Away From Home, Leland Yee Supports Corporate Candidate

by Paul Hogarth on June 3, 2010

With an eye on the San Francisco Mayor’s race, State Senator Leland Yee has stepped up his involvement in local politics – endorsing candidates for Supervisor, helping to fund slate mailers and having two of his aides run for Democratic County Central Committee. In many cases, he has sided with progressives over moderates in local skirmishes. But 500 miles away, Yee has weighed in on a contested “progressive vs. moderate” race for the State Senate in San Diego – endorsing ex-State Assemblyman Juan Vargas. The race has gotten very nasty, with millions of dollars in corporate independent expenditures used to attack Vargas’ opponent – State Assemblywoman Mary Salas, who has most of the Democratic Party and progressive constituencies behind her. And the outcome of this race will have a greater impact on passing state laws than any of our local San Francisco fights.

The 40th State Senate District – currently represented by termed-out Democratic Senator Denise Ducheny – includes the South Bay of San Diego (with cities like Coronado and Imperial Beach), and then spans inland to encompass Riverside and Imperial Counties. With a large Latino population, the race is between State Assemblywoman Mary Salas of Chula Vista – and Juan Vargas, who represented the same Assembly District until 2006.

Salas is clearly labor’s favorite – with endorsements by the California Labor Federation, SEIU, UFCW, the Nurses Association and the California Federation of Teachers. She’s also the choice of the League of Conservation Voters and Equality California. Sixteen of the State Senate’s 25 Democrats (including President Darrell Steinberg) have endorsed her, along with 32 of the 48 Democrats in the State Assembly. Most of the Democratic clubs in the San Diego area have endorsed her, as did the California Democratic Party.

Leland Yee is the only San Franciscan in the legislature not to support Salas, and he even co-hosted a fundraiser for Juan Vargas in Sacramento. According to Vargas’ website, he also has State Senators Ron Calderon and Joe Simitian – both of whom are moderate-to-conservative Democrats. The Chula Vista Chamber of Commerce is with Vargas, and – interestingly – AFSCME, due to their anger at Darrell Steinberg for the state budget cuts.

But the big story in San Diego is not who’s endorsed Vargas – but who has been funding the attacks on Salas. Insurance companies have thrown their weight around in this June election (over $17 million statewide), and the 40th State Senate District is one of a handful of races they have focused on. That’s because Vargas was their “go-to” legislator in the Assembly.

San Franciscans may recall the Civil Justice Association of California (CJAC), a group that weighed in heavily on behalf of Joe Nation – when he ran for the State Senate seat that Mark Leno won. CJAC is playing a starring role in this race. They have set up two campaign committees – “Californians for Balance and Fairness” and “California Back to Work” – which poured in $257,000 and $721,000 respectively on behalf of Vargas in this race.

Who is CJAC? Donations (often in six figures) to these campaign committees include: (1) Jobs-PAC, which is the California Chamber of Commerce’s political arm, (2) Farm-PAC, which represents agribusiness interests, (3) Mercury Auto Insurance, while it’s not spending millions to pass Prop 17, (4) Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy, who represents Safeway, Blue Cross and a who’s who of the largest corporations in America.

Wanna know how much the landlords love Vargas? The California Apartment Association has – to date – spent over $103,000 in the past month alone in independent expenditures on his behalf.

Much of the attacks on Salas have blamed her for budget cuts – with hit pieces that say she was the “deciding vote” on releasing prisoners, and slashing funds for schools and services for seniors. Of course, this is extremely misleading – the state budget requires a two-thirds vote to pass, so you can characterize everyone’s vote as “deciding.” Salas did what practically every Democrat in the state legislature felt obliged to do – go along with the budget deals that the Speaker and Senate President cut with Arnold, feeling like they had no choice.

How would the two San Diego politicians vote on issues dear to San Franciscans?

When he was a State Assemblyman in 2005, Vargas voted “no” on the marriage equality bill the first time. He voted “no” the second time it was on the Assembly floor that year, even after the United Farm Workers had endorsed it – and many other Latino legislators flipped their vote, allowing it to go to the Governor’s desk. After he was termed out of office, the Assembly voted again on gay marriage in 2007. This time, Mary Salas voted “yes.”

Of course, none of this is to say that Leland Yee shares Juan Vargas’ voting record – or agrees with the corporate donors who have taken an active interest in the State Senate race. But San Francisco activists too often judge their legislators not by what they do in Sacramento (which they know little about) or by which colleagues they support in other parts of the state (where they know nothing.) Instead, they judge them on who they support in local elections.

When Mark Leno challenged Carole Migden for her State Senate seat, few wondered if he’d make a better advocate for progressives in Sacramento. Instead, local progressives felt threatened – and some speculated it was part of a grand conspiracy to re-elect Gavin Newsom. When the League of Pissed Off Voters endorsed Migden, they went so far as to admit in their voter guide that it “really came down” to where the two stood on Propositions F and G.

Local issues are important, and it’s reasonable for San Francisco progressives to care passionately about where politicians stand on them. But state legislators don’t have a lot of sway in local matters (after all, how many voters make their ballot selections based on Leland Yee’s endorsement?) The far more relevant questions are whether they act as progressives in Sacramento, and which among their colleagues do they offer support.

The San Diego race may be 500 miles from San Francisco, and a million miles from the consciousness of local progressives. But it speaks volumes about Leland Yee, a man who wishes to be our next Mayor.

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