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A New Political Era Dawns in S.F.

Old guard's out as a Democrat and a Green, both in their 30s, face a mayoral runoff.

November 06, 2003|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Voters here have ushered in a new generation of political leadership, setting the stage for a mayoral runoff next month between a millionaire entrepreneur who promises to crack down on the homeless and an unapologetically left-wing Green Party member who won an upset over his political mentors.

The winners in Tuesday's first round of voting were restaurant owner and Supervisor Gavin Newsom, 36, and Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez, 38.

Each represents a new beginning to voters in a city hammered by job loss and overrun by panhandlers. Whichever one is elected will become the city's youngest mayor.

As much as is possible in a place as liberal as San Francisco, the mayoral showdown five weeks from now will offer a clear choice:

Newsom, a liberal Democrat by the standards of most other cities, has been cast by opponents here as a socialite "Republocrat." He is allied with billionaire Gordon Getty and lives in a multimillion-dollar mansion in Pacific Heights, one of the city's most expensive neighborhoods, with his wife, a prosecutor and CNN commentator who is a former lingerie model.

By contrast, Gonzalez, an arts aficionado and poetry buff, doesn't own a car and rents an apartment in the considerably less fashionable Western Addition neighborhood. Newsom's supporters portray Gonzalez as an ultra-left "cafe brat" whose support won't extend beyond the city's young hipsters.

Newsom first captured the attention of voters with a ballot initiative last fall that he called "Care, Not Cash." Overwhelmingly approved by voters, but now hung up in the courts, it would drastically slash General Assistance payments to the homeless and give them vouchers for services instead. Opponents say those services are already stretched too thin.

This year, Newsom followed up with a ballot initiative to ban begging in many parts of the city -- near any bank ATM, for example -- and outlaw aggressive panhandling everywhere.

Gonzalez promoted his own initiative -- to boost the minimum wage citywide to $8.50. That would add San Francisco to a short list of cities that have imposed their own minimum wage laws and raise the wage to the highest in the nation, matched only by Santa Fe, N.M. The statewide minimum wage is $6.75.

Newsom's measure was backed by many business groups. The same people opposed Gonzalez's measure. But voters approved them both with nearly identical majorities -- 59% on the panhandling measure; 60% on the minimum wage.

"There's no logic or nothing," said state Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) of his city's voting habits.

Regardless of who wins -- and Newsom has a large edge -- the city's old guard is moving over, or being pushed aside.

Newsom and Gonzalez will battle for a seat being vacated by Willie Brown, who leaves public life after decades of flamboyant service. Brown, who launched Newsom's political career by naming him to the Parking and Traffic Commission in 1996, will step aside because of term limits. He plans to found a public policy institute.

Burton may also soon pass from the scene. His Senate term runs out next year, and he rejected repeated appeals by leading Democrats to run for mayor.

Voters also signaled that several other prominent liberals have passed their prime, casting aside Tom Ammiano, a longtime gay rights activist and San Francisco supervisor, and former Supervisor Angela Alioto. Both have made failed attempts at the city's top job before.

San Francisco pollster David Binder said Gonzalez will face an uphill battle against Newsom, who has pulled support from across the moderate middle.

Gonzalez won 20% of Tuesday's vote to Newsom's 41%. And many of those who backed Alioto -- regarded fondly by Italian Americans for being the daughter of former Mayor Joseph Alioto -- may throw their support to the more conservative Newsom.

Still, Gonzalez surprised many by making the runoff, and his supporters say they have momentum on their side.

Gonzalez did not announce his candidacy until August and, like his opponents, had trouble capturing the attention of voters amid the hoopla of the gubernatorial recall race.

But a grass-roots movement on his behalf flourished, as volunteers strapped Gonzalez signs to their bikes and vans, and musicians and artists all over town held last-minute fund-raisers for him.

"The wild card got in," San Francisco State political science professor Richard DeLeon said of Gonzalez. The Newsom camp "didn't even prepare for that."

"It's going to be very interesting," he added. "I think there's great potential, especially on the college campuses, and Gonzalez really seems to be tapping that source of energy. That can make a huge difference."

A strong showing by Gonzalez could startle San Francisco's long-entrenched Democratic Party structure, DeLeon said. "They want to smother this little baby in its cradle -- this insurgent Green Party," he said.

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