The Chronicle’s Biggest Lie About Gavin Newsom

by Randy Shaw and Eric Schaefer on February 15, 2005

In its January 2, 2005 front page review of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s first year, the San Francisco Chronicle stated that the mayor has “turned heads” by focusing “city resources and his time on Bayview-Hunters Point and other impoverished neighborhoods that have been afflicted with violence and decades long-neglect from City Hall.” According to the article, Hunters Point residents describe Newsom as ” the first mayor they can remember who paid them real attention.”

Like so many articles about Newsom, the Chronicle made the Mayor’s visits to Bayview-Hunters Point newsworthy by claiming he was going where prior mayors feared to tread. The Chronicle’s depiction of the wealthy, white Newsom becoming the first mayor to really care about, and relate to, the largely African-American Bayview-Hunters Point community makes for an inspiring story — if it were true.

But it is a lie. The Chronicle’s account of Newsom’s actions in relation to his predecessors is a complete and utter fabrication. Bayview-Hunters Point has not suffered from “decades of neglect” from City Hall, and Newsom is not the first mayor to pay real attention to the area.

These claims represent a defining example of the Chronicle’s relentless stream of political propaganda designed to promote Newsom, who has received a degree of fawning political coverage in San Francisco’s largest daily unprecedented for big-city mayors.

“Propaganda” is defined as “any systematic promotion of particular ideas to further one’s cause,” and the term is typically used to refer to the spreading of information designed to “deceive or distort” the truth. The Chronicle’s promotion of Gavin Newsom’s “special” relationship to Bayview as akin to Robert Kennedy’s unique and legendary relationship to California farmworkers (a connection made explicit in another Chronicle article) has led the paper to distort and censor the true history of Bayview-Hunters Point.

This propaganda also represents an insult to former Mayors Joseph Alioto, Dianne Feinstein, and Willie Brown, all of whose track records contradict the Chronicle’s claims. In particular, former Mayor Art Agnos made improving Bayview-Hunters Point his top priority, investing significant personal time and city resources in the neighborhood. The Chronicle’s denigration of Agnos’ relationship to Bayview is beyond insulting; it is libelous.

To give but one of many, many examples: If the Chronicle told readers that former Mayor Agnos visited with Bayview-Hunters Point gang leaders in the middle of the night, then Gavin Newsom’s daytime visits to play basketball would not be newsworthy by comparison. So to promote Newsom’s actions, Agnos’s work with neighborhood gang leaders has been erased from the Chronicle’s pages.

Propaganda is best defeated by the truth. The investigative report that follows is designed to deter, or limit the impact of, future Chronicle lies about the history of a neighborhood.

Nothing in our analysis is intended to blame Mayor Newsom for the Chronicle’s propagandistic approach to his efforts to improve Bayview. We hope he enhances Bayview for those currently living there. We also hope Mayor Newsom shares our view that his credibility should not be built by erasing the accomplishments and dedication of his predecessors.

Bayview-Hunters Point is hampered by poverty and violence, but the villain is decades-long cuts in federal funding for inner-city neighborhoods, not City Hall neglect. Blaming prior mayors for not solving Bayview’s problems is no different from Bush Administration claims that the persistence of poverty, homelessness and hunger in America means that food stamps, Section 8 vouchers and job training programs are ineffective and should be cut.

Have Mayors from Alioto to Brown really neglected Bayview-Hunters Point? Have they failed to show “real attention” to its residents problems? Here are the often surprising facts.

Mayor Joe Alioto (1968-75)
Evaluating whether Mayor Joe Alioto neglected Bayview-Hunters Point (hereafter B-HP) is easy. As Mayor during that long ago age when America was still embarking on a War on Poverty, Alioto had to choose two neighborhoods to receive an influx of federal funds through the national Model Cities program. He chose the Mission and B-HP.

When the legendary car chase movie Bullitt was filmed in San Francisco, Alioto persuaded the producers to pay for two swimming pools in the city. This is how B-HP got its Martin Luther King Jr. pool.

Although Joe Alioto is no longer with us, and it has been thirty years since he left the Mayor’s office, the Alioto name remains golden in B-HP. Alioto’s daughter Angela was the leading vote getter in B-HP during the November 2003 general mayoral election, and her strong support there helped propel her to the Board presidency in the 1992 Supervisors election. Some believe that Angela Alioto’s endorsement of Newsom was a key factor in his defeating Matt Gonzalez in the B-HP in the December 2003 runoff.

The Alioto name is revered in B-HP because residents believe that Joe Alioto cared about them and targeted as many resources as he could to the community. Like Gavin Newsom, Joe Alioto was white, wealthy and lived in Pacific Heights—but the media of the time did not emphasize these demographic factors in covering Mayor Alioto’s work in B-HP.

