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Odd Man In

Businessman Gavin Newsom is the newest addition to San Francisco's board of supervisors. His biggest selling point? The fact that he is a straight white male--a relatively rare commodity in that city.

March 31, 1997|MICHAEL J. YBARRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN FRANCISCO — When the lone member of a locally under-represented minority disappeared from the board of supervisors last fall, Examiner columnist Rob Morse pictured the aggrieved group taking to the streets, rhythmically challenged straight white males chanting: We're here. We're sincere. Get used to it.

"You almost wouldn't know we're still running the town," wrote Morse, who is openly heterosexual. "Perhaps we've been priced out of the board. After all, what self-respecting straight white male will accept $23,924 a year to kiss Mayor Brown's calfskin shoes and listen to little old ladies complain about potholes?"

Gavin Newsom, it turns out, who was tapped for the board in February by Mayor Willie Brown. Newsom, 29, is a fourth-generation San Franciscan from a well-connected, politically active family whose only governmental experience was a six-month stint listening to citizens grumble about bus zones and meter maids as director of the Parking and Traffic Commission.

In most places, Newsom's resume would be the most distinctive thing about him: Four years ago, he opened an upscale wine shop near the flamboyantly heterosexual Marina District neighborhood where he lives that has grown into nine businesses with 300 employees, flung from Lake Tahoe to the Napa Valley, with a Hawaiian resort deal in the works. Not in San Francisco, which Jerry Falwell once called "the Wild Kingdom." Thus the recent screaming headline in the Examiner: "Board gets a straight white male."

"It's embarrassing," said Newsom, tall, trim and hyper-articulate. "It doesn't say anything about me. I sure as heck expect to be known as more than a straight white male."

That might take some time in a town where the Human Rights Commission recently reprimanded a gay bar for banning heterosexual kissing.

"The straight white male seat" on the board has been vacant since November, when Supervisor Kevin Shelley was elected to the Assembly--where he will not exactly be an endangered species--and the mayor found himself being pressured by supporters of a certain sexual orientation. "I certainly am not going to be having on the application, 'Are you straight?' I don't know how you ask that question," Brown snapped last fall to story-sniffing reporters. "But I will be looking to make sure the board is representative of San Francisco."

The finer points of Brown's decision were obscured as soon as he promoted Newsom, whose telegenic face and slicked back hair are fixtures of the society pages. "He is young, male and appears to be straight," the mayor noted. (Indeed, he allows he's been dating the same woman for three years.) Local cartoonist Don Asmussen drew girls fainting at supervisor meetings, where people have been known to snooze but never swoon, and announced: "He's a breeder."

Newsom certainly stands out on the 11-member board, which includes a gay white male, a Latino male, a Latina lesbian, a Jewish lesbian, an African American reverend, a Chinese American of each gender and a Hawaiian-Japanese-Chinese American. Former hooker Margo St. James came close to getting elected last year, although her candidacy was plagued by rumors that she may have lied about being a hooker.

The board's recent history is as colorful as its membership. During the Gulf War it declared the city a haven for conscientious objectors. Last year the board banned pizza delivery red-lining and raised the possibility of legalizing prostitution. Supervisor Tom Ammiano, a gay former stand-up comic, also floated the idea that city employees were entitled to sex change operations as part of their benefits. (The board had already banned discrimination against cross-dressers and trans-genders--which meant, Ammiano quipped, a guy can't get a pink slip for wearing one.)

Ammiano is the board's current firebrand. "I'm here, I'm queer and I'm not going shopping," he shouted in December at an anti-sweatshop protest at Macy's, where the police cited the politician for blocking entrance to the store.

All of which is cause for despair to another largely closeted minority.

"It's tough being a Republican in San Francisco," sighed Don Casper, chairman of the local Republican Party, which claims 15% of the city's electorate, its weakest showing since 1922. "There's been so much over so long a period of time that we're inured to it. In a perverse way, we welcome it; it marginalizes the board, it fades further into irrelevancy with each crazed resolution they take."

*

Things weren't always that way. It was only in 1977 when Supervisor Harvey Milk became famous as the first prominent openly gay elected official in the country. In fact, insular San Francisco was long dominated by an Irish-Italian political machine, many of whose members the young Newsom used to see at the family hangout in North Beach after Little League games. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi is a cousin; state Sen. John Burton a close family friend.

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