Mayor Gavin Newsom has long been considered a lock for reelection next year, a belief driven by his same-sex marriage gesture, hoarding of political capital, personal charm, and high approval ratings. Yet Guardian interviews with more than 20 political experts and insiders from across the ideological spectrum indicate that Newsom may now be more vulnerable than ever.
Just as San Francisco politicians are starting to calculate whether to run, the Newsom administration has suffered a series of political setbacks. In November alone, most of Newsom's picks got spanked during the election, his veto of popular police foot patrol legislation was overridden by the Board of Supervisors, and he was caught off guard by the San Francisco 49ers' announcement that they were moving to Santa Clara, taking with them Newsom's hopes of landing the 2016 Summer Olympics.
"Until recently, I didn't have a lot of hope," Sup. Chris Daly, whom Newsom unsuccessfully worked to defeat, told us. "Now the progressives have a glimmer of hope. The mayor seems to be hurting from three or four episodes where he was caught with egg on his face."
To many political observers — most of whom the Guardian allowed to speak anonymously in order to capture their most candid observations and plans — the defeats were indicative of a mayor who seems increasingly disengaged and out of touch. Even Newsom's strategy of avoiding fights that might hurt his popularity has rankled many of his allies, who complain that this risk-averse approach has allowed the Board of Supervisors to effectively set the city's agenda.
"This guy does not use one scintilla of his political capital on anyone or anything," said former mayor Art Agnos, whose name has been dropped as a possible challenger to Newsom but who told us, "I'm not running."
There are a number of strong anti-Newsom narratives out there, even on his signature issues, such as crime and homelessness, which persist as visible, visceral problems despite increased city spending on homeless services and controversial tactics like police sweeps and one-way bus tickets out of town for vagrants.
The mayor started his term by announcing during a radio interview that if the murder rate rose, he should be ousted from office. It did — remaining at 10-year highs through the past three years — handing his potential opponents a ready-made sound bite. The crime rate could be a powerful weapon when paired with Newsom's failure to follow up on promises of police reform.
Newsom is still likely to offer up a long list of accomplishments in his usual statistics-laden style. But much of what he tries to take credit for was actually someone else's initiative, such as the universal health care measure crafted by Sup. Tom Ammiano (who is running for the State Assembly and not taking a third run at the mayor's office). Adding to Newsom's problems in November was the lawsuit the Golden Gate Restaurant Association — a Newsom ally — filed challenging the measure.
Almost everyone we interviewed agreed that if Newsom does have approval ratings of around 80 percent, as has been reported, that support is very soft and may significantly erode during the campaign. "His support is an inch deep and a mile wide" was how one political analyst put it.
"His 'skyrocketing' approval rating is irrelevant," one downtown politico told us. "People approve of the mayor like they approve of the color beige. If you fill an arena with 50,000 people and ask them to decide on what color to paint the walls, that color will always be beige. It's not that they necessarily like beige; it's that they will accept it as long as those freaks who want hot pink don't get their way."
And then there are his personal foibles.