In the early days, the mayor tried to sound like a practical, hands-on executive who was ready to run San Francisco.
Mayor Gavin Newsom used his inaugural address on Jan. 8, 2004, to emphasize that he was a uniter, not a divider — and that he wanted to get things done.
"I say it’s time to start working together to find common purpose and common ground," he proclaimed. "Because I want to make this administration about solutions."
It’s a mantra he’s returned to again and again in his rhetoric on a wide range of issues, claiming a "commonsense" approach while casting "ideology" as an evil to be overcome and as the main motive driving the left-leaning majority of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
"Because it’s easy to be against something," Newsom said on that sunny winter day. "It’s easy to blame. It’s easy to stop…. What’s hard is to hear that maybe to come together, we need to leave behind old ideas and long-held grudges. But that’s exactly what we need to do."
But if that’s the standard, Newsom has spent the past 17 months taking the easy way.
It’s been a marked change from his first-year lovefest, when he tried to legalize same-sex marriage, reach out to Bayview–Hunters Point residents, and force big hotels to end their lockout of workers.
A Guardian review of the most significant City Hall initiatives during 2005 and 2006 — as well as interviews with more than a dozen policy experts and public interest advocates — shows that Newsom has been an obstructionist who has proposed few "solutions" to the city’s problems, and followed through on even fewer.
The Board of Supervisors, in sharp contrast, has been taking the policy lead. The majority on the district-elected board in the past year has moved a generally progressive agenda designed to preserve rental units, prevent evictions, strengthen development standards, promote car-free spaces, increase affordable housing, maintain social services, and protect city workers.
Yet many of those efforts have been blocked or significantly weakened by Newsom and his closest allies on the board: Fiona Ma, Sean Elsbernd, Michela Alioto-Pier, and Bevan Dufty. And on efforts to get tough with big business or prevent Muni service cuts and fare hikes, Newsom was able to peel off enough moderate supervisors to stop the progressives — led by Chris Daly, Tom Ammiano, and Ross Mirkarimi — at the board level.
But one thing that Newsom has proved himself unable to do in the past year is prevent progressive leaders — particularly Daly, against whom Newsom has a "long-held grudge" that has on a few recent occasions led to unsavory political tactics and alliances — from setting the public agenda for the city.
Balance of power
The Mayor’s Office and the Board of Supervisors are the two poles of power at City Hall — and generally the system gives a strong advantage to the mayor, who has far more resources at his disposal, a higher media profile, and the ability to act swiftly and decisively.
Yet over the past year, the three most progressive supervisors — along with their liberal-to-moderate colleagues Gerardo Sandoval, Jake McGoldrick, Aaron Peskin, and Sophie Maxwell — have initiated the most significant new city policies, dealing with housing, poverty, health care, alternative transportation, violence prevention, and campaign finance reform.
Most political observers and City Hall insiders mark the moment when the board majority took control of the city agenda as last summer, a point when Newsom’s honeymoon ended, progressives filled the leadership void on growth issues, problems like tenants evictions and the murder rate peaked, and Newsom was increasingly giving signs that he wasn’t focused on running the city.
"Gay marriage gave the mayor his edge and gave him cover for a long time," said Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a queer and tenants rights activist. "About a year ago that started to wear off, and his armor started to be shed."
Daly was the one supervisor who had been aggressively criticizing Newsom during that honeymoon period. To some, Daly seemed isolated and easy to dismiss — at least until August 2005, when Daly negotiated a high-profile deal with the developers of the Rincon Hill towers that extracted more low-income housing and community-benefits money than the city had ever seen from a commercial project.
The Newsom administration watched the negotiations from the sidelines. The mayor signed off on the deal, but within a couple months turned into a critic and said he regretted supporting it. Even downtown stalwarts like the public policy think tank San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association noted the shift in power.
"I think we saw a different cut on the issue than we’ve seen before," SPUR executive director Gabriel Metcalf told us. "Chris Daly is not a NIMBY. I see Chris Daly as one of the supervisors most able to deal with physical change, and he’s not afraid of urbanism…. And he’s been granted by the rest of the board a lot of leadership in the area of land use."
