, R-Livermore. Migden said at the time that the move was “temporary” and she planned on returning to the post in June. It never happened, though she does hold the post of Caucus chairwoman.

However, Perata’s ability and inclination to circle the wagons around Migden could be in question. He’s termed out himself in 2008, and also is under investigation by the FBI for allegedly steering state business toward friends and his son Nick.

With the Capitol rumor mill rife with reports of further attempts by liberal senators to depose Perata, some say that Senate loyalties could keep shifting in the coming months.

In terms of what Perata might do to derail Leno, several people pointed to the case of Tom Umberg. Perata endorsed Umberg’s less-established opponent, Lou Correa, in the Democratic primary in the 34th Senate District; Umberg also alleged that Perata was behind $850,000 in independent spending for Correa. Several people have said that Perata’s support of Correa was at least partially in response to the belief that Umberg would support a leadership challenge against Perata. Correa went on to win the primary and an extremely close general election.

However, many Democrats also saw Correa as the more electable candidate in a competitive district. By contrast, whichever Democrat was nominated in the 3rd Senate District would be assured of an overwhelming electoral victory just by showing up.

Leno would be the logical choice to succeed Migden in that he holds the seat she held from 1996 to 2002. Indeed, he filed paperwork with the secretary of state on December 11 to create a Leno for Senate committee, with the stated goal of running in 2012, when Migden would term out.

But Leno made his name by not knowing his place within San Francisco’s Democratic hierarchy. He grabbed Migden’s old Assembly seat when she termed out in 2002 by taking down her friend and prot

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