Gavin Newsom is terrified to face real political debate. That's bad for the entire city
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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.
Peskin's motion aimed to make space on the board's agenda for the mayor every third Tuesday so he could address the supervisors on policy matters — a matter he planned to discuss at the Dec. 7 meeting of the Rules Committee.
But two days earlier the mayor took his first jab at ducking the intent of Prop. I. He sent the supervisors a letter in which he claimed that to truly serve the public interest "we should hold these conversations in the community."
Next, Newsom sent staffers to the Rules Committee hearing, where members discussed how not to force the implementation of Prop. I down the mayor's throat — and the mayor's staff claimed they'd be happy to work with the committee to that end.
As a result of this "kumbaya moment," as Noyola calls it, the Rules Committee decided to continue the item to the following week to have more productive conversation. Meanwhile and unbeknownst to them, 19 minutes into the hearing, the Mayor's Office of Communications issued a press release outlining Newsom's intent to hold a town hall meeting in the Richmond District on Jan. 13 — which the mayor said would substitute for complying with Prop. I.
"The Rules Committee was blindsided by the mayor's press release," Noyola says.
The mayor, of course, said that all the supervisors were welcome to attend his town hall event and participate in the discussion, giving the appearance he was happy to debate but wanted to do so out in the neighborhoods. But that was a lie: Newsom and his staff knew very well that under state law, the supervisors were barred from participating in any such event.
According to the Brown Act, if a quorum of supervisors wants to be somewhere to discuss business that may be before the board in the future — such as homelessness — and if it wants policy interactions, the clerk must give notice that the supervisors intend to hold a special meeting.
The board actually discussed Newsom's invitation, and board clerk Gloria Young estimated it would cost $10,000 to $15,000 to staff. It also raised serious procedural and legal questions for the board.
In other words, Newsom knew the supes couldn't just show up and ask questions.
"But if the mayor wants people to just sit and attend a presentation in the background, like at a speech or a Christmas event, then special meeting notice isn't needed," notes Noyola, explaining why Peskin ultimately dismissed the mayor's invite as "childish" — and why Peskin now says he'd support making question time a charter amendment, thereby forcing the mayor to comply with the will of the voters.
While the Newsom camp continues to dismiss the Daly-authored Prop. I as "political theater," the supervisor is quick to counter it's the Mayor's Office that's playing games.
"They claim political theater, but if that's what it takes to get serious policy discussions going, then so be it," says Daly, noting he has had one private discussion with the mayor in two years, while Sup. Geraldo Sandoval has not talked to him at all. "Newsom claims he has an open door to his office, but so do I — and he's never been to mine. For the mayor to refuse to discuss important policy items and hide behind 'I'm afraid of Chris Daly' is pathetic. Willie Brown probably would have come."
Daly also observes that San Francisco's government is structurally unique within California because it represents a city and a county.
"It's an awkward setup in which there is little formal communication between the board and the mayor," Daly says, "other than when the board forwards legislation to the mayor for him to approve or veto."
It's a structural weakness that hasn't been helped by the fact that in the three years since he was elected, Newsom only appeared before the board twice — this week and for the board inauguration two years ago — both times giving a brief speech but not engaging in dialogue. It's an anomaly without precedent in the history of San Francisco. (It's customary for mayors to deliver their State of the City speeches in the board chambers, but Newsom has done all his at venues outside City Hall.) Most mayors also make a point of occasionally appearing at board meetings (Willie Brown would sometimes even take questions from the supervisors).
On Jan. 8, Newsom slipped in at the last minute and sat next to Peskin until it was his turn to make some brief remarks, an opportunity that immediately followed public comment, during which a baseball-capped woman pleaded with the supervisors to "please kiss and make up with mayor."
After Peskin welcomed "the 42nd mayor, Gavin Christopher Newsom, to these chambers where you are always welcome," Newsom rose — and was hissed by a few members of the audience.
"This is a city that's highly critical of its leadership and that expects greatness from its leaders," the mayor said. "I have great expectations of 2007.... The key is to work together on the things that unite us.... I look forward to engaging with each and every one of you."
This isn't just politics — there are serious issues involved. Without the monthly question time the Board of Supervisors requested and the voters approved, it's hard for the city's elected district representatives to figure out if this mayor actually supports or even understands the issues he claims to champion.
Last year, for example, Newsom was happy to take credit in the national press for the universal health care package that actually came from Sup. Tom Ammiano. But when Ammiano got blasted by business leaders, Newsom didn't rush to defend the plan; it was hard to tell if he even still supported it.
Business leaders didn't like that the proposal required employers to provide health care insurance. But Newsom's own staff recognized that without that mandate, the plan would never work. Did the mayor support it or not?
