Eager to return Sen. Barbara Boxer to Washington and anoint Jerry Brown as their gubernatorial candidate, California Democrats paid little attention over the weekend to a race that may be crucial to the party's future.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn are locked in a heated, under-the-radar primary battle for lieutenant governor, a job with few responsibilities but one that can become a stepping stone to the governor's seat. The position has remained vacant since Democrat John Garamendi won a seat in Congress last fall.
Newsom, best known for legalizing gay marriage in San Francisco before courts halted the unions, jumped into the primary at the last minute after dropping out of the governor's race last year. That has forced Hahn to campaign harder despite her family's strong name recognition in Southern California.
The endorsements each candidate has attracted have divided the party's political establishment and some of its core support groups, including gay activists and labor.
Hahn is backed by the California State Federation of Labor and the Service Employees International Union, which has 700,000 members in California. Newsom, meanwhile, has snapped up the support of the powerful California Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers union and among the most powerful players in Sacramento.
Newsom also lined up the endorsements of fellow political heavyweights from San Francisco, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Hahn has support from other party standard-bearers, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
She also been endorsed by Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the Los Angeles Lakers star turned developer, and former state Sen. Sheila Kuehl of Santa Monica, a forceful advocate for gays and lesbians during her time in the Legislature.
The split, which falls partly along north-south geographic lines, foreshadows a tight race in June, one that could be the closest on the Democratic ballot.
Hahn, 58, is the sister of former Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn and the daughter of former Los Angeles County Supervisor Ken Hahn, giving her a political pedigree with deep roots in Southern California. She said she would be better for the party because she could deliver the vote from Los Angeles County, by far the state's most populous voting region, and resonate with female voters.
"I'm making the case that having a woman from Southern California on the ticket helps Jerry Brown in November," Hahn said during the weekend convention. "And I think these Democrats are really focused on re-electing Barbara Boxer and electing Jerry Brown."
Newsom, 42, said he would bring an outsider's perspective to Sacramento.
On Saturday, he greeted delegates walking to the convention hall and handed out muffins from Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles nonprofit that diffuses gang membership with job training. Newsom hosted a concert Friday night featuring singer Lisa Loeb and Benji Madden of the rock band Good Charlotte above the Grammy Museum at LA Live, while Hahn supporters hosted an evening of martinis and chocolates.
Hahn has taken the more aggressive approach of the two candidates, criticizing Newsom for jumping in late and complaining about his fundraising. Hahn, who has served for nine years on Los Angeles City Council, said she filed as a candidate for lieutenant governor the moment Garamendi vacated his seat.
"I've actually been running for this since it was open, unlike my opponent who really had no interest in lieutenant governor, made fun of it, dismissed it to the press, told people he didn't even know what the job did," she said. "I think his intentions are very clear."
Newsom responded to suggestions that he was shopping for political office by calling it "unfortunate." He noted his nearly two decades of public service in San Francisco, which has universal health care for city residents and the highest minimum wage law in the country.
"I'm not running against her; I'm running for lieutenant governor," Newsom said this weekend. "I'm running on a platform of real reform."
Campaign finance records show the two roughly even in the amount of cash each has on hand -- Hahn with $265,000 and Newsom with $255,600 as of March 22.
Hahn filed a complaint against Newsom with the state Fair Political Practices Commission, saying he had an unfair advantage after having courted donors as a gubernatorial candidate, which gave him access to some of the state's deep-pocketed political contributors. Agency Executive Director Roman Porter said the commission found Newsom did nothing wrong because he did not transfer money from one account to another.
"It may be legal, but I think it's unethical," Hahn said.
Whichever Democrat wins the primary will likely face state Sen. Abel Maldonado in November. The Santa Maria Republican has been nominated by Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger to fill Garamendi's seat, but the Legislature has yet to confirm him. State Sen. Sam Aanestad of Grass Valley also is competing on the GOP ticket.
Should Brown win the governor's race in November, Democrats will have to contemplate the kind of candidate they want to succeed him. Brown, who was governor of California in the late 1970s and early 1980s, recently celebrated his 72nd birthday.
In addition to being California's head of state in the absence of the governor, the lieutenant governor serves on the California State University Board of Trustees, which sets student fees, the governing board of the University of California Board of Regents and the State Lands Commission, which has a say over a wide array of issues, including offshore oil drilling.
Newsom and Hahn made the rounds at convention caucus meetings Saturday and sought the endorsement of party insiders, although neither reached the 60 percent threshold that would give a candidate the party's endorsement, party spokesman Tenoch Flores said. Newsom captured 52 percent, compared with 42.6 percent for Hahn.
"It's really livened up this convention, and I think it's really allowed me to talk to delegates that I don't know and make my case," Hahn said in an interview. "So no matter what happens, it's been good for me."