Dianne Feinstein (1978-1987)
Like Alioto, Mayor Feinstein also lived in Pacific Heights. Feinstein was far more patrician and emotionally distant than the fiery Italian trial attorney, but this did not mean that City Hall neglected B-HP during her mayoralty.

According to a top official in her Administration, Feinstein regularly stressed that she wanted department heads to do whatever they could to improve conditions in Bayview. Feinstein reportedly went to B-HP once a week to read to school children, a story of which little was made of at the time.

Feinstein’s chief strategy for revitalizing B-HP was attempting to secure the homeporting of the USS Missouri. Feinstein wanted to base the ship at Hunter’s Point, and the Navy claimed that it would bring 6000 jobs and $176 million to the neighborhood.

Many current San Franciscans are likely unaware of the controversy over Feinstein’s plan, but in the mid 1980’s the battle over the Missouri was a major dividing line in city politics. Gay and lesbian groups strongly opposed the homeporting due to the Navy’s policy of discrimination against them, while progressives and peace activists saw the plan as a financial boondoggle.

Proponents of homeporting ultimately prevailed in a citywide initiative place on the ballot to demonstrate public support for the plan. The measure won by a landslide in B-HP.

The Navy eventually placed the USS Missouri in Hawaii, confirming skeptics’ view that the Reagan Administration had floated the homeporting to San Francisco idea simply to stir up trouble among Democrats in San Francisco. But if Mayor Feinstein had the attitude of neglect toward the neighborhood that the Chronicle describes, there is no way she would have expended nearly all of her political capital on the Missouri fight.

Art Agnos (1988-1991)
If the Chronicle were concerned about telling its readers the truth about prior Mayors’ personal and political commitment to improving B-HP, it could simply have cited this description from the November 27, 1989 column of its most fabled columnist, Herb Caen:

“THE TIRELESS Mayor Agnos has been working quietly to achieve peace between the warring Hunters Point and Sunnydale gangs, and has succeeded to the point where he hosted a dinner last Tues. night for the six leaders of each gang. Place: the posh Carnelian Room atop Bank of America. Dress: black tie!

The 12 young men, in their late teens and early 20s, dutifully rented tuxes and drove to their rendezvous in rented cars. From all appearances, Agnos’ unusual ploy worked out beautifully.”

Agnos was Mayor at a time when gang violence was tearing apart B-HP. The Mayor responded by creating a Gang Prevention Program headed by current Recreation and Park administrator Tom Mayfield, which in turn created and oversaw a Summer Youth Employment Program for B-HP youth.

Agnos also created a Gang Truce Committee, whose Carnelian Room dinner was highlighted in Caen’s column above. The San Francisco Chronicle described the Mayor’s Committee in a July 16, 1990 editorial as a ” vital effort to help save the often-troubled youth of our inner city.”

In 1990, Mayor Agnos secured an $822,000 grant to pay for social workers to conduct outreach in the Sunnyvale housing projects in B-HP and other areas where young boys were at risk of getting involved in crime and gang activities. The Mayor coordinated the social workers through his Office of Criminal Justice.

While the Chronicle lauds Gavin Newsom for playing basketball with B-HP residents, Mayor Art Agnos maintained personal ties to a group of eighteen neighborhood gang leaders and hosted the group at monthly meetings at City Hall. But whereas Chronicle articles on Newsom’s conduct in B-HP exclude credible quotes from skeptics or critics of the Mayor, the paper’s coverage of Agnos’ personal intervention was much different.

For example, the Chronicle’s April 10, 1990 story by reporter Rick DelVecchio (“An Army of Social Workers Offers Alternatives to Gangs”) quotes two “young black officers” in the Police Department’s gang task force as critical of Agnos’ work with gangs. One officer describes Agnos’s work as a “social research project, ” and accuses the Mayor of having a naive “Trading Places” mentality (referring to the Eddie Murphy film that makes a black hustler the head of a corporation to see if this will change him).

The article also cites a social worker criticizing Agnos’s outreach project as simply “PR” (i.e. public relations), and includes an entire paragraph from a police newsletter attacking the Mayor’s hands-on approach in dealing with gangs.

In addition to combating gang violence, Agnos is credited (see the Chronicle, December 22, 1989) with reducing crack dealing in the Alice Griffith housing project in B-HP. Agnos also fulfilled his pledge to bring B-HP its first supermarket and was instrumental in moving the Potrero police station to 201 Williams Ave. in B-HP.

