To hear progressives tell it, this city's liberal heart is at stake.
San Franciscans vote Tuesday to replace flamboyant Mayor Willie Brown, and they are expected to grant a solid lead to his handpicked successor, a man derided by the progressive left as Republican Lite.
Gavin Newsom is a well-connected millionaire entrepreneur and city supervisor whose campaign has centered on the sore spot of San Francisco politics: combating homelessness and aggressive panhandling. His "Care Not Cash" solution -- overwhelmingly approved last year by voters, but hung up in the courts -- would slash cash payments to the homeless in lieu of services. Another Newsom-backed measure would outlaw aggressive panhandling.
Progressive opponents have branded those approaches reactionary and un-San Franciscan, noting that services to the homeless are already overburdened. They have accused Newsom of exploiting the homeless for political gain. They have dismissed him as a pro-business son of privilege who could never win consensus with the Board of Supervisors' ultra-left majority.
"A wealthy Pacific Heights society boy who spends most of his time with the Napa winery crowd -- that is not something that historically is a set of good credentials for a San Francisco politician," said Golden Gate University Law School Dean Peter Keane. He backs Green Party member and Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez in the race.
"Traditionally, it's been a progressive town," Keane said. "This election will be the proof in the pudding as to whether it continues to be, or whether it's shifted its political fulcrum to the center."
Newsom's backers and political analysts see it differently. Although voters ushered an ultra-left slate onto the Board of Supervisors in 2000, the city has traditionally backed more centrist politicians for mayor, they say.
Recent polls show Newsom with 36% of the vote. That's more than double the proportion for Gonzalez, a former public defender who has recently inched ahead of former Supervisor Angela Alioto and gay Supervisor Tom Ammiano, a fixture in city politics for decades who ran against Brown in 1999. Running behind them but nevertheless posting gains is Treasurer Susan Leal, who would become the city's first lesbian mayor. Four other candidates are trailing, including a Republican former police chief.
Because Newsom probably won't win more than 50% of the votes cast Tuesday, he will probably face a December runoff with Gonzalez, Alioto or Ammiano.
"They started to eat their young," Brown said of the fragmenting progressive left. "Now they find themselves with three or four applicants to their throne, where it should have been" Ammiano alone.
"They resented Gavin and made him their whipping boy on the board," Brown said, "which only empowered him more as a centralist."
Critics have attacked Newsom for his close ties to billionaire Gordon Getty, who has invested handsomely in many of Newsom's 11 businesses, which include a wine shop and restaurants. They contend he has gleaned an unfair advantage through Getty's financial support and the backing of Brown -- who appointed Newsom to the Parking and Traffic Commission in 1996 and to an open spot on the Board of Supervisors a year later. Newsom has been campaigning for about two years; Gonzalez entered the race only in August, and like many of the other candidates, was virtually unable to get out his message until after the state gubernatorial recall election.
Still, Newsom's momentum cannot be disputed.
"The broader communities of the city are increasingly supporting our ideas," said Newsom as he bounded into bars, dry cleaners and corner markets to introduce himself to merchants last week. "That's what gives me great faith that we'll be able to stave off extremism and build some bridges.... I think we're waking up the sleeping middle class of the city."
Like any candidate with traction in this left-leaning town, Newsom is socially liberal. He supports gay marriage and backs a ballot measure opposed by business interests that would raise the minimum wage citywide to $8.50. Now, the lanky 36-year-old described by Details magazine as "movie star handsome" has awakened the city's moderate middle.
He has won support from increasingly activist gay homeowners. He has made inroads with Chinese Americans, who have more children in city schools than any other ethnic group. Endorsements have also come from black and mainstream publications, labor, and -- in an assist for Newsom's young political muscles -- from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi and state Sen. Jackie Speier.
"The center has always existed, but it's never been energized," said Nathan Nayman, executive director of the Committee on Jobs, a nonprofit lobbying organization that represents the city's largest corporate employers. "Because of the economy, because of the loss of jobs, because of concern over quality of life, Newsom is able to energize this ... center. And I don't think anyone has done that since [former Mayor] Dianne Feinstein."
On the streets of the city's Excelsior neighborhood -- a multiethnic enclave of entrepreneurs, where 70% of residents own their homes -- Newsom was greeted with thumbs-up enthusiasm. A tattooed duo in an aging Buick exchanged high-fives with him. Women with baby strollers shouted their support. And in the shadows of the Italian American Social Club, preparations were underway for neighborhood volunteers to converge on Tuesday.
"We need a lot of change here in the city -- especially dealing with the homeless," said Irma Cerpa, 52, as a Newsom volunteer taped a campaign sign in the window of her Redmond Beauty Supply store. "They're outside asking for money, and customers get angry. And we need jobs."
Newsom's rise to power coincides with San Francisco's fall on hard times. Three years ago, the progressive left rallied against the excesses of the dot-com boom: too much growth, skyrocketing rents and rapid gentrification. Welcoming the outsized expansion was Brown, who was branded public enemy No. 1. In district elections for supervisors, an ultra-left, anti-Brown progressive slate was swept into office.
But now, the common enemy has dissolved. Brown is leaving, forced out by voter-approved term limits. And the boom has turned bust: Tens of thousands of jobs have dried up. The city lost population for the first time in decades. The deficit ballooned. And many believe the city's main source of support -- tourism -- is threatened by the legions of mentally ill and drug-addicted homeless people in doorways and parks.
David Binder, a San Francisco political pollster who has tracked the race, said the election is shaping up as a classic San Francisco struggle between the progressive left and the more moderate business community. But it is the virulence of the homelessness issue that is tipping the equation.
"There is a sense that San Francisco has become a less pristine or attractive city," he said. "There's a fear factor that has to do with public safety, an economic factor that has to do with tourism -- and then there's just a pride factor."
The city is and always will be progressive, said San Francisco State University political science professor Richard DeLeon. It is in the vanguard of domestic partners benefits. And last year, voters directed the city to explore growing and distributing medicinal marijuana. Still, a correction might be inevitable.
"I think in the 2000 elections the city over-shifted to the left," DeLeon said.
For residents such as Jon Kitto, 45, Newsom represents balance. Kitto said he has always been socially progressive, but he has shifted to the right on such issues as fiscal policy and government accountability. It took Kitto and his partner five months to secure a business license for their Affordable Doggy Daycare.
And after Kitto's partner said he stepped over a dead transient several years ago, Kitto e-mailed Newsom and urged him to run for mayor.
As a gay man passing over progressive gay candidate Ammiano, Kitto would have once been an anomaly in San Francisco. These days, he is in good company.
"A lot of my compatriots own houses or they have some nice retirement savings or they have a small business," said Kitto, a Newsom precinct captain. "They're much more concerned about where they have come to, and what they potentially have to lose than a guy who's 22 years old and who has just moved out here and discovered the party scene.
"I think that fringe politics are important," Kitto said of San Francisco's fractious left. "The previous radical left paved the way for us to be more conservative today."