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Closer, But Still No Cigar In San Francisco
F or the second mayoral election in a row, a late-starting left- wing campaign thrilled San Francisco with a genuine mad-dash grassroots effort of the kind you don’t expect to see in an age of media politics. Unfortunately, as was the case four years earlier, this one too ended in noble defeat—although much closer this time, when Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez lost to fellow Supervisor Gavin Newsom by a 53-47 percent margin, after being outspent by about $4,000,000 to $400,000. Since Gonzalez is a Green Party member, the national press understandably treated the race primarily as a Democrat-Green contest, but San Franciscans did not, with Gonzalez apparently taking the majority of Democratic votes, despite the best efforts of state and national Democratic organizations.
If you asked central casting to send up a corporate liberal, Gavin Newsom is about what you’d expect to get. Originally appointed to the Board of Supervisors to fill what Mayor Willie Brown described as the “straight white male” vacancy, representing the city’s wealthiest district, an owner of chic restaurants financed by Getty family money, Newsom lives a society page life with his new wife, an assistant District Attorney. Gonzalez, on the other hand, lives with three roommates in the famous Haight Ashbury district that he represents, is known to have given his couch to a down-on-his-luck beat poet, and to have opinions on things like modern art. More importantly, he is generally considered very smart, very principled, and very left wing—in a plainspoken way.
Although he campaigned for only four months to Newsom’s two years, Gonzalez’s campaign was actually less frenetic than the one then-Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano ran four years ago. Gonzalez filed his candidacy on the last day possible for getting on the ballot and made the December runoff election by squeezing ahead of two other candidates running to Newsom’s left and finishing a distant second with 20 percent of the vote to Newsom’s 42 percent. In 1999, Ammiano entered the race after the filing deadline and made the runoff with an astounding 25 percent on write-ins, before losing the final to incumbent Willie Brown by a 61-39 percent margin.
Actually, 2003 was supposed to be Ammiano’s year, though no one ever thought it would be easy for him. For one thing, he would have been the city’s first gay mayor and, gay rights capital that the city may be, there are still plenty of voters out there who are not yet ready for that. Money was an issue, but the problems ran deeper. “By the spring of 2003,” the weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian , a bulwark of his 1999 candidacy, wrote, “it wasn’t clear who, if anyone, was actually handling strategy or day-to-day operations. Worse a lot of Ammiano’s army was AWOL. With the disappointment of some hard-core activists and the seeming lack of campaign direction, Am- miano for Mayor 2003 wasn’t generating anything close to the excitement the 1999 write-in had.”
Committed to a tight agenda of education, the economy, and clean government, the 2003 Ammiano campaign seemed curiously indifferent to promoting a broader vision, allowing Newsom, whose well-funded effort had produced 21 issues papers and a series of public issue/fundraising forums, to credibly claim that it was he who was conducting “the campaign of ideas.” Ammiano’s efforts to reach out to the parts of the city that had not been with him last time were not convincing people who feared he might not be able to escape the perception of being only a protest candidate. The operative theory of his campaign seemed to be that if he could make it into the runoff, people would then focus on the fact that he had been a better legislator than Newsom.
Ammiano continued to run second in the polls, but it was such a distant second that three fellow supervisors commissioned a poll to see if there were any other candidates who might have a better shot. Ammiano had supported two of these Supervisors in their runoff elections two years earlier; the third he actually had recruited to run in the first round—Matt Gonzalez, who the poll indicated might have the best shot of any available candidate. Gonzalez eventually convinced enough voters on that score in the final two weeks before the November vote to shoot from fourth in the polls to a runoff slot, with Ammiano dropping to fourth with only 10 percent, behind Angela Alioto’s 16 percent.
is a former public defender with a short and unusual political history.
His first campaign for public office was against Terence Hallinan,
widely considered the nation’s most left-wing district attorney;
running to Hallinan’s left, Gonzalez netted only 11 percent
of the vote. Two years later, after leading in the first round of
his supervisorial election, he made a move that was widely considered
suicidal at the time— switching his registration to Green.
He won the final election by a wider margin.
Both runoff candidates had campaigned for November ballot questions that provide a reasonable shorthand version of their candidacies. Gonzalez successfully championed an $8.50 an hour minimum wage for San Francisco, making it one of the few cities in the country with such a law. Newsom promoted—also successfully—an anti- “aggressive panhandling” measure that criminalized certain types of begging. This was a follow-up to his successful 2002 Care Not Cash initiative that proposed to eliminate almost all county (San Francisco is both a city and a county) cash assistance to the homeless in return for guaranteed shelter and services. What services were actually guaranteed was a matter of dispute right up until a court ruled that the measure illegally usurped the Board of Supervisors’ right to set policy in this area and no compromise measure has yet passed the Board.
