The David Campos-David Chiu Assembly contest had push polls, negative attacks and a public debate last week, heating up the first competitive local Assembly race in over a decade. Both are calling the other out on past votes, and raising important policy questions about San Francisco’s past, present and future. While both candidates are known commodities, the winner is likely to be the candidate that convinces voters that their framing of the issues is what this Assembly race is really all about.

Outspoken Activism

Last week, the David Chiu campaign released a poll showing Chiu ahead of Campos 37% to 25%, with 38% undecided. The campaign added:

“Furthermore, voters in AD-17 express a strong preference for a candidate like David Chiu. When presented with a choice between “an outspoken activist” and “a practical problem solver,” 72% prefer the problem-solver, while only 20 percent of likely general election voters would choose an outspoken activist like David Campos. This margin is even wider among undecided voters.”

This is a fascinating analysis on many levels.

First, understand that the questions differentiating “an outspoken activist” from “a practical problem solver” did not name either candidate. Chiu’s campaign attached these descriptions to the two candidates. And while David Chiu will be the choice of most voters who want a “practical problem solver,” the notion that problem solving is inconsistent with outspoken activism is simply wrong.

Chris Daly and Aaron Peskin got more accomplished on the Board of Supervisors than arguably any two members in history. Both were outspoken activists and practical problem solvers. In fact, Peskin was known as the Board’s political “fixer.”

If David Campos could have chosen a two-word self-description for the poll, he probably would have used something like “principled progressive.”” “Outspoken activist” does not fit a man who spent his pre-Supervisor career as an attorney representing the city and the school district, not as a grassroots activist.

It's curious that the Chiu campaign is trying to put Campos in a box that he doesn’t fit. Chiu can effectively argue that he has been more successful than Campos in assembling legislative coalitions. But as Daly and Peskin proved, “outspoken activists” can do the same.

A Tale of Two Cities

In last Thursday’s debate before the San Francisco Young Democrats, Campos led off with what appears to be his Bill de Blasio-inspired campaign theme: San Francisco is “A Tale of Two Cities,” with Campos on the side of the underdog and Chiu aligned with the Chamber of Commerce.

Putting aside whether San Francisco has the stark wealth inequalities of New York City, Campos, unlike de Blasio, is not running for mayor. What can he do in the State Assembly that incumbent Tom Ammiano has not done to address the city’s inequality?

Campos is understandably trying to tap the anti-tech, Occupy-inspired, “We Are the 99%” messaging in his “Tale of Two Cities” theme. His challenge is turning David Chiu into Michael Bloomberg, the New York City mayor whose opposition to paid sick leave, inclusionary housing and other popular measures made him the perfect foil for de Blasio.

Chiu’s detractors point to his backroom deals on Parkmerced and other issues where he ends up casting a progressive vote only after failing to weaken the measure behind the scenes. But I can’t think of a single constituency---tenants, labor, neighborhood activists---that equates David Chiu with Michael Bloomberg.

Chiu’s leadership in opposing 8 Washington makes it even harder for Campos to blame him for rising inequality.

The Election’s Meaning

What is this Assembly race actually about? Campos' campaign believes it's about loyalty to progressive principles, and that Chiu can't be trusted. Chiu's camp believes Campos is too sectarian to reach the compromises necessary to pass progressive legislation, as they believe their candidate has done.

If Campos wins, many will frame it as an 8 Washington-type rebuff to the city’s promotion of tech and development under Mayor Lee (despite close Lee ally Rose Pak’s strong support for Campos). A Chiu victory will be described as showing public support for the city’s success at job creation, the revival of Mid-Market, and Chiu’s ability to work with colleagues to pass legislation.

But the identity politics component of this election throws a wrench into the outcome's meaning.

It is no secret that some LGBT voters whose politics are closer to Chiu’s will be voting for Campos. Their reasoning is that if Campos loses, the gay community is left only with Mark Leno among the city’s top elected posts (Mayor, State Legislature, Congress).

The winner of this election can remain in the Assembly for twelve years. They also become the strong favorite to replace Leno in the State Senate when term limits force him out (if Nancy Pelosi retires before that time, Leno would be the overwhelming favorite to replace her). Should the Assembly winner then run for State Senate, Jane Kim would have the best chance of replacing him (I have never discussed this with Kim, but she clearly is not planning on leaving politics when her two-terms as supervisor end).

So some longtime LGBT activists see Campos’ election to the Assembly as critical for maintaining the building blocks for LGBT political power in the city. Supervisor Scott Wiener has given Chiu his sole endorsement in the race, so he clearly does not see Campos as carrying the torch for LGBT politics in the city.

It's a long way until the June primary, and even longer until the November general election. Political junkies should enjoy seeing two very smart and articulate candidates debate San Francisco politics in a way that benefits everyone working to improve the city's future.