A millionaire entrepreneur cemented his lead Tuesday in the race for mayor of this famously liberal city. But restaurateur and city Supervisor Gavin Newsom now faces a Dec. 9 runoff against a fellow supervisor and Green Party member who rose from obscurity to dominate the city's left.
Newsom had been polling well ahead of his competitors in the nine-way race to replace flamboyant Mayor Willie Brown. Brown's chosen successor, Newsom has campaigned longer and spent far more than his opponents. His message -- that he will tackle homelessness and aggressive panhandling -- has resonated in a city battered by job loss and a burgeoning deficit.
Newsom's solid lead was all but guaranteed.
The nail-biting contest Tuesday was among a tightly clustered pack of opponents who were carving up the city's more liberal vote in their quest for the second runoff slot. That race showed an edging lead by fellow Supervisor Matt Gonzalez, a former public defender who in 2000 became the first Green Party member to win an elected office in San Francisco. Close behind him was civil rights attorney and former Supervisor Angela Alioto, the daughter of former Mayor Joseph L. Alioto and a favorite of labor who conceded late Tuesday.
The strong showing for Gonzalez -- who entered the race in late August -- was an unexpected upset to Alioto and another of the city's long-established liberal torchbearers, Supervisor Tom Ammiano. A gay rights leader and educator who has held public office for a dozen years, Ammiano snagged a runoff slot as a write-in candidate against Brown in 1999, at the height of the dot-com boom, and helped Gonzalez win office the following year.
Many had expected left-leaning leaders to clear a path for another Ammiano candidacy in the race against Newsom. "That's really the surprise of the evening, how quickly the left jettisoned its previous two leaders," said David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voter Education Committee, which conducted exit polls. Ammiano's "own protege has leapfrogged him."
Now it remains to be seen if the left will coalesce behind a Newsom opponent, or allow him to slide into the mayor's seat.
If the left was nervously pondering its future Tuesday, Newsom's camp was celebrating with confidence.
"It appears to be the best showing since 1987 of any first-place finisher," Newsom spokesman John Shanley said of the candidate's strong lead. "But we know it doesn't mean anything because there's a brand new race that starts tomorrow."
The 36-year-old Newsom's "Care not Cash" initiative -- approved by voters last year by a large margin but tied up in the courts -- would slash General Assistance payments to the homeless and provide services instead to ensure that money is not spent on drugs or alcohol. Opponents say those services are already stretched too thin.
Another Newsom-backed ballot measure approved by voters Tuesday by a large margin would ban begging at certain locations and crack down on aggressive panhandling everywhere.
The son of an appellate court judge, Newsom grew up in the Bay Area. Billionaire Gordon Getty served as a father figure and mentor, investing heartily in Newsom's business ventures, which include a wine store and several restaurants.
In 1996, Brown appointed Newsom to the Parking and Traffic Commission and, in 1997, to a vacant seat on the Board of Supervisors. He successfully pushed for a citywide parks bond. He has pledged to make the city more business friendly.
Newsom notes that he is socially liberal -- he backs gay marriage. But his support from downtown business interests and his stance on the homeless place him to the right of many of the candidates who scrambled to beat him Tuesday.
Emerging from that pack in the final days was Board of Supervisors President Gonzalez. A son of Mexican immigrants, Gonzalez, 38, grew up in Texas. He spent a decade as a deputy public defender in San Francisco. He holds monthly art openings in his City Hall office, has written literary essays on beat poets, and doesn't own a car. Even conservative opponents call him honest and intelligent. "I think he's going to have a lot more energy than Newsom, who has been running a great campaign but may be running out of steam," said San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Leah Shahum.. "Gonzalez is just picking up steam."
State Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco), who deflected pleas to run for mayor, said that although left-leaning voters might signal their craving for a new start with Gonzalez, he would face a tough fight against Newsom.
"I don't think the city will vote for a Green," Burton said. Also Tuesday, Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan took the lead to hold on to his job. But in a surprise upset, he appeared to be heading into a runoff with Assistant City Attorney Kamala Harris, 38, who has worked to get child prostitutes off city streets. Harris edged out private attorney Bill Fazio, who has twice run against Hallinan. San Franciscans also voted Tuesday to increase the citywide minimum wage to $8.50, making the city the third in the nation to do so.
In Palm Springs, Mayor Pro Tem Ron Oden became the city's first openly gay mayor and real estate agent Steve Pougnet, accountant Mike McCulloch and ex-feminist icon Ginny Foat won seats on the City Council.
Times staff writer Louis Sahagun contributed to this report.