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At least he picked the right city for a scandal

San Francisco has always had a soft spot for wayward politicians.

February 11, 2007|Martin F. Nolan | MARTIN F. NOLAN, a former reporter and editor for the Boston Globe, lives in San Francisco.

TOLERANCE has long been a defining characteristic of San Francisco, and Gavin Newsom can only hope that it will allow him to subdue the political scandal dragging him down. The San Francisco mayor recently admitted an affair with the wife of his campaign manager, then apologized to city residents. Last week, Newsom said he would confront his demons, including Demon Rum. If he runs for reelection in November, he may benefit from a relentlessly nonjudgmental tradition.

The Gold Rush of the 1850s, disdaining Eastern protocol and pedigree, fostered a few-questions-asked attitude in San Francisco that shaped the city's political culture and nurtured its political tolerance.

After the earthquake and fire of 1906, Mayor Eugene Schmitz was indicted and convicted on 27 counts of graft and corruption. An appeals court reversed his conviction, and Schmitz was later elected to the Board of Supervisors.

In 1969, Look magazine accused Mayor Joseph L. Alioto of Mafia ties. Alioto sued Look, won, and the magazine folded. He was reelected in 1971, but he lost the 1974 Democratic gubernatorial primary to Jerry Brown.

Newsom's immediate predecessor, Willie Brown, was pursued by a posse of FBI agents when he was Assembly speaker in Sacramento. In 1985, then-Assembly GOP leader Pat Nolan of Glendale urged the FBI to investigate rumors linking Brown to bribery. The speaker was never indicted, but his accuser was indicted, convicted and sent to prison. After term limits evicted him from the state Capitol, Brown returned home to San Francisco, where he easily won two terms as mayor.

Brown's longtime ally, San Francisco's John L. Burton, retired the trophy for confessing to addictive behavior in 1982, when he declined to run for a sixth term in Congress, saying he had both a drug and alcohol problem. "I was whacked out and chemically dependent on cocaine and nitrous oxide," Burton recalled years later in his office in Sacramento. "If I had another $10,000, I'd be dead. I had no money. I owed the drug dealer, owed loan sharks, couldn't beg, borrow or steal money."

Burton defeated his demons, and Brown asked him in the 1990s to run for a seat in the Assembly, where Burton served before being elected to the state Senate. In 1998, at his swearing-in as Senate president pro tem, Burton recited the lyrics of the Dorothy Fields-Jerome Kern song, "Pick Yourself Up."

Today, Burton is advising Newsom, "whom I've known all his life." Newsom also enjoys the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and, according to polls, most voters. All three politicians support the Delancey Street Foundation, where addicts seek help and where Newsom will be treated.

POLITICALLY, Newsom has prospered since 2004, when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts declared that state's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. The mayor followed suit and quickly sanctioned gay marriages, converting City Hall into a wedding chapel.

Greater tolerance no mayor has, so in left-leaning San Francisco, Newsom has only one declared opponent, a conservative former supervisor. But if the mayor stumbles on the road to recovery, he may face more foes. Politicians are, by definition, ambitious and opportunistic, but in San Francisco, voters seldom tolerate politicians who stab the wounded.

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