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Governor Newsom? 

Not likely, given his lack of spine in opposing the initiative promoting more parking

Wednesday, Aug 8 2007
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Except for insurgent Matt Gonzalez entering the race at the last minute and nearly pulling off an upset, Gavin Newsom's 2003 campaign for mayor came off perfectly.

Consultants Eric Jaye and Jim Ross helped cook up a ballot initiative centered on the then-hot issue of homelessness. The hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the initiative did not count against the $500 limit on individual donations to the mayor's own campaign. The money, and the Care Not Cash message, helped push Newsom ahead in the home stretch.

In 2007, the reverse is true: Aside from polls saying Newsom enjoys about two thirds voter approval and faces no viable opponent, the mayor's re-election campaign is unfolding disastrously.

That's because this fall's campaign for mayor is a preamble to his likely bid for the 2010 race for governor. For the past two years Sacramento political oddsmakers have posited a 2010 Democratic primary race between Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa. "Newsom is frequently mentioned, along with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, as a potential successor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010," notes the news service Bloomberg in a July 2007 report.

But Newsom has stumbled in this race-before-the-big-race by choosing not to endorse a measure on the fall ballot designed to make San Francisco public transit run better. The measure would also limit automobile congestion downtown by prohibiting changes in current policies limiting new parking garages there. Better transit and fewer car trips would reduce San Francisco's carbon dioxide production. Instead of endorsing the measure, Newsom issued a press statement suggesting he would neither actively oppose nor support it.

As of press time, negotiations continued about a possible compromise between Gap founder and Newsom financial backer Don Fisher — who wishes to see more automobile parking spaces downtown — and Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, who included parking limits in the transit-improvement measure.

The proposed compromise would create yet another initiative, scheduled for the February 2008 San Francisco ballot, which would call for building new parking garages near, but not in, the job and transit hub of downtown. According to a version discussed earlier this week, local billionaires Warren Hellman, Walter Shorenstein, and Don Fisher would agree to not spend money opposing Peskin's Muni reform measure, in exchange for a commitment from the supervisor to a scaled-back pro-parking measure in February.

Whatever the outcome, Newsom's spineless refusal to back the mildest of environmentally friendly transit reforms portends poorly for his likely 2010 gubernatorial candidacy.

Our mayor may be positioning himself as a lousy environmental steward just as voters are beginning to wake up to the fact that effective environmental initiatives — rather than politicians' usual green-washing dross — are the only things that stand between retaining our quality of life and the worsening environmental mess.


Given the lack of a competitive mayor's race, the action in this fall's election season could be found in a duel between two ballot measures, one designed to increase downtown parking spaces, the other to improve Muni. Thanks to anti-transit, pro-automobile postures Newsom has adopted on these two initiatives, Newsom may become a mayor positioned as anti-environment, anti-public transport, anti-economic development, and anti-public health and safety. This is hardly the kind of politician poised to defeat Villaraigosa in the 2010 Democratic Party primary for governor.

After a series of fitful negotiations last month between Peskin and Newsom aide Stuart Sunshine, Newsom withheld what had been expected to be support from a ballot measure designed to direct more money to San Francisco's commuter rail and bus system and give Muni management more authority to reward its workers based on performance. The putative reason for Newsom's opposition: The Peskin measure also includes language that, if it passed, would nullify an initiative on the same November ballot backed by Donald Fisher. The Fisher initiative would strike city codes limiting the number of parking spaces near downtown's financial district. (www.parkingforneighborhoods.com).

Backers of the Peskin measure see a clear link between the number of parking garages downtown and the quality of bus and rail service. The more cars clogging limited midtown street space, the slower buses can go.

"People like good Muni service. And they also like to have congestion-free streets. They also like good planning. And they don't want to see monster parking garages all over their neighborhoods and downtown," said Sean Elsbernd, a city supervisor who often sides with the mayor, but supports the Muni reform measure and not the Fisher initiative.

But Newsom adviser Eric Jaye says the Muni vs. parking debate won't affect the mayor. "There are now questions: Is it a pro-Muni measure? Or is it an anti-parking measure? Typically, the measures that start to have a big impact are singular, not complicated or cloudy," says Jaye. "I know that the more complicated a campaign is, the harder it is to gather support for it, and the easier it is to shoot at it."

