Ken Garcia: Sleepy Assembly contest becomes prime political theater

Until this week, the most curious thing about the Democratic Assembly race between Fiona Ma and Janet Reilly was that it had produced hardly a peep — in what was anticipated to be one of the most drag-down, all-out assaults on the local political front this year. Well, now we can stop waiting. You’d be advised to take one step back from the mud pit.

With both candidates out in full force trying to lock down the Democratic Party’s endorsement at its convention in Sacramento today, the campaign teams finally took off the gloves, lodging charges and counter-charges about smear tactics, phony endorsements, curious campaign contributions and worse — who really has the ties to any Republicans.

Ah, San Francisco politics — so scrupulous, so pure.

First came the “immaculate document” — a tax filing on the IRS Web site that listed Ma as the treasurer for Michael Rounds, the strident, anti-abortion GOP governor of South Dakota. That the 2002 document — which turns out, bizarrely, to have been the result of an IRS technical glitch — could turn up just days before the state convention was so slippery that both campaigns were all over the map questioning how it could magically materialize. That the Reilly campaign forwarded it to Democratic organizations, however, is unquestioned.

Then the Reilly campaign filed a formal complaint against a long-dormant political action committee with links to former state Senate leader John Burton — Ma’s former boss — which recently donated $33,000 to Ma’s campaign. Her campaign manager, Tom Hsieh Jr., told me that they have “absolutely no knowledge of what the PAC is or what they intend to do.” To which Eric Jaye, Reilly’s campaign chief, said — somewhat understandably — that that contention “strains credibility.”

The reason the Ma-Reilly face-off was thought to be a potentially explosive affair was that it was believed that it would involve Janet’s husband — notorious political consultant and failed mayoral candidate Clint Reilly — and the even more infamous political trickster Jack Davis. But Davis has not worked on Ma’s campaign, and last week the two archenemies Davis and Reilly met — at Davis’ request, according to Jaye — so that Davis could tell Reilly directly that “he’s not involved in any efforts to smear him and the Reilly family,” Jaye told me.

Clint has been very involved, however, though almost exclusively behind the scenes, so as not to make himself an issue in the campaign. And though that tactic has been generally successful so far, his stamp is all over the race — from Janet Reilly’s endorsements from many of the progressive candidates Clint has helped elect to the strong-arm tactics he’s used to try to get endorsements and money.

Sources tell me that Clint — still smarting over Mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision not to appoint Janet Reilly to a vacant supervisor’s seat several years back and the mayor’s stance to not endorse either candidate in the Assembly race — recently unleashed a lengthy vocal tirade at the mayor. Jaye, who was Newsom’s campaign manager and likely will be again, told me that Reilly was just “expressing some of his frustrations with the mayor’s administration.”

So if it sounds like desperation is creeping into both campaigns, it is. Ma’s big early lead, according to polls, appears to have dropped to the point where the candidates are neck and neck. The polite, dueling endorsement race that the candidates were waging has given way to pointed personal attacks about which campaign is dirtier.

Ma, in turn, is on the offensive about the mysterious document that created the perception of a link between her and a God- (and San Francisco-) fearing Republican. Reilly, meanwhile, seems to have gone to great pains to erase her ties to Republican Richard Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles, for whom she previously worked.

The denials are mounting, as are the accusations of dirty tricks — which means the race we all expected has finally arrived. By the time it’s all over — at least the June primary — each candidate will almost certainly have spent more than $1 million. And people are finally starting to pay attention, including a few surprised officials with the Internal Revenue Service and the governor of the great state of South Dakota.

And when the Fair Political Practices Commission gets involved — the agency that will review the PAC expenditure complaint — you know you’re getting close to the finish line.

At some point the candidates will get back to the issues. They promise.

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