Rod McLeod’s Political Experiment: Can you win without money?

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San Francisco lawyer shows how to be above it all—spend practically nothing.

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By Emil Guillermo

Rod McLeod–an accomplished trial lawyer and partner at one of the world’s biggest firms–is running on Tuesday for a Superior Court judgeship in the City and County of San Francisco.

But he doesn’t want to be bought and sold like a common politician.

To McLeod, that would be unseemly.

He felt that way when I first wrote about him. Now with days before the election he still feels confident he’s done the right thing.

McLeod has spent practically nothing in his electoral pursuit. Compared to two of his opponents who have spent in excess of $100,000, McLeod has spent under $1,500 of his own money in the race.

He’s decided to take zero campaign contributions in order to run as a truly objective and impartial individual, beholden to no one, especially those who might expect that donations come with strings attached.

“I don’t want to be the best judge money can buy,” said McLeod, a native San Franciscan and American Filipino, who went to Saint Ignatius High School, and earned his law degree at UC Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law.

Personally, I’ve been good friends with McLeod for nearly 30 years, and I can say he never takes the easy way out.  I’ve known him as a man of uncompromised principle who stands up for what he believes in—even if it could hurt him.

And it has.

At one time, McLeod was considered a rising star in local San Francisco politics after his appointment to a vacant spot on the city’s Board of Education in the ‘80s.  Winning the seat outright in an open election should have been a cinch, except for his unwavering decision to keep his children in Catholic schools.

That glitch was enough to send McLeod back into the private sector to focus on his stellar legal career (he’s currently a partner at Jones and Day).  Not exactly a hard fall. But definitely, it was the public’s loss. McLeod, who was in the Army for over a dozen years as a paratrooper, has always been ready to serve.  But when I last saw him, the plan was for an early retirement.

So in a way, McLeod’s last minute decision to run for the position of retired Judge Wallace Douglas was a real surprise.  It’s also a pay cut.

What wasn’t a surprise was McLeod’s campaign approach.

“Judges shouldn’t be for sale,” McLeod said.

San Francisco is different from other counties where races for judge can cost just a few thousand dollars.

McLeod questions his opponents who have already raised more than $100,000 each. What’s that money buy?  A bit more than cardboard signs.

When politicians like Barack Obama fly in with their hand out to raise cash, donors give mightily because they believe money buys access and influence. Want to get your pet issues on the radar? Write a check, get an advocate.

What should be a donor’s expectation in a judges’ race? What equates to access to justice? We all should have access already. But if someone gives more do you get more justice?  When you go before him, will the new judge quickly bang the gavel and say, “Not guilty”? ( It may save in court time, but let’s hope the judge recuses himself before that happens).

Normally in hotly contested judgeship races, the victor need only promise to be tough on crime.

But Superior Court judges do civil as well as criminal cases. McLeod’s two main opponents (an assistant public defender, and an assistant D.A.), may not be as broadly experienced as McLeod, an accomplished civil litigator.

Ironically, McLeod’s experience as a downtown lawyer is hurting him. People don’t even see him as an Asian American candidate. Race isn’t an issue here. But class is. McLeod’s received backlash for being a successful trial attorney who’s running against some good, but limited, government bureaucrat lawyers. The can claim class as an issue, but they’re the ones outspending McLeod by almost 100-1.

When you t think of it, voting for judges in the first place is just a strange way for the public to pick a competent, fair and impartial judge. Campaign money here is really a waste.

Appointing judges on merit would make more sense. Elections tend to get away from merit, and focus on money.

If you live in San Francisco, this is a race that could send a message to other politicians brave enough to take a stand against money.

That McLeod can’t be bought and paid for makes him an appealing and refreshing choice as the best person for San Francisco’s Superior Court.

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