Was Newsom Firing Spree a Ploy to Raise Campaign Cash?

by Paul Hogarth on September 12, 2007

Heads are buzzing around Mayor Newsom’s request to have all department heads and commission appointees resign, so he can decide who to keep in January after his re-election. Such a drastic step seems highly irrational, as if the Mayor were getting rid of a few bad apples under the auspices of “cleaning house.” But Beyond Chron has learned from a source familiar with Newsom campaign manager Eric Jaye’s tactics that another agenda could be at play. With no serious opponent this November, Newsom is having trouble raising money – and the threat of losing your job may be an incentive for city commissioners and department heads to contribute. Fear is what will keep these subjects loyal, and sending $500 to the Newsom re-election campaign would make the boss very happy. It’s a deeply cynical move, but it explains why the Mayor would suddenly ask everyone to “tender their resignation” two months before the election.

For an outside observer, it is baffling why Gavin Newsom would even need more money for his re-election. He has no serious opponents, and two potential candidates (Matt Gonzalez and Tony Hall) have dropped out because they said that the Mayor is unbeatable. But Newsom is looking past November: he wants to win big with a high voter turnout, so that a “mandate” will place him among the top tier of statewide candidates.

And a complacent Newsom re-election base could put those plans in jeopardy. In a race with no serious opponents, the Mayor is getting restless. He told Examiner columnist Ken Garcia that he’s afraid his supporters won’t put up campaign signs, won’t walk precincts and won’t contribute cash. If any one of his opponents make a respectable showing, it would be a huge embarrassment for his future prospects.

Enter the leverage that Newsom has with department heads and city commissioners. As appointees of the Mayor, they are loyal to his Administration. Back in the Willie Brown era, commissioners and senior staff were expected – even ordered – to deliver for the Mayor come re-election time. But this year, a lot of them are sitting it out because they know that Newsom will win anyway.

Campaign filing reports haven’t been updated lately, but the Ethics Commission website shows that many commissioners have not been generous. None of Newsom’s appointees on the Planning Commission have contributed to his re-election, and Michael Antonini even gave $400 to Tony Hall. None of his appointees at the Board of Appeals have contributed either, and only one of his Police Commissioners have. At the Rent Board, where all Commissioners serve at the pleasure of the Mayor, only two – the landlords – have given checks for his re-election.

As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, it is better for politicians to be feared than to be loved. Subjects who fear retribution are loyal, and they will be willing to do your bidding if they think it can make a difference in their careers. But those who do not fear you will not help you if they don’t think you need it. With Newsom’s re-election a sure thing, the Mayor had to give them a reason to contribute to his campaign. Saying that he may accept their resignation could put the fear of God in their eyes.

Some city commissioners – though appointed by the Mayor – do not serve at his pleasure. They can only be removed from office for official misconduct, and need not resign even if the Mayor asks them to. These commissioners – which include the major ones like Planning, Health and the Public Utilities Commission – serve on a fixed term and do not need to step down unless their terms have expired. For those Commissioners, it makes no sense to resign – or succumb to fear by contributing to his campaign.

Supervisor Chris Daly has sent a letter to all the Mayor’s appointed commissioners requesting that they not resign, because they are “accountable to the people of San Francisco, not to any one individual.” If Newsom did this as a back-handed ploy to extort campaign money for his sure-thing re-election, they would be fools to tender their resignation.

But if they go along with the Mayor’s request, we’ll see who stays and who gets canned in January. If the ones who lose their jobs are the ones who did not contribute to the Newsom juggernaut, we’ll know it was all just a scheme to get campaign money. And for a Mayor who promised a break from the Willie Brown past of cronyism, it is not a pretty sight.

Send feedback to paul@beyondchron.org

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