No pass for Newsom

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EDITORIAL Mayor Gavin Newsom may tell the media that he's not sure he wants his job anymore, but the reality is that he's been running for reelection for months. His campaign team is in place, the fundraising is about to kick into high gear, and when 2007 dawns Newsom will start to line up endorsements, put money in the bank, and do everything possible to clear the field. That's not just a campaign consultant's fantasy: right now there's no clear, obvious opponent for a mayor whose poll ratings are almost unimaginably high.
But Newsom can't be allowed to run without any credible opponent. Somebody has to challenge Newsom — and it's not as impossible as it might seem.
As Steven T. Jones reports ("Blood in the Water," page 12), Newsom's popularity is broad but not terribly deep. He's got a lot of feel-good political capital that dates back to the same-sex marriage days, but there are a lot of really serious problems facing the city — and when you get right down to it, Newsom hasn't done a hell of a lot to address any of them. For the past year San Francisco politics and public policy have been driven by the Board of Supervisors, with the mayor reacting. Other than cutting welfare payments for homeless people, it's hard to think of a single major local initiative that the mayor has taken on. He certainly hasn't ended homelessness. He hasn't brought down the violent crime level. He hasn't improved Muni. He hasn't done much to create jobs and clearly hasn't made the city a better place for small locally owned independent businesses.
He's letting developers call the shots at the Planning Department, letting landlords drive housing policy, following the lead of some very bad actors downtown on education, and letting the city's structural budget problems fester.
In 2003, Newsom was a strong front-runner from day one and beat back a dramatic challenge from Matt Gonzalez, in part because he had so much money. This time around, money may not be the deciding factor: with public financing in place, a candidate who can raise a respectable sum (a few hundred thousand, not a few million) will be able to mount a competitive effort. And with ranked-choice voting (RCV), several candidates challenging Newsom from different perspectives might leave the mayor unable to pull together a clear majority. (If RCV had been in place in 2003, it's entirely possible, if not likely, that Gonzalez would have been elected mayor.)
The list of people who have either talked about running or are being pushed by one interest group or another is long, and some of the strongest potential challengers seem to be biding their time. It's true that the filing deadline isn't until August, and in both 1999 and 2003 late entrants in the progressive camp made the best showings.
Still, if Newsom has the field to himself all spring and summer and nobody challenges his statements, questions his record, or offers people an alternative, the incumbent will try to anoint himself as the inevitable winner.
So at the very least, progressives need to make sure the mayor isn't allowed to coast this spring. The supervisors need to keep pushing issues like police reform. They need to make sure the budget hearings point up the mayor's real priorities. And elected officials and civic activists should hold off on endorsing Newsom by default, unless and until he presents some evidence that he's going to do a lot better in the next four years than he's done in this term.