Endorsements 2010: San Francisco candidates

SUPERVISOR, DISTRICT 2


JANET REILLY


Frankly, we were a little surprised by the Janet Reilly who came in to give us her pitch as a District 2 supervisorial candidate. The last time we met with her, she was a strong progressive running for state Assembly as an advocate of single-payer health care. She was challenging Fiona Ma from the left, and easily won our endorsement.


Now she’s become a fiscal conservative — somewhat more in synch with her district, perhaps, but not an encouraging sign. Reilly seems to realize that there’s a $500 million budget deficit looming, but she won’t support any of the tax measures on the ballot. She’s against the hotel tax. She’s against the real estate transfer tax on high-end properties. She’s against the local car tax. She opposed Sup. David Chiu’s business tax plan that would have shifted the burden from small to larger businesses (even though it was clear from our interview that she didn’t understand it).


She talked about merging some of the nonprofits that get city money, about consolidating departments, and better management — solutions that might stem a tiny fraction of the red ink. But she wouldn’t even admit that the limited tax burden on the very rich was part of San Francisco’s budget problem.


Her main proposal for creating jobs is more tax credits for biotech, life sciences, and digital media and more public-private partnerships.


It’s too bad, because Reilly’s smart, and she’s far, far better than Mark Farrell, the candidate that the current incumbent, Michela Alioto-Pier, is backing. We wish she’d be realistic about the fiscal nightmare she would inherit as a supervisor.


On the positive side, she’s a strong supporter of public power and she has good connections to the progressive community. Unlike Alioto-Pier, she’d be accessible, open-minded, and willing to work with the progressive majority on the board. That would be a dramatic change, so we’ll give her the nod.


We were also impressed with Abraham Simmons, a federal prosecutor who has spent time researching city finance on the Civil Grand Jury. But he supports sit-lie, Prop. B and Prop. S, and opposes most new tax proposals and needs more political seasoning.


 


DISTRICT 4


NO ENDORSEMENT


We’ve always wanted to like Carmen Chu. She’s friendly, personable, intelligent, and well-spoken. But on the issues, she’s just awful. Indeed, we can’t think of a single significant vote on which she’s been anything but a call-up loyalist for Mayor Newsom. She even opposed the public power measure, Prop. H, that had the support of just about everyone in town except hardcore PG&E allies.


She’s running unopposed, and will be reelected. But we can’t endorse her.


 


DISTRICT 6


1. DEBRA WALKER


2. JANE KIM


3. GLENDON “ANNA CONDA” HYDE


CORRECTION: In our original version of this endorsement, we said that Jim Meko supports the sit-lie ordinance. That was an error, and it’s corrected below.


A year ago, this race was artist and activist Debra Walker’s to lose. Most of the progressive community was united behind her candidacy; she’d been working on district issues for a couple of decades, fighting the loft developers during the dot-com boom years and serving on the Building Inspection Commission. Then School Board member Jane Kim decided to enter the race, leaving the left divided, splitting resources that might have gone to other critical district races — and potentially helping to put the most pro-business downtown candidate, Theresa Sparks, in a better position to win.


Now we’ve got something of a mess — a fragmented and sometimes needlessly divisive progressive base in a district that’s key to holding progressive control of the board. And while neither of the two top progressive candidates is actively pursuing a credible ranked-choice voting strategy (Kim has, unbelievably, endorsed James Keys instead of Walker, and Walker has declined to endorse anyone else), we’re setting aside our concern over Kim’s ill-advised move and suggesting a strategy that is most likely to keep the seat Chris Daly has held for the past 10 years from falling to downtown control.


Walker is far and away our first choice. She understands land use and housing — the clear central issues in the district — and has well thought-out positions and proposals. She says that the current system of inclusionary housing — pressing market-rate developers to include a few units of below-market-rate housing with their high-end condos — simply doesn’t work. She supports an immediate affordable housing bond act and a long-term real estate transfer tax high enough to fund a steady supply of housing for the city’s workforce. She told us the city ought to be looking at planning issues from the perspective of what San Francisco needs, not what developers want to build. She’s in favor of progressive taxes and a push for local hiring. We’re happy to give her our first-place ranking.


