Liberal, gay, Jewish and at odds


“The point comes where you can’t get yelled at anymore.”

If you had to pick a sentence that described why incumbent state Senator Carole Migden is facing a serious primary challenge from fellow San Francisco Democrat Assemblyman Mark Leno, this could be it. These words were used specifically to describe Migden’s relationship with other Bay Area Democrats–and they came from the person who may have done the most try to fend off a run by Leno, San Francisco supervisor Aaron Peskin.

Last week, Peskin was the invited speaker before a meeting of the Harvey Milk Democratic Club in San Francisco, one of two powerful San Francisco-based gay Democratic clubs. The race could cause angry divisions in the gay and progressive communities and distract people from important political issues within the city, Peskin warned, all over a choice between two politicians who will push similar legislation.

“Carole’s never yelled at me,” Peskin said later. “She’s yelled at other people. She got a tough style.”

Peskin also endured boos and hisses when he talked about entering the race himself in order to short-circuit Leno’s intra-party insurrection. But he said what apparently had been on a lot of people’s minds. Rick Hauptman, who was there, put the contrast in somewhat softer terms.

“They’re both liberals who are Jewish and gay,” said Hauptman of Leno and Migden. “I think Mark is seen as more accessible.”

A pause, and then Hauptman continued. “More friendly. Kinder.”

Hauptman is communications chairman of the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party, but he said he was speaking as a private citizen and not for any group. Migden is a “brilliant political mind” he said.

But Hauptman was there with about 150 other people at Yerba Buena Gardens as Leno made his run official. All the pieces were there: a logo and a campaign team, a card-carrying medical-marijuana user discretely puffing away in the audience, a very tall and smartly dressed transgendered person among Leno’s supporters.

Several San Francisco politicians joined Leno onstage, including district attorney Kamala Harris, Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, Public Utilities Commission manager Susan Leal and assessor Phil Ting. The two-dozen notables also included Richard Hormel, who became the nation’s first openly gay ambassador in 1999.

Leno has defied conventional wisdom–and arguably common sense–by making an early run for an office some say he could have more or less inherited if he was willing to wait until 2012.

Indeed, it is arguably a path paved largely in the rubble of Migden’s burned bridges. While he has pledged to run a clean campaign, there were three sentences that he repeated at a morning event in Mill Valley, and later in San Francisco, that seemingly all but mentioned Migden by name:

“The person you see before you now is the same person I am behind closed doors. They say ‘character is what you are when no one is watching.’ With me, you have someone who treats all people kindly, fairly, honorably and ethically at all times.”

That several local politicians would stand publicly with Leno so early also shows the difference in perception on this race between San Francisco and Sacramento.

In the Capitol, conventional wisdom holds that the Caucus would never let it happen. Indeed, Senate Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, already has gone around to his senators and told them to stand with Migden. In December, Perata’s office also said he had asked Leno not to run, something Leno has denied. The day of Leno’s official announcement, Perata issued a statement praising Migden and calling on Leno to reconsider.

Migden, meanwhile, put forth a statement saying, “I’m disappointed that someone facing the end of his term would see my seat in the Senate as a political stepping stone. I take my job more seriously than that.”

If Perata is circling the wagon’s of his own caucus, Leno’s own leader, Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, did him a nice turn when he named Leno Appropriations chairman in September. His ability to hold up bills–the same kind of ability that Migden held in the Senate for a year before she gave up chairwoman of Senate Appropriation, under alleged pressure from Perata–could limit the desire of any Democratic senators to go to war with him.

Meanwhile, Leno emphasized that this is a local race. His local supporters, meanwhile, spoke of being shut out by their senator. Joni Eisen of the California Clean Money Campaign said that Migden had “strung along” and then “stonewalled” her group, rather than pledge support or opposition to AB 583 by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, last year.

Tom Brown, a Democratic state delegate and a member of San Francisco for Democracy, agreed. “In the grassroots where I work, I’m always hearing horror stories about her being inaccessible.”

Many people said that Migden recently has become far more accessible, sometimes showing up at events where she hasn’t been seen in years. This includes the annual Christmas dinner of the Harvey Milk Club. She also made an appearance last week at the 30th anniversary party of Solem & Associates at City Hall, despite political disputes with one of the firm’s partners, Anne Solem, that have been publicized over the years in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Matier & Ross column.

Small and densely packed, San Francisco voters have long expected to see their representatives in person. Showing up, Leno said, is something he specializes in.

“Mark Leno is in our community often and the community knows that,” said Lawrence Wong, a trustee of the San Francisco Community College Board and an early openly gay politician in the city’s Chinese neighborhoods. “The Chinese community views Mark Leno not as a gay leader, but as a civil rights leader. That has made him very popular in the community.”

Still, even her critics concede Migden’s many accomplishments and her place as a trailblazing openly gay major political leader. Peter Wong of the Clean Money Campaign, who described being blown off by Migden at the Milk Club dinner, said that he thinks part of the bad rap Migden gets comes from her being a woman.
“I’d caution against equating affability with legislative ability,” Wong added. “George W. Bush resonated with quite a few voters because they felt they could have a beer with him.”

But the story hardly ends there. Half of the district’s voters are in Marin. While Marin has always played tail to San Francisco’s dog, as Solem put it, this time the race likely appears to be largely fought for those North Bay votes.

Leno is highly aware of this. A David Binder poll he commissioned in December reportedly showed him with a large lead over Migden in San Francisco–and a slight deficit in Marin. He’s been talking to North Bay leaders and keeping an eye on potential North Bay competitors. While major Marin-based candidates like Kerry Mazzoni and Joe Nation have all but said they won’t run, Leno and Migden could still get company.

“If I get in, I get in to win,” Peskin said. “Frankly, this primary is a long way off. Let ’em have at each other.”

Contact Malcolm Maclachlan at

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