As you might suspect, the tenor of the three-way debate in the steep bowled room wasn't much different than a legal lecture. After all, discussions about dwindling jury pools and the consolidation of Municipal and Superior Court aren't as incendiary as the issues that define mayoral and supervisorial contests.
But as the evening drew to a close, one of the candidates, Matthew Rothschild, departed from the academic nature of the proceedings and gave those who like a good scrap something to chew on.
The subject of his attack was the campaign slogan of "Justice Not Politics" that adorns the buttons, signs, literature, and fund-raising appeals of his main rival, Ron Albers. Albers picked the slogan to differentiate himself from the more conventionally political Rothschild.
" 'Justice Not Politics' isn't right," Rothschild chided. "We have an obligation to teach young lawyers to come out, and not just come out, but in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, come out and get in the game.
" 'Justice Not Politics' has a chilling affect on the First Amendment," the deputy city attorney-turned-candidate continued, growing more animated. "It says don't get involved. Don't fight back. Don't speak out against things like Prop. 187, because if you do and you decide to run for judge, they will use it against you."
Forget curricula vitae (CVs), forget legal experience, Rothschild was saying. This race is about free speech.
Judged as spin, Rothschild's bit of sophistry gets high marks. It redefines his opponent's message and helps Rothschild dodge a difficult issue: his scant legal experience.
If Albers succeeds in convincing voters to make their decisions based on merit, if he makes them see Rothschild for what he truly is -- an overly ambitious political operative who's spent more time in the salons of the Democratic Party than in a courtroom -- the election will be a slam-dunk for the seasoned public defender. That's the true meaning of "Justice Not Politics."
But in San Francisco, logic and bona fides quickly give way to cronyism. And that's the reason why Rothschild is the guy to beat even though his opponents -- Albers and Kay Tsenin, a sole practitioner from the Richmond District -- are vastly more qualified to sit on the bench.
So how is it that Rothschild is apparently out in front of the pack? How has he raised more money and more key endorsements than the other two candidates?
Because he's a longtime member in good standing of the Democratic Party establishment in San Francisco. For 15 years, Rothschild has busied himself raising campaign money, serving as a campaign staffer, and steering Democratic Club and Democratic Central Committee votes in the direction of powerful local pols. It also doesn't hurt that Rothschild's parents have deep personal ties to John Burton and Nancy Pelosi. (Burton was high school friends with Rothschild's mother.)
In the privileged causeways of local politics, that counts for a lot more than decades toiling in the courtrooms and legal aid clinics of the nation, writing textbooks, serving as judge pro tempore, and assessing gubernatorial nominees to state courts, which are Albers' and Tsenin's selling points.
With Election Day less than a month away, Rothschild has the momentum. His campaign literature is garnished with the entire Democratic Party establishment -- Willie Brown, Pelosi, Burton, Louise Renne, Kevin Shelley, Carole Migden, Michael Hennessey, and Doris Ward -- which is paying back the multitude of political favors he's done them over the years.
His campaign treasury is twice the size of Albers' -- $47,000 to $20,000 to be exact. And two of the party's champion fund-raisers -- Brown and Pelosi -- are holding an event for Rothschild 18 days before the March 26 election.
Don't count Albers out. He's collected a formidable and politically balanced range of endorsements -- Art Agnos, Roberta Achtenberg, Tom Ammiano, and the San Francisco Labor Council on the left, and Frank Jordan, Annemarie Conroy, and the Republican Party Central Committee on the right. He's assembled a professional campaign team. (Sadly, you can pretty much forget about Tsenin. Her campaign has a paltry $8,300 in the bank, and has fielded a dedicated but amateur campaign operation.)
Rothschild won't acquire the legal skills required of a top-notch judge in the 28 days remaining until Election Day. He doesn't need to. He has a more potent facility: the resources to blanket San Francisco in slick campaign fliers brandishing names like Burton and Brown. In an election where people don't know what Muni Court judges do, let alone how to rate them, the names of the big politicians mean more to the average voter than legal experience, judicial temperament, and ethical behavior.
The election of Rothschild won't irrevocably lower the quality of Muni Court. The preliminary hearings and smaller civil and criminal matters that fill the calendar will survive his judgeship. The real problem with Rothschild's candidacy is his anointment by the San Francisco Democratic Party establishment, and what that anointment says about the values of the party's powerful.
For years, it's been standard operating procedure for the established leadership to elevate party operatives and famous kin to elected positions. The reason for this is simple and well-known: Consultants and party ops run the local political culture. An insular and inbred lot, they reward and empower their own by manipulating local political clubs and constituencies with money and self-serving deals.
Instead of reaching down and empowering true community representatives, they give us: Carole Migden, party fund-raiser; Kevin Shelley, son of former mayor, party activist, and Phil Burton aide; and, most recently, Michael Yaki, Pelosi aide and party activist.
Political cronyism works fine in the legislative branch, where party-building and partisan agendas are natural components, where votes are traded and party loyalty makes for effective governance. The natural trajectory of Rothschild's political career should have carried onto, say, the community college board, the BART board, or even the Board of Supervisors, places where the party could watch over and prevent him from doing any damage. But by applying its devotion to mediocrity to the judiciary, the Democratic machine has revealed that it sees no difference in electing a dogcatcher and fixing a race for a judge.