Closer, But Still No Cigar In San Francisco




F

or
the second mayoral election in a row, a late-starting left- wing
campaign thrilled San Francisco with a genuine mad-dash grassroots
effort of the kind you don’t expect to see in an age of media
politics. Unfortunately, as was the case four years earlier, this
one too ended in noble defeat—although much closer this time,
when Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez lost to fellow
Supervisor Gavin Newsom by a 53-47 percent margin, after being outspent
by about $4,000,000 to $400,000. Since Gonzalez is a Green Party
member, the national press understandably treated the race primarily
as a Democrat-Green contest, but San Franciscans did not, with Gonzalez
apparently taking the majority of Democratic votes, despite the
best efforts of state and national Democratic organizations. 


If
you asked central casting to send up a corporate liberal, Gavin
Newsom is about what you’d expect to get. Originally appointed
to the Board of Supervisors to fill what Mayor Willie Brown described
as the “straight white male” vacancy, representing the
city’s wealthiest district, an owner of chic restaurants financed
by Getty family money, Newsom lives a society page life with his
new wife, an assistant District Attorney. Gonzalez, on the other
hand, lives with three roommates in the famous Haight Ashbury district
that he represents, is known to have given his couch to a down-on-his-luck
beat poet, and to have opinions on things like modern art. More
importantly, he is generally considered very smart, very principled,
and very left wing—in a plainspoken way. 


Although
he campaigned for only four months to Newsom’s two years, Gonzalez’s
campaign was actually less frenetic than the one then-Board of Supervisors
President Tom Ammiano ran four years ago. Gonzalez filed his candidacy
on the last day possible for getting on the ballot and made the
December runoff election by squeezing ahead of two other candidates
running to Newsom’s left and finishing a distant second with
20 percent of the vote to Newsom’s 42 percent. In 1999, Ammiano
entered the race after the filing deadline and made the runoff with
an astounding 25 percent on write-ins, before losing the final to
incumbent Willie Brown by a 61-39 percent margin. 


Actually,
2003 was supposed to be Ammiano’s year, though no one ever
thought it would be easy for him. For one thing, he would have been
the city’s first gay mayor and, gay rights capital that the
city may be, there are still plenty of voters out there who are
not yet ready for that. Money was an issue, but the problems ran
deeper. “By the spring of 2003,” the weekly

San Francisco
Bay Guardian

, a bulwark of his 1999 candidacy, wrote, “it
wasn’t clear who, if anyone, was actually handling strategy
or day-to-day operations. Worse a lot of Ammiano’s army was
AWOL. With the disappointment of some hard-core activists and the
seeming lack of campaign direction, Am- miano for Mayor 2003 wasn’t
generating anything close to the excitement the 1999 write-in had.” 


Committed
to a tight agenda of education, the economy, and clean government,
the 2003 Ammiano campaign seemed curiously indifferent to promoting
a broader vision, allowing Newsom, whose well-funded effort had
produced 21 issues papers and a series of public issue/fundraising
forums, to credibly claim that it was he who was conducting “the
campaign of ideas.” Ammiano’s efforts to reach out to
the parts of the city that had not been with him last time were
not convincing people who feared he might not be able to escape
the perception of being only a protest candidate. The operative
theory of his campaign seemed to be that if he could make it into
the runoff, people would then focus on the fact that he had been
a better legislator than Newsom. 


Ammiano
continued to run second in the polls, but it was such a distant
second that three fellow supervisors commissioned a poll to see
if there were any other candidates who might have a better shot.
Ammiano had supported two of these Supervisors in their runoff elections
two years earlier; the third he actually had recruited to run in
the first round—Matt Gonzalez, who the poll indicated might
have the best shot of any available candidate. Gonzalez eventually
convinced enough voters on that score in the final two weeks before
the November vote to shoot from fourth in the polls to a runoff
slot, with Ammiano dropping to fourth with only 10 percent, behind
Angela Alioto’s 16 percent. 



G

onzalez
is a former public defender with a short and unusual political history.
His first campaign for public office was against Terence Hallinan,
widely considered the nation’s most left-wing district attorney;
running to Hallinan’s left, Gonzalez netted only 11 percent
of the vote. Two years later, after leading in the first round of
his supervisorial election, he made a move that was widely considered
suicidal at the time— switching his registration to Green.
He won the final election by a wider margin.



Both
runoff candidates had campaigned for November ballot questions that
provide a reasonable shorthand version of their candidacies. Gonzalez
successfully championed an $8.50 an hour minimum wage for San Francisco,
making it one of the few cities in the country with such a law.
Newsom promoted—also successfully—an anti- “aggressive
panhandling” measure that criminalized certain types of begging.
This was a follow-up to his successful 2002 Care Not Cash initiative
that proposed to eliminate almost all county (San Francisco is both
a city and a county) cash assistance to the homeless in return for
guaranteed shelter and services. What services were actually guaranteed
was a matter of dispute right up until a court ruled that the measure
illegally usurped the Board of Supervisors’ right to set policy
in this area and no compromise measure has yet passed the Board. 


