Just as the 2007 mayor's race begins, Newsom is starting to look vulnerable — but who's running against him?
Mayor Gavin Newsom has long been considered a lock for reelection next year, a belief driven by his same-sex marriage gesture, hoarding of political capital, personal charm, and high approval ratings. Yet Guardian interviews with more than 20 political experts and insiders from across the ideological spectrum indicate that Newsom may now be more vulnerable than ever.
Just as San Francisco politicians are starting to calculate whether to run, the Newsom administration has suffered a series of political setbacks. In November alone, most of Newsom's picks got spanked during the election, his veto of popular police foot patrol legislation was overridden by the Board of Supervisors, and he was caught off guard by the San Francisco 49ers' announcement that they were moving to Santa Clara, taking with them Newsom's hopes of landing the 2016 Summer Olympics.
"Until recently, I didn't have a lot of hope," Sup. Chris Daly, whom Newsom unsuccessfully worked to defeat, told us. "Now the progressives have a glimmer of hope. The mayor seems to be hurting from three or four episodes where he was caught with egg on his face."
To many political observers — most of whom the Guardian allowed to speak anonymously in order to capture their most candid observations and plans — the defeats were indicative of a mayor who seems increasingly disengaged and out of touch. Even Newsom's strategy of avoiding fights that might hurt his popularity has rankled many of his allies, who complain that this risk-averse approach has allowed the Board of Supervisors to effectively set the city's agenda.
"This guy does not use one scintilla of his political capital on anyone or anything," said former mayor Art Agnos, whose name has been dropped as a possible challenger to Newsom but who told us, "I'm not running."
There are a number of strong anti-Newsom narratives out there, even on his signature issues, such as crime and homelessness, which persist as visible, visceral problems despite increased city spending on homeless services and controversial tactics like police sweeps and one-way bus tickets out of town for vagrants.
The mayor started his term by announcing during a radio interview that if the murder rate rose, he should be ousted from office. It did — remaining at 10-year highs through the past three years — handing his potential opponents a ready-made sound bite. The crime rate could be a powerful weapon when paired with Newsom's failure to follow up on promises of police reform.
Newsom is still likely to offer up a long list of accomplishments in his usual statistics-laden style. But much of what he tries to take credit for was actually someone else's initiative, such as the universal health care measure crafted by Sup. Tom Ammiano (who is running for the State Assembly and not taking a third run at the mayor's office). Adding to Newsom's problems in November was the lawsuit the Golden Gate Restaurant Association — a Newsom ally — filed challenging the measure.
Almost everyone we interviewed agreed that if Newsom does have approval ratings of around 80 percent, as has been reported, that support is very soft and may significantly erode during the campaign. "His support is an inch deep and a mile wide" was how one political analyst put it.
"His 'skyrocketing' approval rating is irrelevant," one downtown politico told us. "People approve of the mayor like they approve of the color beige. If you fill an arena with 50,000 people and ask them to decide on what color to paint the walls, that color will always be beige. It's not that they necessarily like beige; it's that they will accept it as long as those freaks who want hot pink don't get their way."
And then there are his personal foibles. Newsom's choice of girlfriends — from the Scientologist actress to the 19-year-old hostess — has found its way into print and caused the mayor to lash out in brittle ways that have hurt his relations with once-friendly outlets like the Chronicle, which openly mocked Newsom's televised comments last month about how hard his job is and how he might not run for reelection.
Finally, there are the new electoral realities: this is the first mayor's race in which challengers will receive public financing from a $7 million fund (almost all of which, Newsom campaign manager Eric Jaye argues, will be aimed at doing damage to Newsom) and the first with ranked-choice voting, allowing candidates to run as a team and gang up on the mayor.
Add it all up, and Newsom looks vulnerable. But that's only the first part of a two-part question. The trickier part is who can run against Newsom, and that's a question to which nobody has any good answer yet.
Among the names being dropped for a mayoral run are Dennis Herrera, Aaron Peskin, Ross Mirkarimi, Matt Gonzalez, Kamala Harris, Mark Leno, Agnos, Susan Leal, Angela Alioto, Lou Girardo, Warren Hellman, Jeff Adachi, Tony Hall, Leland Yee, Daly, Michael Hennessey, Quentin Kopp, and Carole Migden. That's quite a list.
Yet most say they are disinclined to run this time around, and none are likely to announce their candidacies in the near future, which is when most observers believe a serious run at Newsom would have to begin. Here's the catch-22: nobody wants to run against Newsom unless his approval rating sinks below 60 percent, but it's unlikely to sink that low unless there are rivals out there challenging him every day.
