Gavin vs. Willie on State of the City

by Randy Shaw on October 28, 2005

The Chronicle’s huge front-page photo of Mayor Newsom yesterday led many to question the relative importance of the annual State of the City speech. While the Mayor’s speech should not have been given precedence over the pending White House indictments, the fact is that the Chronicle also gave massive coverage to Willie Brown’s second annual State of the City address. Those wondering whether anything will ever come from Newsom’s new proposals could find the fate of Brown’s plans instructive.

Mayor Newsom’s call for universal health care and other financially ambitious programs left politicians and activists to his left asking where he will find the money. But if past State of the City speeches are a model, few will recall the mayor’s ambitious plans come budget time in June 2006.

Consider what happened to former Mayor Brown’s 1997 proposals, described by the October 15, 1997 Chronicle as being offered “in a 95-minute oration of sweeping scope.”

Mayor Brown’s boldest proposal was the relocation of the quake-damaged de Young museum from Golden Gate Park to downtown. Brown said it was “untenable” for the museum to stay in the Park, and said that its needs were “inconsistent” with the Park.

To encourage this relocation, Brown promised $350 million in public funds for rebuilding in a downtown location. This speech followed the November 1996 defeat of a bond to retrofit the de Young. and preceded the June 1998 defeat of a bond to rebuild the museum.

At the time, Brown’s words seemed to spell the end of the de Young’s future in the park. But in June 1998 there was a new effort to get public financing for the de Young, and even its defeat did not result in the relocation of the facility.

Brown’s speech also called for the merging of BART, Caltrain, MUNI and AC Transit to create a transit superagency that “San Francisco would dominate.” This idea did not go over well with political leaders outside SF, and never got off the ground.

Brown also called for the closure of Market Street from 8th Street to the Embarcardero to cars, and for a new Hall of Justice. The latter is still being talked about, while the former has not resurfaced for years.

Always focused on trying to develop Hunters Point, Brown called for a new roadway and bridge connecting the shipyard with the planned 49ers stadium-mall. None of these projects happened, and based on the 49er’s recent performance, a new publicly financed stadium for the team is a political impossibility.

However, while most disappeared, a few of Brown’s State of the City ideas were implemented. He called for converting Octavia Street into a wide boulevard, even though a pending ballot measure sought to rebuild the freeway and kill this plan (the pro-freeway Prop H prevailed in the low-turnout November 1997 election, but voters reversed course in subsequent elections).

Brown also called for a redesign of the city’s General Assistance program, so that those eager to work would get more help and those uninterested in finding employment would get lower grants. This proposal ultimately resulted in the city’s Personal Assisted Employment Services (PAES) program.

The PAES program greatly increased the number of jobs available to unemployed single adults and paved the way for the city to begin leasing SRO’s so that those seeking jobs would have permanent housing. PAES proved one of Mayor Brown’s most important accomplishments, though he rarely publicized it.

A lesson to be drawn from Brown’s State of the City speeches is that bold, out of the box ideas generate positive media regardless of their impracticality. San Franciscans value creativity and optimism over the type of droning that one-termers like Frank Jordan used—he claimed in his 1992 speech that the city had not faced such a grim financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930’s, a message unlikely to inspire the masses.

Newsom’s call for universal health care was itself sufficient to satisfy the boldness threshold. Even if the program is scaled back for financial reasons, few will criticize Newsom for thinking too big.

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