Gavin Newsom, loser
He's well ahead in the mayoral polls and swimming in money – but he's still eminently beatable.

By Savannah Blackwell

IN THE AUDITORIUM of the California State Building June 21, the candidates for mayor of San Francisco were taking questions from members of the Democratic County Central Committee, the powerful local party operation that will vote shortly on its influential endorsement.

Sup. Gavin Newsom, the dapper young front-runner, looked relaxed and confident as he talked about his trademark issue – cracking down on homelessness – and mouthed the platitudes he's used again and again to describe why he should be the next occupant of Room 200, City Hall.

"I'm not afraid to take on this issue," he said. "I'm not afraid to challenge the status quo. I'm not afraid to take that on and get real results."

Then a minor candidate, Rodney Hauge, who lives in a residential hotel, took the mic to offer a very different perspective. It's incredibly expensive to live in San Francisco, he said, and many people are just a layoff notice away from losing their homes.

"What are poor people supposed to do who live from paycheck to paycheck?" he asked.

"Get a loan from the Gettys!" someone from the audience hollered.

Newsom, who owns the grand Pacific Heights roof over his head in large part thanks to a $1 million loan from billionaire Gordon Getty, turned pink. For a brief moment, his self-satisfied smirk was gone.

And for a brief moment, it was clear to anyone paying attention that Newsom – the chosen heir to Mayor Willie Brown, the darling of the social set, the great hope of downtown business, the man with the mountain of campaign cash – is eminently beatable.

Despite a March campaign kickoff designed to look and feel like a presidential nominating convention, despite the San Francisco Chronicle's adulation of the wealthy entrepreneur who represents the Marina District and Pacific Heights after his Care Not Cash initiative passed last November, a Newsom mayoral administration is not necessarily the future of San Francisco.

"Everyone sees [the Newsom campaign] trying to convince us that the next mayor has been anointed," city treasurer Susan Leal said at the DCCC forum. "But hey, it ain't over yet."

In fact, while Newsom leads a crowded field, his numbers are far short of a majority – and he doesn't seem to be gaining much ground. More than 60 percent of San Francisco voters are either undecided or supporting someone other than Newsom.

And if ranked-choice voting, or instant-runoff voting (IEV), is in place for the November election, some seasoned political observers say, the odds that Newsom can be beaten are pretty good. "Under [ranked-choice voting], Newsom is not inevitable," Rich de Leon, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University, told us.

Nobody thinks it will be easy. Newsom is a formidable candidate. He jump-started his campaign early, with the well-financed and sophisticated Care Not Cash campaign last fall. That antihomeless initiative not only got his name all over the news media – it also helped him build a massive political operation, including a well-developed database of voters identified as likely supporters and an army of workers. He's got some impressive names onboard as well: consultants Eric Jaye and Jack Davis, who have a history of success and who played keys roles in Brown's campaigns for mayor. Sources close to the Newsom camp told us Davis is being paid handsomely to not work for any other campaign but is not actively advising him.

But Newsom has been stuck at about 36 to 38 percent in the polls since February, and it may be hard for him to move much beyond that level. He already has extremely high name recognition and is focusing on a high-profile issue on which almost everyone in town has a strong opinion. So the number of voters who are undecided on whether to support him is probably relatively small.

Polls by David Binder, who is working for Newsom, show Sup. Tom Ammiano at about 19 percent, Angela Alioto at 14, and Leal at 7. Together, these three candidates – who are all running to the left of Newsom – have more support than he does.

With ranked-choice voting, that situation could spell doom for the front-runner. Under that system, voters can select a first-, second-, and third-choice candidate, and if nobody gets a majority of the first-place votes, the second- and third-place votes are counted until a winner is determined.

Chances are pretty good that most Ammiano voters will rank either Alioto or Leal as their second choice, and most Alioto voters will do the same for Ammiano or Leal. That means if Ammiano or Alioto comes in a strong second to Newsom in the first round, that candidate could easily come out on top when the second- and third-place votes are counted.

"IRV would allow those who would otherwise feel divided and ambivalent [toward Ammiano or Alioto] to have their votes transferred toward actually beating Newsom," De Leon noted.

