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San Francisco mayor make bold moves with mixed results

Gavin Newsom, a Democratic candidate for governor, has made the city better by several measures. But not all of the ideas he brims with have borne fruit. He denies he's more flash than substance.

September 06, 2009|Mark Z. Barabak

SAN FRANCISCO — The matter was urgent, said Mayor Gavin Newsom, the situation intolerable.

A group of San Francisco police officers had produced videos making fun of women, gays, blacks and other minorities -- rough-house humor intended for laughs at the station house.

"It is shameful. It is offensive," Newsom told reporters summoned to City Hall soon after the videos surfaced. "It is sexist, it is homophobic and it is racist. We're going to make sure that it ends."

With his police chief standing sternly by, Newsom announced formation of a blue-ribbon panel to undertake a top-to-bottom review of the San Francisco Police Department.

That was four years ago. The TV lights dimmed and the headlines faded. The panel quietly died off. Half a dozen disciplinary cases are still pending, but many say San Francisco's ossified Police Department remains ripe for major reform.

As he seeks the Democratic nomination for governor next year, Newsom is touting his performance in this lovely, fractious city, telling audiences around the state that he will shake up Sacramento with the same sort of energy, creativity and dynamism he's demonstrated since taking over as mayor in January 2004.

His record in San Francisco, however, is a decidedly mixed one: a pastiche of bold strokes and extravagant promises, only some of which have reached fruition.

Just weeks into office, Newsom galvanized gays and lesbians across the country by legalizing same-sex marriage, helping spur a national movement. He presided over creation of a universal healthcare system, touted by some as a model for America. He helped turn San Francisco into a hub of biotech research and a laboratory for green living and environmental consciousness.

"He's never had a drought of ideas," said David Lee, a Chinatown activist and Newsom appointee to the city's Recreation and Park Commission.

But there is also a long list of proposals -- congestion-pricing to ease traffic, a savings bond for every San Francisco newborn, a tax on soda to fight obesity, to name just a few -- that were announced with great fanfare only to disappear after attention died away. (All are under review, Newsom says.)

Would-be allies say they rarely hear from the mayor. Department heads complain about a lack of guidance. Newsom perpetually wars with the 11-member Board of Supervisors, raising the question of how he would deal with Sacramento's querulous 120-member Legislature.

"When people are inflexible in terms of their ideological frames, it's difficult," Newsom responded during a recent interview. "But we've still made a great deal of progress."

San Francisco is an exceedingly difficult place to govern. Politically, it is not so much a city as a competing collection of egos, special interests and personal agendas -- big versus small business, wealthy versus poor, renters versus homeowners, the mayor versus supervisors -- all elbowing inside 47 square miles of cramped living space.

The political bandwidth is narrow -- most everyone of consequence in city government is a liberal of some fashion -- so the disputes are often personal: a phone call that wasn't returned, advice that wasn't heeded, help that went unacknowledged.

(Many say most of the credit for the city's universal healthcare program belongs to Tom Ammiano, now a state assemblyman, who was the prime mover while serving on the board.)

At least some of the sniping at Newsom, 41, can be attributed to envy over his good looks, his facility before the cameras and his ambition to parlay those assets -- and his bushel of ideas -- into higher office.

"He's had a pretty meteoric rise," said Corey Cook, a University of San Francisco political scientist who suggested that Newsom, like every big-city mayor, receives both more credit and blame than he probably deserves.

People can argue over who was truly responsible for expanded healthcare, efforts to promote recycling, new developments downtown and on the waterfront -- and they do, fiercely. "But the reality is they happened while Newsom was mayor," Cook said.

Still, to a striking degree, some of Newsom's biggest backers -- in civic groups and policy circles, among political activists and campaign donors -- have in the last few years become some of the mayor's sharpest critics.

In a series of interviews, they expressed disappointment and accused Newsom, in words oft-repeated, of focusing more on self-aggrandizement and personal publicity than solving the city's problems.

"Once he's said it and it's printed in the newspapers, it's done in his mind," said Jim Ross, a political consultant who ran Newsom's 2003 campaign for mayor. "Then it's on to the next big announcement."

Newsom vehemently denied that charge. "It's a work of fiction," he said. "It's an opinion, but it's not a fact."

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