Looking Ahead

Aides insist that Mayor Gavin Newsom is focused on City Hall; his sudden celebrity has spawned speculation about higher office. Much higher.

So much for the Gavin Newsom we thought we knew.

He's the guy homeless advocates compared to Ivan the Terrible for his much-scorned "Care Not Cash" initiative; the presumed torchbearer of the Willie Brown machine; the downtown business establishment's designated hitter; the Democrat progressives loved to denigrate as a stealth Republican.

What a difference an inauguration makes.

In his first 100 days in office, Newsom has come to own the city's political landscape in ways that both his supporters and his sharpest critics would have thought utterly impossible a few months ago. His dramatic and unexpected support for same-sex marriage has not only attracted loads of national media attention, but has also resulted in an outpouring of affection from gays and progressives who were among his biggest naysayers.

The 36-year-old mayor is having a political honeymoon for the ages. He has won plaudits for appointing the first women ever to head the Police and Fire departments; naming a special monitor to root out corruption and favoritism in the Department of Building Inspection; putting the heat on the SFPD's underperforming homicide squad; and -- wonder of wonders -- even beginning to hand out pink slips to some top city bureaucrats whose jobs were protected under Brown.

Thanks to his starring role in the same-sex marriage saga, he has garnered so much ink and appeared on so many network TV shows that in barely three months on the job he is as well known as any mayor in the nation, outside, perhaps, Bloomberg and Daley of New York and Chicago, respectively. He's been pilloried in conservative British newspapers and hailed as a civil rights hero by France's left-leaning Le Monde. For better or worse, he is arguably more widely recognized among Californians than any of the three Democrats most often mentioned as challengers to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006: Attorney General Bill Lockyer, State Treasurer Phil Angelides, and State Controller Steve Westly.

In the aftermath of Newsom's momentous decision to begin issuing marriage licenses to gays and lesbians two days before Valentine's Day, 69 percent of San Franciscans surveyed by political pollster David Binder early last month said they approve of the job Newsom is doing. Only 20 percent viewed him unfavorably. Binder calls those numbers "nothing short of incredible" in a city whose politics are as notoriously fractious as San Francisco's, especially after Newsom's bruising runoff victory over Supervisor Matt Gonzalez, the Green Party standard-bearer.

Gonzalez's stunning announcement that he is exiting the political stage and will not seek re-election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in November is perhaps even more potent evidence of the Newsom juggernaut. "So far, Gavin Newsom has been given the political equivalent of an American Express Platinum Card," says veteran political consultant Kam Kuwata, a longtime adviser to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other top Democrats. "The question is, 'What will he do with it?'"

Indeed, the mayor's instant celebrity has helped mark him as a rising star and has set off a wave of speculation as to his ultimate political ambitions, with some supporters and Democratic Party operatives already uttering his name in the same breath with the words "Congress" and "White House."

"He has an extraordinary political future in front of him," says Simon Rosenberg, who heads the New Democrat Network, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that has cultivated and supported dozens of Clinton-style Democrats running for Congress and positions in local and state governments.

Rosenberg makes no secret of the group's aim to boost Newsom's stock on the national stage. He proclaims the mayor "arguably the single most promising Democrat under the age of 40," adding, "He's hot for all the right reasons. He's thoughtful, articulate, charismatic. He has all the tools. I've not seen this kind of excitement around a young politician since the days when Bill Clinton was regarded as an up-and-comer."

Newsom has been on the NDN's radar screen since last fall, when it endorsed him for mayor, and he served as keynote speaker at the group's recent conference in San Francisco. Less obvious, but perhaps no less significant, is the quiet way in which Newsom has cultivated the organization. Rosenberg has been in San Francisco twice since the inauguration to confer with the mayor, and last month Newsom was a star attraction at an NDN-sponsored meet-and-greet luncheon in Manhattan that attracted some three dozen influential New York Democrats.

Such enthusiasm would have been unthinkable just a few short months ago. Even after Newsom took office, Rosenberg was hearing mumbles from party operatives wanting to know "why we were spending so much effort on this guy." And then the gay marriage issue exploded and "people got to see that Gavin didn't fit the stereotype of a kooky San Francisco Democrat."

Rosenberg and others say that Newsom's stock rose with each appearance on national television, including a face-off on Larry King Live with U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, the Colorado Republican who has introduced a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. "You're making a mockery of the law," Musgrave told him on the program. "I think you're making a mockery of this country and our values of diversity, and bringing people together, and uniting people," Newsom shot back. Observes Rosenberg, "The way he's been perceived as standing up for something that he believes in, even when it's not necessarily popular, has been a real eye-opener. Now all I'm hearing from people [in the party] is, 'I want to meet this guy.'"

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