Jane Kim has been a great SF School Board member and has always been part of the progressive community. But she only moved into District 6 a year and a half ago — about when she started talking about running for supervisor (and she told us in her endorsement interview that “D6 is a district you can run in without having lived there a long time.”) She still hasn’t been able to explain why she parachuted in to challenge an experienced progressive leader she has no substantive policy disagreements with.


That said, on the issues, Kim is consistently good. She is in favor of indexing affordable housing to market-rate housing and halting new condo development if the mix gets out of line. She’s for an affordable housing bond. She supports all the tax measures on this ballot. She’s a little softer on congestion pricing and extending parking-meter hours, but she’s open to the ideas. She supports police foot patrols not just as a law-enforcement strategy, but to encourage small businesses. She’d be a fine vote on the board. And while we’re sympathetic to the Walker supporters who would prefer that we not give Kim the credibility and exposure of an endorsement, the reality is that she’s one of two leading progressives and would be better on the board than the remaining candidates.


Hyde, a dynamic young drag queen performer, isn’t going to win. But he’s offered some great ideas and injected some fun and energy into the race. Hyde talks about creating safe injection sites for IV drug users to reduce the risk of overdoses and the spread of disease. He points out that a lot of young people age out of the foster-care system and wind up on the streets, and he’s for continuum housing that would let these young people transition to jobs or higher education. He talks about starting a co-op grocery in the Tenderloin. He proposes bus-only lanes throughout the district and wants to charge large vehicles a fee to come into the city. He’s a big advocate of nightlife and the arts. He lacks experience and needs more political seasoning, but we’re giving him the third-place nod to encourage his future involvement.


Progressives are concerned about Theresa Sparks, a transgender activist and former business executive who now runs the city’s Human Rights Commission. She did a (mostly) good job on the Police Commission. She’s experienced in city government and has good financial sense. But she’s just too conservative for what remains a very progressive district. Sparks isn’t a big fan of seeking new revenue for the city telling us that “I disagree that we’ve made all the cuts that we can” — even after four years of brutal, bloody, all-cuts budgets. She doesn’t support the hotel tax and said she couldn’t support Sup. David Chiu’s progressive business tax because it would lead to “replacing private sector jobs with public sector jobs” — even though the city’s own economic analysis shows that’s just not true. She supports Newsom’s sit-lie law.


Sparks is the candidate of the mayor and downtown, and would substantially shift the balance of power on the board. She’s also going to have huge amounts of money behind her. It’s important she be defeated.


Jim Meko, a longtime neighborhood and community activist, has good credentials and some solid ideas. He was a key player in the western SoMa planning project and helped come up with a truly progressive land-use program for the neighborhood. But he supports Prop. B and is awfully cranky about local bars and nightlife.


James Keys, who has the support of Sup. Chris Daly and was an intern in Daly’s office, has some intriguing (if not terribly practical) ideas, like combining the Sheriff’s Department and the Police Department and making Muni free). But in his interview, he demonstrated a lack of understanding of the issues facing the district and the city.


So we’re going with a ranked-choice strategy: Walker first, Kim second, Hyde third. And we hope Kim’s supporters ignore their candidate’s endorsement of Keys, put Walker as their second choice, and ensure that they don’t help elect Sparks.


 


DISTRICT 8


RAFAEL MANDELMAN


This is by far the clearest and most obvious choice on the local ballot. And it’s a critical one, a chance for progressives to reclaim the seat that once belonged to Harvey Milk and Harry Britt.


Mandelman, a former president of the Milk Club, is running as more than a queer candidate. He’s a supporter of tenants rights, immigrants’ rights, and economic and social justice. He also told us he believes “local government matters” — and that there are a lot of problems San Francisco can (and has to) solve on its own, without simply ducking and blaming Sacramento and Washington.


Mandelman argues that the public sector has been starved for years and needs more money. He agrees that there’s still a fair amount of bloat in the city budget — particularly management positions — but that even after cleaning out the waste, the city will still be far short of the money it needs to continue providing pubic services. He’s calling for a top-to-bottom review of how the city gets revenue, with the idea of creating a more progressive tax structure.