To be sure, Newsom had other positions. In fact, the Guardian noted that his position papers contained proposals that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but did not mention any way of paying for them. In that regard, Gonzalez ran a more fiscally prudent campaign, on the one hand, not proposing numerous large new expenditures and, on the other, being willing to talk about where new revenue might come from. He had supported an unsuccessful 2002 ballot question to double the city’s real estate transfer tax on sales of properties worth over $1 million; he has since indicated his support for a renewed effort at raising the real estate transfer tax with the floor now raised to $2 million.
Since arriving on the Board, Gonzalez has made a point of arguing for pay-as-you-go programs rather than relying on bond financing which produces a transfer of wealth upwards from the tax payer to the bond holder, an issue usually ignored by the left, which often feels obligated to back bonds as the only realistic source of funding for causes like “affordable housing.” He also supported the municipal power initiative that came tantalizingly close to victory, but ultimately fell to Pacific Gas & Electric’s far better funded opposition campaign, the Care Not Cash substitute that required the provision of real housing rather than shelter beds, the right of non-citizens to vote in school board elections, greater restrictions on the expansion of large chain stores, and requiring just cause for eviction of tenants even in non-rent controlled apartments.
But no recitation of Gonzalez’s issues will adequately explain his appeal. When Gavin Newsom maintained that he was really a liberal because of his support of things like gay marriage, Gonzalez astutely countered that in San Francisco the dividing line was drawn on economic issues. He was running the race that the left always hopes to run. When he spoke of “San Francisco values,” he succeeded in tapping into the city’s renowned bohemian spirit that is less a “do your own thing” ethos than it is “live and let live” with the conviction that if big money threatens people’s ability to actually live in San Francisco, it is the proper role of government to do something.
Is Newsom a liberal in fact? This depends, of course, on what you consider a liberal. On the sexual politics issues, Newsom was certainly no conservative. But really he is a Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) Democrat, serving on the executive committee of the Local Elected Officials Network of the middle-of-the-road organization formed to move the Democrats away from liberalism. His economic policies—opposing municipal power and increased business restrictions or taxation in general—have prompted the DLC to twice name him one of their 100 “New Democrats to Watch.” His career-building Care Not Cash initiative covers ground quite similar to DLC member Bill Clinton’s policy of “ending welfare as we know it,” and his overall take on the Gonzalez campaign—according to his campaign manager—that Gonzalez “has proudly stated the city should be run from the far left. That kind of extremism makes San Franciscans queasy” was right out of the DLC play book.
Beyond the fine print of any legislation, Newsom’s overall social and economic ideas can be read clearly by the company he keeps. Although it is easily missed by those who think of San Francisco as North Beach in the 1950s, Haight Ashbury in the 1960s, or today’s Mission District, the city actually has quite the self-obsessed upper class social scene. The first questioner in the final televised mayoral debate asked the candidates what role they envisioned for the city’s quasi-official chief of protocol, a socialite married to former Nixon Treasury Secretary George Schultz. To their credit, both ignored it and used the time to address other matters. But the key to understanding the 36-year-old entrepreneur’s career lies in his close friendship with billionaire Gordon Getty who has provided the bulk of the investment in the wine, restaurant, resort, and real estate ventures that have boosted Newsom’s personal worth to nearly $7 million today.
Democrats and Republicans
G iven that San Francisco’s Green Party accounts for 3 percent of the city’s registered voters and Gonzalez pulled a vote share 15 times that size, San Franciscans clearly didn’t buy the idea that this was a partisan race, the best efforts of the Democratic Party notwithstanding. Split into supporters of Alioto, Ammiano, Newsom, and city Treasurer Susan Leal, the city’s Democratic Central Committee was unable to endorse a candidate in the general election round and, when it endorsed Newsom, the only remaining Democrat, in the final round, about a third of its members abstained.
The endorsement was sufficient, to allow the California Democratic Party to spend $153,000 on anti- Gonzalez mailers and bring in both Bill Clinton and Al Gore to endorse Newsom, with DLC member Gore announcing he was “passionately in favor of Gavin Newsom.” Following the Clinton-Gore appearances, a Gonzalez spokesperson mused, “What’s next, the Pope?”
Two Democratic clubs that had endorsed Ammiano for the November vote went for Gonzalez in December—the neighborhood club of which Ammiano is a member and the Harvey Milk Club, the left of the city’s two major citywide gay and lesbian clubs and arguably the most important Democratic club in the city. They were joined by Ammiano, four other Democratic supervisors, and former Mayor Art Agnos, whose 1987 election was arguably the last time the city’s left took City Hall. It was particularly telling that both Senate President John Burton, who ranks with Willie Brown as leader of the legendary “Brown-Burton Machine” that is probably more legend than fact, and the presumptive successor to his San Francisco Senate seat (Burton is term-limited out this year) declined to state for whom they voted in the final. Earlier in the year, Burton, who along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has invested in Newsom’s businesses, had purchased billboards proclaiming that Jesus gave money to beggars, as a counter to an anti-panhandling billboard cam- paign conducted by Newsom’s allies in the restaurant industry.