The situation prompted Sup. Ross Mirkarimi to characterize the mayor's proposal as "a one-winged aircraft that doesn't fly," and it was left to Newsom's public health director, Dr. Mitch Katz, to confirm that both the voluntary and mandatory pieces of the legislation are joined at the hip. "One can't successfully move forward without the other," Katz said at a July 11 board meeting, which Newsom, of course, did not attend.
Since then, the mayor's commitment to the amalgamated health care package has been thrown into question once again, this time thanks to a lawsuit the Golden Gate Restaurant Association filed only against the employer mandate aspect of the legislation.
The GGRA, which filed its suit the day after the election, is a Newsom ally that funneled more than a half million dollars in soft money into Rob Black's unsuccessful campaign against District 6's Daly and into Doug Chan's coffers for his disastrous fourth-place showing in District 4.
Asked if he knows where the mayor stands on the city's universal health care plan, Ammiano told the Guardian, "We'll be meeting with Newsom in the new year and asking for a press conference in which we both pledge to give our continued support for all aspects of plan, but that's not yet been nailed down."
Ammiano's experience is one example of repeated communication breakdowns between Newsom and the board, which have severely hindered policy discussions and the cause of "good government" to which Newsom so frequently pledges his fealty. As a result, Newsom has often ended up vetoing legislation only to reveal in his veto letter that all the legislation needed was a few minor tweaks — changes he might have just asked for had he been more engaged.
Consider how a year ago, Newsom vetoed legislation designed to limit how much parking could be included along with the 10,000 units of housing that were to be built in downtown San Francisco. The legislation was proposed by Newsom's planning director, Dean Macris, and supported by every member of the Planning Commission but one.
When Newsom caught heat from downtown developers over the measure (see "Joining the Battle," 2/8/06), he sent surrogates to muddy the waters and make his position unclear until after it was approved by the board. Newsom vetoed the measure, then proposed a couple prodeveloper amendments that hadn't been brought to the board discussions.
"I'm trying to get the political leaders to come to an agreement because the city needs this," a frustrated Macris told the Guardian at the time.
A few months later the board was similarly blindsided when it tried to approve legislation that would have created a six-month trial closure on Saturdays of some roads in Golden Gate Park. Newsom's board liaison, Wade Crowfoot, worked closely with bicycle advocates and sponsor Sup. Jake McGoldrick to modify the legislation into something the mayor might be able to support.
Everyone involved thought they had a deal. Then, for reasons that still aren't entirely clear, Newsom vetoed the measure. One of the reasons he cited was the fact that voters had rejected Saturday closure back in the 1990s, before the construction of an underground parking garage that still never fills up.
"For what it's worth, what really sells it for me on this issue of the will of the voters was the shit I went through after Care Not Cash, when the voters supported it and [my critics] did everything to put up roadblocks. And I was making a lot of these same arguments, you know, so this hits close to home," Newsom told the Guardian a few days after he vetoed Healthy Saturdays.
His words seem ironic: he loves the will of the voters when it suits his interest but not when it requires him to act like a real mayor.
This isn't the first time Newsom's been selective in honoring what the voters want: he also refused to hold up the Candlestick Park naming deal with Monster Cable, even though voters rejected it through Proposition H in 2004.
Last October, Newsom's veto of Mirkarimi's wildly popular foot patrol legislation led to a humiliating 9–2 override in November, but not before he'd dragged San Francisco Police Department chief Heather Fong with him through the political mud and created an unpleasant rift between himself and his formerly loyal ally Sup. Bevan Dufty.
Newsom has tried to spin his refusal to engage in question time as something other than defiance of voters by proposing the upcoming series of town hall meetings.
"Bringing these conversations to the neighborhoods — during nonwork 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," Newsom wrote in his Dec. 5 letter.
But even the Chronicle and the Examiner — neither of which have been supportive of progressives in City Hall — have condemned Newsom for ducking this fight. On Dec. 18, Chronicle editorial writer Marshall Kirduff opined, "There is no end of topics to discuss — a Muni overhaul, a new neighborhood coming to Treasure Island, police policies, the ever-with-us homeless. The city could do with more debate even at considerable risk of dopey rhetoric. That means the mayor should step out of his office, walk across City Hall and face the supervisors. It's time to bring on the questions."
Meanwhile, Daly notes the mayor has been spending excessive time out of state, not to mention making frequent trips to Southern California. "I think we should subpoena the guy; he doesn't know what's going on," Daly quips.
A classic example of Newsom's cluelessness about the local political scene occurred live on TV shortly after 59 percent of San Francisco voted to impeach President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Asked during a Nov. 16 City Desk News Hour interview with Barbara Taylor about Proposition J's passage, Newsom said, "I am told Congress is going to come to a halt next week, and they're going to reflect on this new San Francisco value. Before you impeach the president, you should consider the guy who would become president. Why don't you start with the top two?"
Yup, it's definitely time to bring on those questions. *
Newsom's first town hall meeting takes place Jan. 13 at 10 a.m. in District 1, Richmond Recreation Center, at 251 18th Ave., SF.