The marquee matchup of Supervisors David Campos and David Chiu in the race to replace Tom Ammiano in the Assembly is now set, with Chiu announcing his candidacy last week. It will be the only hotly contested local candidate race on the November 2014 ballot, and the city’s highest profile state legislative race since Mark Leno took Carole Migden’s Senate seat in 2008. Campos and Chiu are Harvard Law grads with strong name recognition and a demonstrated ability to raise campaign money. Both won re-election for supervisor virtually unopposed. Here is my early preview of a matchup that will be the talk of San Francisco politics.

As we look toward the next contested candidate races in San Francisco, the pickings are slim. In 2014, Supervisor incumbents Tang (D4), Kim (D6) and Weiner (D8) are unbeatable. Farrell (D2) and Cohen (D10) won narrowly in 2010 but are overwhelmingly favorites for re-election.

This leaves the Campos-Chiu Assembly race, for which there are two serious misconceptions.

First, it is not a citywide race. If it were, Chiu wins easily by rolling up huge margins in the western side of the city (which Phil Ting represents).

Second, those who believe that the outcome makes little difference because the two will “vote the same” misunderstand Sacramento politics. The differences between Campos and Chiu would be very miniscule if they were running for Nancy Pelosi’s congressional seat, but Sacramento is a very different world.

Sacramento’s Backroom Politics


I have been involved in many Sacramento legislative battles in the past two decades, and know that all Democrats---including “progressive” Dems --- are not alike (for examples, see my July 16, 2013 piece, “There’s Something Rotten in Sacramento” and Dean Preston’s June 4, 2013 “California's Democratic Legislative Majority Betrays Tenants”)

But unlike at the SF Board of Supervisors, in Sacramento legislators can kill or gut legislation without much of the public becoming aware and without a formal vote. In fact, because Democratic legislators do not want a paper trail for their betrayal of progressive interests, preventing formal votes on legislation they oppose, or gutting them behind the scenes, is the preferred approach.

San Francisco has been blessed with legislators like John Burton, Tom Ammiano and Mark Leno who do not play such games. But they are not the norm. Leland Yee, whose anti-progressive actions until recently avoided public scrutiny precisely through such backroom tactics, is more typical of Sacramento politicians

So the question voters should be asking in the Campos-Chiu race is which can best be trusted to serve the people’s interests when the public is not looking. Because most of what occurs legislatively in Sacramento happens behind closed doors, with public votes after the deals are made.

And if you think that the outcome of this race does not matter given the large Democratic Assembly majority, check the vote count on the recent bill to save inclusionary housing (laws that require private projects to include or fund affordable housing). Progressive measures often come down to a one-vote margin. For example, had Mark Leno not fought tooth and nail to secure the last needed vote to protect SRO’s from Ellis-Act evictions, we would have seen hundreds if not thousands of such units lost in the past decade.

San Francisco Track Records

David Chiu is a three time Board President who is widely seen as the Supervisor most capable of assembling six votes on divisive issues. On the single issue of greatest importance to me during his tenure---legislation creating the Mid-Market-Tenderloin tax exemption for net new hires---Chiu was not only a supporter and a co-sponsor, but a champion.

While Chiu has been a strong supporter of San Francisco’s high-tech industry, Campos was one of three supervisors opposing the above measure. He is not seen as an ally of the tech industry. Chiu will likely receive far more money from this sector in the Assembly race.

The downside of Chiu’s ability to assemble six votes occurred when he was the deciding vote to approve the demolition and rebuilding of ParkMerced. Charged by tenant activists with making a “backroom deal” to eliminate rent-controlled housing after telling tenants he was on their side before the vote, Chiu stated in a letter to Beyond Chron that the legislation was supported by Parkmerced tenants.

Chiu has since rebuilt his relationship with the San Francisco Tenants Union by leading opposition to 8 Washington, supporting the recent condo conversion reform, and the pending financial hardship legislation for capital improvements.

Campos has been a consistent pro-tenant vote, and is seen as a reliably progressive vote on the Board. What this actually means has become far less clear in San Francisco today, but Campos has assembled strong Board support for immigrants’ rights legislation, CPMC (along with Chiu and Farrell), free MUNI for youth and other issues.

Race, Ethnicity, Sexual Orientation

San Francisco is a longtime bastion of identity politics, and this race has a gay Latino immigrant facing an Asian American. Roughly 70% of SF’ s Asian-American voters are not in this Assembly district, while Latino voting in the city has never been high.

Campos’s backing by Tom Ammiano will help him draw strong support in the gay community. Chiu will do equally well among Asian American voters. But gay and lesbian voters whose own political views are closer to Chiu’s (such as supporters of Supervisor Scott Weiner) appear up for grabs.

Identity politics may have less impact, as female candidates seeking to become the first women mayors in Los Angeles and New York City both lost to straight white males (LA’s Eric Garcetti has some Latino heritage, but was not seen as an ethnic minority). San Francisco has never had Latino representation in the State Legislature, but the city does not have a large Latino voting bloc.

The Challenges Ahead

Both candidates have more than a year to address their weaknesses and expand upon their strengths. And both have strong campaign teams that know what needs to be done.

Nicole Derse heads Chiu’s campaign. Derse ran Ross Mirkarimi’s winning 2004 supervisor campaign, joined Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential primary effort, and returned to the city to run Chiu’s and Eric Mar’s winning re-election campaigns in 2012.

Campos’ campaign team includes David Binder, who did polling for both of Obama’s presidential campaigns. After hiring Binder for a tenants campaign in 1992, I soon learned why so many campaigns associated with him win: his data helps campaigns target resources to where they can most make a difference, a skill that boosts Campos’ chances.

Chiu’s campaign will try to erase claims that he is a backroom dealer for private interests by turning the argument on its head; they will highlight his effectiveness at building alliances to get good things done.

Campos’ campaign will challenge perceptions that he is too ideological to be effective in Sacramento. He will be helped by Tom Ammiano, who was subject to the same concerns and then went on to become one of the most effective members in the Assembly.

Because both candidates remain on the Board during their contest, expect many with business at City Hall to endorse both or neither. Other politicians will likely do the same. This is they type of race that can divide allies and unite adversaries, but the Chiu-Campos contest will spice up what will otherwise looks to be a rather uneventful local election in 2014.

Randy Shaw is Editor of BeyondChron. He analyzes San Francisco politics in his new book, The Activist’s Handbook, Second Edition: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century.