Paying the Price for Newsom’s Failures

by Randy Shaw on November 5, 2004

Soon after taking office, Mayor Newsom vowed to make passage of a supportive housing bond a top priority. He also pledged to maintain the city’s fiscal health while enhancing the quality of city services. But ten months later, the Mayor has failed on all counts. He did little to help pass Prop A, and so alienated key constituencies around Props J and K that he has plunged the city into fiscal chaos.

It is hard to believe how badly Mayor Newsom screwed up the three ballot measures that he promoted in November. San Francisco had a golden opportunity to build new affordable housing and solve its fiscal problems in a large turnout presidential election, but our Mayor let his pride and ego get in the way of success.

Here’s how this sad state of affairs came about.

The Housing Bond: When Mayor Newsom announced soon after taking office that he would place a $60 million supportive housing bond on the November ballot, housing and homeless activists were ecstatic. Many who had actively worked for Matt Gonzalez against Newsom in the mayor’s race were ready to join battle along side the Mayor to win voter approval of these desperately needed funds.

When the Mayor’s supportive housing proposal was announced, something extremely unusual for San Francisco occurred: nobody criticized it. The homeowner groups that often oppose bonds recognized the city’s need to address homelessness, and the $60 million price tag is extremely low in comparison to other bonds.

But as time passed, various groups sought to join other proposals to the supportive housing bond. Nonprofit housing developers wanted money for affordable rental housing, and the Chamber of Commerce and Association of Realtors insisted on funds to subsidize homeownership. A $60 million bond targeted to reduce homelessness became a $150 million to address the other two housing needs as well.

Some of us raised concerns about the bond’s inflated cost, as it was already clear that the Mayor and Board would be placing tax increase measures on the same November ballot in order to balance the city’s books. With three initiatives requesting voter support for higher taxes, our feeling was that the housing bond should err on the conservative side.

In addition, the successful 1996 housing bond barely passed despite no opposition and an all-out campaign by Mayor Willie Brown. Since a 2002 bond initiative had failed, the notion that voters would support a similar bond two years later seemed a risky proposition.

But the vast majority of those interested in affordable housing supported a larger, comprehensive bond, and Prop A, came in at $200 million, of which $90 million would go for supportive housing. Mayor Newsom promised to work hard to assure passage.
If only the Mayor had fulfilled that pledge. From the time Prop A was placed on the ballot in July to election day, Mayor Newsom was missing in action.

He did speak briefly at a press event on the steps of City Hall, but it is fair to say that Mayor Newsom spent more time posing for photos for national magazines than he did working to pass Prop A. When you consider he raised nearly $1 million to pass the meaningless anti-panhandling initiative one year earlier (Prop M), his lack of effort toward raising funds to pass a critical affordable housing bond is striking.

The lack of any formal opposition to Prop A made victory likely despite the mayor’s inaction. But on election night the bond narrowly lost, and the margin of defeat could easily have been overcome had Newsom waged as vigorous a campaign as Willie Brown did in 1996.

We now have no local money for supportive housing, and a President who will continue to slash housing budgets for the next four years. San Francisco had an historic opportunity to meaningfully address its homeless problem, but Mayor Newsom failed to make Prop A a top priority.

Props J and K: Because Mayor Newsom knows best, he felt no obligation to consult with relevant constituency groups in the drafting of Prop K, the business tax increase. Prop K opponent Scott Hague stated in Thursday’s Examiner that he “had meetings with 17 business organizations, none of which had been consulted (about Prop K.)”

Newsom not only failed to conduct outreach to the small business community, he also allowed Prop K to go forward without ensuring at least neutrality if not support from Board President Matt Gonzalez. Newsom could readily have addressed Gonzalez’s concerns about the measure, but the Mayor made no real effort to secure support from the man with the city’s second biggest political constituency.

The price of the Mayor’s arrogance? Prop K was defeated, and while voters were at it they took down Prop J, the sales tax increase, as well.

Remember all those smiling photos of the Mayor and Supes praising the passage of the city budget last summer? The mutual patting of the backs as to their skill at protecting the city’s fiscal health? It was all a house of cards, which has come tumbling down to the tune of a $90 million deficit over the next eighteen months.

Unbelievably, the Mayor in the middle of the smiling photos told the Chronicle yesterday that “this is tough stuff.we didn’t expect to win.” Sounds like the Mayor knew the budget deal was a sham even while he was taking credit for creatively maintaining the city’s fiscal health.

There are not do-overs in politics, and there is no way to stop major cuts from occurring as soon as January in the wake of the Prop J and K defeats. A special election could be called to secure voter approval for a revised business tax increase, but the Mayor appears to prefer making $90 million in budget cuts instead.

The Chronicle’s Thursday headline, “Mayor loses big-time,” must have shocked Newsom, as he is unaccustomed to such scrutiny from the city’s largest daily. But the truth is that the real losers on Tuesday were the people of San Francisco, and they have a lack of mayoral leadership to blame.

Filed under: Bay Area / California