Leno wins big in low-turnout Senate primary

SAN FRANCISCO — It was the sort of day when you might run into Cindy Sheehan twice. The true believers were out in force in San Francisco, with petitions to legalize pot and prostitution available on many street-corners. But the biggest political coup in recent state legislative history came in the 3rd Senate District, and ironically, rival campaign workers there said most residents didn’t even know there was an election.  

Still, by 11 pm, it was over. Sen. Carole Migden’s election night party, like her Senate career, ended early. Joe Nation stood in a restaurant near San Raphael, consoling a group of two dozen dedicated staffers and volunteers. And Mark Leno headed to San Francisco’s famous Castro district for the victory party of his political life.

“He was always been a people person,” said Leno’s sister, Jamie Leno Zimron, earlier that day as she stood with a couple dozen other supporters outside a BART station in the late afternoon, waving signs as drivers honked.

Zimron described an older brother who lacked her athletic skills—she’s a former professional golfer and a fifth-degree black belt in Aikido—but who parlayed his people skills to becoming student council president and homecoming king at his Milwaukee high school.

On a day when only about one-third of the eligible voters made it to the polls, Leno’s relentless campaign style paid off. His campaign started 15 months ago with a day-long run of appearances that started in San Rafael and ended up in Chinatown. It ended the same way, with a string of scheduled appearances that started at 7 a.m. and didn’t let up for 16 hours. Running a campaign at least partially based on the idea that the incumbent Migden hadn’t made herself available enough to the people she represents, Leno used the relatively small size of the district to put himself in front of as many voters as possible.

By contrast, Migden ran on her considerable record and her standing as a groundbreaking lesbian progressive politician. Around 8:30, she walked into her campaign night party amid enthusiastic chants of “Carole! Carole!” and a round of hugs that went on for several minutes. She had the political star power mostly on her side, with former Senate lion John Burton joined by popular current Senators: Gloria Romero, Leland Yee and incoming Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

Migden loyalists used the night to celebrate their candidate’s thirty years of political involvement and service.  “Just look at what she’s done for the district, for woman, for queers,” said Migden supporter Phil Horne.

Nation had a more low-key day. He spent the afternoon down at Stanford University, teaching his class on climate change. Later he stood with a few dozen supporters as a surf-themed restaurant called Wipeout watching the polls come in. The early result showed a near three-way tie, with Leno winning in San Francisco, Nation leading in the North Bay half of the district, and Migden keeping it close with a respectable second place showing in both locales.

By 11 p.m., it still looked like Nation may have a chance. He was down, but many of the votes that hadn’t yet been counted were in his strongholds of Marin and Sonoma counties. But Leno pulled away, getting 43 percent of the vote to put him 14 points ahead of Nation. Midgen came in a very close third.

“I did call Mark Leno,” Nation told his supporters. “His voice mailbox was full. I sent him a text message.”

Nation didn’t enter the race until Feb. 9, nearly a year after Leno declared. He had a full time staff of only nine people, several of them political neophytes. But he still raised $650,000 and outpolled the incumbent.

“I think he just got in a little late,” said supporter Patricia Buckley. “If he had gotten in at the same time as Leno…”

It’s also possible that Nation’s entrance actually helped Leno. In the later stages, Leno seemed to start treating it as a two-way race between himself and Nation, who complained that he was hit with 18 separate attack mailers, paid for with $1 million from the Leno campaign.

Over at the Leno campaign, several people criticized Nation as a false progressive who took special interest money and failed to back up his rhetoric around health care reform and support of public schools. They also noted several attack mailers aimed at Leno, paid for by independent expenditures.

“All of the special interests sent the mail, he didn’t really need a campaign,” said political consultant Kathleen Russell, a Leno supporter. She added with a smile, “You had to know that when he had his party at a place called Wipeout, it wasn’t going to be a good night for Joe Nation.”

Precinct walkers with both the Leno and Migden campaigns said that they encountered voters concerned about Nation’s entrance. With a more moderate, pro-business North Bay candidate in the race, they said, many people indicated they wanted to vote for whoever was the stronger gay San Francisco progressive.

Debra Walker, longtime Migden supporter, spoke for many when she said that the decision to separate the presidential primary into its own February slot had a toxic effect on turnout. So did the negative campaigning and focus on Migden’s gaffes, such as a highly publicized car accident last year.

“The general public is really overwhelmed,” Walker said.  

And in the end, even the candidates themselves seemed overwhelmed. Much of the rancor that had been going for months, especially between Leno and Migden, seemed to subside.

“I don’t think it’s been as (divisive) as people on the outside think,” said San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera, who campaigned for Migden in progressive circles.

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