San Francisco state Sen. Mark Leno's fake campaign generating real money for Democrats 

click to enlarge State Sen. Mark Leno is using money raised through his “placeholder” lieutenant governor campaign to benefit the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates. - GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO
  • Getty Images File Photo
  • State Sen. Mark Leno is using money raised through his “placeholder” lieutenant governor campaign to benefit the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates.

In early February, state Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco quietly opened a campaign account called Mark Leno for Lieutenant Governor 2018. He told me he wouldn’t run when the position is next up for election in 2014 because he plans to serve out his current and final term as state senator, which ends in 2016.

So, does he plan to run in 2018? “I don’t want to foreclose any possibility,” he says. In other words, maybe. But why launch a campaign committee if you don’t plan to run?

In fact, it happens all the time. Sometimes such committees allow a person to raise funds to help others, thereby increasing one’s own stature.

For example, because Leno was a wildly popular Democrat running for re-election to the state Senate in San Francisco, he did not require a massive machine to win in 2012. So much of the money donated to his campaign was doled out to the Democratic Party and other Democrats running for office who needed assistance — unlike Leno. He gave $182,500 to the party and the maximum $3,900 contribution to nine other candidates such as former Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, who narrowly lost to fellow Democrat Richard Bloom, and state Sen. Jim Beall, who beat fellow Democrat Joe Coto by less than 40,000 votes.

Lest you think Leno is alone in this practice, I assure you that candidates for both parties who are running in safe elections frequently contribute large amounts of campaign cash to the party itself and struggling fellow candidates. For example, the Committee to Re-Elect Bill Emmerson for Senate 2012 gave more than $80,000 to the California Republican Party.

However, once Leno is termed out, there can be no Leno for Senate 2016 committee, so an alternative vehicle is necessary. Here again, he is not alone. “So-and-so for lieutenant governor” is a fashionable placeholder. For instance, Assembly Speaker John Perez, who is termed out in 2014, has created such a committee. But since that time, he has said he’s really more interested in education, so he has formed an additional committee to run for state superintendent of public instruction in 2018. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who also is termed out in 2014, has collected at least $26,500 with his lieutenant governor committee — already contributing $1,050 to the state Democratic Party.

The fact that Steinberg is leaving the Senate in 2014 means that its members will select a new president pro tem. As the existing chairman of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Committee, Leno has got to be on the short list to replace Steinberg.

But while Leno may be shrewdly using his lieutenant governor committee to help out fellow Democrats and raise his stature in the Senate, I hope he really does run for lieutenant governor in 2018. While I don’t mind someone using the committee as a placeholder, it would be nice to have a lieutenant governor who didn’t consider the job itself a placeholder.

Melissa Griffin’s column runs each Thursday and Sunday. She also appears Mondays in “Mornings with Melissa” at  6:45 a.m. on KPIX (Ch. 5). Email her at mgriffin@sfexaminer.com.

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Melissa Griffin

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