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In San Francisco, mayor's troubles not just personal

February 07, 2007|John M. Glionna and Lee Romney | Times Staff Writers

SAN FRANCISCO — He's considered a darling of Democratic Party politics, a smooth-talking young millionaire with Kennedy good looks who has basked in the media limelight while being courted as a possible national political figure.

But beneath the surface, Mayor Gavin Newsom's Camelot has been crumbling.

After admitting in the last five days to adultery and alcohol abuse, Newsom has suffered a public political meltdown that has rocked City Hall and led one San Francisco supervisor to call for his resignation.

The 39-year-old mayor, who is running for reelection in November, acknowledged last week that he had an affair with the wife of a longtime aide. On Monday, he announced he would seek counseling because he had "come to the conclusion that I will be a better person without alcohol in my life."

But the mayor's problems appear to run deeper than behind-the-scenes indiscretions, raising questions about his ability to lead one of America's largest cities.

Critics and backers alike now acknowledge that Newsom has become disengaged, reluctant to grapple with such critical issues as the city's soaring homicide rate among black residents. In recent months, he has even refused to meet with supervisors -- longtime supporters included.

In this famously forgiving place, some at City Hall say the mayor should be granted the leeway to deal with his problems while in office. Others express pent-up frustration and question whether he should continue to run for a second term.

Supervisor Jake McGoldrick on Tuesday called for Newsom's resignation.

"If he lived by any code of honorable behavior, he would have a personal epiphany and do the right thing," McGoldrick said. "The only epiphany he's had is 'How do we spin this?' "

Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, a longtime Newsom ally, said it was too early to call for any political heads.

"Most people grapple with things in their lives, but most don't have to do it publicly -- and the mayor has taken that courageous step," she said. "If anyone should call for his resignation, it should be city residents, and they haven't done that."

Meanwhile, public reaction to the mayor's admissions appears to be mixed. Local newspaper websites have run the gamut -- with comments supporting Newsom running about equal to those expressing anger and even vitriol.

As she lunched at a Financial District salad bar Tuesday, Adriana Pietras, 25, a paralegal, said Newsom's actions have changed the way she views the mayor. "I don't think he should resign," she said, "But I'm not sure he should run again."

Nearby, another voter said the mayor should leave office today.

"His transgression was a serious integrity issue," said the man, who asked not to be named. "But he won't ever resign. He's a politician. Bill Clinton's precedent gives him hope he can survive this."

Elected to the mayor's office in 2003, Newsom, a former supervisor, quickly won the adulation of San Franciscans with his forceful stance in support of same-sex marriages. Images of thousands of gay and lesbian couples receiving marriage licenses at San Francisco's gilded City Hall were seen around the world.

Although some believed Newsom's stand was too radical for the mainstream and contributed to the Democrats' 2004 national election losses, his cachet continued to grow. Newsom's image, with his slicked-back hair and aquiline nose, appeared on the covers of national news magazines.

He was, said Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network, which cultivates progressive political leadership, "arguably the single most promising Democrat under 40 in the country."

"Whatever 'it' is," Rosenberg said in 2004, "I think Gavin's got it."

Newsom took on celebrity status with an eager staff of aides and an aggressive spokesman with experience on national campaigns. News releases gushed about the mayor's accomplishments.

He crafted a plan to offer healthcare to every resident. He touted San Francisco as among the world's greenest cities and promised to provide free wireless access citywide.

But some community and business leaders have complained that the mayor's inaccessibility may have cost the city dearly: the San Francisco 49ers suddenly announced in the midst of negotiations for a new stadium that the team was looking to move to nearby Santa Clara -- in part because the team owner couldn't get Newsom on the phone.

City government, meanwhile, is deadlocked as the mayor faces off against critics on the Board of Supervisors who characterize Newsom's style as distant and arrogant. In November, supervisors brought a nonbinding ballot measure to voters suggesting that the mayor attend meetings to submit to "question time."

Voters approved it. But Newsom dismissed it as a political gesture. Instead, he promised to hold community town hall meetings.

In response, angry residents showed up at one Newsom appearance dressed in chicken costumes.

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