The Newsom camp says the supervisor will win with or without IRV. But people allied with Newsom are working hard to keep the city from implementing IRV this November (see "Who's Fighting Election Reform?," 7/2/03).

Losing the middle

Newsom is riding high right now in part because of support from a fair number of moderate-to-liberal voters, Democrats who voted for the "care" part of Care Not Cash. But on a lot of mainstream liberal issues – for example, the environment, rent control, municipal corruption, and police accountability – Newsom has been either on the wrong side or missing in action (see scorecard). If the other candidates can get beyond the homeless issue and spotlight Newsom's full record, it could cost him thousands of votes.

Already, Alioto, Leal, and Ammiano are talking about increasing accountability in the mayor's office and the need to root out corruption and end the cronyism that has marked the Brown administration.

Ammiano is working to put police-reform measures on the November ballot – and Newsom, who is already endorsed by the Police Officers Association – has refused to criticize the mayor or top police brass on anything having to do with the recent cop scandals, especially Fajitagate.

In an interview with the San Francisco Newshour's Bruce Petit March 20, Newsom scoffed at Ammiano's proposal to allow the Board of Supervisors to appoint some police commissioners. Instead, his idea of "reform" is pushing to overhaul the San Francisco Police Department's computer tracking system. "That's modernization," he said. "That's the leadership the city needs."

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club's San Francisco Bay Chapter – which is consistently ranked as one of the most influential and respected local political groups – has already published newspaper ads pointing out that Newsom voted against the club's position on building new San Francisco International Airport runways in the bay.

An examination of Newsom's campaign records shows it's the richest San Franciscans, including the largest property owners in town, who have bankrolled him over the years.

Of the roughly $574,000 Newsom reported raising for his mayoral campaign by February, more than $100,000 came from real estate, development, and construction interests. Longtime wealthy financial supporters of San Francisco's Democratic Party machine have been generous as well, with more than $2,000, for example, coming from the family of Gap mogul Don Fisher. And there's plenty more pouring in; Newsom had raised another $1.5 million by July 1.

The key to defeating Newsom, campaign consultants agree, is for his challengers to get across to the public that he is not the centrist he so desperately wants to sound like, but the candidate of the rich.

"He's not homophobic or racist. He's acceptable on social issues," Jeff Sheehy, a longtime queer activist who is supporting Leal, told us. "But his record on economic issues for the working and middle classes, people of limited resources, is abysmal. This is a city of neighborhoods like Bernal Heights, the Sunset, and the Excelsior. Not just downtown and Pacific Heights."

Newsom told us in a lengthy interview in 1998 that he resents efforts to characterize him as a silver-spooner. "It insults me when people use my good fortune and early success against me," he said. "I've worked as hard as anyone else. There was no trust fund for me."

(Newsom didn't return our phone calls seeking comment for this article.)

But his record doesn't lie – and it's a history of supporting the wealthy and the powerful.

On major tenant-related votes over the past six years, Newsom has either recused himself (he owns a piece of rental property at Second and Folsom Streets) or sided with landlords (see chart). For example, in 1998 he voted with the rest of the mayor-controlled Board of Supervisors to make it easier to convert apartments to condos. That same year he also voted to allow landlords to pass through the cost of bonds to renters (see "Business as Usual," 10/29/98).

More recently, during the dot-com boom, when rampant and mostly illegal multimedia office development displaced longtime residents and artists from the Mission District and South of Market, he was consistently on the side of the developers. For example, he voted for the highly controversial and symbolic 850 Bryant Street development in June 2000. That project, calling for construction of some 160,000 square feet of dot-com office space, galvanized residents in the Mission District to fight against displacement of a thriving artist community. And Newsom will have a hard time defending that vote: today the much-touted project is nothing more than a hole in the ground (see "A Legacy of Wreckage," 6/11/03 ).

When a more progressive board passed a moratorium on further live-work development in April 2001, Newsom voted no.

"Time after time, when we were looking for leadership and answers, Newsom ducked," former Harvey Milk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Democratic Club president Debra Walker, a key leader in the live-work battles, told us. "He would not answer calls. He would grandstand with unworkable proposals that did nothing but waste precious time.

"Not only did Gavin do nothing to help, he was a big part of the problem."

