These are some of the things that Mayor Gavin Newsom has moved to turn over to the private sector in the past four years:
Housing for the mentally ill
Public golf courses
The entire city broadband infrastructure
The city's new power plants
Jail health services
Security guards at public institutions
Development of tidal energy
Reconstruction of public housing
And, of course, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. still controls the city's power grid (illegally).
Yet when we talked to the mayor about privatization recently, he told us he's generally against it. "Privatization is failing," he said. "So I'm not pro-privatization. I don't look to privatize."
What's going on here?
Well, for starters, the mayor isn't being entirely candid. Newsom's administration has been moving aggressively to adopt programs with names like "public-private partnerships" to take over jobs that ought to be in the public sector. Even when there's something that is clearly the job of government like building the information highway that will be more important than roads and bridges in the future the mayor tries first to get the private sector to do it. "I look for ways to manage more creatively and more efficiently," Newsom said.
That's in part because, for all his talk of bold initiatives, the mayor is a timid chief executive. At a time when politicians of all stripes around the nation are afraid to talk about tax hikes, afraid to talk about the value of the public sector, afraid to do anything that might remind people that Ronald Reagan was wrong, letting the private sector take the lead is easy and painless. As Sup. Jake McGoldrick told us, "I suspect that [Newsom] succumbs to the path of least resistance there because of the tremendous amount of pressure that the private sector puts on trying to gain control over public assets."
It would take a fair amount of effort and public money to keep, say, the golf courses under city control. Giving them to a private company is easy. Maybe the courses ought to be turned into soccer fields; that costs money too. Perhaps the easiest thing is to let the Fisher family, of Gap fame and fortune, pay for it (the way the family paid for the new playing surface at Garfield) and then put up big "Gap Field" signs with blue jean ads, let the Fishers hold private parties there on Sundays, or charge admission ... or something else "creative and efficient."
That's how it works these days: instead of taxing the rich and spreading the benefits around through a democratic system, we let the rich set the agenda. If Don Fisher's willing to pay for new soccer fields, then we get new fields. Maybe he (or some other private outfit) wants to save the golf courses; OK, we'll do that instead.
Newsom isn't Reagan or Grover Norquist; he's not a rabid ideological promoter of privatization. He's just a tame elected official who won't stand up and fight, who won't make it clear that San Francisco isn't for sale, who won't put his immense political capital on the line to preserve the public sector for the public. And for that, he is a failure.