Dem Edges Out Green on Left Coast

Gavin Newsom becomes San Francisco’s youngest mayor in a century

Golden Boy

Mayor-Elect Gavin Newsom.

San Francisco set records Tuesday night. It narrowly elected a moderate Democrat and city supervisor, Gavin Newsom, 36, to be its youngest mayor in nearly 100 years, in what was arguably the most expensive mayor’s race in its history—where nearly all the money was spent on one side, Newsom’s.

During the year and a half of his official candidacy, Newsom and his supporters raised more than $4.2 million to get the 118,000 votes it took him to defeat Green Party challenger, Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez, in the runoff election for this city’s highest office. That works out to about $35 per vote. Gonzalez spent about $500,000 ,or $4.60 for each of the 107,000 voters he managed to get to the polls, a ratio of almost 8 to 1.

Gonzalez, the progressive in the race, mounted a last-minute, come-from-behind campaign after the general election, what amounted to a primary on the left a month ago, in which Gonzalez narrowly defeated three other progressives, including both of the queer candidates, lesbian city treasurer Susan Leal and gay icon Tom Ammiano, a city supervisor.

Newsom campaigned strongly on the issue of combating homelessness in the city which is known worldwide for its bridges, its fog, and the beggars on its streets. Almost two years ago, in a move which he used to jump start his candidacy, he introduced a successful ballot measure, which he called “Care Not Cash,” to address what local pollster David Binder said is the number one issue in the minds of San Francisco’s voters—homelessness. Newsom’s measure mandated drastically reduced cash payments to welfare recipients, which might have discouraged the homeless from settling in San Fransisco. But in a prefiguring of the battles Newsom is bound to face as mayor, the rest of the Board of Supervisors, including Gonzalez, refused to implement Newsom’s measure, calling it “draconian.”

In his race for mayor, Newsom got the endorsements of only two of the eleven current board members, with five supporting Gonzalez. Although in his concession speech he said he would work with the new mayor—“When Mayor Newsom is right, we’ve got to get behind him and support him,” he said—Gonzalez also said that he, and presumably a majority of the board, would oppose him when they think he is wrong.

Newsom did get strong support from gay Supervisor Bevan Dufty, a confidante of the current mayor, Willie Brown, who represents the city’s heavily gay Castro district. Dufty said that the gay community seems to have divided, like the city did, in this election on economic lines, with prosperous, business-oriented gays supporting Newsom and the working class and largely younger lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people going with Gonzalez. But Dufty thinks that Newsom will be a strong supporter of gay issues in this city—which he identified as the methamphetamine epidemic currently raging here, queer economic development, and what he calls the “Castro Renaissance,” Dufty’s plan to improve the economics, and appearance, of the city’s gay Mecca which has been in decline recently.

Gonzalez’s queer supporters countered that Dufty’s and Newsom’s priorities are misplaced, and said that San Francisco is just too expensive a place to live, with the second-highest cost of living in the country after New York, and a persistent housing shortage.

Outside the mayor-elect’s victory party, which was at the city’s famed Fillmore West, demonstrators from the radical “Gay Shame” picketed, shouting “God bless America where an election only costs $4 million,” and “Newsom wins, homeless people die.” Several were arrested.

“Anywhere else on earth, he would be considered a very liberal progressive candidate,” said gay political consultant, Jim Revaldo, who worked for Newsom. But here on Planet San Francisco, where 80 percent went against the recall of Governor Gray Davis, things are different.

Gonzalez characterized Newsom’s campaign as the handiwork of San Francisco’s political machine, headed by Mayor Brown, who in his previous career as a state legislator became known as the Ayatollah of the Assembly, for the unprecedented control he exerted in the state’s capital as speaker. Brown backed Newsom, as did the rest of the Democratic Party establishment, from state legislators, to U.S. Senators, all the way up to ex-President Bill Clinton, who flew to San Francisco to endorse him.

Opponents have charged that the youthful Newsom, whose main political experience, the Board of Supervisors seat to which Brown appointed him in 1997, will be the current mayor’s puppet. Gonzalez told a rally over the weekend that “A vote for Gavin Newsom is a vote for Willie Brown.” But Brown, who will be 70 in March, denied that he will have any role in city government.

“Me? No, no, no,” the current mayor told Gay City News Tuesday night. “I’m on my way to Jurassic Park.”

Even some of Newsom’s supporters, however, concede that their candidate’s big spending was extraordinary.

“Maybe it was overkill,” said pro-Newsom consultant Revaldo who had been a member of Harvey Milk’s “brain trust.” Gonzalez and his supporters said that Newsom is too close to, and took too much money from, the city’s downtown business interests and unions to turn around now and make substantial changes in the way the city is governed.

But to succeed, Newsom will have to embrace change. The city is facing a $90 million mid-year deficit, declining revenues from the state, which now has a Republican governor, Arnold Schwarz-enegger, and is going to have to tighten its belt or raise taxes soon. His business backers will hate the idea of increased taxes, and the city’s unions will oppose shrinking the city’s budget, which grew almost 60 percent, mainly in personnel costs, during the boom-times Brown administration. With a Board of Supervisors stacked against him, Newsom faces huge hurdles.

Can he do it? At Tuesday night’s party, Mark Leno, a gay San Francisco assemblymember who is a Newsom supporter, said that the mayor’s office in this city is almost set up for failure.

“He has one hell of a challenge.” Leno said. “Gavin will soon face a defining moment when what his supporters want isn’t the right thing for the city as a whole. That’s a moment of trial and courage. I want to believe that Gavin can meet the challenge.”

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