SPUR and Metcalf were critical of aspects of the Daly deal, such as where the money would go. But after the deal, Newsom and his minions, like press secretary Peter Ragone, had a harder time demonizing Daly and the board (although they never stopped trying).
Around that same time, hundreds of evictions were galvanizing the community of renters — which makes up around two-thirds of city residents. Newsom tried to find some compromise on the issue, joining Peskin to convene a task force composed of tenants activists, developers, and real estate professionals, hoping that the group could find a way to prevent evictions while expanding home ownership opportunities.
"The mayor views the striking of balance between competing interests as an important approach to governing," Ragone told the Guardian after we explained the array of policy disputes this story would cover.
The task force predictably fell apart after six meetings. "The mayor was trying to find a comfortable way to get out of the issue," said Mecca, a member of the task force. But with some issues, there simply is no comfortable solution; someone’s going to be unhappy with the outcome. "When that failed," Mecca said, "there was nowhere for him to go anymore."
The San Francisco Tenants Union and its allies decided it was time to push legislation that would protect tenants, organizing an effective campaign that finally forced Newsom into a reactionary mode. The mayor wound up siding overtly with downtown interests for the first time in his mayoral tenure — and in the process, he solidified the progressive board majority.
Housing quickly became the issue that defines differences between Newsom and the board.
"The Newsom agenda has been one of gentrification," said San Francisco Tenants Union director Ted Gullicksen. The mayor and his board allies have actively opposed placing limitations on the high number of evictions (at least until the most recent condo conversion measure, which Dufty and Newsom supported, a victory tenants activists attribute to their organizing efforts), while at the same time encouraging development patterns that "bring in more high-end condominiums and saturate the market with that," Gullicksen explained.
He pointed out that those two approaches coalesce into a doubly damaging policy on the issue of converting apartments into condominiums, which usually displace low-income San Franciscans, turn an affordable rental unit into an expensive condominium, and fill the spot with a higher-income owner.
"So you really get a two-on-one transformation of the city," Gullicksen said.
Newsom’s allies don’t agree, noting that in a city where renters outnumber homeowners two to one, some loss of rental housing is acceptable. "Rather than achieve their stated goals of protecting tenants, the real result is a barrier to home ownership," Elsbernd told us, explaining his vote against all four recent tenant-protection measures.
On the development front, Gullicksen said Newsom has actively pushed policies to develop housing that’s unaffordable to most San Franciscans — as he did with his failed Workforce Housing Initiative and some of his area plans — while maintaining an overabundance of faith in free-market forces.
"He’s very much let the market have what the market wants, which is high-end luxury housing," Gullicksen said.
As a result, Mecca said, "I think we in the tenant movement have been effective at making TICs a class issue."
Affordable housing activists say there is a marked difference between Newsom and the board majority on housing.
"The Board of Supervisors is engaged in an active pursuit of land-use policy that attempts to preserve as much affordable housing, as much rental housing, as much neighborhood-serving businesses as possible," longtime housing activist Calvin Welch told us. "And the mayor is totally and completely lining up with downtown business interests."
Welch said Newsom has shown where he stands in the appointments he makes — such as that of Republican planning commissioner Michael Antonini, and his nomination of Ted Dienstfrey to run Treasure Island, which the Rules Committee recently rejected — and by the policies he supports.
Welch called Daly’s Rincon deal "precedent setting and significant." It was so significant that downtown noticed and started pushing back.
Board power really coalesced last fall. In addition to the housing and tenant issues, Ammiano brought forward a plan that would force businesses to pay for health insurance plans for their employees. That galvanized downtown and forced Newsom to finally make good on his promise to offer his own plan to deal with the uninsured — but the mayor offered only broad policy goals, and the plan itself is still being developed.
It was in this climate that many of Newsom’s big-business supporters, including Don Fisher — the Republican founder of the Gap who regularly bankrolls conservative political causes in San Francisco — demanded and received a meeting with Newsom. The December sit-down was attended by a who’s who of downtown developers and power brokers.
