Willie Brown warns Villaraigosa: 'Don't crowd Kamala!'

Bay Area Democrats seemingly want to pick the winner of the 2016 U.S. Senate race in 2015

With the possible exception of a Hollywood celebrity following in the footsteps of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican candidate has as much chance getting elected to the U.S. Senate from California as a Southern Baptist has to become pope. The only way Democrats can lose any statewide race is if they somehow sabotage themselves, and that’s why Democratic leaders in San Francisco seem intent on picking the winner of the 2016 Senate race in 2015.

For years, aspiring Democratic candidates in the Golden State have been able to climb only so high. The three top elected offices have been held by popular Democratic incumbents who just kept getting reelected. Dianne Feinstein first went to the Senate after winning a special election in 1992. Barbara Boxer joined her there in 1993. Jerry Brown won the governorship in 2010 and took an easy stroll to reelection last fall -- this, of course, after having already served two earlier terms as governor from 1975 to 1983.

Finally, though, this triumvirate is giving way. Term limits will not allow Brown to run for a fifth term in 2018. Feinstein will be 85 that same year, and her Senate seat will be on the ballot. She has given hints that she will choose not to run again. Boxer has already made that choice, having announced in early January her intent to retire when her term ends in 2016.

As a result, the scramble of would-be candidates has begun. Arguably, this is a good thing that will bring new energy into the party and give younger talent a chance to grab the top rungs of the ladder. But some people in the party seem to prefer an anointing over a wide-open campaign.

A week ago, Willie Brown, the former California Assembly Speaker and ex-mayor of San Francisco, suggested that former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa should sit out the race in deference to Brown’s favored candidate, state Atty. Gen. Kamala D.  Harris. This could be passed off as Willie Brown just being his old, flamboyant self, or it could be an indication that Bay Area Democratic leaders -- a group not so affectionately described by Southern Californians as “the San Francisco Mafia” -- want to hand the job to Harris right now. 

That so-called Mafia dominates the state Democratic Party. Feinstein was mayor of the City by the Bay before she ascended to the Senate. Boxer was a member of Congress from Marin County. The minority leader of the House of Representatives is a San Franciscan, Nancy Pelosi. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has been waiting for Jerry Brown to disappear and let him become governor was also mayor of San Francisco after being appointed to key city offices by Willie Brown early in his political career. John Burton, another veteran Bay Area politician, is chairman of the state party.

Perhaps most important, the Bay Area is as blue as Alabama is red and all those Democrats turn out to vote. Los Angeles County may have more people and potentially even more Democratic voters, but voter turnout in L.A. is dismal. That’s a problem for Villaraigosa. He may be a Latino in a state with a Latino majority and his base may be in the state’s biggest city, but it’s a flimsy base if he can’t get people to show up at the polls.

Harris, on the other hand, is another Bay Area protege of Willie Brown. Born in Oakland, she was San Francisco district attorney before heading to Sacramento to become attorney general. Harris was quick to announce her candidacy for the Senate after Boxer said she was not running again. She remains the only announced candidate.

Several other prospects for the job, including Newsom, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, state Treasurer John Chiang and billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, have announced that they are staying out of the race. There might be others of less prominence who will give it a go, but Villaraigosa could be the only serious threat to Harris. 

An editorial in the Sacrmento Bee chastised Willie Brown and “Bay Area politicos” for trying to “coronate” Harris. Telling Villaraigosa to step back and wait for another opportunity was a diss on Southern California Democrats and Latino voters, the editorial said.

Looked at as smart political calculation, though, it is entirely understandable that Democratic operatives might think an early winnowing to one candidate is a great idea. Harris is an appealing candidate who has won two statewide elections. In a presidential election year when Democratic voters will be out in full force, she would probably glide to victory over any Republican. Things could only get messed up if there are too many contenders on the primary ballot. This has become a new wild card in the political process now that the state has a top-two system where the pair of candidates receiving the most votes in the primary go on to face each other in the general election, without regard to which party they are from.

Why mess with a sure thing? That’s what the San Francisco Democrats seem to be asking.

The answer is that in a state already dominated by one party, if that one party offers only one choice then voters really have no choice at all.

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