He’s an opponent of sit-lie and a supporter of the sanctuary city ordinance. He supports tenants rights and eviction protection. He’s had considerable experience (as a member of the Building Inspection Commission and Board of Appeals and as a lawyer who advises local government agencies) and would make an excellent supervisor.


Neither of the other two contenders make our endorsement cut. Rebecca Prozan is a deputy city attorney who told us she would be able to bring the warring factions on the board together. She has some interesting ideas — she’d like to see the city take over foreclosed properties and turn them into housing for teachers, cops, and firefighters — and she’s opposed to sit-lie. But she’s weak on tenant issues (she told us there’s nothing anyone can do to stop the conversion of rental housing into tenancies-in-common), doesn’t seem to grasp the need for substantial new revenues to prevent service cuts, and doesn’t support splitting the appointments to key commissions between the mayor and the supervisors.


Scott Wiener, a deputy city attorney, is a personable guy who always takes our phone calls and is honest and responsive. He’s done a lot of good work in the district. But he’s on the wrong side of many issues, and on some things would be to the right of the incumbent, Sup. Bevan Dufty.


He doesn’t support public power (which Dufty does). He says that a lot of the city’s budget problems can’t be solved until the state gets its own house in order (“we can’t tax our way out of this”) and favors a budget balanced largely by further cuts. In direct contrast to Mandelman, Wiener said San Franciscans “need to lower our expectations for government.” He wants broad-based reductions in almost all city agencies except Muni, “core” public health services, and public safety. He doesn’t support any further restrictions on condo conversions or TICs. And he has the support of the Small Property Owners Association — perhaps the most virulently anti-tenant and anti-rent control group in town.


This district once gave rise to queer political leaders who saw themselves and their struggles as part of a larger progressive movement. That’s drifted away of late — and with Mandelman, there’s a chance to bring it back.


 


DISTRICT 10


1. TONY KELLY


2. DEWITT LACY


3. CHRIS JACKSON


District 10 is the epicenter of new development in San Francisco, the place where city planners want to site as many as 40,000 new housing units, most of them high-end condos, at a cost of thousands of blue-collar jobs. The developers are salivating at the land-rush opportunities here — and the next supervisor not only needs to be an expert in land-use and development politics, but someone with the background and experience to thwart the bad ideas and direct and encourage the good ones.


There’s no shortage of candidates — 22 people are on the ballot, and at least half a dozen are serious contenders. Two — Steve Moss and Lynette Sweet — are very bad news. And one of the key priorities for progressives is defeating the big-money effort that downtown, the police, and the forces behind the Van Ness Avenue megahospital proposal are dumping into the district to elect Moss.


Our first choice is Tony Kelly, who operates Thick Description Theater and who for more than a decade has been directly involved in all the major neighborhood issues. He has a deep understanding of what the district is facing: 4,100 of the 5,300 acres in D10 have been rezoned or put under the Redevelopment Agency in the past 10 years. Planners envision as many as 100,000 new residents in the next 10 years. And the fees paid by developers will not even begin to cover the cost of the infrastructure and services needed to handle that growth.


And Kelly has solutions: The public sector will have to play a huge role in affordable housing and infrastructure, and that money should come from higher development fees — and from places like the University of California, which has a huge operation in the district and pays no property taxes. Kelly wants to set up a trigger so that if goals for affordable housing aren’t met by a set date, the market-rate development stops. He supports the revenue measures on the ballot but thinks we should go further. He opposes the pension-reform measure, Prop. B, but notes that 75 percent of the city’s pension problems come from police, fire, and management employees. He wants the supervisors to take over the Redevelopment Agency. He’s calling for a major expansion of open space and parkland in the district. And he thinks the city should direct some of the $3 billion in short-term accounts (now all with the Bank of America) to local credit unions or new municipal bank that could invest in affordable housing and small business. He’s a perfect fit for the job.


