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On a gray July morning in City Hall, Mayor Gavin Newsom is fidgeting his way through a self-congratulatory press conference about a potential U.N. global warming center at the Hunters Point Shipyard.
Waiting for his turn to speak, Newsom seems at a loss for what to do with his large hands, which he clasps behind his back, then folds neatly in front of his gray sportcoat. He buries them in his pockets, takes them back out, cracks a knuckle, and traces his upper lip with a finger, appearing to smell it.
It's understandable that Newsom's mind might be elsewhere. After all, he's at the beginning of an underdog's attempt to become governor of California, lagging behind Attorney General Jerry Brown — who hasn't even formally announced his candidacy — both in the polls and in fundraising. Longtime political strategist and policy guru Eric Jaye has recently quit, as have Newsom's chief fundraiser, Paige Barry Arata, and two longtime City Hall staffers.
When it's his turn to speak, Newsom puts on his distinctive lupine charm and commences bold gesturing. But at the end of the event, when reporters gather at the purple velvet ropes with their cameras and recorders pointed at Newsom like so many loaded guns, he grips a nearby pole.
They ask about the staff turnover and about Newsom's "sinking ship," but most of the questions involve his break-up with his longtime strategist, whom the San Francisco Chronicle has referred to as "Newsom's brain."
"What happened with Eric Jaye?" a reporter asks.
Newsom coolly instructs the reporter to get a copy of the statement. Then he launches into passive aggression. "We're moving forward without a beat. Without a hiccup," he says. "The campaign strategy remains the same. There's just one less person that's involved. ... It's not a negative thing from my perspective. Quite the contrary."
"You can't deny that Eric Jaye has had an influence on your policies here at home," another reporter fires. (Newsom slips in a quick "Yes and no.") "Is he still going to be an adviser to you on new ideas?
Newsom dodges. "The critique of me is that I come up with so many new ideas, people sometimes get a little bit blurry-eyed," he says.
The mayor seems to resent the implication of the reporters' questions. Wasn't Eric Jaye the real brains of your operation? Aren't you just a pretty face? To an extent, that irritation is understandable. For years, his rivals and critics — some of them members of the local press — have refused to give the mayor, a gifted and charismatic politician, credit for anything. But for Newsom to downplay the exit of his Svengali as "one less person" in the campaign would be like George W. Bush saying that Karl Rove played a minor part in his political success. It was Jaye who came up with the name for Care Not Cash, the tough-love homeless program that helped elect Newsom.
Jaye is not the first disenchanted strategist to part ways with the slick-haired sovereign. In fact, as Newsom embarks on the greatest journey of his political career — and potentially the first major disappointment — his circle of supporting San Francisco strategists has shrunk considerably.
Outside consultants with statewide campaign experience have come on board. But a disconcerting number of former local strategists and loyalists have said, on and off the record, that they don't believe he would make a good governor. Dismiss them if you will as bitter castoffs, but this much is clear: Newsom has created enemies among his former supporters.
Seek out the political operatives who once worked closely with Newsom, and you'll find that a number have soured on the mayor. Ask them why, and you'll be bombarded with his alleged character flaws. Among them: "thin-skinned," "disloyal," "friendless," "joyless," "Machiavellian," "craven," and "empty." One will tell you that Eric Jaye was "the best-paid babysitter in California." Several will diagnose Newsom with an acute case of narcissism.
"He's probably the worst mayor in modern history," said Jack Davis, a strategist who has worked on the mayoral campaigns of Newsom, Willie Brown, and Frank Jordan. "I pity this poor state if lightning should strike and this cad becomes governor amidst the problems that the state has. He'd have a nervous breakdown. There's no there there."
Although there are also fervent supporters, dozens of interviews with City Hall staffers, strategists, and fundraisers yielded a surprising amount of disapproval.
Well-known consultants Jim Ross and Bob Brigham — who both worked on Newsom's 2003 campaign — and 2007 campaign staffer David Latterman all have reservations. "I'm concerned that his record and his temperament will not be fully vetted by the press," Ross said.
Brigham was more direct. "I think Gavin would be a pretty awful governor," he said, though he's not too worried about it happening: "I don't see any path to the nomination anymore."
Latterman said that although Newsom is intelligent and seems to understand the issues, he simply isn't good at leading people. As to whether Newsom could be a good governor, "the odds are not in his favor. There's not a lot of leadership there. But I leave it open."