Mayor Chicken

Gavin Newsom is terrified to face real political debate. That's bad for the entire city

The format is always the same: Mayor Gavin Newsom shows up at a carefully scouted location somewhere in the city with his perfect tie and perfect hair. He brings a cadre of department heads in tow, sending the clear message that he can deliver government services to the public. He takes a few questions from the audience, but the format allows him to deflect anything tough, to delegate any problems to department heads, and to offer a thoughtful "we'll look into that" when the need arises.

There is no substantive discussion of anything controversial — and no chance for anyone to see the mayor debate contentious issues.

This, of course, is by design.

Newsom has made it very clear during his first term as mayor that he can't take the heat. He is the imperious press release mayor, smiling for the cameras, quick with his sound bites, and utterly unwilling to engage in any public discussion whose outcome isn't established in advance.

He has become Mayor Chicken.

So don't expect any leadership from Newsom during an upcoming series of what the Mayor's Office is calling "policy town hall meetings" that have been hastily scheduled this year, beginning Jan. 13 in the Richmond District with a discussion of homelessness. The town hall meeting is just politics as usual for Newsom. Since taking office in 2004, he's held eight of these stage-managed events.

"He does a good Phil Donahue shtick," says Sup. Chris Daly, recalling one such town hall meeting Newsom held in Daly's District 6 after he was elected mayor. "Scripted town hall meetings are smart politics for Newsom."

Scripted events weren't what Daly had in mind when he wrote Proposition I, which calls on the mayor to appear before the supervisors once a month to answer questions. And these campaign-style events certainly weren't what voters had in mind Nov. 7, 2006, when 56.42 percent of them approved the Daly legislation, which asks the mayor in no uncertain terms to appear "in person at regularly scheduled meetings of the Board of Supervisors to engage in formal policy discussions with members of the Board."

Examiner columnist Ken Garcia — a conservative hack who regularly sucks up to Newsom — recently dismissed the voter-approved measure as "a silly, obvious stunt to play rhetorical games with the mayor," which is how the Newsom camp would like to spin things. But Daly recalls how when he first mentioned the idea of a mayoral question time — back when Willie Brown was still in Room 200 — he was sitting next to then-supervisor Newsom, "who thought it was a great idea."

It's hardly an unprecedented concept. Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, meets with his city's assembly 10 times a year and presents a detailed report on initiatives and progress. But now Newsom is mayor, suddenly Daly's idea doesn't strike him as all that great any more.

While it's easy to accuse Daly of playing political games, it's not so easy for Newsom — who loves to talk about the "will of the voters" — to dodge Prop. I. Newsom's decision to snub voters and avoid real debate was so obvious that he got beat up on both the Chronicle and Examiner editorial pages, on several prominent local blogs, and in television broadcasts. Perhaps that's why he decided this week to show up and give a speech at the Board of Supervisors inauguration Jan. 8, the first time in years he's set foot in those chambers. He's trying to look like he's complying with voters' wishes when he's really doing nothing of the sort.



It didn't have to be this way. As board chair Aaron Peskin's legislative aide David Noyola told the Guardian, immediately after Prop. I passed, Peskin tried to "depoliticize the issue" by becoming the sponsor of a motion to amend board rules.

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