DeWitt Lacy is a civil-rights lawyer and a relative newcomer to neighborhood politics. He speaks passionately about the need for D10 to get its fair share of the city’s services and about a commitment to working-class people.


Lacy is calling for an immediate pilot program with police foot patrols in the high-crime areas of the district. He’s for increasing the requirements for developers to build affordable housing and wants to cut the payroll tax for local businesses that hire district residents.


Lacy’s vision for the future includes development that has mixed-use commuter hubs with shopping and grocery stores as well as housing. He supports the tax measures on the ballot and would be willing to extend parking meter hours — but not parking fines, which he calls an undue burden on low-income people.


He’s an outspoken foe of sit-lie and of gang injunctions, and with his background handling police abuse lawsuits, he would have a clear understanding of how to approach better law-enforcement without intimidating the community. He lacks Kelly’s history, experience, and knowledge in neighborhood issues, but he’s eminently qualified and would make a fine supervisor.


Chris Jackson, who worked at the San Francisco Labor Council and serves on the Community College Board, is our third choice. While it’s a bit unfortunate that Jackson is running for higher office only two years after getting elected to the college board, he’s got a track record and good positions on the issues. He talks of making sure that blue-collar jobs don’t get pushed out by housing, and suggested that the shipyard be used for ship repair. He wants to see the city mandate that landlords rent to people with Section 8 housing vouchers. He supports the tax measures on the ballot, but also argues that the city has 60 percent more managers than it had in 2000 and wants to bring that number down. He thinks the supervisors should take over Redevelopment, which should become “just a financing agency for affordable housing.” He wants to relocate the stinky sewage treatment plant near Third Street and Evans Avenue onto one of the piers and use the area for a transit hub. He’s still relatively unseasoned, but he has a bright political future.


Eric Smith, a biodiesel activist, is an impressive candidate too. But while his environmental credentials are good, he lacks the breadth of knowledge that our top three choices offer. But we’re glad he’s in the race and hope he stays active in community politics.


Malia Cohen has raised a lot of money and (to our astonishment) was endorsed No. 2 by the Democratic Party, but she’s by no means a progressive, particularly on tenant issues — she told us that limiting condo conversions is an infringement of property rights. And she’s way too vague on other issues.


Moss is the candidate of the big developers and the landlords, and the Chamber of Commerce is dumping tens of thousands of dollars into getting him elected. He’s got some good environmental and energy ideas — he argues that all major new developments should have their own energy distribution systems — but on the major issues, he’s either on the wrong side or (more often) can’t seem to take a stand. He said he is “still mulling over” his stand on sit-lie. He supports Sanctuary City in theory, but not the actual measure Sup. David Campos was pushing to make the policy work. He’s not sure if he likes gang injunctions or not. He only moved back to the district when he decided to run for supervisor. He’s way too conservative for the district and would be terrible on the board.


Lynette Sweet, a BART Board member, has tax problems (and problems explaining them) and wouldn’t even come to our office for an endorsement interview. The last thing D10 needs is a supervisor who’s not accountable and unwilling to talk to constituents and the press.


So we’re going with Kelly, Lacy, and Jackson as the best hope to keep D10 from becoming a district represented by a downtown landlord candidate.


 


SAN FRANCISCO BOARD OF EDUCATION


MARGARET BRODKIN


KIM-SHREE MAUFAS


HYDRA MENDOZA


Three seats are up on the School Board, and three people will get elected. And it’s a contested race, and in situations like that, we always try to endorse a full slate.


This fall, it was, to put it mildly, a challenge.


It’s disturbing that we don’t have three strong progressive candidates with experience and qualifications to oversee the San Francisco Unified School District. But it seems to be increasingly difficult to find people who want to — and can afford to — devote the time to what’s really a 40-hour-a-week position that pays $500 a month. The part-time school board is an anachronism, a creature of a very different economic and social era. With the future of the next generation of San Franciscans at stake, it’s time to make the School Board a full-time job and pay the members a decent salary so that more parents and progressive education advocates can get involved in one of the most important political jobs in the city.


That said, we’ve chosen the best of the available candidates. It’s a mixed group, made up of people who don’t support each other and aren’t part of anyone’s slate. But on balance, they offer the best choices for the job.


