San Francisco county Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval, running to unseat incumbent superior court Judge Thomas Mellon Jr., seems to have harnessed the Democratic surge for President-elect Barack Obama. As of 12:20 a.m. Wednesday morning, he was besting Mellon 54.8 to 44.6 percent.
Sandoval and local observers talk about the race, after the jump.
The scrum between Sandoval and Mellon began in January, when Sandoval declared his candidacy. Sandoval, a Democrat who is termed out of office, ran a highly politicized campaign to oust Mellon, imploring voters to "stop the Republican takeover" of the courts and urging them to give Mellon the boot because he was appointed by a Republican governor. Sandoval's Web site declares that San Francisco's bench fails to represent the city, because "thirty percent of the judges are Republicans, too many come from large corporate law firms, [and] just two out of 67 judges and commissioners are Hispanic."
Mellon, meanwhile, made the case that politics of the Sandoval variety have no place in a court of law. He touted his 14 years of experience on the bench and pointed out that San Francisco's own bar association rated Sandoval "not qualified" to hold a judgeship.
Tuesday night, Sandoval (who skipped his own scheduled election night celebration and ended up staying home) deflected concerns about his partisan campaign, saying he would not respond to "questions where I'm picking fights."
"I wish that people would focus on the issues that I've tried to campaign on, including the incredible lack of diversity in the San Francisco bench and on the courts across California," he said.
He said the bench needs judges from "all walks of life," and that attorneys had raised concerns to him about Mellon's abilities during the campaign, adding that The Recorder had declined to endorse a candidate in the race.
"Judges are apointed, not annointed, and there has to be some accountability in the system for judges who are not performing to the standards all San Francsiscans would expect," he said.
Mellon did not return a call seeking comment.
Assistant Presiding Judge James McBride greeted the news of Sandoval's likely victory with equanimity: "I supported Tom Mellon, but the voters have spoken, and if Gerardo Sandoval is elected we will move on, the court will move on, it's not made up of individuals, it's made up of judges, he'll join it and he'll be good or he won't," he said.
Mellon's campaign calculus seems to have been that incumbency would speak for itself: Voters would lean for him when they arrived at the polls and saw that they must choose between a sitting judge and a politician. But Sandoval vigorously tried to narrow the incumbency gap. Overall, the supervisor out-raised Mellon by roughly $259,000 to $148,000, and a parsing of their respective finance disclosures shows that Sandoval was able to mount a far stronger campaign in the closing months.
Between July 1 and Sept. 30, the final disclosure period, Sandoval spent more than 40 times as much on his campaign as Mellon did, approximately $113,000 to $2,638, filings show. He was able to land his name on a large number of slate mailers, while Mellon did not, or could not, promote his endorsement by the San Francisco Chronicle.
Local pollster David Latterman, who is not affiliated with either campaign, said he was struck by Mellon's lacking campaign.
"I'm surprised by how little activity I saw out of Mellon, considering he was in for a close race," Latterman said.
"At the end of the day, the dude's got to hang on to this seat...if he by definition is handcuffed by being the incumbent, then maybe they need to revisit rules [of judicial ethics] or something, because it sucks when an candidate can come after a judge, and the judge has to hold back when [someone] is coming after him," he said.
— Evan Hill