Bitter battle in S.F. splits Democrats

Times Staff Writer

This famously tolerant city has been forgiving of its politicians’ foibles.

San Franciscans returned John Burton to power in the Legislature after a cocaine addiction drove him from Congress. They reelected Gavin Newsom as mayor after he admitted sleeping with his campaign manager’s wife.

Now, the Bay Area’s fabled mercy is being put to the test in a spree of Democratic infighting, one whose angry recriminations are causing fissures throughout the state’s political establishment.

State Sen. Carole Migden, whose substantial legislative accomplishments have been overshadowed by her transgressions of driving rules, Capitol mores and campaign finance laws, is in danger of becoming the first state legislator in 12 years to be unseated by a member of her own party.


The contested primary race in the 3rd Senate District -- to be decided June 3 -- began more than a year ago when Assemblyman Mark Leno, a fellow San Franciscan, jumped in. Viewed from afar, Leno is nearly identical to Migden in voting record (very liberal), ethnicity (Jewish) and devotion to gay rights (he is gay, she is a lesbian and both have been prime movers of major legislation).

They diverge in style, which can be traced to their origins: Migden grew up in Yonkers, a gritty city just outside brash New York; Leno was raised in Milwaukee in the self-effacing Midwest.

Leno’s campaign has been predicated on the premise that he can do the job as well as Migden but without her extracurricular dramas. The primary, however, has exacerbated the already strained relations between Senate and Assembly Democrats by breaking an unspoken Sacramento taboo: A sitting state legislator should not attempt to unseat a fellow incumbent from the same party.

The race’s origin is partly rooted in an old feud: The two were collegial until Migden endorsed an ally over Leno in the 2002 Assembly race he ultimately won.

Leno’s bid to oust Migden is the latest bout of musical chairs prompted by California’s term limits law. Leno must leave the Assembly this year, and there’s no other appealing public office that is vacant.

As if their bitter rivalry were not enough, the race has attracted another formidable candidate: Joe Nation, an economics professor and consultant who represented nearby Marin County in the Assembly until term limits expelled him in 2006.


Nation tried unsuccessfully to oust Rep. Lynn Woolsey in that year’s Democratic primary. In this campaign, he hopes to squeak past the two ideologically similar candidates with an appeal to Marin voters and business-friendly Democrats.

“I think a lot of people have felt that there has never been a North Bay voice,” said Nation, 51.

Already, business groups, including ones that want the state to restrict lawsuits against businesses and doctors, have spent $208,611 on Nation’s behalf. A coalition of horse racing interests has spent $38,059 for Migden, and an independent committee partially funded by some of Leno’s Assembly colleagues has spent $50,000 for him.

All told, the primary “makes ‘American Gladiator’ look like sandbox play,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), describing the ferocity of the race.

Given the lopsided Democratic registration in the district, which encompasses Marin, eastern San Francisco and southern Sonoma County, the winner of the primary is virtually assured election in November.

Migden is responsible for her circumstances. When she entered the Senate in 2004 from the Assembly, she was considered a future contender for Democratic leader because of her legislative acumen and fundraising skills.


But her star dimmed quickly. She was forced out as chairwoman of a powerful Senate committee after crossing over to the Assembly floor to cast a vote in favor of one of her bills on behalf of a temporarily missing member. She has racked up a record $460,600 in fines for misspending campaign funds and failing to account for her donations properly.

Most glaringly, Migden pleaded no contest last year to a misdemeanor charge of reckless driving, after she careened along a highway for miles, smashing into a guardrail before exiting and smacking into a car stopped at a light. Migden blamed her driving on chemotherapy pills she said she had secretly been taking for leukemia. She says she has been declared disease-free.

Over the last two years, Migden has worked hard to cure her political ailments. She has increased her presence in the district, particularly in Marin.

“I’ve always felt, ‘Well, I bring back such quality results,’ but I’ve come to be educated to understand that people want to see you too,” she said recently, sitting in her campaign manager’s car before an education rally in San Rafael.

Migden has been pushing hard on environmental issues that play well across her district. She has gotten some breaks in recent weeks in getting attention for her efforts. One of her bills, to ban potentially toxic chemicals in children’s plastic bottles and toys, got a lift when Canada moved in April to outlaw the chemical at issue.

She also is working with local activists and officials to try to stop the state from spraying urban areas with pesticides to kill brown moths. When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced last month that he would postpone the spraying until August while the state studied the health implications, Migden was by his side.


One leading activist, Frank Egger, a retired mayor of the Marin County city of Fairfax, said Migden, 59, has been the most effective advocate in Sacramento for foes of spraying.

“She’ll go after the governor and those who we believe would harm us with a vigor that leaves some people a little taken aback,” said Egger, who has endorsed her. “I want someone in Sacramento who gets in your corner.”

Not to be outdone, Leno has his own bill restricting aerial spraying. His flashiest bill of the year is an air passenger “bill of rights” that would require airlines to provide snacks, water and clean restrooms when a plane is stuck on the tarmac for hours. It has passed the Assembly, although the failure of a similar law in New York to survive a court challenge makes its future uncertain.

The primary has divided the Bay Area’s political elite. California’s U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer -- both Bay Area Democrats -- are supporting Migden, while the mayor is backing Leno.

San Francisco’s two biggest gay organizations are on opposing sides, and labor is also split. Many groups, such as the Sierra Club, are sitting out the race.

The contentiousness was evident at the state Democratic convention in San Jose in March. Assembly staffers wearing Leno shirts traded taunts with Senate staffers with Migden shirts. Leno backers heckled Migden at a women’s caucus, and the senator accused them of trying to “pulverize women who work hard in their jobs.”


Leno was able to deny Migden the endorsement, but the 60% of delegate support he won was not enough under party rules to secure the party’s backing for himself.

He has been equally diligent in cultivating voters. At a local cable television station where Leno appeared on an interview show, the man doing Leno’s makeup thanked him for penning a nice note awhile back. “Nobody’s ever sent me a personal note before,” he marveled.

On the studio wall was a letter of recognition for the station from Leno, who said he delivers a congratulatory proclamation or resolution about once a week.

“People love getting them, I’ll tell you that,” Leno, 57, said as he carted another one up to a nursing home fundraiser later that day.

Leno’s marketing mastery is no surprise: He is the son of a salesman and the owner of a successful sign-making company. He describes his job as a lawmaker as being “a salesperson of ideas.”

People invariably describe Leno as nice, but he knows how to play nasty. At a fundraiser for an Assembly candidate later in the day, he escorted a lesbian couple over to talk to a Times reporter. They immediately began trashing Migden.


“I’m embarrassed to have her represent me,” said Liza Sibley, an owner of the Complete Bear, a store in San Francisco that sells clothing, gifts and home furnishings primarily to gay men.

His campaign filed the complaint over Migden’s fundraising practices that resulted in her most recent fine, in March, of $350,000.

The hectic legislative schedule in Sacramento has limited the time either Migden or Leno can campaign, but the fight’s undercurrents flow through the Capitol too.

Last month, a Senate committee approved a consumer bill written by Migden that undoes much of a 2006 law sought by rental car companies to give them leeway in how they can advertise prices.

The earlier bill’s author? Mark Leno.