This is not a time when the board needs radical change. Under Superintendent Carlos Garcia, the local public schools are making huge strides. Test scores are up, enrollment is increasing, and San Francisco is, by any rational measure, the best big-city public school district in California. We give considerable credit for that to the progressives on the board who got rid of the irascible, secretive, and hostile former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and replaced her with Garcia. He’s brought stability and improvement to the district, and is implementing a long-term plan to bring all the schools up to the highest levels and go after the stubborn achievement gap.


Yet any superintendent and any public agency needs effective oversight. One of the problems with the district under Ackerman was the blind support she got from school board members who hired her; it was almost as if her allies on the board were unable to see the damage she was doing and unable to hold her accountable.


Our choices reflect the need for stability — and independence. We are under no illusions — none of our candidates are perfect. But as a group, we believe they can work to preserve what the district is doing right and improve on policies that aren’t working.


Kim-Shree Maufas has been a staunch progressive on the board. She got into a little trouble last year when the San Francisco Chronicle reported that she’d been using a school district credit card for personal expenses. That’s not a great move, but she never actually took public money since she paid back the district. Maufas said she thought she could use the card as long as she reimbursed the district for her own expenses; the rules are now clear and she’s had no problems since. We don’t consider this a significant enough failure in judgment to prevent her from continuing to do what she’s been doing: serving as an advocate on the board for low-income kids and teachers.


Maufas is a big supporter of restorative justice and is working for ways to reduce suspensions and expulsions. She wants to make sure advanced placement and honors classes are open to anyone who can handle the coursework. She supports the new school assignment process (as do all the major candidates), although she acknowledges that there are some potential problems. She told us she thinks the district should go back to the voters for a parcel tax to supplement existing funding for the schools.


Margaret Brodkin is a lightening rod. In fact, much of the discussion around this election seems to focus on Brodkin. Since she entered the race, she’s eclipsed all the other issues, and there’s been a nasty whisper campaign designed to keep her off the board.


We’ve had our issues with Brodkin. When she worked for Mayor Newsom, she was part of a project that brought private nonprofits into city recreation centers to provide services — at a time when unionized public employees of the Recreation and Parks Department were losing their jobs. It struck us as a clear privatization effort by the Newsom administration, and it raised a flag that’s going to become increasingly important in the school district: there’s a coming clash between people who think private nonprofits can provide more services to the schools and union leaders who fear that low-paid nonprofit workers will wind up doing jobs now performed by unionized district staff. And Brodkin’s role in the Newsom administration — and her background in the nonprofit world — is certainly ground for some concern.


But Brodkin is also by far the most qualified person to run for San Francisco school board in years, maybe decades. She’s a political legend in the city, the person who is most responsible for making issues of children and youth a centerpiece of the progressive agenda. In her years as director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, she tirelessly worked to make sure children weren’t overlooked in the budget process and was one of the authors of the initiative that created the Children’s Fund. She’s run a nonprofit, run a city department, and is now working on education issues.


She’s a feisty person who can be brusque and isn’t always conciliatory — but those characteristics aren’t always bad. Sup. Chris Daly used his anger and passion to push for social justice on the Board of Supervisors and, despite some drawbacks, he’s been an effective public official.


And Brodkin is full of good ideas. She talks about framing what a 21st century education looks like, about creating community schools, about aligning after-school and summer programs with the academic curriculum. She wants the next school bond act to include a central kitchen, so local kids can get locally produced meals (the current lunch fare is shipped in frozen from out of state).


Brodkin needs to remember that there’s a difference between being a bare-knuckles advocate and a member of a functioning school board. But given her skills, experience, and lifetime in progressive causes, we’re willing to give her a chance.


We also struggled over endorsing Hydra Mendoza. She works for Mayor Newsom as an education advisor — and that’s an out-front conflict of interest. She’s a fan of Obama’s Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, whose policies are regressive and dangerous.


