Pumping Irony

Gavin Newsom should look to Sacramento for political inspiration

About a month ago I invited Gavin Newsom to the movies through his campaign spokesman, John Shanley. The invitation didn't get anywhere, but I'm not holding it against our new mayor. He's been a busy guy. But I'm again going to invite Newsom to watch the Arnold Schwarzenegger weightlifting documentary Pumping Iron-- for his own good and the good of the city.

Newsom faces some awesome challenges during the coming months and years: The city's broke, and he's got to follow through on some controversial, yet in my view highly meritorious, campaign promises. The Board of Supervisors, meanwhile, is tilted against him. And despite the claims of the Chronicle's front headline last Thursday, Newsom's definitely not beginning his administration as a "million dollars worth of promise." He's a political weakling thrust by Democratic backers into a local war zone. Newsom needs to arm himself, and fast; he needs to accompany me to a screening of this movie, which I consider the cinematic version of Sun Tzu's The Art of War.

A couple of months ago at around midnight, while sitting next to two lawyers in a cut-rate Mission District movie house, I saw a vision of the future.

Readers of this space will recall how Matt Gonzalez, his campaign treasurer, Randy Knox, and I watched Pumping Irona few weeks before the November general election. And observers of S.F. politics might recall that immediately afterward, Gonzalez's mayoral campaign took off. Overnight, he became the core of a citywide political movement, standing up to the hierarchy of the national Democratic Party, nearly beating an opponent who outspent him 10-to-1. Gonzalez walked away from the race with national stature and enormous political capital, with a limitless future before him, all in the months following his viewing of Pumping Iron.

There's a scene in the movie in which Schwarzenegger jokingly mocks Louis Ferrigno in front of his parents, turning Ferrigno into an insecure wreck and beating him for the world title. Leftist critics claimed that the scene proved Arnold a cruel manipulator. But in Matt's mind -- and I couldn't help but agree -- it showed Schwarzenegger's strength of character; under all circumstances, he never took his eyes off the prize.

Gonzalez explained that the scene was about how a champion never yields to complacency. It's about saying to yourself, he said, "'You know what, I've already won this.'"

Of all the silly convulsions in the Chronicle's yearlong swoon over Gavin Newsom's mayoral campaign, last Thursday's paper had to be the most outrageous; it read like the opinionating version of someone tossing off after trying to hold back too long. The front page blared: "S.F. mayor-elect hailed as Democrats' rising star." And the Business section followed with an article whose premise consisted of calling Newsom an entrepreneurial genius and a potentially brilliant nuts-and-bolts manager of the public's affairs.

Anyone who's watched Newsom's near-decade in public office knows this is piffle. He'll have to undergo a radical transformation if he's to prove himself a rising star. When I used to call Newsom the Supervisor for comment on important legislation involving tens of millions in tax dollars, I'd learn he had no idea what I was talking about; he was the supervisor who, along with Jake McGoldrick, could be counted on to skip reading the background information packet on legislation given to supervisors the week prior to board meetings. His legislative interests never seemed to veer far from his own: For a while he was the go-to guy for taxi reform (taxis stop at restaurants), which ultimately bogged down in an unsatisfactory muddle. His focus on homelessness, meanwhile, started with a campaign against stray shopping carts, which, he told me, homeless people left in front of his businesses. Newsom was talented at alienating colleagues, and thus had a difficult time carrying significant legislation at the board. His patron, Willie Brown, kept up appearances by letting Newsom carry procedural bills of the sort nobody opposes. Before the Chamber of Commerce and the Democratic Party adopted him, Gavin Newsom was a consummate lightweight.

Now he's assumed a job requiring an outsize leader at an unusually difficult time. His mayoral opponent, Matt Gonzalez, enjoys at least as much post-election political support as Newsom does. And Gonzalez occupies the post with the greatest ability to undermine the mayor.

Clearly, Newsom needs some help. And I believe he deserves it. He came out of the gate last week suggesting he'd follow up on his campaign pledge to clean house: Fire Chief Mario Trevino resigned, and Newsom made it clear he'd fire Police Chief Alex Fagan. The Fire Department is a bastion of overtime scammers; the Police Department is an ineffective, abusive bureaucracy dedicated to serving and protecting itself from scrutiny. The next steps in reforming these institutions will require great political cunning and force, which I believe a screening of Pumping Ironmight provide.

Another sign Newsom means business: his fund-raiser last week for a ballot initiative that would facilitate the construction of some 10,000 units of housing in the southern parts of the city. Up to now San Francisco's housing debate has consisted of arguing over the meaning of the nonsense term "affordable housing," which is presumably superior to another nonsense term, "market-rate housing." In practice, political constraints on ordinary, non-subsidized apartment construction have created a monumental shortage that has driven up costs at every price level -- from $700-a-month fleabag SROs to $2,000-a-month one-bedroom apartments. Newsom's Workplace Housing Initiative is a laudable step in the opposite direction. Opponents will attempt to stymie him using meaningless rhetoric that says the new units aren't "affordable housing." Newsom needs help in this noble battle, too. And for guidance along this uncharted path, I suggest we all look to Sacramento.

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