San Francisco mayor admits affair

Times Staff Writer

Capping a surreal 24 hours here, this city’s wildly popular mayor publicly apologized Thursday for having had an affair with his campaign manager’s wife while she was working for him.

Gavin Newsom delivered a brief and somber mea culpa at a packed news conference as City Hall employees and voters sought to absorb revelations of the infidelity.

“I want to make it clear that everything you’ve heard and read is true, and I’m deeply sorry about that,” Newsom, 39, said in the two-minute briefing, the day after his campaign manager resigned. “I’ve hurt someone I care deeply about -- Alex Tourk, and his friends and family. And that is something I have to live with.”


Newsom went on to apologize to all city employees, his own family and the residents of San Francisco:

“My personal lapse of judgment aside, I am committed to restoring their trust and confidence.... We will now be working aggressively to advance our agenda in the city.”

He took no questions.

Newsom issued his apology after Tourk -- a former deputy chief of staff -- abruptly submitted his resignation late Wednesday, citing “personal” reasons.

Tourk had been one of the mayor’s closest advisors and supporters since Newsom’s winning 2003 election campaign. He also came up with a signature accomplishment of the Newsom administration that has been emulated nationwide: bimonthly gatherings -- known as Project Homeless Connect -- where thousands of volunteers help direct the homeless to services.

Newsom, who is running for reelection, enjoyed voter approval ratings above 70% as recently as December, but increasingly vocal critics on the Board of Supervisors have complained about what they believe to be his administration’s arrogance and disengagement from day-to-day city business.

The affair between Newsom and Ruby Rippey-Tourk reportedly took place when Newsom was splitting from his then-wife, attorney and television analyst Kimberly Guilfoyle. Newsom and Guilfoyle filed for divorce in January 2005.


Rumors of the affair had long swirled around City Hall. But sources said Rippey-Tourk only admitted the infidelity to her husband last weekend.

Tourk’s departure is a blow to Newsom and his team.

“Alex Tourk is one of the few people in politics who helps put together the big idea and then keeps his shoulder on the wheel throughout implementation,” said political consultant Alex Clemens. “He’s an excellent person to have in your foxhole. Everyone who knows him feels really bad for him.”

Newsom’s public apology appeared to be aimed largely at Tourk. Yet some observers suggested that, beyond the personal indiscretion, the mayor may have violated workplace conduct rules. The city’s administrative code states that consensual sexual relationships between a supervisor and subordinate do not necessarily constitute sexual harassment but may create potential for conflict.

Tourk has hired high-profile San Francisco attorney Steven Kay, raising the prospect of litigation. But Kay’s spokesman, Sam Singer, stressed Thursday that Kay had been hired solely as “an advisor in this personal matter.... No lawsuits are contemplated nor have they been.”

Some voters expressed their anger on a local news website.

“If it were a matter of Newsom having an affair with a single woman, that would be one thing, but to go behind a trusted aide’s back and have an affair with that person’s spouse, certainly makes Newsom seem unprincipled,” one person wrote. “It’s not a matter of sexual prudishness; it’s a matter of trustworthiness. Newsom failed this one badly. I supported him until now, but he’s lost a lot of my respect.”

Others seemed to separate it from his work.

“As long as he’s doing a good job as far as the city’s concerned -- which I think he is -- then what he does behind closed doors doesn’t matter,” said Sonia Ortiz, a 32-year-old San Francisco legal secretary.

Eric Jaye, Newsom’s 2007 campaign strategist, called the incident a “personal mistake.”

Although Newsom’s first priority was apologizing, Jaye said, “His next priority is to be a great mayor and to work every day to address the problems that face the city. If he does that ... I don’t think any disinterested observer would have any doubts that he would be reelected.”

San Francisco pollster David Binder also suggested that many -- though not all -- voters would forgive Newsom.

“San Francisco is a city that clearly prides itself on allowing private behavior to remain private,” he said. “We distinguish between people’s private lives -- particularly private sexual lives -- and public performance.”

What remains to be seen, he said, is whether the scandal -- and the energy it will give to political opponents -- will distract Newsom from the central work of governing or compel him to return to private life.

The mayor has expressed irritation recently over the media’s interest in his private life, particularly when he was dating a 20-year-old last fall.

The mayor’s admission came as his aggressive and seasoned spokesman, Peter Ragone, was fighting his own battles: A local investigative television team had reported that Ragone was posting hostile comments about Newsom’s critics on a local blog under names other than his own.

When confronted with the fact that the postings had been traced to his home computer, Ragone insisted that the author, “John Nelson,” was his best friend who often stayed at his home.

Ragone later admitted that he had posted the comments, but he said he did so to reflect Nelson’s views. Ragone also posted under the name “Bjorn.”

“Stupid, yes,” Ragone said. “The political blogosphere is a place where many people express their opinions in different ways. As a rule, I shouldn’t be on the blogosphere, and it was a mistake.”

Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin has already introduced a code of conduct resolution for the city’s press officers, and Ragone said he welcomed such guidelines.

Most supervisors declined to comment Thursday on the scandals rocking City Hall.

But Supervisor Tom Ammiano said that Newsom’s affair and Ragone’s “juvenile” behavior come on the heels of other bruises to the mayor.

The San Francisco 49ers announced in the midst of negotiations for a new stadium that they were looking to move to Santa Clara.

And Newsom won the ire of some supervisors recently when he went to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum meeting, instead of attending a gathering of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Although Ammiano said Newsom’s apology about the affair “rang true,” he stressed “the real proof of the pudding is going to be behavior and performance in the future.”

“You’re allowed to stumble,” Ammiano said. “But I don’t think he has too many more stumbles in his future.... He has to be the best mayor that he can be -- starting yesterday.”

The mayor’s political opponents have already seized on the news.

The San Francisco People’s Organization -- a coalition of community groups and neighborhood activists -- sent out a statement late Thursday characterizing Newsom’s behavior as consistent with other irresponsible conduct, including providing his underage former girlfriend with alcohol.

“Rather than a lapse of judgment, we see a clear lack of character and ethical conduct,” the groups wrote. “The mayor has not only betrayed the respect and trust of a friend, he has shown a complete disregard for setting high workplace standards and respect for women within his administration.”

Pointing to the soured 49ers deal, a steep rise in the homicide rate and “the mayor’s frequent out of town trips,” the group suggested that “the situation within the administration is at best adrift and at worst imploding. We need a mayor who is present and accountable to our needs. San Franciscans deserve better.”