When it comes to helping low-income workers (those who are most likely to become homeless), his record is just as dismal. Newsom voted with the Brown-controlled board to block Ammiano's living-wage ordinance in 1999 and recently told the Chronicle's Phil Matier and Andrew Ross that he's not inclined to support Sup. Matt Gonzalez's current effort to raise the minimum wage in San Francisco to $8.50 an hour. It's going to be hard for a candidate who rides around in the Getty family's private jet to explain why he thinks working people in this expensive city don't deserve to earn at least $17,680 a year.

On issues popular with voters on the left and right, such as open government, Newsom has been just as bad. He voted against attempts to strengthen the city's Sunshine Ordinance in 1998 and took no position when the measure made the November 1999 ballot. Though he told the DCCC he supports district elections, he's slammed the process in meetings with conservative interests.

He's not much of an environmentalist, either. He's spearheaded a plan to overhaul the Marina yacht harbor that will likely require new fill in the bay, he voted to continue the airport runway-expansion project in April, and he never took a position on tearing down the Central Freeway. He has never supported public power.

Newsom's representatives insist his record is neither one of supporting the left nor of supporting the right. Rather, they say, he's focused on "finding common ground" and discovering new solutions. He cares whether working-class people can afford to stay in the city, and will support providing developers with incentives to build housing for lower- and middle-income earners, Newsom campaign consultant Jaye told us. The concept – called workforce housing – is a brainchild of the Chamber of Commerce.

"On the national political spectrum, he's a liberal, and locally he's a moderate," Newsom spokesperson John Shanley said.

Newsom is making an effort to go after the moderate queer vote – a full-page Newsom ad promoting his "Lavender" committee just ran in the Bay Area Reporter's gay pride issue. But his record on queer issues is spotty at best: Early in his tenure at the Board of Supervisors, Newsom pushed a resolution to praise Colin Powell, who at the time was the chief proponent of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. And when queers protesting his candidacy sandbagged him as he headed into a fundraising gig at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center in February, he stood by while the cops roughed up some of them (see "Shame on the SFPD," 2/12/03).

The most effective campaign tool Newsom's opponents may have is to point out that a Newsom administration would largely continue the pro-downtown, anti-neighborhood policies of the Brown administration. "[With Newsom] the Brown machine apparatus will stay in place," Sup. Aaron Peskin told us. "He's never felt that the reforms this board was elected to implement were needed – whether they were about the environment, ethics and clean government, or planning and land use. He's really the champion of the status quo."

How's Ammiano doing?

If Newsom is going to be defeated, at least one of the other candidates will have to run a strong, effective campaign. That's not by any means a sure thing: all of the major contenders have to overcome significant challenges.

Ammiano's first hurdle is defining himself. Over the past two and a half years, Ammiano, who once was considered the board's most solid, consistent left-wing supervisor, has made a marked effort to reach out to more moderate constituencies and broaden his base. He brokered a compromise between landlords and tenants that allows landlords to pass on some of their capital-improvement costs to tenants, winning applause from such unlikely quarters as Chamber of Commerce president Lee Blitch. He worked with the office of his former nemesis, Mayor Brown, to develop and pitch a plan to overhaul the Hetch Hetchy drinking-water system that led to the successful Proposition A on last November's ballot. He even won praise from the pro-machine San Francisco Examiner for his proposal to protect the city's reserves during flush years.

Recently, he's focused on the troubled school district and found $380,000 to help keep important programs like summer school day care while city officials are hacking down the budget.

But not everyone is happy with the "new Tom." Public power advocates were dismayed last summer when Ammiano offered a proposal that backed away from his previous commitment to get Pacific Gas and Electric Co. completely out of the business of selling electricity in San Francisco. Others were upset that he didn't spearhead an effort among progressive leaders to devise a viable alternative to Newsom's Care Not Cash measure.

Moreover, tenant activist Eileen Hansen's loss to pro-Care Not Cash candidate Bevan Dufty in the runoff for supervisor representing District Eight – the Castro District and Noe Valley – was a crushing blow. Hansen was Ammiano's choice. Dufty used to work for Brown (see "Beyond the Bad News," 11/13/02).

