Has Newsom Moved to the Left?

by Randy Shaw on March 7, 2005

Gavin Newsom was elected Mayor by sweeping the city’s most conservative neighborhoods. The post-election story in the New York Times credited Republican votes as making the key difference in the race. But after becoming the leading national spokesperson for gay marriage, and supporting Local 2’s hotel boycott, Newsom is perceived as more liberal than first thought. Is this true, or have the land use disputes that put him on the conservative side of San Francisco politics simply not arisen in recent months?

Every weekday at least one new press release comes from the Mayor’s office announcing that Mayor Newsom is either “launching” or “transforming” a city program. One day it’s a local earned income tax credit, the next it’s a sports program for Bayview girls, and the day after it’s an event at St. Anthony’s to highlight a program to expand food stamps.

When the city contracted to make thirty rooms at the Mary Elizabeth Inn available for homeless women, the mayor’s press office hailed the opening of “the first” women-only supportive housing site. Similar events highlighted “the first” mass meeting of Project Connect, “the first” hotel for the chronically homeless, and “the first” reduction in San Francisco’s official number of homeless persons.

Today, PBS’s Lehrer News Hour will be filming in one of the top-quality hotels the Tenderloin Housing Clinic has leased through financing from Care not Cash. While the hotel leasing program for homeless single adults on welfare started in 1999, the national media now frames it as part of Newsom’s innovative “Housing First” approach to homelessness.

As Mayor Newsom holds media events around issues impacting the poor and low-income neighborhoods, the downtown backers whose money put him in office are quietly grumbling. The Examiner, striving to be the Chamber of Commerce’s house organ, editorialized recently that the Mayor is allowing the Board of Supervisors to lead on key land use issues. Even the Newsom adorers in the Chronicle Editorial Board have raised concern about the Mayor’s failure to provide leadership in the management of the city.

Downtown developers complain over lunch that projects at the Planning Department have ground to a halt under our allegedly pro-business Mayor, but none go public with their criticism. The same is true for the Mayor’s Westside supporters, who are still waiting for evidence that the candidate they elected can fulfill his pledge to run city government more cost-effectively.

If Newsom is perceived as moving leftward, a major reason is that he is the first San Francisco Mayor who faces no public criticism from the right and does not feel obligated to defer to their demands.. This is due to ownership changes in local newspapers and the current composition of the Board of Supervisors.

From the 1970’s until 2003, when the Fang family sold the Examiner and Independent, San Francisco had at least one newspaper that sought to be the voice of the city’s homeowner neighborhoods. These papers offered an ongoing conservative critique of San Francisco mayors on issues such as homelessness, the city budget, infrastructure needs, and quality of life issues impacting Westside residents. Such critiques had a subtle but real impact on mayoral policies.

When the Hearst Corporation owned the Examiner and it competed for readers against the Chronicle, one paper would frequently stake out a more conservative view than the other on an issue affecting city government. This increased the likelihood that a reader of a daily newspaper in San Francisco would read critical comments about Mayoral policies

Even when the Fangs deferred to Mayor Brown on all issues he cared strongly about, they took strong conservative stances on fiscal issues. The Fang papers also promoted issues of concern to Asian-Americans in the Sunset and Richmond, whose agenda was usually to the right of Mayor Brown.

Since Newsom took office the Examiner and Independent have been under the control of Denver billionaire Phillip Anschutz. The paper now mimics the Chronicle’s longtime position as the voice of the Chamber of Commerce. The Examiner is no longer the voice of San Francisco’s Westside neighborhoods, and it’s political impact in San Francisco comes nowhere near that exercised by The Independent under the Fang’s (many still blame the Fang’s relentless attacks on Art Agnos for Frank Jordan’s upset victory in 1991).

Free of newspaper criticism from the right, Newsom also has no conservative critics on the Board of Supervisors. If there was a method to the madness behind the Mayor’s ethically questionable and clumsy “triple play,” it did succeed in removing frequent Newsom critic Tony Hall from the Board.

Hall’s replacement, Sean Elsbernd, previously worked for Newsom and was initially appointed to the Board by the Mayor. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the representative of West Portal and West of Twin Peaks to criticize the Newsom Administration.

Alioto-Pier was also a Newsom appointee and Fiona Ma rarely is quoted on any issues facing the city. The current Board of Supervisors is light years removed from the days where Quentin Kopp, John Barbagelata and Lee Dolson railed from the right against the city’s mayors.

In the absence of any potential criticism from the right, it only makes sense for Newsom to try to boost his support among progressives. This is the constituency he will need to win a statewide Democratic primary, the consideration that remains at the heart of his perceived loyalty to the hotel workers affiliated with Local 2.

But Newsom’s supposed leftward lurch may simply be a matter of circumstance. He has not been placed in a position for some time where he has had to take a position that forces him to choose between progressive/neighborhood constituencies and the desires of corporate/real estate San Francisco. When he has been forced to make this choice, he’s gone with the latter.

Soon after taking office the Mayor led the fight to pass Prop J, the Chamber-backed Workforce Housing Initiative. Newsom’s support for the measure confirmed the perception that San Francisco’s new Mayor took his marching orders from downtown businesses.

Shortly after Prop J’s landslide defeat, the Mayor vetoed legislation passed by seven Supervisors to prevent the demolition of rent-controlled housing. This veto, and the Mayor’s emergence as the official opponent of the anti-demolition ballot measure (Prop M, which was later removed from the ballot by a judge), confirmed the
perception that the Mayor supported wealthy landlords against working-class tenants.

Other than these two signature issues, the Mayor has not been forced to make a controversial land use decision. It is these decisions that have distinguished “moderate” from “progressive” politicians in San Francisco.

Last Thursday, the Mayor announced the creation of a Task Force to address the steady departure of kids from the city. We certainly don’t need a study group to tell us that families with children increasingly cannot afford to live in San Francisco, and that many are forced out of the city after being evicted under the state Ellis Act.

Will the Mayor push his real estate allies to reach a deal to limit these evictions? Will he use his connections to help enact Assemblymember Mark Leno’s AB 781, which will reduce the number of families evicted under Ellis?

How the Mayor comes down on this will reveal whether he really has become more committed to economic and social justice since taking office.

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