By Steven T. Jones
Just as my latest story on Mayor Gavin Newsom's prospects for reelection was going to press, he issued a letter that reinforced the very traits that have caused people to sour on him. Namely, that he's disengaged, unnecessarily divisive and political, out-of-touch, risk-averse, and just not up to the job of being a big city mayor. The letter concerns Prop. I, which 56.36 percent of San Franciscans approved, saying they want the mayor to "appear in person at one regularly scheduled meeting of the Board of Supervisors each month to engage in formal policy discussions with members of the Board." Note that language, because it's important in understanding the cowardly bait-and-switch that Newsom's letter tries to perpetrate on the public.
There's a reason why the board wanted a direct dialogue with Newsom. It's not just to be a bunch of jackasses, it's because there is serious dysfunction in City Hall that has hurt the important causes of police reform, violence prevention, economic development, affordable housing, and myriad other issues. Newsom conducts his business with the press release and the veto pen -- both punctuated with photo ops and pithy quotes about his belief in good government -- rather than by trying to work with the legislative branch to get the people's business done. And when supervisors get frustrated with that approach, Newsom accuses them of being political. So the supervisors talk to the press and their constituents, the mayor talks to the press and his constituents, and they very rarely talk to each other. That's a problem and it's a problem that the people recognized when they approved Prop. I.
Yet Newsom's letter makes it sound as if all that's needed is an election campaign that was on its way anyway. Rather than talking to supervisors, he writes, "I believe that we should hold these conversations in the community. Bringing these conversations to the neighborhoods—during non-work hours— will allow residents to participate and will ensure transparent dialogue, while avoiding the politicized, counterproductive arguing that too often takes place in the confines of City Hall."
Excuse me, but arguing about policy is called politics, which is the business Newsom chose to be in. It's how two sides with divergent perspectives and needs resolve their differences and find the common ground that then becomes public policy. Newsom dismisses this process as "political theater," instead preferring the "public policy town hall meetings" which are, actually, the kind of sanitized and safe political theater that Newsom likes. Trust me, I've been to a few of these ridiculous things, which seem more designed to produce good photos and stroke Newsom's ego than accomplish any of the sometimes messy business that we call democracy. We already knew Newsom would be holding these events, just as he did during his last campaign, so it's insulting to the public to pretend they're something else: a Prop. I substitute. Newsom can pose and posture all he wants, but it's crystal clear from all this that he has what boxers call a glass jaw. He can't take a punch. He boasts of having an "open door policy" for supervisors -- which is actually a chance for him to be political and dismissive of them behind closed doors -- yet he refuses to engage in the give-and-take public debate that is the cornerstone of American democracy. He'd rather rule by decree than persuade through dialogue.
"Too often inside of City Hall, policy dialogue becomes political theater, and the public interest loses out," he wrote.
Well, the public interest has lost out, but it's because Gavin Newsom would rather pretend that he's a leader than to be one.