On the other hand, she cares deeply about kids and public education. She’s not a big supporter of charter schools (“I’ve yet to see a charter school that offers anything we can’t do ourselves,” she told us) and while she was on the wrong side of a lot of issues (like JROTC) early in her tenure, over the past two years she’s been a good School Board member.


There are several other candidates worth mentioning. Bill Barnes, an aide to Michela Alioto-Pier, is a good guy, a decent progressive — but has no experience in or direct connection to the public schools. Natasha Hoehn is in the education nonprofit world and speaks with all the jargon of the educrat, but her proposals and her stands on issues are vague. Emily Murase is a strong parent advocate with some good ideas, but she struck us as a bit too conservative (particularly on JROTC and charter schools.) Jamie Wolfe teaches at a private school but lacks any real constituency or experience in local politics and the education community.


So given a weak field with limited alternatives, we’re going with Maufas, Brodkin and Mendoza.


 


SAN FRANCISCO COMMUNITY COLLEGE BOARD


JOHN RIZZO


The San Francisco Community College District has been a mess for years, and it’s only now starting to get back on track. That’s the result of the election of a few progressive reformers — Milton Marks, Chris Jackson, and John Rizzo, who now have enough clout on the seven-member board to drag along a fourth vote when they need it.


But the litany of disasters they’ve had to clean up is almost endless. A chancellor (who other incumbent board members supported until the end) is now under indictment. Public money that was supposed to go to the district wound up in a political campaign. An out-of-control semiprivate college foundation has been hiding its finances from the public. The college shifted bond money earmarked for an arts center into a gigantic, expensive gym with a pool that the college can’t even pay to operate, so it’s leased out to a private high school across the street.


And the tragedy is that all three incumbents — two of whom should have stepped down years ago — are running unopposed.


With all the attention on the School Board and district elections, not one progressive — in fact, not one candidate of any sort — has stepped forward to challenge Anita Grier and Lawrence Wong. So they’ll get another term, and the reformers will have to continue to struggle.


We’re endorsing only Rizzo, a Sierra Club staffer who has been in the lead in the reform bloc. He needs to end up as the top vote-getter, which would put him in position to be the board president. Rizzo has worked to get the district’s finances and foundation under control and he richly deserves reelection.


 


BART BOARD OF DIRECTORS, DISTRICT 8


BERT HILL


It’s about time somebody mounted a serious challenge to James Fang, the only elected Republican in San Francisco and a member of one of the most dysfunctional public agencies in California. The BART Board is a mess, spending a fortune on lines that are hardly ever used and unable to work effectively with other transit agencies or control a police force that has a history of brutality and senseless killing.


Fang supports the suburban extensions and Oakland Airport connector, which make no fiscal or transportation sense. He’s ignored problems with the BART Police for 20 years. It’s time for him to leave office.


Bert Hill is a strong challenger. A professional cost-management executive, he understands that BART is operating on an old paradigm of carrying people from the suburbs into the city. “Before we go on building any more extensions,” he told us, “we should take care of San Francisco.” He wants the agency to work closely with Muni and agrees there’s a need for a BART sunshine policy to make the notoriously secretive agency more open to public scrutiny. We strongly endorse him.


 


ASSESSOR-RECORDER


PHIL TING


San Francisco needs an aggressive assessor who looks for every last penny that big corporations are trying to duck paying — but this is also a job that presents an opportunity for challenging the current property tax laws. Phil Ting’s doing pretty well with the first part — and unlike past assessors, is actually stepping up to the plate on the second. He’s been pushing a statewide coalition to reform Prop. 13 — and while it’s an uphill battle, it’s good to see a tax assessor taking it on. Ting has little opposition and will be reelected easily.


 


PUBLIC DEFENDER


JEFF ADACHI


Adachi’s done a great job of running the office that represents indigent criminal defendants. He’s been outspoken on criminal justice issues. Until this year, he was often mentioned as a potential progressive candidate for mayor.


That’s over now. Because Adachi decided (for reasons we still can’t comprehend) to join the national attack on public employees and put Prop. B on the ballot, he’s lost any hope of getting support for higher office from the left. And since the moderate and conservative forces will never be comfortable with a public defender moving up in the political world, Adachi’s not going anywhere anytime soon.