During his mayoralty Agnos and his wife raised $6 million in public and private funds to open Jelani House, a home for pregnant drug-addicted mothers that opened in the Bayview in 1991. The home was created to help addicted mothers give birth to healthy babies, and today it houses 60 women and assists 70 outpatient clients.

No Mayor demonstrated more dedication to improving B-HP than Art Agnos. Yet the Chronicle has erased his work from history in its zeal to promote Mayor Newsom.
In its February 9, 2004 editorial “Newsom on Scene,” the Chronicle states:

Mayors go to openings, ground-breakings and lots of parades. They don’t show up at murders in a neglected part of town on a Sunday morning. But that’s what Mayor Newsom is doing since taking office a month ago.

Art Agnos showed up at murders. He also attended Take Back the Night marches in Sunnydale Housing Projects, and went to see gang leaders in the middle of the night to avert threats of violence. We join the Chronicle in praising Mayor Newsom’s show of concern in the neighborhood, but he has a long way to go before coming close to matching Agnos’ contributions to the people of Bayview-Hunters Point.

As former Agnos Chief of Staff Claude Everhart puts it, “the Chronicle’s deleting of major pieces of the history of Bayview-Hunters Point does a disservice to the people of that community. It is the newspapers, not the mayors, who have neglected B-HP.

Willie Brown (1996-2003)
According to the Chronicle, Willie Brown, San Francisco’s first African-American mayor, joined his predecessors in neglecting B-HP and failed to show “real concern” for its largely African-American residents. In its long January 4, 2004 review of Mayor Brown’s legacy, the Chronicle concluded:

Yet when it came to lifting Bayview-Hunters Point — San Francisco’s last African American stronghold — out of poverty, Brown didn’t succeed. The unemployment rate is still the highest in the city. The 49ers football stadium-mall project, which was supposed to create jobs, has not been built. The Third Street light rail project has been started, but not finished, and the redevelopment of the mothballed Hunters Point Navy shipyard has been slow. Meanwhile, residents are still waiting for the long- Promised closure of the high-polluting power plant in their neighborhood.

Let’s break this down.

First, the Chronicle’s reliance on B-HP unemployment rates is a false indicator for evaluating Brown’s success. In fact, the neighborhood continued to have the city’s highest unemployment rate after Mayor Newsom’s first year, but the Chronicle did not use this fact in its January 2, 2005 story praising his work in the neighborhood.

Thousands of new jobs were created during Mayor Brown’s tenure, and many were in B-HP. But the city’s poorest neighborhood will always have more unemployed persons relative to other areas, so it is unfair to use unemployment rates as a measuring stick for mayoral success. Unless the mayor displaces thousands of low-income residents by 2007, his term will also end with the B-HP having the city’s highest jobless rate.

Second, Mayor Brown can hardly be blamed for the 49ers failure to build the stadium-mall project approved by voters in 1997. The only reason that a shopping mall was included as part of the $100 million stadium bond was because of Willie Brown’s commitment to increase jobs in B-HP. Due to a change in team ownership, the stadium- mall was not built. 80 percent of B-HP residents voted in favor of the project.

Third, rather than criticize Mayor Brown for not finishing the Third Street rail, the Chronicle could have praised the Mayor for finally getting the long-stalled project going. Funding for the rail project designed to connect B-HP to the rest of the city was approved in 1989, but like many infrastructure projects took years to commence. It will be completed this year.

Fourth, while the Chronicle blames Mayor Brown for the slow transformation of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, this is a site where commercial activity shut down in 1974. Activists then pushed the city not to accept the site until the Navy cleaned up the environmental problems. It was Mayor Brown who presided over the first new building on the site, a 250-unit artist colony called BAYCAT.

In January 2002, Brown joined Nancy Pelosi in announcing an agreement for the Navy to clean up the Shipyard and then turn it over to the city. The Navy formally signed the deal soon after Newsom became Mayor.

Many disagreed with all or parts of Mayor Brown’s agenda for improving B-HP, but nobody can conclude that he neglected the area. Brown won the neighborhood handily in his 1999 re-election race, and Linda Richardson, his candidate in the 2000 district supervisors race, prevailed in the B-HP (Sophie Maxwell won the contest due to overwhelming support in Potrero Hill).

Mayors Alioto, Feinstein, Agnos and Brown all implemented programs to improve Bayview-Hunters Point, and the Chronicle’s conclusion that they “neglected” the neighborhood is completely refuted by stories that previously appeared in its pages.

The Chronicle must end its propaganda campaign. The revisionist history of Bayview-Hunters Point does a disservice to San Francisco, and tarnishes the Mayor it seeks to promote.

Send feedback to

Filed under: Archive