Newsom, with eye on higher office, is jolted by a new issue

Times Staff Writer

Gavin Newsom has his work cut out for him: As he positions himself to run for governor, he must persuade Californians that he is more than just the mayor of a famously liberal city, the man who ushered in same-sex marriage.

This week, he has another issue, but it might just make his job a lot harder.

For years, this sanctuary city has been shielding convicted juvenile offenders who were illegal immigrants from federal authorities, either escorting them to their home countries at city expense or transporting them to group homes, often outside the city.


But in recent days, eight young undocumented drug dealers from Honduras who were convicted in San Francisco walked away from unguarded facilities in San Bernardino County. Although Newsom said the city has stopped the practice, news reports of the escapes have created an uproar in the electorally important Inland Empire and shined a national spotlight on this city’s singular policies.

On Wednesday, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) demanded that San Francisco officials turn over all convicted illegal immigrant drug dealers to federal authorities instead of shipping them “out to San Bernardino County, where they can escape and victimize the neighborhoods in my district.”

In a strongly worded statement, Newsom said Wednesday that he has directed his administration “to work in cooperation with the federal government on all felony cases. And I urge the district attorney, the public defender and the courts to do the same.”

Reality, however, might not be that simple. Public Defender Jeff Adachi agreed that all parties involved with these youths need to “meet and confer.” But their disposition is “ultimately a judicial determination.”

And the public defenders, he said in an interview, “are going to continue to advocate for the child, for our client. If the client doesn’t want to go to the feds, that’s what we’ll be advocating for.”

Even though the city’s sanctuary status long predates Newsom, all of the conflict and confusion do little for his nascent bid for statewide office and his efforts to define and introduce himself in the less liberal corners of California.


“The criticism and rap on [Newsom] is he’s a single-issue” politician, said Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento. “This is certainly another issue, but it’s a core issue for liberal folks. He’s already got that corner of the market.”

Political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior scholar at the School of Policy, Planning and Development at USC, noted that if Newsom won the Democratic nomination for governor in 2010, “in the general election, Inland California is going to be critical.”

And that’s exactly where the Honduran youths were shipped, ultimately escaped and are doing Newsom no favors among the independent and swing voters that any future governor will have to woo.

O’Connor’s and Jeffe’s concerns were echoed Wednesday in interviews in this city’s bustling Financial District and in scores of scorching comments posted on

“Please Newsom, please oh please run for governor!” began one of the more printable missives. “My vote against you shall then be all the more gratifying as, hopefully if Californians aren’t that stupid, your campaign crashes in flames.”

Wrote “disgusted in LB”: “Don’t even think about running for Governer Newsome! Your a psycho lefty, and the only city in California that would accept your ideals and beliefs is SF.”

At lunchtime Wednesday in downtown San Francisco, workers judged the mayor less harshly.

But many still scratched their heads at a policy that was designed to protect illegal immigrants who were otherwise law-abiding but apparently shielded convicted drug dealers from justice.

Mary McDonald, a 61-year-old who lives in Berkeley, called Newsom a “very appealing politician who’s learned a lot being mayor of San Francisco.”

However, the Bay Area is “a cocooned place . . . not like the rest of the state,” said McDonald, who works in commercial real estate finance. “In theory, a sanctuary city is a great idea -- until you hear the story of the crack dealers put into a group home in Southern California” and then escaping.

“This could be a real negative issue for Newsom,” she said.

Jim Allen, a retired insurance broker who was born in San Francisco and now lives in Walnut Creek, called the sanctuary policy “absolutely wacky,” the kind of policy that narrows Newsom’s political base to wide-open San Francisco.

Shipping convicted juvenile offenders back home to their own countries with nothing to keep them from returning “is so explosive it’s just not going to play well” for Newsom’s gubernatorial bid, Allen said.

“I think it’ll put a big hole in the bottom of his boat,” said the 61-year-old.

One fourth-generation San Franciscan disagreed. Insurance broker Larry Colton, 57, said he is proud that his city is “a bastion.”

“It’s what we stand for,” he said. “We are a sanctuary city and we should continue to be so, God, especially with the Bush administration.”

As for Newsom’s 2010 ambitions, he said this immigration uproar could hurt the mayor in Orange County and Southern California, be a “non-starter” in Northern California and pale in comparison with the price of gas.