More than the affair

Pub date February 2, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

OK: Let’s all stop and take a deep breath.

Gavin Newsom did something almost unbelievably, incalculably stupid. He’s in a lot of political and possibly legal trouble. But in the end, it was just an affair – yes, an affair with a subordinate, which is a real problem, but nobody’s dead, he hasn’t started a war, the city isn’t about to collapse and the world will keep turning. It’s silly to talk about Newsom resigning over this, the same was it was silly for the Republicans to impeach Bill Clinton over an Oval Office blow job.

Besides, there’s a much bigger problem here.


For months, long before this tawdry story made the front pages, it’s been clear that the mayor of San Francisco wasn’t focused on the job. For whatever reason (and there may be many reasons) Newsom has been checked out for quite some time now. As we reported Jan 10, he never does public events that haven’t been carefully scripted. His relations with the Board of Supervisors are damaged beyond repair. He’s offering absolutely nothing in the way of leadership on the murder epidemic, the housing crisis, Muni’s meltdown, or much of anything else. He’s had plenty of time for glamour and glitz, for movie stars, rides on the Google corporate jet and the glitterati at Davos – but not much energy for the gritty reality on the streets of his city.

He is, we noted in our cover story, “the imperious press release mayor, smiling for the cameras, quick with his sound bites and utterly unwilling to engage in any public discussion whose outcome isn’t determined in advance.”

And whether we like it or not, this latest “lapse in judgment” – and Newsom’s embarrassing failure to deal with it properly – is only going to make things worse.

To be blunt, for a lot of reasons that have little to do with this week’s tabloid sensation, we don’t see how Gavin Newsom can effectively run San Francisco for another four years. This latest mess isn’t a scandal as much as it’s a symptom of Newsom’s shaky grip on the frighteningly tricky world of high-stakes politics. He’s acting like a dizzy kid at a rock-star party who doesn’t have the maturity to handle what’s coming at him. Even his close allies have warned us that the wheels are coming off his administration. It’s not even clear that he wants to be mayor.

For the good of the city (and the causes he claims to care about) he’d be better off announcing now that he isn’t going to run for re-election.

That wouldn’t be the end of his political career – plenty of people (John Burton comes to mind) have taken some time off from politics to deal with their personal lives, and come back much stronger. It might be the best thing Newsom could do for himself.


If Newsom stays in the race, he will quickly (and for perhaps all the wrong reasons) be seen as deeply politically vulnerable. And when a local politician is looking bloodied, the sharks start to circle. The potential for a feeding frenzy – with half a dozen or more politicians who suddenly see City Hall Room 200 beckoning starting to jockey for support and stab each other in the back – is all too real. That’s a bad way for progressives to proceed.

Running for mayor is serious business, and if there’s going to be a strong candidate challenging Newsom on the issues, the left needs to think about who it ought to be. Who has the experience and skills to take on the campaign? Who can appeal to a wide enough group of voters to win? Who as the sort of record and platform that progressives can support and unite around?

Those discussions need to start soon. But they need to be deliberate and thoughtful. Newsom’s political (and yes, personal) failures have given progressives an opening. There’s a chance to elect a mayor who really represents San Francisco values, in deeds as well as words. Let’s take it seriously.