Which is fine. He’s doing well at his day job. We wish he’d stuck to it and not taken on a divisive, expensive, and ill-conceived crusade to cut health care benefits for city employees.


 


SAN FRANCISCO SUPERIOR COURT


SEAT 15


MICHAEL NAVA


To hear some of the brahmins of the local bench and bar tell it, the stakes in this election are immense — the independence of the judiciary hangs in the balance. If a sitting judge who is considered eminently qualified for the job and has committed no ethical or legal breaches can be challenged by an outsider who is seeking more diversity on the bench, it will open the floodgates to partisan hacks taking on good judges — and force judicial candidates to raise money from lawyers and special interests, thus undermining the credibility of the judiciary.


We are well aware of the problems of judicial elections around the country. In some states, big corporations that want to influence judges raise and spend vast sums on trial and appellate court races — and typically get their way. In Iowa, three judges who were willing to stand on principle and Constitutional law and declare same-sex marriage legal are facing what amounts to a well-funded recall effort. California is not immune — in more conservative counties, liberal judges face getting knocked off the bench by law-and-order types.


It’s a serious issue. It’s worth a series of hearings in the state Legislature, and it might be worth Constitutional change. Maybe trial-court elections should be eliminated. Maybe all judicial elections should have public campaign financing. But right now, it’s an elected office — at least in theory.


In practice, the vast majority of the judicial slots in California are filled by appointment. Judges serve for four-year terms but tend to retire or step down in midterm, allowing the governor to fill the vacancy. Unless someone files specifically to challenge an incumbent, typically appointed judge, that race never even appears on the ballot.


The electoral process is messy and political, and raising money is unseemly for a judicial officer. But the appointment process is hardly pure, either — and governors in California have, over the past 30 years, appointed the vast majority of the judges from the ranks of big corporate law firms and district attorney’s offices.


There are, of course, exceptions, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been better than his predecessor, Democrat Gray Davis. But overall, public interest lawyers, public defenders, and people with small community practices (and, of course, people who have no political strings to pull in Sacramento) have been frustrated. And it’s no surprise that some have sought to run against incumbents.


That’s what’s happening here. Michael Nava, a gay Latino who has been working as a research attorney for California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno, was going to run for a rare open seat this year, but the field quickly got crowded. So Nava challenged Richard Ulmer, a corporate lawyer appointed by Schwarzenegger who has been on the bench a little more than a year.


We will stipulate, as the lawyers say: Ulmer has done nothing wrong. From all accounts, he’s a fine judge (and before taking the bench, he did some stellar pro bono work fighting for reforms in the juvenile detention system). So there are two questions here: Should Nava have even filed to run against Ulmer? And since he did, who is the better candidate?


It’s important to understand this isn’t a case of special interests and that big money wanting to oust a judge because of his politics or rulings. Nava isn’t backed by any wealthy interest. There’s no clear parallel to the situations in other areas and other states where the judiciary is being compromised by electoral politics. Nava had every right to run — and has mounted an honest campaign that discusses the need for diversity on the bench.


Ulmer’s supporters note — correctly — that the San Francisco courts have more ethnic and gender diversity than any county in the state. And we’re not going to try to come to a conclusion here about how much diversity is enough.


But we will say that life experience matters, and judges bring to the bench what they’ve lived. Nava, who is the grandson of Mexican immigrants and the first person in his family to go to college, may have a different perspective on how low-income people of color are treated in the courts than a former Republican who spent his professional career in big law firms.


We were impressed by Nava’s background and knowledge — and by his interest in opening up the courts. He supports cameras in the courtrooms and allowing reporters to record court proceedings. He told us the meetings judges hold on court administration should be open to the public.


We’re willing to discuss whether judicial elections make sense. Meanwhile, judges who don’t like the idea of challenges should encourage their colleagues not to retire in midterm. If all the judges left at the end of a four-year term, there would be plenty of open seats and fewer challenges. But for now, there’s nothing in this particular election that makes us fear for the independence of the courts. Vote for Nava.


 


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