Newsom Seeks Mayoral Challenge from Left

by Randy Shaw on February 13, 2006


As 2006 began, Mayor Gavin Newsom seemed assured of an easy re-election in 2007. The Mayor had broadened his support among progressives since being elected, and no conservative candidate could steal Newsom’s support from the downtown and real estate interests that funded his 2003 campaign. But the Mayor saw his political situation quite differently. Despite his support for gay marriage, the UNITEHERE Local 2 hotel boycott, and the lack of any clear progressive challenger, Newsom continued to believe that a candidate of the left would seriously challenge him in 2007. Based on his analysis, the Mayor concluded that he needed to reaffirm his loyalty to his donor base. That’s why the Mayor is now going out of his way to veto or water down progressive legislation addressing tenant protections, health care, campaign finance reform, downtown parking restrictions, and violence prevention, and why he is no longer pushing for major police restructuring.

Gavin Newsom has always maintained that his policies were governed by the “best practices,” not politics. But the past month has seen a Mayor so fixated on a leftist mayoral challenge that he has either vetoed progressive solutions without offering alternatives, or has aggressively co-opted and/or watered-down progressive legislation.

Why a Mayor with such high approval ratings would feel compelled to move away from what made him successful is a mystery. But the Gavin Newsom of Care not Cash, gay marriage, and the local Earned Income Tax Credit— issues where he showed policy initiative– has been replaced by a Bill Clinton-type politician whose agenda is based on co-opting the proposals of his perceived political adversaries.

Newsom’s political popularity grew the further he moved away from his initial downtown/real estate base. These forces led him to a landslide electoral defeat with Prop J (the Workforce Housing Initiative) in March 2004, and to political failures that November on two business tax initiatives and a housing bond (though the Chamber of Commerce’s real commitment to these issues remains suspect).

In contrast, Newsom’s poll numbers rose with his moves to the left around gay marriage, his strategic alliance with the Harvey Milk Democratic Club around the Assessor campaign and other issues, and his support for the Local 2 hotel boycott and Local 250’s hospital campaign. The Mayor could also take credit for creating a record number of permanent housing units for homeless adults, successfully surmounting what had been an ongoing political nightmare for prior mayors.

But despite his increased popularity among some progressives, Gavin Newsom apparently felt that his new political friends could potentially desert him come the 2007 election. It is significant that even before his December 19, 2005 meeting with Gap Founder Don Fisher and other downtown business and real estate figures, Mayor Newsom had told San Francisco magazine that he fully expected a mayoral challenger from the “ideological left.”

The Fisher meeting was allegedly requested by the large Republican political donor to secure the Mayor’s opposition to changes in parking rules for downtown condominium projects. But those attending the meeting included a broad swath of Newsom’s 2003 donor base, and the issues discussed went well beyond parking to include Mid-Market Redevelopment, the Rincon Hill housing deal, and the Mayor’s overall relationship with the business community.

At this now legendary December 19 City Hall meeting, the Mayor was bluntly told that the people he was counting on to fund his re-election campaign felt estranged from the Mayor’s Office. Newsom was given a choice: aggressively serve downtown’s interests, or look elsewhere for re-election money.

Since Fisher and his allies had nowhere else to go in 2007, Newsom could have told the financier to go jump. Newsom did not need millions from corporate San Francisco to be re-elected, and there is not even a potential major candidate considering a run against him.

But as noted above, even prior to December 19 Newsom expected a mayoral challenger from the left. Since he did not trust his newfound progressive allies to stay with him in 2007, he decided to switch course and reenergize his business and real estate base.

Newsom’s acute focus on the 2007 race was further confirmed when he stated in the February 6, 2006 Chronicle that recently-passed legislation providing public financing for mayoral election was targeted at him:

“It guarantees that there will be a half-dozen people running against me that are well financed,” said Newsom, looking ahead to a re-election campaign next year. “There’s no question it will make for a more competitive mayor’s race, and having gone through the last one, might as well go through another one.”

Newsom’s previous concern that he would be challenged by a candidate from the “ideological left” has now been joined by his belief that as many as “a half-dozen” well-financed challengers will emerge. But political insiders are at a loss to guess the identity of these potential mayoral challengers, as there is not a single serious candidate even making noises about challenging Newsom in 2007.

In the absence of a viable challenger, the Mayor appears to be going out of his way to alienate progressives and fulfill his prophecy that he will be challenged from the left. Since the December 19 meeting he has:

*vetoed two tenant protection measures, even though some of his close allies assumed he would sign the weaker eviction disclosure law.

*derailed and then tried to co-opt Supervisor Ammiano’s employer health care mandate, which could now become a $75 per employee “universal health care plan” that taxpayers will partially fund. Details on the program will be worked out by a ten-member committee that will meet over the next 100 days.

*expressed an intention to veto downtown parking reforms, despite his public support for “green” buildings, sustainable cities, and other environmental-friendly measures.

*unveiled a $16.5 million “anti-violence” program after four Supervisors sponsored a $20 million charter amendment on the same issue for the June ballot. The Mayor made no effort to join these Supervisors on a common piece of legislation, and the Mayor unveiled his proposal only days before the full Board considers the charter amendment on Tuesday.

*not only abandoned plans for structural reforms at the SFPD, but rewarded the POA by giving them 600 more officers and timing the announcement to undermine the Chronicle series calling for major changes in the Department.

*issued a press release within minutes of the Board’s 9-2 passage of “voter-owned” elections that a)urged the legislation to go before the voters and b)criticized it for failing to cover all offices and not addressing weaknesses in campaign disclosure laws. The Mayor had never raised either of these concerns during the long period of hearings around the public financing measure. But since the legislation was seen as coming from the “ideological left,” the Mayor felt obligated to criticize it, rather than enthusiastically support it.

Most San Franciscans do not believe that what’s good for downtown is necessarily what’s good for the city. Mayor Newsom’s willingness to toe the downtown line is bad politics and bad policy, and could give him the exciting re-election fight that he apparently desires.

Send feedback