Four years earlier the city’s Republicans endorsed Willie Brown’s reelection campaign, but he won by too large a margin for them to claim responsibility. Not so this time. Newsom did not seek a Republican endorsement in the final round of this race—it would have ruined his argument that it was a Democrat-Green thing, but the San Francisco Republican chair boasted to the Bay Guardian that Newsom “won at least 85 percent of the Republican vote, and there’s almost no question that we put him over the top.” Given the final numbers, it seems plausible that the 17 percent of the city’s voters who are registered Republican may have given Newsom the win and there really is almost no question that the chair knows whereof he speaks when he says, “The Republicans bonded with him in the Care Not Cash signature gathering days.”
The city’s central labor council, often a major player in these races, was not in this one, since no candidate got the two-thirds vote necessary to endorse. Alioto came closest, due to her significant Service Employees International Union (SEIU) support, and Gonzalez was probably just too new, too unknown, and too Green to get it in the final. One of the city’s large SEIU locals and the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union did provide Gonzalez with substantial support in the final weeks.
Gonzalez actually won the vote on election day, but the absentee voting option is much more heavily utilized in California than in many other states and by taking 65.5 percent of the pre-election day absentees, Newsom had a 20,000 vote lead before the polls opened. His edge reflects greater strength among the older population that traditionally votes absentee, as well as his campaign’s superior organization in identifying their vote and getting it in. Newsom’s vast financial resources were crucial, as was the fact that his campaign had been up and running for far longer.
Gonzalez trailed in November by 87,196 to 40,714. Over the next five weeks, his campaign in the runoff created a whirlwind of action. There were neighborhoods that had so many Gonzalez window signs by the final week that they looked like a movie set designed by someone who really didn’t understand just how involved in elections U.S. voters really aren’t—or aren’t supposed to be. It sometimes seemed as if every musician in the city must be supporting Gonzalez, with the campaign advertising “30 parties in 30 days” to raise campaign funds. In the final analysis, though, the Gonzalez campaign probably just ran out of time.
Results and Prospects
N ewsom won by 133,546 to 119,329. Not surprisingly, the city’s three wealthiest districts gave Newsom his biggest margins, but his next highest percentage came in the city’s poorest district where traditional Democratic Party ties gave Newsom the lion’s share of the black vote, although the turnout was the lowest in the city. Newsom also did well among generally more conservative Chinese voters. He won the votes of a lot of people who feel that even if his Care Not Cash proposal doesn’t ultimately work, he at least offered a plan for dealing with the homelessness problem, the magnitude of which is obvious to any visitor, while the left’s attitude has generally seemed to be that the homeless you always have with you—at least so long as you have capitalism. He also had the support of small landlords who see rent control as the decisive city-level issue and view Marina District property owner Newsom as more sympathetic to their interests than tenant Gonzalez.
Frustration was in order on election night, as the city’s left-wing District Attorney Terence Hallinan (this time endorsed by Gonzalez) went down to a 56-44 percent defeat to Willie Brown protégé Kamala Harris in the day’s other election. Hallinan, the son of Vincent Hallinan who was locally famous as Longshoreman Union leader Harry Bridges’ lawyer and the Progressive Party’s 1952 presidential candidate, had spent much of his life on the other side of the law. His campaign literature proudly noted his arrests in civil rights protests both in Mississippi and the Bay Area, including a 1964 demonstration calling for fair hiring practices by the city’s auto dealers that was a watershed event in the city’s racial policies.
For her part, Harris argued that Hallinan was not an effective crime fighter, and the incumbent was probably done in by the high profile “Fajitagate” scandal, the alleged cover-up by ten police officers (including the chief and assistant chief) of the assault of a man by three rookie police officers, including the son of one of the indicted, for his refusal to give them his bag of fajitas. Shortly after Hallinan secured the indictments, he moved to drop two of them and a judge quashed the rest.
Nonetheless, the stirring Gonzalez campaign has the San Francisco left feeling energized and optimistic. A final five-week dash will not be a possibility next time when the city utilizes the voter-approved instant runoff voting law that should have been in place for this election. In the future, the left will have to be better prepared. The good news is that time is on its side in one very significant way— pre-election polls not only showed Gonzalez winning among all voters under age 55, but they had him taking the under-30 vote by 65-25 percent.
Tom Gallagher is president of the Bernal Heights Democratic Club, which endorsed Matt Gonzalez.
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