Newsom’s one bright spot (and even it’s a bit dingy)

Pub date July 14, 2010
SectionPolitics Blog

Covering Mayor Gavin Newsom’s devious exploits for this story last week, watching as the ever-ambitious Newsom sacrificed the city’s fiscal future on the altar of political expediency and his increasingly rigid anti-tax ideology, it seemed as if there was nothing remotely redeeming about this callow, self-serving man. But then he does this, appointing Cheryl Brinkman – a strong and respected advocate for promoting alternatives to the automobile – to the Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors.

I’m not saying this one act redeems Newsom, not even close. In fact, some have speculated that he’s trying to coopt a qualified progressive or burnish his green credentials, an echo of the responses to when he appointed San Francisco Bicycle Coalition director Leah Shahum to the MTA board a couple years ago, a tenure Newsom ended prematurely after they clashed over creating more car-free spaces. Or maybe he’s trying to head off support for a ballot measure being considered by the Board of Supervisors to split appointments to the MTA. Who knows with this guy?

Yet it’s also true that being open to democratizing the streets of San Francisco has been a bright spot in Newsom’s otherwise dismal record as mayor. And I think that’s because the cost of admission to this movement is so low. He’s embraced temporary car-free spaces, supported more bicycling, and moved forward other green initiatives – all of which have little to no cost involved and no real political downside. So it’s been easy for Newsom to strike green poses when he chooses, just as it was easy for him to make the supposedly “courageous” decision to legalize same-sex marriage, which involved no heavy lifting and greatly improved Newsom’s political prospects.

But we’re reaching a moment of truth for San Francisco, a point at which the easy answers are evaporating and the bill is coming due – just as Newsom prepares to leave San Francisco for Sacramento. After doubling Muni fares since he became mayor and reaching a level where they really can’t go up anymore without diminishing returns and serious political consequences, Newsom and his appointees have run out of easy options for maintaining Muni in an era of declining state and federal support.

Now, the choices aren’t as easy: charge motorists more for parking, permits, or driving in the most congested times or places; cut Muni service or raise rates more; find ever more ways to nickle-and-dime everyone with various fee increases; or find more general tax revenue, which Newsom has been steadfastly unwilling to do, even though the big banks and financial services companies that caused the Great Recession are exempt from city business taxes.

Brinkman, who tells us that the Mayor’s Office placed no conditions on the appointment, now has a tough job, as do all of this city’s elected and appointed officials. But this is the moment when they must have the courage to make the tough choices about what’s best for San Francisco, choices that Newsom has been unwilling to make.