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Mayor AWOL 

Gavin Newsom couldn't say enough about the need for workforce housing -- until it came time to back Prop. J

Wednesday, Mar 10 2004
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Gavin Christopher Newsom, 42nd mayor of the City and County of San Francisco, is craven and contemptibly fainthearted, a coward apparently concerned with no principle beyond the perpetuation of his own political career.

There, I've said it; outraged defenders of St. Gavin the Lionhearted may direct correspondence to Letters to the Editor, SF Weekly, 185 Berry St., Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107.

Of course, Newsom's order granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples stands as the noblest publicity stunt in the history of such affairs. And granted, St. G.'s narrative of self-discovery, in which an ingénue starlet goes to Washington, beholds prejudice, pores over legal papers, then stands before the white marble columns of City Hall and announces he'll Do The Right Thing, is a heartwarming yarn. And I must say that in the annals of prospecting for political capital, Newsom's newly gilded approval ratings prove him a 49er beyond compare.

But political capital bears its name because, like any currency, its ultimate measure is in the spending. A politician can either spend this stock keeping campaign promises or hoard it for higher office. Newsom clearly chose the second option. His abandonment of the central tenets of his mayoral bid -- which posited Newsom as a policy man concerned with homelessness and San Francisco's housing shortage -- shows him to be a cynic with a repellent lack of courage.

Upon assuming office, the mayor fobbed off homelessness -- for two years his raison d'être as a candidate -- onto empty vessel Angela Alioto. This was an eloquent statement by Newsom that he does not want to be associated with the issue, and that he does not care whether anything is successfully done about it. As soon as Newsom became mayor, he likewise went publicly mute on what he had touted on the campaign trail as his own "workforce housing" initiative. If voters hadn't voted it down on March 2, the measure would have allowed builders to put extra stories on apartment buildings in two small areas of southern San Francisco, as long as developers subsidized a third of the units as below-market housing. The proposal was a no-brainer: Construct dense, walkable, builder-subsidized housing on the central waterfront, which is an abandoned industrial area, and in the Rincon Hill area, a patchwork of empty parking lots within walking distance of downtown. The measure created the possibility of thousands of new apartment units, potentially abating the current shortage and driving down the price of dwellings all over the city.

Newsom said as much during his mayoral campaign. But in private -- following his election and after polls showed the initiative to be in trouble -- Newsom told potential financial backers that he wished the measure weren't on the ballot, where it might drive away campaign funds. According to those familiar with the matter, he failed to make phone calls on the measure's behalf and declined to appear at campaign events. He also was notably silent on Prop. J during mayoral addresses. And after the initiative failed, Newsom insinuated he hadn't actually been associated with it in the first place.

Some have described this behavior as astute, even progressive. Actually, in belying his principal arguments about why voters should have elected him mayor, Gavin Newsom showed himself unfit for office.


Watching our mayor on the recent Larry King Show, as he attempted to defend his praiseworthy directive issuing same-sex marriage licenses, was for me an interesting experience in déjà vu. Newsom was Cheshire cat-placid while reciting boilerplate rhetoric defending civil rights for same-sex couples. But when asked to respond to questions with no scripted answers -- questions that tested whether he'd given any independent thought to the issues he championed -- Newsom punted.

A bigoted radio evangelist asked how Newsom's position on gay marriage jibes with his Catholic faith. A hatemonger congresswoman asked why gay marriage wouldn't lead to approving unions involving incest or polygamy. Newsom flashed his trademark smirk-grin, which engages only the muscles immediately surrounding his mouth, and declined to respond.

"Pastor, I'm not going to get into a theological debate with you," he told the radio evangelist.

"It's the typical red herring, and it's almost stale rhetoric," he said to the congresswoman.

Newsom's manner elicited in me the same dissonance I felt watching him on the campaign trail. Then, as now, his scripted rhetoric included exactly the concepts I would wish to hear from a politician. Last year it was compassion combined with practical-mindedness in helping the homeless, and environmentalist principles of dense, walkable, workforce-housing-rich neighborhoods when it came to urban design. Last month Newsom evoked 20th-century civil rights struggles in defending equal opportunities for homosexuals. But in all cases, the smirk, the loss of words sans teleprompter, and the lack of previous commitment to the issues at hand sowed doubts as to whether Newsom meant what he said.

A look at the birth, life, and death of Proposition J, the so-called Workforce Housing Initiative that went down to defeat earlier this month by a 70 percent margin, points to Newsom's propensity for hollow, if emphatic, rhetoric.


