Judging Matthew Rothschild

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

LAGADDA presented the language to the Central Committee, hopeful that the party's history of giving consulting contracts to favored white consultants would end.

But then Rothschild stepped to the fore and spoke passionately against the proposal, saying it wasn't necessary and that it required further study. Even though Nickens had used the city's own law to draft the policy, Rothschild said the Central Committee should find other similar policies and review them. It was a calculated stalling tactic. It worked. After a month, the proposal was voted down.

The episode says much about Rothschild's politics. As a Democrat, he should have naturally supported affirmative action, but he was conflicted. His longtime ally at Alice B. Toklas, Robert Barnes, was a party consultant who would possibly be hurt by including minorities in consultant positions. In the end, some say, cronyism became more important than party principle. Today, Barnes is managing Rothschild's judicial race, and the consultant is donating the bulk of his services to his candidate for free as in-kind contributions. You can almost hear the sound of one hand washing the other.

If the next logical step for a party fixer like Rothschild was the Board of Supervisors or the BART board, there was a good reason he switched his career path to aspiring judge. He has never built the sort of following that could catapult him to high-profile and high-scrutiny political offices. Indeed, he's cultivated more than a few grass-roots enemies.

Staffers for Roberta Achtenberg's mayoral campaign still remember how over-the-top rude Rothschild was at the Toklas club when he interviewed Achtenberg during the club's endorsement process.

Again at Alice, members were shocked in 1994 when he let fly on African-Americans, calling the entire community "homophobic." Worse was his attitude when someone called him on his obvious overreaching bias. "I don't care," he allegedly said. Rothschild denies the incident despite eyewitness accounts.

Tsenin, who is opposing him for the Muni Court seat, still remembers an incident from 1990. "He was at City Hall literally screaming in this poor woman's face, saying, 'Politics is my life!' The only reason I still remember it is it was so extreme."

If political office was not an option, neither was the upper reaches of the Democratic Party. Within the party, Rothschild has always been a caucus scrapper, a political club packer. Just as he couldn't make the cut as a top lawyer at LaFollette & Johnson, he probably realized he couldn't make partner in the Democratic Party either. Asked about Rothschild's ambitions at serving as a high party official, one of the biggest names on Rothschild's literature scoffed openly.

What does it say for Rothschild's big-name patrons that they see the Municipal bench as a repository for washed-up operatives who can't make the jump to prime time?

Rothschild had every reason to believe that a Muni Court race would take place outside the focus of the media and the political culture. So far, the dailies and other weeklies have paid little attention to the race.

As he did when he ran for chair of the Central Committee, Rothschild tried to pre-empt the field when he received the early tip-off that Sing was leaving the Muni bench. Most of Rothschild's marquee endorsements were cultivated before the officials had any other candidates to compare him to.

Given Rothschild's political history, it's surprising to hear him sell himself on the campaign trail as a community activist, someone with a deep understanding of the disenfranchised.

"What I bring more than anything else," Rothschild told the audience at Golden Gate University, "is an understanding of communities. I have been called to leadership in the Jewish community, in the lesbian and gay community, and in the Democratic Party, where I have tried to resolve conflict."

In other campaign settings, Rothschild hammers on the need to reconnect the courts with the community as a way of making his activism seem relevant to the judiciary. But the question remains: How relevant is Rothschild's activism? Party operative work, delivering votes at Democratic clubs, and lining up votes on the Central Committee for Burton's and Migden's senatorial bids can hardly be called community activism.

Instinctively, Rothschild knows he can't sell his insider credentials as grass-roots experience. So he relies on his one year on the Social Services commission under the Agnos administration and the endorsement his commission votes earned him with the Coalition on Homelessness. (An endorsement he curiously leaves off his campaign literature.)

Former staffers to Art Agnos say that Rothschild didn't want to serve on the Social Services commission. When Agnos was making those lame-duck appointments in 1991, Rothschild was angling for a post on the War Memorial Board, where he would help oversee the symphony, the opera, and the ballet -- a far cry from any enduring interest in homelessness.

"I still remember him walking into his swearing-in ceremony," says one former Agnos staffer. "He pulled me aside and said that he still wanted War Memorial but that he'd take social services if he had to."

Ron Albers rests on the brick steps of his Outer Mission home. He's going back nearly three decades to talk about where he first developed his sense of public service.

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