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"I'm With David." "No, I'm With David."

Melissa Griffin Caen | October 28, 2014 | Story Politics

As the 2014 political circus nears its grand finale, San Francisco magazine peers under the big top. Here, a series of insider stories about issues, candidates, and races both important and absurd. Check back between now and November 4, as more stories go online.

Monday, Oct. 20: Consultants for Chaos
Tuesday, Oct. 21: Yes We Ken
Wednesday, Oct. 22: Soda Makes You Fat & I'm Ok With That
Thursday, Oct. 23: Republicans for Ro
Friday, Oct. 24: Cars Are People Too
Monday, Oct. 27: Build, Berkeley, Build
Tuesday, Oct. 28: I'm With David. No, I'm With David
Wednesday, Oct. 29: Pissed & Proud

To listen to the David Campos and David Chiu campaigns, you’d think that their race for state assembly was a contest between a conservative further to the right than Attila the Hun and a lunatic lefty on the order of Karl Marx. “I think this election is about the soul of the city,” says Nate Allbee, Campos’s campaign manager, with palpable earnestness. “If you like how things are now, then David Chiu is your guy.” For his part, Chiu blasts his rival as someone who “scoff[s] at those who are trying to bring folks together.”

Listening to the rhetoric, you’d never guess that the two candidates for San Francisco’s District 17 share more than a first name, a last initial, a Harvard education, a party affiliation, and a seat on the city’s Board of Supervisors. Their politics are almost identical too: Both men are more or less mainstream San Francisco liberals who support affordable housing, decry the city’s increasing income inequality, and are dedicated to preserving its ethnic and class diversity. When I moderated a debate between the candidates back in March, it was a struggle to find any significant political differences between them. “They’re actually not going to vote differently,” says Corey Cook, professor of political science at the University of San Francisco. “But they’re going to frame issues differently.” The question, it seems, is: Given the choice of two progressive Democrats who are likely to vote the same way on almost every issue that comes up in the capitol, will San Francisco voters prefer an ideologue or an operator?

Campos is hoping for the former. On issue after issue, the District 9 supervisor has made his stand on principle, disdaining compromise. Last month, he voted against Chiu’s legislation to legalize short-term rental sites like Airbnb because it didn’t force the company to pay back taxes. His heart (and his political base) lies with the Google bus protesters: He voted against the usage fees that the city charges the buses (a bill also authored by Chiu) because he wanted an extensive environmental review to be conducted first. “If David Campos is elected, [city hall] will need to start paying attention to affordability and working people,” says Allbee. The unstated corollary: If Chiu is elected, it won’t.

Chiu, for his part, portrays himself as someone who gets things done and negotiates with all sorts of groups to pass scads of legislation. His campaign spokesperson, Nicole Derse, points out that it’s one thing to govern in the GOP-free, 11-member Board of Supervisors and quite another to navigate among 79 other assemblymembers. “Whoever goes to Sacramento is going to be a progressive,” she says. “But we need someone who can go into Sacramento and actually lead.”

That last part appears to be a not-so-subtle dig not just at Campos but at current assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who has endorsed Campos and whose tenure has been a rocky ride, with some legislative successes but nearly as many overreaches. The Chiu campaign’s implication: Campos will waste resources, burn bridges, and alienate moderates, just like his predecessor.

So while Campos claims to be fighting the status quo in San Francisco, Chiu claims he’ll fight the status quo in Sacramento. And both men are furiously fighting each other, in a campaign that has been a lot nastier and more personal than many expected. On the campaign trail, Campos has taken to asking, “Which Chiu is going to Sacramento?” Allbee says that Chiu “bends whatever way the wind blows.” Meanwhile, a source close to the Chiu campaign says that Campos’s intense dislike of Chiu is fed by a sense of entitlement. “He thinks he’s the progressive god of progressivism, and he’s mad that someone is getting in his way.” Chiu makes no secret of the fact that he views Campos as a lazy noisemaker, content to protest and throw grenades while the real legislators do the actual work. As of press time, the most recent polling placed the two candidates at 37 percent each: a dead tie.

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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