Judging Matthew Rothschild

Why is the Democratic Party elite backing an underqualified party operative for the local judiciary?

"It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to maybe someday head the Democratic National Committee," Rothschild purportedly added. The staffer says Rothschild spoke with conviction and passion about his desire to be a party man. It seemed he had prepared for this role his whole life, the colleague says.

Then Rothschild learned that Judge Lillian K. Sing was vacating her Muni Court seat to run for Superior Court, and his career path took a sharp turn.

Around that time, the same colleague had a second conversation with Rothschild. Again, the deputy city attorney waxed rhapsodic about his chosen vocation. Again, he said it was a lifelong passion. But this time the post he had been called to fill was Municipal Court judge.

The first conversation was probably more authentic. It's anyone's guess why Rothschild fixed on Municipal Court as his destiny. Perhaps he had grown tired of being a lieutenant in the armies of Carole Migden and John Burton. Maybe he wanted to step out on his own. A young man of 37 has to start thinking about establishing himself, after all.

Even so, the decision was out of character for Rothschild. His lawyering had always taken a back seat to his political life.

And what of this life in politics? If his legal career is limited in scope and accomplishment, the only other place to look for clues about his character and know-how is the political arena.

The bulk of Rothschild's political life has been spent mostly in the small lagoons of San Francisco insider politics. Since 1988, he has been a member of the Democratic Party Central Committee, and in 1994 and 1995 he served as chair of that body.

He has also been a longtime member of the Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club and the Alice B. Toklas Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club. He was Alice president in 1993 and 1994.

From 1992 to 1995, he also served on the executive board of the state Democratic Party.

A life in these circles involves a steady diet of fund-raising for candidates and politicking in clubs in search of endorsements of one's favored candidates or ballot propositions. It also involves a lot of trench warfare and insider deal-making: stacking clubs with last-minute members to manipulate endorsements, the "selling" of club endorsements to the campaigns that donate the most money to the club's slate card mailer -- stuff like that.

Rothschild hit the zenith of his career as Democratic operative in 1994 when he was elected chair of the Central Committee.

It was not a stellar performance. From the start, Rothschild earned the enmity of minorities on the Central Committee because of the way in which he was elected. Outgoing chair Carole Migden picked Rothschild as her successor and tipped him off as to her departure months before she made a public announcement. Armed with his inside information, Rothschild pre-empted the field, rounding up votes of members before other potential candidates could organize. The strategy effectively shut out any viable minority candidate. Minorities have been struggling for a leadership role on the Central Committee for years. Rothschild denies he received an early tip-off to Migden's departure.

But more controversial was Rothschild's decision to effectively shut down the local party from December 1994 until April 1995 and cease all voter registration efforts. After the 1994 gubernatorial elections, the state party went broke, owing the local Central Committee thousands of dollars. Rather than raise local money to keep the party going, Rothschild shuttered the doors and sent the executive director on unpaid leave. The decision was all the more controversial because Rothschild ran for chair on the platform that he was a peerless fund-raiser.

Some say the decision reflects Rothschild's self-serving nature. His critics on the Central Committee surmise that he did not aggressively tap local donors for party needs because he was afraid it would dry up the pool of money he would need for his judicial race.

Central Committee members were also angry that Rothschild spent a staggering $23,100 on a Fox Plaza headquarters for the 1994 unified Democratic campaign. They suspect he did so -- and did not seek cheaper quarters -- because his City Attorney digs were conveniently upstairs. Rothschild says the decision to rent the Fox Plaza offices was made by Kathleen Brown's campaign, and that it was pure coincidence that it happened to be in the same building where he worked.

Other internecine party fights stirred rancor in minority communities. Many Central Committee members have yet to forgive Rothschild for his role in scuttling an internal affirmative action policy for the local party.

In 1993, then-party chair Carole Migden fired one of the Central Committee's first minority staffers, a woman named Pamela Ayo Yetunde. She threatened to sue for wrongful termination. But Migden struck a deal with Yetunde: If the party developed an affirmative action policy to cut minorities in on the party's lucrative consulting contracts, Yetunde would promise not to sue.

Yetunde reported on the developments to Lesbians and Gays of African Descent for Democratic Action (LAGADDA), and one of its members, Norm Nickens, who at the time was a staffer at the Human Rights Commission, drew up some simple boilerplate language, using the city's own affirmative action law as a guiding document.

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