Since then, Ammiano has made a serious effort to reconnect with his base. Legislative aide Jerry Threet, a Green Party member and former president of the Milk Club who has at times found fault with Ammiano, is strongly backing him. So is Threet's boss, Sup. Jake McGoldrick.

"The reality is that on the whole, [Ammiano] has been there for us," queer activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca said.

So how's he doing? That's hard to say. The recent polling data from Binder suggests he's not gaining any ground. And at least one campaign consultant, Jim Stearns, who isn't involved in any mayoral campaign, says Ammiano's attempt to court moderates hasn't paid off.

"He's not getting any credit for these moves from the press, and I don't see him getting any moderate group or individual endorsements because of them," Stearns told us. "Tom is still stuck on the left but fighting for a middle agenda."

However, a May readers' poll on SFGate.com showed that 42 percent of respondents thought his is the candidacy that most offers "a serious problem" to Newsom's bid. In contrast, only 17 percent thought Alioto could successfully challenge the front-runner, and 8 percent thought Leal could do it. (On a humorous note, 30 percent said only the Gettys could stop Newsom, by "cutting the money off.")

Reintroducing ... Angela Alioto!

By any measure, former supervisor and board president Alioto is campaigning the loudest. She kicked off her third effort at following in the footsteps of her father, former mayor Joseph L. Alioto (who died in 1998), in North Beach at the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club, vowing to "cross-examine 63 department heads, [who] will be held accountable for every penny in that budget." She says she can protect social services without raising business taxes, by getting rid of waste and corruption in city contracting. She shows no reluctance whatsoever to attack Newsom.

At the DCCC's June 21 forum, she won the crowd when she slammed Newsom for his homeless proposals.

"It is shameful to pick on people because they are poor," she shouted. "You shall be punished here or later in the hereafter for it!" – a conclusion that rendered Newsom's countenance puzzled and slightly seasick.

Unlike Ammiano, Alioto says she has at least $4 million to spend on her campaign. That may surprise some. Many voters might remember her as broke and in debt when term limits ended her tenure as supervisor in January 1997. Since then, however, she's proved herself to be a regular financial phoenix. And the most compelling part of her story is that she did it by winning some remarkably hefty settlements against big companies like Wonderbread for discriminating against workers of color. And with plenty of dough to spend on mailers and other outreach efforts, her consultants will have no trouble getting that narrative out to voters.

Like Newsom, Alioto has put her campaign in the hands of some big-name consultants. Her top strategists, Duane Baughman and Doug Schoen, are national players who helped Michael Bloomberg become mayor of New York City. In addition, Larry Tramutola, one of the state's leading managers of campaign field operations, is on the payroll as well. They insist she's the only candidate who can get past Newsom: Ammiano, they argue, can't widen his base enough.

Who is Susan Leal?

City treasurer Leal could be the wild card in the race. Although she's still a distant fourth in the polls, she's already won a citywide race (for treasurer in 1997) and is pitching herself as a serious-minded leader who can work with the Board of Supervisors to run the city well. She touts her tenure as the city's chief financial officer and her ability to manage a department. She frequently mentions integrity and "reasonableness," and she's run some television ads focusing on the need for honest, clean government.

She's the only out lesbian in the race and plays well to moderate queer voters. She also has a history of being able to raise money from big downtown interests – she's raised some $500,000 for this race and has substantial personal wealth to add to the pot.

Leal is fashioning herself to the left of Newsom, but her record shows that she, like the front-runner, was largely an ally of Mayor Brown. When she was on the Board of Supervisors, she supported Brown's veto of Ammiano's measure to force campaign consultants to disclose their activities to the Ethics Commission and voted against district elections. And it was Leal who presented the city's 1997 settlement with PG&E that sabotaged public power and fell far short of breaking the giant utility's stranglehold on the city's electricity market.

At a February 21 debate sponsored by the San Francisco Call, an online political publication, and SF Polifix, a political chat site, she said she was wrong about public power and now supports it. And she says she will not move to restrict rent control and will encourage living-wage jobs.

Leal wants to be perceived as the moderate alternative to Newsom. "As his campaign continues to move to the right, demonizing the poor and attacking panhandlers, he probably hardens his support among conservatives but he risks losing moderate liberals," Leal's manager, Tony Winnicker, told us. "San Francisco will elect a center-right or center-left mayor. And Susan is the center-left."

