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World Beats a Path to S.F. Mayor Newsom's Door

Gay marriage has made him a celebrity, but he tries to stay focused on the city's problems.

March 13, 2004|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Gavin Newsom's 63rd day in office began on a recent morning at sunup and ended at 10 p.m. in a room full of wilting staffers and stale candy bars. In between was the dizzying schedule of a hands-on new mayor determined to set a fresh tone for this city on everything from education to crime to economic development.

If it weren't for a "60 Minutes" TV segment featuring Newsom -- he was too busy to watch it -- and a private meeting with a Democratic Party kingmaker from Washington, it would have been difficult to tell that the neophyte mayor had planted himself at the center of an international news story.

But laud him or loathe him, most observers agree that Newsom's decision to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples will secure his place in political history.

He was featured on the front page of France's Le Monde as a civil rights hero. The conservative British press has lambasted him. In this country, his name and earnest Irish-Catholic face are household fare, beamed into living rooms on "Larry King Live" and "Nightline."

By the time the California Supreme Court on Thursday ordered a halt to the gay marriages -- at least for now -- Newsom's move had reverberated through the country like a political stadium wave. Officials in Oregon, New Mexico and New York followed his lead, while conservatives in a growing number of states and the nation's capital stepped up plans for constitutional amendments that would ban the same-sex unions.

Against this backdrop, one would expect the mayor to be just a bit distracted. He's not.

The action by the state high court triggered meetings with legal advisors and landed Newsom before news cameras to deliver a message of defiance. He vowed to press forward with the city's legal challenge to state marriage law as unconstitutional. The frenzy continued into Friday, when Newsom rose before 3:30 a.m. for an appearance on a national TV news show.

But for the most part, the 36-year-old mayor has stubbornly refused to be overtaken by the events he set in motion.

In the four weeks since Newsom ordered his county clerk to make marriage licenses gender-neutral, more than 4,100 couples became "spouses for life" on the rotunda stairs below his City Hall office. But behind the imposing wooden doors of Room 200, it is mostly mundane city business that occupies Newsom. But he is determined that it not be business as usual.

As pundits ponder the political implications of Newsom's same-sex marriage move, he is hiring and firing, and paying surprise visits to housing projects, schools and even murder scenes.

He recently carved nearly $1 million out of his own budget, unusual for a mayor at midyear. His staff must now pay for parking, and Newsom slashed his own salary -- something that critics say won't be too painful for the wealthy entrepreneur.

He is requiring ethics training for newly appointed commissioners -- a first for the city, and has named a special monitor to root out corruption and favoritism in the Department of Building Inspection.

In between are the conferences, fundraisers, flag-raisings and chamber lunches that pepper any public official's day.

Newsom squeezed to victory in a tight election last December, but polls show his popularity has soared in the city since he ordered the same-sex marriage licenses. Still, not a single event on his public schedule in the past month has dealt with that subject.

"The days are a little longer, but nine or 10 hours have been spent on other issues," says Newsom, rattling off problems such as the city's record budget deficit, homelessness and a lack of affordable housing for working families. "I'm trying to quickly demonstrate renewed energy and focus and getting back to basics. We're not delaying reforms."

Bent on changing the bureaucratic culture of the city's five dozen departments, Newsom is unabashedly micromanaging. A thick file on his desk lists tens of thousands of city employees and their overtime pay. Newsom pored over them to identify 215 recently identified pink slip targets. After narrowing the list, he demanded brief biographies to help in the final cut.

Meanwhile, every meeting serves as an audition of sorts. After a session to discuss homeless issues this week, Newsom made a note to himself: Fire two of the attendees.

"They didn't care what others had to say, only what they had to say," Newsom recalled with the kind of candor that surprises even his closest aides. "I'm looking for people who are there to listen and learn."

If altering the bureaucratic culture of a major city in the midst of a global media circus weren't challenging enough, there's the personal chaos.

Newsom and his wife, former prosecutor Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, recently sold their six-bedroom Pacific Heights home. Then she accepted a job as a Court TV anchor. Along with a gig as a CNN legal commentator, she now spends most of her time in New York, leaving Newsom alone in a temporary corporate apartment.

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