Updated 3:50 p.m. with response from Phil Ting's campaign.
State legislature races occupy a sort of no-man's land between the intensely local city hall elections and the highly covered national ones. Moreover, in a dark blue city like San Francisco, finding policy distinctions between two Democratic candidates often requires a trek into the weeds -- and maybe some deep digging into the soil.
As such, name recognition and established record often swings a race. That is the challenge Michael Breyer faces in his candidacy for San Francisco's 19th district State Assembly seat, which will be vacated by the termed out Fiona Ma.
Breyer's opponent is Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting, who is most widely known for his February audit that unveiled massive foreclosure abuse by banks.
In the June primaries, Ting, whom Ma has endorsed, received 56 percent of the vote to Breyer's 22 percent. But Breyer sees a fault line in Ting's tenure as an elected official. And his ability to capitalize on that opening will determine how much ground he can make up before November 6.
"The issue is gonna be an individual's perspective on politics as usual," he tells SF Weekly. "He's someone who's definitely run for office repeatedly."
The meat of Breyer's platform certainly reflects San Francisco values: cut state prison spending by implementing more progressive sentencing options of low-level offenders and channel that money to fund public education, including city colleges and the U.C. system.
But it's a philosophy virtually all local pols can agree on. To distinguish himself, Breyer, who happens to be Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer's son, emphasizes government reform and increasing Sacramento's transparency, an especially relevant idea in light of the recent discovery of the state park department's hidden stash of funds.
"People at this point are so disillusioned about Sacramento that they're ready to send people like me," says Breyer, the city's public library commissioner. "People who aren't part of the political establishment."
For instance, he notes that if elected he intends to push a bill that would require that state to record all meetings between legislators and lobbyists.
Ting has certainly given the Breyer campaign ammunition to work with. In July, SF Weekly reported that the assessor's office appeared to authorize a property tax discount to former supervisor candidate and Ting campaign donor Ahsha Safai.
[Safai] was spared having to shell out $10,000 in property taxes and instead qualified for a five-year, interest-free payment plan. In a July 15, 2010, e-mail, veteran Assessor Michael Jine objected to [Chief Appraiser Matt] Thomas' efforts to make him cancel and reissue Safai's bill, stating "I am very uncomfortable with what you are asking me to do." Jine continued that "attempting to manipulate the collection process ... so the taxpayer can apply for a payment plan sets a very bad precedent."
This response shouldn't have been a surprise. E-mails subsequently obtained by SF Weekly show that Kevin Alin, then Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting's assistant, queried the office of the tax collector about Safai's eligibility. Francis Nguyen, then the official responsible for overseeing the plan -- and the person to ask if a taxpayer was eligible -- responded with an unambiguous no.
The discount happened anyway, with Thomas explaining, "This came from above."
The political outsider narrative, of course, offers its own drawbacks. First, and perhaps most important, the public disillusionment must outweigh the experienced opponent's record (Ting's audit was widely celebrated). And second, just as many voters are disillusioned by the political establishment, many are also jaded by the "I'm here to clean up government" message. There's a great scene in A Perfect Candidate, the 1996 documentary that followed the Virginia's Senate race between Oliver North and Chuck Robb, where veteran Washington Post reporter Don Baker is driving in his car, pondering the last politician he admired.
"Over the years I've admire different politicians, but then they've always done something to lose my admiration," he reflects. "So, if the question is, who's the last politician who I still admire..."
He pauses. The car slows at a stop light. He stares straight for several seconds, ahead deep in thought, before shaking his head and softly mumbling, "Boy, I don't know..."
To break through that entrenched cynicism, Breyer must convince voters that he's not like the others who've let us down before. It's been done, happens quite frequently, in fact. It just takes a talented candidate with a timely message.
Update 3:50 p.m.: Ting's campaign, which did not respond to SF Weekly's request last week for an interview with the candidate, sent us a statement addressing Breyer's comments:
It is remarkable that Michael Breyer, who was investigated by the Ethics Commission for what they suspected was an illegally-coordinated "independent" expenditure, should try and position himself as a reform candidate.
Last year he raised tens of thousands of dollars into a political committee and then turned around and asked for a political appointment. When that appointment was appropriately denied, he launched his largely self-funded campaign for state assembly.
He's a very rich young man because he launched a business seeking and winning public contracts with our courts. He used that money to largely self-fund his campaign in June, giving or loaning himself nearly $350,000.
Breyer's campaign is all about a return to "traditional" San Francisco values - whatever that means. Phil Ting thinks the current San Francisco values of tolerance, diversity and care for the young, old and the environment should be promoted. Phil is proud to defend those values against politicians like Michael Breyer.