Editorial: The next Gavin Newsom

Pub date November 3, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL It’s possible that Mayor Gavin Newsom took a long look at himself, his life, and his future last week and decided that politics — intense, 24/7/365 politics — wasn’t what he wanted right now. It’s possible (as Randy Shaw noted in Beyondchron.org) that Newsom "now joins longtime adversary Chris Daly in putting family relationships ahead of one’s political career." It’s possible that he never really wanted a future in electoral politics and was driven to run for governor less by personal ambition than by the desire of his advisors to see him in a higher political role.

In that case, Newsom has a responsibility to do the best job he can over the final two years of his term as mayor, then step away and find something else to do with his life.

But since it’s also possible — even likely — that Newsom still hopes to have a political career, and that his decision to drop out of the governor’s race was as much about his failure to gain any traction as it was about his family obligations, it’s worth talking about why his campaign failed and what he can and should do next.

For starters, Newsom never expected to beat Attorney General Jerry Brown in the big-donor fundraising battle. He was hoping to put together a grassroots operation, to mobilize the Obama constituency, and build a war chest with tens of thousands of small donors organized through social media and technology. And that kind of effort could have worked — Brown has name recognition and money, but not much else. It’s hard to imagine large masses of young activists donating time and energy to his primary campaign.

The problem was, those legions of California activists weren’t terribly excited about Newsom either. And there are good reasons for that — reasons Newsom needs to understand if he wants to run for statewide elected office in the future.

If the real Gavin Newsom had been anything like the campaign picture his handlers tried to present, he would have been a serious candidate. Newsom the candidate was a leader who brought San Franciscans together to get things accomplished. He was a progressive thinker who created universal health care and an effective budget process with a rainy day fund that prevented teacher layoffs. He was bold enough to challenge federal and state law on same-sex marriage and demand equality for all.

But Newsom the mayor was actually a snippy politician who refused to work with the Board of Supervisors and would never engage his opponents. He was great at press releases but short on accomplishments — universal health care and the rainy day fund were projects put together by Tom Ammiano, one of the supervisors the mayor disdained, who is now a state Assembly member. He refused to take a lead role fighting Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to promote clean energy and public power. And for all his success in moving same-sex marriage forward, he never once managed to bring that kind of progressive energy or policy-making to economic issues. His budget this year was the same as Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget — cuts and fees only. No new taxes.

As a result, the progressives and independent voters in his own town didn’t support his campaign — and without the environmentalists, labor, tenants, and progressive elected officials from San Francisco behind him, there was no way he could generate an honest grassroots movement in a Democratic primary.

Now he’s back from the campaign trail — and he has two years to pick up on the lessons of his ignominious political collapse. If he wants any kind of a political future, he needs to change. First, he needs to start engaging and working with the supervisors — even the ones who disagree with him. (Showing up for "question time" would be a huge step). He needs to take the city’s structural budget deficit seriously and present plans for progressive taxes to help close it. He needs to show he can take on big powerful local interests — PG&E, for example — by opposing the utility’s anti-public power initiative and putting his political capital on the line to support community choice aggregation.

Newsom the imperial mayor has, we hope, been a bit humbled. Let’s see if he comes out of this chapter as an embittered, angry (and ultimately unsuccessful) mayor committed to punishing his enemies — or a serious city leader who can live up to his own hype.