Bold moves, mixed results

The matter was urgent, said Mayor Gavin Newsom, the situation intolerable.

A group of San Francisco police officers had produced videos making fun of women, gays, blacks and other minorities -- rough-house humor intended for laughs at the station house.

“It is shameful. It is offensive,” Newsom told reporters summoned to City Hall soon after the videos surfaced. “It is sexist, it is homophobic and it is racist. We’re going to make sure that it ends.”


With his police chief standing sternly by, Newsom announced formation of a blue-ribbon panel to undertake a top-to-bottom review of the San Francisco Police Department.

That was four years ago. The TV lights dimmed and the headlines faded. The panel quietly died off. Half a dozen disciplinary cases are still pending, but many say San Francisco’s ossified Police Department remains ripe for major reform.

As he seeks the Democratic nomination for governor next year, Newsom is touting his performance in this lovely, fractious city, telling audiences around the state that he will shake up Sacramento with the same sort of energy, creativity and dynamism he’s demonstrated since taking over as mayor in January 2004.

His record in San Francisco, however, is a decidedly mixed one: a pastiche of bold strokes and extravagant promises, only some of which have reached fruition.

Just weeks into office, Newsom galvanized gays and lesbians across the country by legalizing same-sex marriage, helping spur a national movement. He presided over creation of a universal healthcare system, touted by some as a model for America. He helped turn San Francisco into a hub of biotech research and a laboratory for green living and environmental consciousness.

“He’s never had a drought of ideas,” said David Lee, a Chinatown activist and Newsom appointee to the city’s Recreation and Park Commission.

But there is also a long list of proposals -- congestion-pricing to ease traffic, a savings bond for every San Francisco newborn, a tax on soda to fight obesity, to name just a few -- that were announced with great fanfare only to disappear after attention died away. (All are under review, Newsom says.)

Would-be allies say they rarely hear from the mayor. Department heads complain about a lack of guidance. Newsom perpetually wars with the 11-member Board of Supervisors, raising the question of how he would deal with Sacramento’s querulous 120-member Legislature.

“When people are inflexible in terms of their ideological frames, it’s difficult,” Newsom responded during a recent interview. “But we’ve still made a great deal of progress.”

San Francisco is an exceedingly difficult place to govern. Politically, it is not so much a city as a competing collection of egos, special interests and personal agendas -- big versus small business, wealthy versus poor, renters versus homeowners, the mayor versus supervisors -- all elbowing inside 47 square miles of cramped living space.

The political bandwidth is narrow -- most everyone of consequence in city government is a liberal of some fashion -- so the disputes are often personal: a phone call that wasn’t returned, advice that wasn’t heeded, help that went unacknowledged.

(Many say most of the credit for the city’s universal healthcare program belongs to Tom Ammiano, now a state assemblyman, who was the prime mover while serving on the board.)

At least some of the sniping at Newsom, 41, can be attributed to envy over his good looks, his facility before the cameras and his ambition to parlay those assets -- and his bushel of ideas -- into higher office.

“He’s had a pretty meteoric rise,” said Corey Cook, a University of San Francisco political scientist who suggested that Newsom, like every big-city mayor, receives both more credit and blame than he probably deserves.

People can argue over who was truly responsible for expanded healthcare, efforts to promote recycling, new developments downtown and on the waterfront -- and they do, fiercely. “But the reality is they happened while Newsom was mayor,” Cook said.

Still, to a striking degree, some of Newsom’s biggest backers -- in civic groups and policy circles, among political activists and campaign donors -- have in the last few years become some of the mayor’s sharpest critics.

In a series of interviews, they expressed disappointment and accused Newsom, in words oft-repeated, of focusing more on self-aggrandizement and personal publicity than solving the city’s problems.

“Once he’s said it and it’s printed in the newspapers, it’s done in his mind,” said Jim Ross, a political consultant who ran Newsom’s 2003 campaign for mayor. “Then it’s on to the next big announcement.”

Newsom vehemently denied that charge. “It’s a work of fiction,” he said. “It’s an opinion, but it’s not a fact.”

