Mayoral Debate Reveals A Lot About Newsom Supporters

by Paul Hogarth on October 12, 2007

I think I know why Mike Farrah, a senior aide to Gavin Newsom, made a campaign contribution to Chicken John Rinaldi. There is nothing better for Newsom’s campaign to have Rinaldi as an opponent — a man who admits he knows nothing and says he’s “running for second place.” It’s actually an insult to voters who want a real debate. Last night’s mayoral forum – the only time Newsom has appeared with his opponents – revealed a lot about his supporters, who had the best turnout in the audience. I don’t blame them for booing H. Brown when he took a cheap shot at the Mayor’s sex scandal, but they also booed Quintin Mecke during his closing statement for mentioning Chris Daly’s endorsement. As Newsom claims to move the City beyond yesterday’s “polarized and paralyzed” battles, his strongest supporters have their venom reserved for the District 6 Supervisor. And that was the most revealing moment of the debate.

At this point in the practically non-existent Mayor’s race, I have gone to enough candidate debates sans Newsom to have a clear idea about most of his opponents. None of them have a chance of winning, but at least Quintin Mecke, Ahimsa Sumchai, Lonnie Holmes and Harold Hoogasian are talking about the issues. It’s most of the rest – like nudist George Davis and Grasshopper Kaplan – that give the crew a bad reputation, and the mainstream media has painted the race as a circus freak show.

But nobody better exemplifies the lack of a serious dialogue than Chicken John Rinaldi, a self-described “showman” who – like Newsom – has avoided engaging his opponents in substantive dialogue. As the debate moderator asked serious questions about homelessness, Bayview-Hunters Point, violence, Muni, surveillance cameras and the next earthquake, Rinaldi would make irrelevant answers – and then conclude with “I have no opinion about [insert issue here.] I’m only running for second place.”

And like most debates sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the format did not give a real exchange between the candidates. KQED’s Scott Schafer asked nine questions in the 90-minute forum, and each candidate had 30 seconds to give a quick sound bite. It didn’t give candidates the chance to truly distinguish themselves, and some complained that they simply did not have time to answer the question.

Mecke turned one question around by saying that the candidates – including Newsom – really needed another forum where these issues can be fleshed out in more detail. When asked how to make Muni more reliable, Mecke said “a first-class city should not have a third-class system” – and then added “we don’t have enough time, we need to do this again, we need more substance, we need more dialogue, and we still have three weeks.”

For Newsom, the format allowed him the chance to simply repeat his accomplishments in sound bites – “we’re making progress” on homelessness, “we need to continue the work” to clean up Hunters Point, Muni’s overhaul “will be complete by the end of the year.” But some issues he cited, like police foot patrols, were introduced by the Supervisors – and only passed into law after his veto was overridden.

The Mayor’s opponents were clearly frustrated by the debate’s format, as it was probably their only opportunity to engage Newsom in the race. A few called him out for not doing Question Time at the Board of Supervisors, and one went so far as to say this was the “biggest problem” affecting the City. Others stuck to the issue of violence, especially the rising homicide rate that has climbed to 350 since Newsom took office.

Quintin Mecke – who has picked up a number of progressive endorsements – was seated next to the Mayor, allowing him a better chance than others to confront Newsom. When asked about dealing with a major earthquake, Mecke criticized the City’s current preparation for Halloween in the Castro. “If the City can’t handle a planned event,” he asked, “how will we handle an unplanned event?” That answer appeared to catch the Mayor off guard.

But most interesting about the debate was how Newsom supporters – who had the largest contingent in the audience – reacted to his opponents’ statements. Perennial eccentric candidate H. Brown, who reveled in attacking the Mayor throughout the forum, at one point touched on the sex scandal.

“If we’d had surveillance cameras inside the Mayor’s office this past year,” said Brown, “he would not be sitting here today.” The audience booed loudly, with one supporter shouting “that’s not very nice.” I don’t exactly blame them for responding that way.

But more surprisingly, the Newsom supporters booed when Quintin Mecke gave his closing statement – and it was not because he had attacked the Mayor. “I am proud to have the endorsement,” said Mecke, “of Supervisors Ross Mirkarimi and Chris Daly.” Apparently, that was enough for them to react with disgust.

For months, Newsom has used Daly as a punching bag to rile up his base. This year’s budget battle became a proxy fight for the Mayor’s race, as the Newsom campaign staged a press rally to fight the Supervisor’s cuts. In his closing statement last night, the Mayor took another swipe at Daly by thanking his opponents: “I commend you for running,” he said, “rather than just sitting on the sidelines and taking shots.”

It is ironic, of course, given that Newsom also said that he has moved the City beyond the “polarized and paralyzed” battles of the past. For at least the Mayor’s ardent supporters, having an enemy like Chris Daly – as ideological and polarizing of a battle as can be – still seems convenient.

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