A Debate With Janet Reilly, Fiona Ma, Women Politicos, and More in SF’s AD 12

Running for a state Assembly seat in San Francisco isn’t like running anywhere else in the state. Unless there’s an open seat with no incumbent, they are rather placid affairs. When there’s an open seat, however, things get more interesting.
That’s because for all intents and purposes, the person who wins the AD seat in the June primary will likely serve in that seat for 6 years, barring a major catastrophe or an aspiration to even higher office. Thus, votes in San Francisco’s AD 12 have an extra special responsibility to check out Democrats Janet Reilly and Fiona Ma before they vote in the primary.
However, that’s easier said than done. It seems last week’s debate, sponsored by the San Francisco Women’s Political Committee is apparently the only chance voter’s had to hear these candidates talk to each other and to voters about why they deserve what will most likely be a 6 year term in the Assembly.
To her credit, Janet Reilly had suggested more debates where voters could hear the candidates, ask questions, and get past prepaid media to make their decision, but unfortunately, it seems Fiona Ma’s campaign, unwilling to “legitimize” their challenge, only agreed to this debate, which gave all the major questions of the debate in advance. Hmm.
I’m the first to suggest that the traditional debate format of 2minute1minutebackandforth doesn’t do much to get past the 30 second sound-bites of TV ads and the 8-second rule of mail pieces. That said, since nothing better is on the horizon, this is all I, and my fellow voters in AD 12, have to go on that won’t be an ad of some sort.
Since almost all the questions were given in advance, instead of really hearing much “debate” to compare, we had instead a chance to basically hear each candidate’s stump speech, separated into pieces. Most of the coverage of the event tended to focus on “stylistic” differences between the candidates – i.e. Ma grabbing the microphone and strolling out on the stage channeling her best Bill Clinton, while Reilly maintained a professional demeanor behind the provided podiums, for example.
And to be sure on many issues they did agree – both supported gubernatorial candidate Steve Westly’s idea to make community college free (like it was until about 20 years or so ago).
That said, the fact was there were some pretty big differences between the candidates on some pretty big issues. But you won’t hear them talk about these issues with voters and between each other in any debates before the primary where the questions were given in advance. Getting nervous? I am!

By the end of the forum there were very clear differences on key issues. For example: the death penalty. When asked if they supported it Reilly made it clear: no, she didn’t and spoke in favor of a 2 year moratorium on the death penalty until we can at least ensure no innocents are on death row. Ma made it clear she supported the death penalty with no reservations at all. Which is interesting, given that supposedly all San Franciscans think alike politically, according to the corporate newspapermen and talk show folk.
I would like to have heard more from both candidates on this issue since it isn’t going away anytime soon, and hear more about where their beliefs on this issue came from. Although it was clear Reilly was speaking from a point of view based on her morals and beliefs, Ma wasn’t as clear, since all I really heard was your typical hyperbolic campaign soundbite.
A more in-depth discussion that didn’t have all the questions in advance might have given us voters more insight, but the Ma campaign disagrees. I’ve never been comfortable with mass murderers OR the court system killing folks, so I’m of mixed views on this issue myself. But at least Reilly seemed to put something out there that was more than a soundbite which is worth giving points for.
Likewise, on many issues – supporting rent control in the nation’s most expensive city, Ellis Act evictions, the war in Iraq (!) and others, two things became clear. One was that Reilly came down on the issues more or less like I, and a lot of other people in and around town do, and made a point of discussing the health care disaster too many of us deal with. The other was that Ma’s answers always used anecdotes and well-prepared mini speeches, but often dodged the original question. The “walking away from the podium” gimmick got old really fast, too. I’m sure the consultants thought it was cool though.
Most frustrating, though was knowing that these two candidates would not be having a real discussion with themselves and the voters before the June primary, and that my chances of seeing them have a true conversation about what they share in common and what they differ would not be happening. Again, I gave points to Janet Reilly for at least being willing to step up and do so, while politico Fiona Ma chooses to speak at voters and her opponent, and not to them.
One thing that stuck out for me, though, and not the SF mainstream media, was a response to a question from the audience about what each candidate had done to support women’s political aspirations. Both answered with their various deeds, but one thing that jumped out at me was Fiona Ma’s praise of the SFWPC for its support of electing women to office and how she, as a supporter of said group did so in the past.
This raised a red flag with me right away. Now, I’m not in the habit of beating dead political horses after an election is over, but I was rather astonished at Ms. Ma’s statement. For you see, in fact the SFWPC’s record doesn’t match its rhetoric.
Don’t believe me? Well for just one example, take a look at their endorsement of a man in the 2004 race for Supervisor in District 7, even though there was a top quality woman running in the race.
Surprised? I remember I was, especially since it should have been a no-brainer for the SFWPC. I wanted to get a comment or reaction from someone in the group or from Ms. Ma, since she touted her support of the group and its goals.
However, I think by now I’m on some sort of “do not call” list for folks like this. That is too bad, since I’m sure there’s some spin someone can talk me through. It won’t convince me that women’s political organizations are no different than their male counterparts in being good about talking the talk, and not walking the walk. Which is all the more unfortunate since the professed goals of the SFWPC are so noble.
All in all, an interesting night. But it would behoove those of us who live in AD12 to ask more questions of both candidates on our own, and not just accept paid media and spin as we make our decisions in AD 12.

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