2008: The Year of Change

by Paul Hogarth on January 8, 2008

In 12 months, we will look back at 2008 and say that “change” was the buzzword in American politics. Iowa caucus voters put change above experience, giving Barack Obama a solid victory and John Edwards the second prize. Every presidential candidate now says they are about change – whether or not it’s credible – and it will be the dominant theme in races at the federal, state and local level. In the June State Senate race, Mark Leno – who calls himself “the best choice for change” – will benefit from this trend, while incumbent Carole Migden will regret that she ever said “I am the status quo” at their first debate. Progressives who lament that Mayor Gavin Newsom was just re-elected without a serious challenger can take umbrage that 2008 will be a year about change. And candidates running for local office need to start thinking how they will adapt.

Political candidates work hard to campaign for office – sacrificing time, money, family and their sanity – but sometimes the final result is beyond their control. They simply were not the right candidate at the right time, and it’s often not because of anything they did wrong – or that they didn’t run a good campaign. It’s unfair, but life is not fair. In 2008, candidates who embody change, have a theme about change, and can credibly convince voters that they are genuine agents of change are going to prevail. Those who embody the status quo – or come off as insincere agents of change – will lose.

After Assemblyman Mark Leno took the unorthodox move of challenging a sitting State Senator, Carole Migden did not react very well. Her supporters have accused Leno of making this a grudge match, and some have even called him sexist for challenging the only lesbian Senator from Northern California (Sheila Kuehl and Christine Kehoe are both from Southern California.) But Migden may have her own set of problems, because her campaign is premised on the fact that she has a good record – and an incumbent should normally not go challenged. In other words, she’s running on experience.

At the first State Senate debate – sponsored by the San Francisco Young Democrats – Leno made his opening statement that he was running to “challenge the status quo and fight for change.” Migden started her opening statement with “I’m Carole Migden and I am the status quo” – and she then rattled off her accomplishments in the legislature. If 2008 was a year where experience mattered more than change, it might be effective. But voters are craving for change – and it won’t work. Will Migden start saying that her experience makes her the best agent of change? That’s not helping Hillary Clinton.

Sacramento legislators are now campaigning for Proposition 93 on the February ballot –which would modify our state’s term limits law so they can serve more time in the Senate or the Assembly. While Prop 93 is flawed because it doesn’t apply fairly to everybody, its campaign message that what we need “more experience” at the State Capitol won’t play very well. It’s a good campaign theme and could work in another cycle – but probably not this year.

In San Francisco, Gavin Newsom was re-elected Mayor with 74% of the vote – and his rag-tag army of under-funded challengers did not achieve mainstream support. Newsom had no serious challenger because of a huge campaign war-chest, his deft co-option of a few high-profile progressive issues, and a general feel among most voters that we did not need anyone new. If change was the dominant theme on voters’ minds last year, a challenger like Matt Gonzalez could have taken the plunge – and may have prevailed. But it wasn’t.

However, progressives can take solace that 2008 will be the Year of Change – and candidates who have a credible message of being “agents of change” will be successful. At the Board of Supervisors, four incumbents will be termed out of office – and the candidates who run for these open seats will have to genuinely prove that they are about change. Three of the outgoing Supervisors are white, and all the progressives running this year are people of color. It’s a good start, but it obviously won’t be enough.

Progressive School Board members Eric Mar and Mark Sanchez are respectively running for Supervisor in Districts 1 and 9. Both will naturally want to run on their elected experience, but will have to prove how that record makes them agents of change. Both can credibly argue that they have brought change to the School Board – as everyone says that the Board is far more collegial than in the past, and the new School Superintendent has a solid reputation. I’m not saying that an experienced candidate is “doomed” in 2008 – but they need to credibly show how they would bring change to City Hall.

There are multiple progressives running for Supervisor in Districts 9 and 11. Each one will have to explain how they will run a real “change” campaign, and progressive leaders should grill them about this to ensure their viability. John Avalos has experience as a City Hall aide, but can talk about his track record as a union organizer and a progressive policy advocate. Cecilia Chung will say she’d be the first transgender Supervisor, while David Campos will talk about his immigrant background. And Eric Quezada will certainly stress his affordable housing advocacy to call himself an “agent of change.”

What happens in presidential politics trickles down to state and local races – because that is where voters are focusing most of their attention. Issues that become dominant in the presidential race affect how voters think about local candidates By the time the year is over, we will all be sick and tired of hearing from political candidates as to why they are the “candidate of change.” But that’s the message that came out of Iowa – and it is what the voters want to hear, provided that you’re being genuine. And that is something that every candidate at the state and local level needs to start thinking about.

EDITOR’S NOTE: As a private citizen, Paul Hogarth supports Mark Leno for State Senate – but does not play an advisory role in the campaign. Send feedback to paul@beyondchron.org

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