"That was a result of them losing their ass on Rincon Hill," Welch said of the meeting.
The upshot — according to public records and Guardian interviews with attendees — was that Newsom agreed to oppose an ordinance designed to limit how much parking could be built along with the 10,000 housing units slated for downtown. The mayor instead would support a developer-written alternative carried by Alioto-Pier.
The measure downtown opposed was originally sponsored by Daly before being taken over by Peskin. It had the strong support of Newsom’s own planning director, Dean Macris, and was approved by the Planning Commission on a 6–1 vote (only Newsom’s Republican appointee, Antonini, was opposed).
The process that led to the board’s 7–4 approval of the measure was politically crass and embarrassing for the Mayor’s Office (see “Joining the Battle,” 2/8/06), but he kept his promise and vetoed the measure. The votes of his four allies were enough to sustain the veto.
Newsom tried to save face in the ugly saga by pledging to support a nearly identical version of the measure, but with just a couple more giveaways to developers: allowing them to build more parking garages and permitting more driveways with their projects.
Political observers say the incident weakened Newsom instead of strengthening him.
"They can’t orchestrate a move. They are only acting by vetoes, and you can’t run the city by vetoes," Welch said. "He never puts anything on the line, and that’s why the board has become so emboldened."
The Newsom administration doesn’t seem to grasp how housing issues — or symbolic issues like creating car-free spaces or being wary of land schemes like the Bayview–Hunters Point redevelopment plan — shape perceptions of other issues. As Welch said, "All politics in San Francisco center around land use."
N’Tanya Lee, executive director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, said the Newsom administration has done a very good job of maintaining budgetary support for programs dealing with children, youth, and their families. But advocates have relied on the leadership of progressive supervisors like Daly to push affordable housing initiatives like the $20 million budget supplemental the board initiated and approved in April.
"Our primary concern is that low- and moderate-income families are being pushed out of San Francisco," Lee told us. "We’re redefining what it means to be pro-kid and pro-family in San Francisco."
Indeed, that’s a very different approach from the so-called pro-family agenda being pushed by SFSOS and some of Newsom’s other conservative allies, who argue that keeping taxes low while keeping the streets and parks safe and clean is what families really want. But Lee worries more about ensuring that families have reasonably priced shelter.
So she and other affordable housing advocates will be watching closely this summer as the board and Newsom deal with Daly’s proposal to substantially increase the percentage of affordable housing developers must build under the city’s inclusionary-housing policy. Newsom’s downtown allies are expected to strongly oppose the plan.
Even on Newsom’s signature issue, the board has made inroads.
"In general, on the homeless issue, the supervisor who has shown the most strong and consistent leadership has been Chris Daly," said Coalition on Homelessness director Juan Prada.
Prada credits the mayor with focusing attention on the homeless issue, although he is critical of the ongoing harassment of the homeless by the Police Department and the so-called Homeward Bound program that gives homeless people one-way bus tickets out of town.
"This administration has a genuine interest in homeless issues, which the previous one didn’t have, but they’re banking too much on the Care Not Cash approach," Prada said.
Other Newsom initiatives to satisfy his downtown base of support have also fallen flat.
Robert Haaland of the city employee labor union SEIU Local 790 said Newsom has tried to reform the civil service system and privatize some city services, but has been stopped by labor and the board.
"They were trying to push a privatization agenda, and we pushed back," Haaland said, noting that Supervisor Ma’s alliance with Newsom on that issue was the reason SEIU 790 endorsed Janet Reilly over Ma in the District 12 Assembly race.
The turning point on the issue came last year, when the Newsom administration sought to privatize the security guards at the Asian Art Museum as a cost-saving measure. The effort was soundly defeated in the board’s Budget Committee.
"That was a key vote, and they lost, so I don’t think they’ll be coming back with that again," Haaland said, noting that labor has managed to win over Dufty, giving the board a veto-proof majority on privatization issues.
Who’s in charge?
