The outsize legislative power of politicians from San Francisco, a place with fewer inhabitants than the county of Fresno, is often cited in local conversation as if it were a source of shame. The language of resentment -- the accusations of omnipotence and arrogance and impunity that other places use against our home team -- has seeped into our local political vernacular. Like those outer Californians, we twist legitimate criticism of the abuses of S.F. power brokers into embarrassment at the mere fact that they're powerful. And along with every other Californian, we lose when we do so. As California speeds toward a future of soul-destroying freeway sprawl, racial intolerance, growing poverty, and widespread environmental degradation, the state's only salvation lies in the urbane, liberal values of San Francisco. We need more powerful San Francisco politicians if we're going to make those values law.
That's why I find it untoward that the folks who back Harry Britt for the state's 13th Assembly District (1) in Tuesday's Democratic primary cite his likely ineffectiveness as legislator as the best reason to vote for him. He's an ideologically pure progressive, they say; he's way, way out there, just like you and me. He doesn't play politics the old way like the rest of those guys; he's different, you'll see.
These claims (specious as they are; Britt's bid follows a feeble version of the machine-politics template) actually form a recipe for irrelevance. That's why I'm putting my money on Britt's opponent, Mark Leno, a politician who in just four years on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has demonstrated a verve for the give, take, and compromise of successful policy-making. He's become the front-runner in the race for the 13th Assembly seat at the moment he's found himself for the first time not beholden to any particular local political faction.
This Assembly campaign has been mostly obscured by political white noise -- "Gasp! A pissing match in the Castro," and, "Who's the genuine gay progressive" -- when the real issue at hand is which candidate will actually do a more vigorous, effective job of making policy in Sacramento. If his verve in using his politician's toolbox to solve San Francisco's most pressing problems is any indication, Leno's the man for the job.
Not long before he died, Herb Caen wrote that Willie Brown had "no hobbies. No golf, no tennis, no exercise, no real vacations, no family life in the traditional sense." Instead, Caen wrote, politics was Brown's entire reason for living. It's been said that Phil Burton, the father of modern California liberalism, ate, breathed, and slept politics, and nothing more.
I recalled these reputed instances of single-mindedness last week as Mark Leno spoke with me, using the same careful, politico-speak phrases he's increasingly known for. In the manner of a person who'd recently become fluent in a foreign tongue, Leno seemed to savor the shape and texture of his exotic, politics- and policy-laden sentences as they brushed past his lips. He seemed to like talking this way, just as he relishes the rest of the tasks involved in being a politician. "I think my adversaries to the left have tried to dress me up as a corporate tool, as an agent of the mayor," Leno said. "If progressive means having very few ideas to benefit the electorate in different ways, then yes, you'll find them more rigid than I am."
Leno, in fact, seems to relish his current political position. Four years after Willie Brown appointed him to the Board of Supervisors, he's gained an unusual degree of political independence -- the sort that can sometimes count as political capital in Sacramento. He has, in short, triangulated, holding himself just about equidistant from the city's "progressive" and "machine" camps.
Leno infuriated Mayor Brown two years ago by supporting the anti-growth Proposition L, which would have put severe limits on the amount and location of office space that could be built in the city; he then worsened matters last year by opposing Brown on several other issues and denouncing a lucrative waterfront contract awarded to a Brown-allied developer. By fall, Brown and his erstwhile protégé seemed to have separated for good. Brown even convinced former S.F. Board of Education Commissioner Steve Phillips to run as a spoiler candidate in the 13th District Assembly race.
A Noe Valley sign shop owner, Leno goes at his politico day job with such gusto he's widely considered the hardest-working member of the Board of Supervisors, never missing a meeting while working on a plethora of causes. He possesses an odd talent for picking up as many useful enemies as friends -- the Ammiano-Migden left dismisses him, largely because he was appointed to the Board of Supervisors by that faction's sworn enemy, Willie Brown, even as Brown tries to terminate Leno's political career.
Leno seems both pleased and bemused that his characterization by his opponents as a friend of right-wing corporate interests coincides with growing national fame as a backer of quirky, left-wing, only-in-San-Francisco legislation. Leno, for example, sponsored a bill that gave health coverage to city employees who are transsexuals and wish to undergo sex-change surgery, and was behind a law that turned San Francisco into an official medical marijuana sanctuary.