Jaye is right that politicians nowadays can bank on voter confusion about environmental protection in an age of climate change. By the time the 2010 gubernatorial race rolls around, Californians might not be so easily fooled.

As global warming becomes less a subject of theoretical debate, and more a physical reality people can see and feel, blurry environmental issues will sharpen. This change will have a profound effect on politics, which is currently swept up in a fad for environmental charlatanism; witness the Washington-led ethanol craze, or Schwarzenegger's hot-air-fueled hydrogen car program.

Climate change's tangible effects are now moving from plants to lower mammals to humans. This year scientists are linking millions of acres of North American forest die-offs to pollution-induced climate change; they are seeing Sierra Nevada rodents relocate to higher and colder ground. Planners, meanwhile, discuss fortifying against climate change-induced flooding of Treasure Island, and San Francisco proper.

The current environmental "confusion" — egged on by automobile, oil, and other energy-consumption-linked companies — over the types of lifestyle changes necessary to ensure the planet's health will go the way of the decades-long "debate" over tobacco's health effects. It will become moot.


Half of San Francisco's greenhouse gases come from automobile exhaust. An even bigger smog cloud emanates from the cars of hundreds of thousands of workers forced to live hours-long trips from here because of a shortage of housing in the city. The consensus of scientists, planners, environmental activists, and academics is that the key to reducing greenhouse gas has less to do with changing the types of fuels vehicles use than with reducing trips taken by car.

That means encouraging people to walk, take transit, and ride bikes by placing homes near work. This is the logic behind current plans to build a high-rise condominium neighborhood bordering the San Francisco financial district. It means providing transportation alternatives. This is the reasoning behind current plans to build a Grand Central Station-style transit hub near the financial district. And it means scaling back on decades-old policies that encouraged workers to travel by automobile everywhere they went. This is the rationale for current planning guidelines limiting the number of parking spaces while creating a neighborhood of high-rise condominium towers near transit-rich downtown.

The mayor's inner circle of policy advisers understands the rationale behind these policies. Indeed, Newsom's housing director, Matt Franklin, has been among their staunchest advocates.

Newsom's policy team also understands that these types of eco-city strategies are a great way to accommodate strong job growth. People such as Newsom economic adviser Jesse Blout comprehend that the San Francisco Peninsula has limited space for new parking garages, streets, and parking lots, but enough room for more pedestrians, cyclists, and straphangers. Blout's on the board of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR), which led the effort to draft Peskin's Muni measure.

But last week Newsom turned away from his policy aides on these issues. He listened to his political advisers, who believe that voters ignore environmental debates because they confuse. These advisers also know how important it is to placate backers such as Fisher.

Two factors, however, undermine this political logic.

Fisher and Peskin's dueling transportation initiatives will be the hot topic of the fall campaign. Downtown business leaders have already indicated they may be prepared to spend significant money on the initiatives. Peskin claims he'll recruit downtown builders who don't want parking garages to kill the current pro-development political mood that's laying them golden eggs. Environmental activists, meanwhile, have been holding campaign strategy meetings with smart-growth groups such as SPUR. Hippies are colluding with suits to promote their vision of a cleaner, safer, more pleasant city. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters are also expected to jump on board. Given the lopsided mayoral race, this may be the one San Francisco campaign people talk about this fall.

And for all the noise such a battle will generate, voters needn't struggle to discern which is the better choice. This is especially true for voters among Muni's 700,000 daily straphangers.

If San Francisco spends millions of tax dollars to make buses run more rapidly, only to have the same buses obstructed by tens of thousands of additional cars flowing out of new condo parking spaces, it will create a situation every voter hates: wasted government spending.


In 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger fruitfully took voters for rubes when he campaigned on a promise to eliminate California's vehicle license fee, yet he's somehow re-emerged as an environmental progressive. Newsom has touted himself for the past four years as an environmental mayor while refusing to take a stand on issues important to environmentalists. In March 2006, for example, he vetoed legislation that would have limited parking downtown.

These sorts of politicians can only hope that, as they make their way up the political ladder, voters don't wise up about the environment.

If they do get wise, Newsom will never make it to governor. He'll be left remembering his time as San Francisco's anti-environmental mayor as halcyon days.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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