To
be sure, Newsom had other positions. In fact, the

Guardian

noted
that his position papers contained proposals that would cost hundreds
of millions of dollars, but did not mention any way of paying for
them. In that regard, Gonzalez ran a more fiscally prudent campaign,
on the one hand, not proposing numerous large new expenditures and,
on the other, being willing to talk about where new revenue might
come from. He had supported an unsuccessful 2002 ballot question
to double the city’s real estate transfer tax on sales of properties
worth over $1 million; he has since indicated his support for a
renewed effort at raising the real estate transfer tax with the
floor now raised to $2 million. 


Since
arriving on the Board, Gonzalez has made a point of arguing for
pay-as-you-go programs rather than relying on bond financing which
produces a transfer of wealth upwards from the tax payer to the
bond holder, an issue usually ignored by the left, which often feels
obligated to back bonds as the only realistic source of funding
for causes like “affordable housing.” He also supported
the municipal power initiative that came tantalizingly close to
victory, but ultimately fell to Pacific Gas & Electric’s
far better funded opposition campaign, the Care Not Cash substitute
that required the provision of real housing rather than shelter
beds, the right of non-citizens to vote in school board elections,
greater restrictions on the expansion of large chain stores, and
requiring just cause for eviction of tenants even in non-rent controlled
apartments. 





But
no recitation of Gonzalez’s issues will adequately explain
his appeal. When Gavin Newsom maintained that he was really a liberal
because of his support of things like gay marriage, Gonzalez astutely
countered that in San Francisco the dividing line was drawn on economic
issues. He was running the race that the left always hopes to run.
When he spoke of “San Francisco values,” he succeeded
in tapping into the city’s renowned bohemian spirit that is
less a “do your own thing” ethos than it is “live
and let live” with the conviction that if big money threatens
people’s ability to actually live in San Francisco, it is the
proper role of government to do something. 


Is
Newsom a liberal in fact? This depends, of course, on what you consider
a liberal. On the sexual politics issues, Newsom was certainly no
conservative. But really he is a Democratic Leadership Council (DLC)
Democrat, serving on the executive committee of the Local Elected
Officials Network of the middle-of-the-road organization formed
to move the Democrats away from liberalism. His economic policies—opposing
municipal power and increased business restrictions or taxation
in general—have prompted the DLC to twice name him one of their
100 “New Democrats to Watch.” His career-building Care
Not Cash initiative covers ground quite similar to DLC member Bill
Clinton’s policy of “ending welfare as we know it,”
and his overall take on the Gonzalez campaign—according to
his campaign manager—that Gonzalez “has proudly stated
the city should be run from the far left. That kind of extremism
makes San Franciscans queasy” was right out of the DLC play
book. 


Beyond
the fine print of any legislation, Newsom’s overall social
and economic ideas can be read clearly by the company he keeps.
Although it is easily missed by those who think of San Francisco
as North Beach in the 1950s, Haight Ashbury in the 1960s, or today’s
Mission District, the city actually has quite the self-obsessed
upper class social scene. The first questioner in the final televised
mayoral debate asked the candidates what role they envisioned for
the city’s quasi-official chief of protocol, a socialite married
to former Nixon Treasury Secretary George Schultz. To their credit,
both ignored it and used the time to address other matters. But
the key to understanding the 36-year-old entrepreneur’s career
lies in his close friendship with billionaire Gordon Getty who has
provided the bulk of the investment in the wine, restaurant, resort,
and real estate ventures that have boosted Newsom’s personal
worth to nearly $7 million today. 



Democrats
and Republicans 



G

iven
that San Francisco’s Green Party accounts for 3 percent of
the city’s registered voters and Gonzalez pulled a vote share
15 times that size, San Franciscans clearly didn’t buy the
idea that this was a partisan race, the best efforts of the Democratic
Party notwithstanding. Split into supporters of Alioto, Ammiano,
Newsom, and city Treasurer Susan Leal, the city’s Democratic
Central Committee was unable to endorse a candidate in the general
election round and, when it endorsed Newsom, the only remaining
Democrat, in the final round, about a third of its members abstained. 


The
endorsement was sufficient, to allow the California Democratic Party
to spend $153,000 on anti- Gonzalez mailers and bring in both Bill
Clinton and Al Gore to endorse Newsom, with DLC member Gore announcing
he was “passionately in favor of Gavin Newsom.” Following
the Clinton-Gore appearances, a Gonzalez spokesperson mused, “What’s
next, the Pope?” 


Two
Democratic clubs that had endorsed Ammiano for the November vote
went for Gonzalez in December—the neighborhood club of which
Ammiano is a member and the Harvey Milk Club, the left of the city’s
two major citywide gay and lesbian clubs and arguably the most important
Democratic club in the city. They were joined by Ammiano, four other
Democratic supervisors, and former Mayor Art Agnos, whose 1987 election
was arguably the last time the city’s left took City Hall.
It was particularly telling that both Senate President John Burton,
who ranks with Willie Brown as leader of the legendary “Brown-Burton
Machine” that is probably more legend than fact, and the presumptive
successor to his San Francisco Senate seat (Burton is term-limited
out this year) declined to state for whom they voted in the final.
Earlier in the year, Burton, who along with House Minority Leader
Nancy Pelosi has invested in Newsom’s businesses, had purchased
billboards proclaiming that Jesus gave money to beggars, as a counter
to an anti-panhandling billboard cam- paign conducted by Newsom’s
allies in the restaurant industry. 


