I predicted in January that the only progressive who could challenge Gavin Newsom this year was Matt Gonzalez. Last night, Gonzalez announced that he would not run for Mayor – after a Progressive Convention in June produced no candidate. The Chronicle was quick to call Gonzalez the “last hope” to run for Mayor, and Newsom campaign manager Eric Jaye snidely remarked that his exit proved that progressives are in disarray. But despite Newsom the candidate being unbeatable this year, Newsom’s agenda for San Francisco is a very different story. While progressives have struggled to elect one of their own as Mayor, Newsom has proven that he has no coattails – while progressives have racked up an impressive number of legislative and electoral accomplishments. Letting the Teflon Mayor get re-elected by default is not such a terrible proposition, when you take the long-term approach of a movement that will outlive any election.
I can’t say I blame Gonzalez for choosing not to run. Newsom remains very popular, and has a well-heeled political operation. He’s already been endorsed by most labor unions, and has made serious inroads with the LGBT community – two crucial constituencies for a progressive candidate. And many of Gonzalez’s hard-core supporters, essential for running a campaign, have for various reasons been deeply disillusioned with him.
After extensive polling and focus groups, Gonzalez concluded that while voters are concerned with the City’s problems – including the homicide rate, homelessness and Muni – they don’t think that Newsom is to blame for it. Although the Mayor appoints all seven Muni directors, appoints the Chief of Police and made homelessness his signature issue, Newsom – who governs by press release – is somehow perceived by the average voter as hands-on.
But Newsom-the-man versus Newsom-the-politics is a totally different story. Voters like Gavin Newsom, but when you ask them about specific issues, San Franciscans are far more progressive than the Mayor. Newsom vetoed eviction disclosures, so the voters made it law. Newsom opposed paid sick leave and higher relocation assistance for tenants, but the people passed them as well. Progressives can beat Gavin Newsom when the fight is on their turf – the issues – but not when it’s a popularity contest.
Anyone who thinks that the Mayor has coattails should ask Heather Hiles, Lillian Sing, Mike Nevin, Dan Kelly, Rob Black and Doug Chan how they like being in elected office. Even in March 2004, when the Mayor was at 90% approval because of gay marriage, the voters soundly rejected his Workforce Housing Initiative by a 70-30 margin. It’s hard to make voters change their mind about a politician who they’ve already decided is a nice guy. They won’t throw him out of office, but they won’t necessarily approve his agenda.
Newsom was such a big loser from last November’s elections that I actually started to think he was beatable and should be challenged. Progressives who had long ago concluded that the best shot at winning the Mayor’s race was in 2011 began to talk about convincing Matt Gonzalez to run again. But even a sex scandal where the Mayor’s girlfriend took $10,000 in “catastrophic illness” pay for her alcohol abuse was not enough to sink his popularity. If anything, I believe the scandal was probably a net gain for Newsom.
When Supervisor Chris Daly announced a Progressive Convention a few weeks ago to pick the next mayoral candidate, I openly questioned whether that was such a good idea. Progressives control the Board of Supervisors, and even overrode the Mayor’s veto on foot patrols, and Newsom has sometimes been willing to support progressive causes – like universal health care – if allowed to take credit.
A lot of progressives were mad at me for writing that, but what struck me was the number of people who privately told me that they agreed. As one e-mail put it, “[Newsom] clearly doesn’t want to be mayor anymore, so let’s make him do it.” Although Newsom cannot be beat, progressives are in a better situation today than with Willie Brown – when at least the Mayor knew how to enact revenge and punish his political enemies.
Of course, this year’s budget fight put a dent on that theory – as progressives did not come out as well as they should have with the final product. But I don’t believe it’s a co-incidence that progressives suffered on the issues right as Daly was getting them to focus on defeating Gavin Newsom. By challenging the Mayor on his favorable turf (his personal re-election), progressives got clobbered.
One thing I have always admired about Chris Daly is his willingness to take the personal attacks in politics in order to get a good final product. He is the antithesis of Gavin Newsom: a hard worker who pushes an issue-based agenda, even though it means he doesn’t enjoy the Mayor’s popularity and gets dragged down the gutter for it. But Supervisor Bevan Dufty was right; Daly did more during the budget fight to help Newsom get re-elected than anyone else.
Politicians come and go, but those who work on a progressive, issue-based agenda will always be there. It’s sad that Matt Gonzalez – or another prominent progressive – did not take the plunge to challenge Newsom this year, but it’s important to keep things in perspective. Progressives have a better shot when the contest is over propositions and down-ballot races, but not when it’s a referendum on the Mayor’s popularity.
And when you’re fighting for the long haul, you have to learn to pick your battles.
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