The crowded race also includes at least two candidates who will be seen as running to Newsom's right: former police chief Tony Ribera and Sup. Tony Hall, who represents the conservative West of Twin Peaks area and who is poised to enter the race.

Those candidates will probably take some votes away from Newsom – but they might also push him toward the center. As Stearns suggested, "One could argue that two avowedly conservative, minor candidates will work to make Newsom look more moderate."

The role the minor candidates play in the race depends to a large extent on the new voting system that is supposed to be in place for the November election. Ranked-choice voting will transform the local political calculus – and nobody knows exactly how it will play out. Under one scenario, the right-wing candidates will help Newsom considerably: most people who vote for Hall or Ribera will likely rank Newsom second or third on their ballots, and when the minor candidates are eliminated after the first round, those ballots will push Newsom toward the top.

That's why some activists are arguing that more liberals – say, Sups. Peskin and Gonzalez – ought to get in the race, to encourage more progressives to vote and to help Ammiano or Alioto collect enough second- and third-place votes to defeat Newsom. (Peskin told us he's thinking about joining the fray.)

Will Newsom melt down?

No matter who finally winds up in the race, and which candidates emerge as the strongest challengers to Newsom, there's a factor that could prove significant, even potentially decisive. As the race heats up, the pressure on the front-runner will become greater and greater – and Newsom isn't good at handling pressure.

At his best Newsom is friendly and self-effacing. But the need to behave like an experienced statesman who has most of the answers – to look, in a word, mayoral – will be tough on the 35-year-old, who has a history of losing his cool when challenged.

Questions about his connections to the Gettys and his failure to handle his financial disclosures make him visibly uncomfortable. And during the past two years, when dealing with hostile colleagues on the Board of Supervisors, he's lost his temper in public more than once.

For example, in early 2001, Newsom was arguing in favor of turning the Marina yacht harbor over to private hands and building a new breakwaters (read: bay fill) to protect moored boats. Gonzalez began to criticize the plan, saying it was "unnecessary." But before he could finish his point, Newsom jumped up, cut Gonzalez off, and whined, "It's important to me because I've worked so hard on it.... You may not appreciate that."

He looked, frankly, like a spoiled kid.

And he's not at his most valiant when caught in an unflattering act. When the press got wind that Newsom's office had ordered the City Attorney's Office to draw up plans to get rid of district elections, the supervisor tried to blame his aide, Michael Farrah. He claimed he had no idea what Farrah was doing – even though almost everyone at city hall agreed that a supervisor's aide was unlikely to launch such a serious policy initiative without the boss's permission (see "Attack on District Elections," 1/22/03).

Initially, when the Chronicle questioned Newsom on his failure to disclose loans from Gordon Getty in his filings with the Ethics Commission, he tried to blame the City Attorney's Office – until both former city attorney Louise Renne and her successor, Dennis Herrera, called him on it (see "And the Race Is On," 2/19/03).

"I think it's pretty obvious that Newsom would like to claim that the dog ate his homework and blame everybody under the sun for his egregious mistakes," Sup. McGoldrick told us.

In recent citywide races, San Franciscans have sometimes voted for the more liberal candidate (Art Agnos for mayor over John Molinari in 1987) and sometimes for the more conservative (Frank Jordan for mayor over Agnos in 1991). They've voted for the machine (Brown over Ammiano four years ago) and against the machine (Jeff Adachi for public defender over Kim Burton).

But they never seem to vote for candidates who come off as immature whiners.

After eight years, almost everyone agrees that the public is tired of Mayor Brown, that the public is ready for change. And if none of the other mayoral campaigns can take advantage of that fact and deflate Newsom's balloon, it will be a political failure of lasting impact.

"It's incumbent on the other candidates to work that much more aggressively and collectively to beat Newsom," Green Party activist and campaign consultant Ross Mirkarimi said. "It's too early to tell if that's occurring. They need to figure out why people are so attracted to him. But I don't see the other campaigns going that deep."

Additional reporting by Rachel Brahinsky and Tali Woodward.

E-mail Savannah Blackwell


July 9, 2003