Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Leno, Migden spar at Senate debate


Assemblyman Mark Leno and former Assemblyman Joe Nation at Tuesday's debate. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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Assemblyman Mark Leno and state Senator Carole Migden exchanged pointed barbs during a debate Tuesday night that brought together all four Democratic candidates running for Migden's 3rd District seat before a San Francisco audience for the first time.

While the two openly gay lawmakers sparred with one another at the debate hosted by the Potrero Hill Democratic Club, the two Joes in the race – San Francisco Police Commissioner Joe Alioto Veronese and former Marin Assemblyman Joe Nation – largely ignored their opponents, and instead, touted their achievements and policy goals.

Voters in the district, which includes the northern half of San Francisco, all of Marin County, and reaches into the southern portions of Sonoma County, will go to the polls in the June 3 primary to pick which of the four candidates will go on to the general election in November. Due to the district's heavy Democratic registration, the victor this spring is heavily favored to win in the fall.

Having been randomly selected to give his opening statement first, Leno wasted little time introducing himself before going on the attack and accusing Migden of ethical lapses and rude behavior as a state legislator.

He told the nearly 75 people gathered at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House that he decided to jump into the race more than a year ago because he believes there are more "amicable" and "ethical" ways to represent the district.

Leno went on to criticize Migden's decision to sue the state Fair Political Practices Commission in order to gain access to funds she raised during prior political campaigns for her Senate re-election race this year. News of the lawsuit broke only hours prior to Tuesday night's debate.

"We have to have higher ethical standards," he said.

Migden had amassed nearly $1 million in her account from her 2004 Senate race and had hoped to tap into those unspent funds for her contested campaign this year. But the FPPC ruled last year that state campaign finance rules barred her from accessing the money, and that she was already in violation for using $353,000 from the old account.

The 12-page lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court Monday, March 3 and argues that bans on "intra-candidate transfers" violate Migden's rights to free speech. FPPC Chairman Ross Johnson issued a sharply worded statement in response to Migden's suit.

"Senator Carole Migden wants to spend more than $1 million on her campaign that she's not legally entitled to spend; in fact, she's apparently already spent nearly $400,000," stated Johnson. "Migden wants to bully the FPPC and distract our staff from their investigations into her campaigns. We intend to enforce the law. Senator Migden will not deter us."

In response to Leno's attack, Migden defended the lawsuit and maintained that the FPPC was wrong when it issued its opinion.

"My lawyers and the attorney general think I am right that this is about free speech; the FPPC happens to disagree. That is why we are going to court," said Migden. "The money should be used so I can talk to the voters."

She also chastised Leno for attacking her in his opening remarks.

"I am not going to spend most of my time talking about him," chided Migden.

She argued she deserves to serve a second term as senator because "I get things done" and defended her methods and tactics.

"You can defame me. You can say my personality is a mistake. You can say whatever you want," said Migden. "I can throw some ammo from time to time. I do that to get things done for you."

Later in the night the two used a question on reforming the state's prison system to once again fire off personal attacks. Leno dredged up an episode from last March in which a Migden supporter called him a "kiddie porn king" on his personal blog for not supporting a law that increased penalties for child pornographers.

Leno chastised Migden for waiting 10 days before asking the blogger to remove the post. He called the bill "stupid" and dared his detractors "to take your shots, call me every dirty name you want, try to spread fear. I will speak up every time. I will not be stopped."

Migden responded that "I am not provoking here" and then claimed Leno voted to expand prisons last year. [Leno later stated that he merely voted to add more beds to the state's existing corrections facilities to relieve overcrowding in the prisons.]

As for the blog posting, she said, "People can blog in life. They don't need my permission. I believe in freedom of the press."

Referring to Leno, she added. "If he ca

Senator Carole Migden and Police Commissioner Joe Alioto Veronese at Tuesday's debate. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
n't stand the criticism maybe he isn't ready for the rough and tumble world we live in."

The sniping between the former political allies continued in their closing statements, with Leno criticizing Migden for saying "she should be unopposed" and repeated his claim that "democracy is best served by having a choice. I am so pleased to see that others agree and have followed suit so we can have an election not a coronation."

Migden hit back that she "never expected a coronation."

"It doesn't feel like royalty when you've done this job often. I merely said I want to keep my job," said Migden. "I want to do my job and get the job done."

She said her methods at times "may feel pushy" but that is only due to term limits that restrict the time she can serve. And in one last swipe at Leno, she said her style is not to "do a press conference with everyone invited" or "go to a dinner with a proclamation" but to "get things done. Change is about having somebody who gets things done."

Nation avoided talking about his opponents in the race, and instead spent most of his allotted time for opening and closing remarks and answering questions to present his credentials as a former state lawmaker and current Stanford professor and environmental consultant to an audience of largely unfamiliar faces.

"My tagline is 'This Nation Works,'" he said.

He said he decided to jump into the race to reform Sacramento and to tackle climate change issues at a statewide level.

"Over the last few months I looked at running for this seat because, frankly, I think Sacramento is a mess," said Nation, who officially declared his candidacy last month. "We need to do more work on climate change. We are not doing enough."

While he praised his opponents, Veronese at the same time painted them as part of the status quo and himself as an agent of change. Sounding similar reframes Democratic Senator Barack Obama has sounded in his presidential bid, Veronese played up the fact he is not an incumbent or former lawmaker yearning to return to office.

"I admire all three other candidates in this race. They are all good people," said Veronese, a civil rights attorney whose family has long been a fixture of San Francisco politics. "You got to decide what change means for you. Does change mean electing the same people and getting the same results? Or does change mean electing someone new?"

On the issues, all four candidates take strikingly similar positions, supporting some form of universal healthcare, reforming the state's prison system, pumping more money into education, and urging regional solutions to fixing the Bay Area's crumbling infrastructure.

The quartet does split when it comes to dealing with the state's budget deficit. Leno attacked Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for repealing the state's vehicle license fee when he was first elected, arguing that the $200 savings on average to drivers is costing college students $1,000 more in tuition each year.

Migden, while also favoring reinstating the vehicle license fee, advocated for changing the rules for how state lawmakers adopt the budget so that instead of a two-thirds majority only a simple majority would be needed. The change, she argued, would strip the statehouse's Republican minority of the ability to hold up the budgeting process over objections to any tax increases.

She also said it was time to repeal Proposition 13, the voter initiative passed in the 1970s that restricts the state from increasing property taxes by more than 1 percent each year.

Veronese said the state's budget needs to match "our priorities" and vowed to steer more money toward health care, transit corridors, and emergency services.

"We don't have our priorities straight," he said, later adding that he "is a little bothered by what I heard earlier about repealing Prop. 13." He called that idea as well as reviving the vehicle license fee "more taxes on you."

Nation said he would not allow the governor to borrow any more money to balance the budget and would whittle down the state's $8 billion prison budget "as much as I could." He also proposed lowering the state's sales tax but broadening it to include more items.

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