Newsom was right about one thing when he told potential backers that the world might have been better off without a Prop. J. The whole exercise further poisoned the noxious brew that is San Francisco development politics.

The initiative's crashing and burning fortified a clique of parasites who benefit from the city's housing shortage. Residential Builders Association President Joe O'Donoghue got the opportunity to spend $200,000 toward Prop. J's defeat, demonstrating to a new mayoral administration that to get anything done in this city, you still have to go through ol' Joe. Joe's money enabled a dirty-tricks campaign run by political consultant Jack Davis, in many eyes the personification of San Francisco politics' seamy side. NIMBY gadfly Sue Hestor and her tenancy-in-common partner and sometime political consultant David Looman kicked in their support. These two usually serve as O'Donoghue's enemies of convenience; Hestor helped elevate O'Donoghue to the status of Public Bugaboo No. 1 during the dot-com wars with her public agitation against ticky-tacky live-work lofts constructed by the RBA.

During the Hestor-fabricated "dot-com-backlash" of four years ago, she and O'Donoghue would sit opposite each other in "debates" over development policy, and somehow managed to pass this off as civic discussion. Strengthened by their joint fight against Prop. J, they'll likely stage future "battles" that will serve to further the housing scarcity, thus giving Hestor "displacement victims" to defend while driving up prices of RBA buildings. Nonprofit developers, who use part of the government money they receive to lobby against privately constructed housing, worked mightily against Prop. J, going so far as to paper the house of Chamber of Commerce President Roberta Achtenberg with anti-J propaganda -- a piece of street theater intended to underscore their "everyman against The Man" campaign theme. Our housing shortage is these nonprofits' reason for existence, and the downing of Prop. J. enhanced it.


It didn't have to be this way. As originally conceived, the workforce housing initiative was a proposal for possible legislation before the Board of Supervisors, one that anti-housing groups might not have been able to get their clutches on. Three years ago the Chamber of Commerce, with input from San Francisco Planning and Urban Research, held public workshops and engaged in legislative skull sessions, with this aim: producing a bill that would extract an extra subsidy from builders to make units affordable to buyers earning between 80 and 110 percent of the city's median income. Supervisors were open to the idea. Matt Gonzalez told me he was supportive of these discussions and would have liked to see the subsidies target even lower income levels. Gerardo Sandoval likewise said he might have supported a revised measure. But Newsom's campaign had been poking about for issues to flesh out his political persona as a policy wonk, and wished to wrest the workforce housing issue from the Board. The Chamber, whose directors regard San Francisco's progressive political faction with something resembling hysterical phobia, saw Newsom as a potential bulwark and gladly tossed the workforce housing issue his way. Newsom's campaign took it on as if he personally had conceived the idea of building dense housing at the urban core. He flew Vancouver housing expert Gordon Price to San Francisco for a Workforce Housing Summit; during stump speeches Newsom referred extensively to "my" workforce housing initiative.

And, once the measure had served its useful end, he sprinted away from it.

Newsom was correct to perceive, by the time of his December election, that the measure was in trouble. Slapped together for the purpose of advancing Newsom's mayoral campaign, the proposition was confusing and contained easily attackable flaws, such as the inclusion of a mysterious, tiny plot of land in Chinatown whose value might have risen had height and density restrictions been eased. Counting on Newsom's help, Prop. J backers had neglected to obtain the support, or at least the acquiescence, of any city unions, community organizations, or interest groups. Pollster/client-shill David Binder said during a post-election presentation that it wouldn't have mattered if Newsom supported Prop. J because mayoral support doesn't affect ballot initiatives in San Francisco. Binder stated this as if it were some kind of local law of politics, as if he'd done statistical research to back it up, as if he'd conducted exit polls involving detailed questionnaires whose answers definitively nullified the notion of mayoral coattails. But Newsom is Binder's client, this "analysis" behooves Newsom, and it should be evaluated in those terms. When Willie Brown saw fit to pull out the stops in support of the 1997 stadium bond, it won. When Brown gathered his political forces to defeat the highly popular Proposition L in 2000, the measure failed.

Had workforce housing been handled as something other than a bit of specious Newsom campaign propaganda -- vetted Board legislation, say, or a well-written initiative with appropriate backing -- it could have advanced rather than sabotaged the cause of easing San Francisco's housing shortage.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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