Two candidates who already hold citywide office and could aggressively challenge Newsom on police issues are Sheriff Hennessey and District Attorney Harris, both of whom have mainstream credentials as well as supporters in the progressive community. But both have expressed reluctance to run in the next mayoral election, at least in part because they're also standing for reelection this fall and would need to leave their jobs to run for mayor.
Public Defender Adachi is a favorite of many progressives and could also run on police reform, but his job of representing sometimes heinous criminals could be easy for the Newsom team to attack Willie Horton–<\d>style.
Many of the strongest potential candidates are thought to be waiting four more years until the seat is open. City Attorney Herrera can take as much credit as Newsom for gay marriage and is a tough campaigner and formidable fundraiser who has clearly been setting himself up for higher office. Assemblymember Leno has won over progressives since his divisive 2002 primary against Harry Britt and could be mayoral material, particularly because he's termed out in two years. But both are allies of Newsom and reluctant to run against him.
Several supervisors and former supervisors would love to beat Newsom, but the road seems steep for them. Daly just got beat up in his own reelection, so his negatives are too high to run again right now. Supervisor Mirkarimi might run, but some consider him too Green and too green and are urging him to wait four more years. Board President Peskin could also be a contender, but some doubt his citywide appeal and note a few bad votes he's cast.
Challenges from Newsom's right could include Kopp, the former legislator and judge; Hall, the former supervisor whom Newsom ousted from his Treasure Island post; businessman and attorney Girardo; financier and philanthropist Hellman; and Alioto, who ran last time. But these would-be challengers are generally less liberal than Newsom, who pundits say is as conservative a mayor as a town with an ascendant progressive movement will tolerate.
Finally, there's Gonzalez, who four years ago jumped in the mayor's race at the last minute, was outspent by Newsom six-to-one, and still came within less than five percentage points of winning. Many progressives are urging him to run again, noting that he is still popular and has the political skills to highlight Newsom's shortcomings. But Gonzalez remains cagey about his intentions.
"I don't believe I'm running for mayor. The chances are slim," Gonzalez told us. "But I think he needs to be challenged."
Newsom campaign manager Jaye says he's definitely expecting a challenge. And unlike most observers whom we spoke with, who are surveying the field and not seeing many people jumping in, Jaye expects a crowded free-for-all and a tough race.
"Is it likely to be a highly contested mayor's race? Sure. Is that a good thing? Yes, I think it is," Jaye said. "Every race in San Francisco is tough. The school board races here are fought harder than some Senate races."
But Jaye thinks the new public financing system — in which mayoral candidates who can raise $135,000 will get $450,000 from the city — will be the biggest factor. "That's one of the reasons I think everyone's going to run," Jaye said. "That guarantees it will be a crowded field."
One political analyst said that's the best scenario for defeating Newsom. He said dethroning the mayor will be like a pack of jackals taking down an elephant. No single challenger is likely to beat Newsom, but if he's being attacked from all sides, he just might fall.
As for Newsom's weaknesses and missteps, Jaye doesn't agree the mayor is particularly weak and doesn't think people will turn away from Newsom because of his candid comments on how the job cuts into his personal life.
"One of the reasons so many people like Gavin Newsom is he's not afraid to be human in public and to be honest," Jaye said, adding that his candidate is up for the challenge. "He is running for real and will run a vigorous race."
Jaye concedes that the 49ers issue is difficult: Newsom will be hurt if they leave, and he'll be hurt if he appears to give up too much to keep them here. The high murder rate and inaction on police reform are widely considered to be vulnerabilities, but Jaye said, "Gavin Newsom gets up every day and works on that problem, and if voters think another candidate has a better solution, they'll look at it."
Everyone agrees that candidates will enter the race late — which is what happened during the last two mayor's races and is even likelier with public financing. If Newsom takes more hits or can't get his head into the game, the sharks will start circling. "The next three months with what happens with the mayor will be telling," another political insider told us.
One test will be with Proposition I, the measure voters approved Nov. 7 asking the mayor to show up for a monthly question time before the Board of Supervisors. Newsom reportedly has said he won't come, which could look cowardly and out of touch to the voters who approved it and to the supervisors, who might make great political theater of the no-show. And if Newsom does decide to show up, most observers believe he might not fare well in such an unscripted exchange.
If Newsom implodes or appears weak in late spring, suddenly all those political heavy hitters will be forced to think about getting in the fray. After all, as just about everyone told us, nine months is like an eternity in San Francisco politics — and Newsom has the best job in town.