He paused during a visit to the city’s rough Tenderloin neighborhood -- a walking tour he suggested for this article -- as an aide produced an inch-and-a-half-thick copy of the mayor’s “accountability matrix,” an online compendium of promises and policy pronouncements, the vast majority checked “done” or “in progress.”

San Francisco’s civil grand jury issued a May report criticizing Newsom’s self-review mechanism, suggesting that he selectively publicizes the findings most favorable to him; the mayor scoffed at the report. “It’s probably the most frustrating perception, because there’s no foundation to back it up,” he said.

Newsom, a fifth-generation San Franciscan, moved into politics in 1996 when then-Mayor Willie Brown appointed him to the city’s Parking and Traffic Commission. The next year Brown put him on the Board of Supervisors to fill a vacancy.

A moderate by San Francisco standards, Newsom distinguished himself by tackling the city’s perennial homelessness problem with a proposal, “Care Not Cash,” that offered direct services such as shelter, drug treatment and mental health care in lieu of handouts.

Voters approved the program in November 2002, and Newsom’s victory laid the groundwork for his election as mayor a year later, though it wasn’t easy. Running with the strong backing of the business community, he barely defeated a more liberal Green Party candidate after a bruising campaign.

Newsom’s executive action legalizing gay marriage, which soon followed, won international attention but also had a more practical benefit: It made him a hero in the gay community, a key liberal voting bloc, and instantly broadened his political base in the city.

In fact, Newsom grew so popular that his approval merely dipped -- to a still-strong 72% -- after he owned up in 2007 to an affair with the wife of his reelection campaign chief; the woman was also working for Newsom at the time.

The campaign manager quit, the couple divorced, and Newsom, with the help of a healthy economy, easily won his second term a few months later. In July 2008, he formally launched his campaign for governor.

By several measures, San Francisco is a better place than it was before Newsom took over. The city’s population and public school enrollment have increased, after years of decline. The rate of violent crime has fallen dramatically and, Newsom says, policing has improved thanks to better oversight. City Hall is seen as a cleaner, more ethical place to do business.

Even with the beating the city has taken in the recession -- a force beyond any mayor’s control -- most residents say they are satisfied with the quality of life, according to the most recent Chamber of Commerce survey.

But homelessness remains a problem; the city’s official tally shows that more than 6,500 people lack permanent shelter, a slight rise over the last four years after a big decline. Portions of Market Street, the city’s grand boulevard, reek of urine. Muni, the city’s public transit system, is a constant source of complaint. Bayview-Hunter’s Point, the historically poor, black neighborhood, appears as isolated and desperate as ever. Affordable housing is, for many, an oxymoron.

More broadly, there is a sense that Newsom, while promoting exotic notions like harnessing wave power beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, has neglected day-to-day management of the city: the sort of pothole-filling, street-sweeping duties that draw little publicity but are vital to a city’s smooth function and sustainability.

“Part of the role of mayor is to be a star. He’s certainly fulfilled that role, to be glamorous, to keep the city’s name in the minds of tourists and residents as a first-class city,” said former Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who as board president often clashed with Newsom. “In terms of being the chief executive officer, keeping his hands on the levers of power, holding department heads accountable, he’s been less successful.”

Even supporters say Newsom is less visible now that he’s running for governor. It is tough, he concedes, to seek statewide office at the same time he tries to govern. But he insisted he was not forsaking one job to pursue the other.

“I try to do both,” he said, strolling down Market Street at the start of the evening commute. “It extends an already long workday and extends an already long workweek.”

But, he said, “you have to multi-task in this job, anyway.”




Gavin Christopher Newsom

Born: Oct. 10, 1967, San Francisco

Education: 1989 -- bachelor’s degree, political science, Santa Clara University

Experience: 1991 -- founded PlumpJack Wine Shop, which eventually expanded into a small-business enterprise including wineries, restaurants and hotels

Political career: 1996 -- appointed to the San Francisco Parking and Traffic Commission; 1997-- appointed to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; 1998, 2000, 2002 --elected to the Board of Supervisors; 2003, 2007 -- elected mayor of San Francisco

Family: Married Jennifer Seibel in July 2008; their first child is expected within weeks