Even many Newsom allies will privately grumble that Newsom isn’t engaged enough with the day-to-day politics of the city. Again and again, Newsom has seemed content to watch from the sidelines, as he did with Supervisor Mirkarimi’s proposal to create a public financing program for mayoral candidates.
"The board was out front on that, while the mayor stayed out of it until the very end," said Steven Hill, of the Center for Voting and Democracy, who was involved with the measure. And when the administration finally did weigh in, after the board had approved the plan on a veto-proof 9–2 vote, Newsom said the measure didn’t go far enough. He called for public financing for all citywide offices — but never followed up with an actual proposal.
The same has been true on police reform and violence prevention measures. Newsom promised to create a task force to look into police misconduct, to hold a blue-ribbon summit on violence prevention, and to implement a community policing system with grassroots input — and none of that has come to pass.
Then, when Daly took the lead in creating a community-based task force to develop violence prevention programs with an allocation of $10 million a year for three years — Measure A on the June ballot — Newsom and his board allies opposed the effort, arguing the money would be better spent on more cops (see “Ballot-Box Alliance,” page 19).
"He’s had bad counsel on this issue of violence all the way through," said Sharen Hewitt, who runs the Community Leadership Academy Emergency Response project. "He has not done damn near enough from his position, and neither has the board."
Hewitt worries that current city policies, particularly on housing, are leading to class polarization that could make the problems of violence worse. And while Newsom’s political allies tend to widen the class divide, she can’t bring herself to condemn the mayor: "I think he’s a nice guy and a lot smarter than people have given him credit for."
Tom Radulovich, who sits on the BART board and serves as executive director of Transportation for a Livable City (which is in the process of changing its name to Livable City), said Newsom generally hasn’t put much action behind his rhetorical support for the environment and transit-first policies.
"Everyone says they’re pro-environment," he said.
In particular, Radulovich was frustrated by Newsom’s vetoes of the downtown parking and Healthy Saturdays measures and two renter-protection measures. The four measures indicated very different agendas pursued by Newsom and the board majority.
In general, Radulovich often finds his smart-growth priorities opposed by Newsom’s allies. "The moneyed interests usually line up against livable city, good planning policies," he said. On the board, Radulovich said it’s no surprise that the three supervisors from the wealthiest parts of town — Ma, Elsbernd, and Alioto-Pier — generally vote against initiatives he supports.
"Dufty is the oddity because he represents a pretty progressive, urbane district," Radulovich said, "but he tends to vote like he’s from a more conservative district."
The recent lawsuit by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the Committee of Jobs — urging more aggressive use of a voter-approved requirement that board legislation undergo a detailed economic analysis — shows that downtown is spoiling for a fight (see “Downtown’s ‘Hail Mary’ Lawsuit,” page 9). So politics in City Hall is likely to heat up.
"There is a real absence of vision and leadership in the city right now, particularly on the question of who will be able to afford to live in San Francisco 20 years from now," Mirkarimi said. "There is a disparity between Newsom hitting the right notes in what the press and public want to hear and between the policy considerations that will put those positions into effect."
But Newsom’s allies say they plan to stand firm against the ongoing effort by progressives to set the agenda.
"I think I am voting my constituency," Elsbernd said. "I’m voting District Seven and voicing a perspective of a large part of the city that the progressive majority doesn’t represent."
Newsom flack Ragone doesn’t accept most of the narratives that are laid out by activists, from last year’s flip in the balance of power to the influence of downtown and Newsom’s wealthy benefactors on his decision to veto four measures this year.
"Governing a city like San Francisco is complex. There are many areas of nuance in governing this city," Ragone said. "Everyone knows Gavin Newsom defies traditional labels. That’s not part of a broad political strategy, but just how he governs."
Yet the majority of the board seems unafraid to declare where they stand on the most divisive issues facing the city.
"The board has — really, since the 2000 election — has been pushing a progressive set of policies as it related to housing, just-taxation policies, and an array of social service provisions," Peskin said. "All come with some level of controversy, because none are free." SFBG