Four
years earlier the city’s Republicans endorsed Willie Brown’s
reelection campaign, but he won by too large a margin for them to
claim responsibility. Not so this time. Newsom did not seek a Republican
endorsement in the final round of this race—it would have ruined
his argument that it was a Democrat-Green thing, but the San Francisco
Republican chair boasted to the

Bay Guardian

that Newsom
“won at least 85 percent of the Republican vote, and there’s
almost no question that we put him over the top.” Given the
final numbers, it seems plausible that the 17 percent of the city’s
voters who are registered Republican may have given Newsom the win
and there really is almost no question that the chair knows whereof
he speaks when he says, “The Republicans bonded with him in
the Care Not Cash signature gathering days.”





The
city’s central labor council, often a major player in these
races, was not in this one, since no candidate got the two-thirds
vote necessary to endorse. Alioto came closest, due to her significant
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) support, and Gonzalez
was probably just too new, too unknown, and too Green to get it
in the final. One of the city’s large SEIU locals and the Hotel
and Restaurant Employees Union did provide Gonzalez with substantial
support in the final weeks. 


Gonzalez
actually won the vote on election day, but the absentee voting option
is much more heavily utilized in California than in many other states
and by taking 65.5 percent of the pre-election day absentees, Newsom
had a 20,000 vote lead before the polls opened. His edge reflects
greater strength among the older population that traditionally votes
absentee, as well as his campaign’s superior organization in
identifying their vote and getting it in. Newsom’s vast financial
resources were crucial, as was the fact that his campaign had been
up and running for far longer. 


Gonzalez
trailed in November by 87,196 to 40,714. Over the next five weeks,
his campaign in the runoff created a whirlwind of action. There
were neighborhoods that had so many Gonzalez window signs by the
final week that they looked like a movie set designed by someone
who really didn’t understand just how involved in elections
U.S. voters really aren’t—or aren’t supposed to be.
It sometimes seemed as if every musician in the city must be supporting
Gonzalez, with the campaign advertising “30 parties in 30 days”
to raise campaign funds. In the final analysis, though, the Gonzalez
campaign probably just ran out of time. 



Results
and Prospects 



N

ewsom
won by 133,546 to 119,329. Not surprisingly, the city’s three
wealthiest districts gave Newsom his biggest margins, but his next
highest percentage came in the city’s poorest district where
traditional Democratic Party ties gave Newsom the lion’s share
of the black vote, although the turnout was the lowest in the city.
Newsom also did well among generally more conservative Chinese voters.
He won the votes of a lot of people who feel that even if his Care
Not Cash proposal doesn’t ultimately work, he at least offered
a plan for dealing with the homelessness problem, the magnitude
of which is obvious to any visitor, while the left’s attitude
has generally seemed to be that the homeless you always have with
you—at least so long as you have capitalism. He also had the
support of small landlords who see rent control as the decisive
city-level issue and view Marina District property owner Newsom
as more sympathetic to their interests than tenant Gonzalez. 


Frustration
was in order on election night, as the city’s left-wing District
Attorney Terence Hallinan (this time endorsed by Gonzalez) went
down to a 56-44 percent defeat to Willie Brown protégé
Kamala Harris in the day’s other election. Hallinan, the son
of Vincent Hallinan who was locally famous as Longshoreman Union
leader Harry Bridges’ lawyer and the Progressive Party’s
1952 presidential candidate, had spent much of his life on the other
side of the law. His campaign literature proudly noted his arrests
in civil rights protests both in Mississippi and the Bay Area, including
a 1964 demonstration calling for fair hiring practices by the city’s
auto dealers that was a watershed event in the city’s racial
policies. 


For
her part, Harris argued that Hallinan was not an effective crime
fighter, and the incumbent was probably done in by the high profile
“Fajitagate” scandal, the alleged cover-up by ten police
officers (including the chief and assistant chief) of the assault
of a man by three rookie police officers, including the son of one
of the indicted, for his refusal to give them his bag of fajitas.
Shortly after Hallinan secured the indictments, he moved to drop
two of them and a judge quashed the rest. 


Nonetheless,
the stirring Gonzalez campaign has the San Francisco left feeling
energized and optimistic. A final five-week dash will not be a possibility
next time when the city utilizes the voter-approved instant runoff
voting law that should have been in place for this election. In
the future, the left will have to be better prepared. The good news
is that time is on its side in one very significant way— pre-election
polls not only showed Gonzalez winning among all voters under age
55, but they had him taking the under-30 vote by 65-25 percent. 







Tom
Gallagher is president of the Bernal Heights Democratic Club, which
endorsed Matt Gonzalez.