A Pair of Aces

Either Newsom or Gonzalez will make a good mayor, but Gonzalez has the creative edge

Now that he's supported by Al Gore and Angela Alioto, Gavin Newsom is a shoo-in to be elected mayor of San Francisco.

I just wanted to get that sordid joke, and a Santa Clausian ho-cubed, off my chest. The regularly scheduled column will begin after the break.

Until last week, I was actually, genuinely undecided about the San Francisco mayoral runoff, but not in a lesser of evils, Gray Davis vs. Bill Simon way. I believed then (and still believe) that Gavin Newsom and Matt Gonzalez are first-rate mayoral candidates – genuine rising stars – and that the contest between them is a widely misunderstood cause for celebration. It's been misunderstood largely because this electoral season the San Francisco political press has been as bad, wrong, and misleading as usual, or perhaps even more so.

The wrongheadedness was exhibited most obviously by the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which seemed to enter some sort of unconscious, long-lasting Vulcan mind-meld along about September. In their own ways and for their own reasons, the Chronicle (which endorsed Newsom) and the Bay Guardian (which endorsed Alioto) portrayed the November election as a chase for second place, with Newsom in ascendance, and Alioto, a scattered windbag whose political history had consisted of being waxed at the mayoral polls twice, the leading chaser. Tom Ammiano, a decent guy who was pounded 60-40 in the last mayoral election by an incumbent whose negative poll numbers rivaled Satan's, was played as the third-place man-with-a-chance.

Meanwhile, Matt Gonzalez, an intelligent, well-spoken city supervisor with a Clinton-like ability to connect with voters, was mostly mentioned as an afterthought, a Green lightweight, or (because he entered the race a bit later than other candidates) a traitor to the progressive cause so faithfully led by … wait a minute here … by Angela Alioto?

Well, yes, a long, long time ago – meaning last month – the San Francisco Bay Guardian wanted you to believe that Angela Alioto was a great progressive worthy of the vaunted and supposedly valuable Guardian endorsement. But we'll get back to this.

When Matt Gonzalez (unendorsed by either the Chronicle or the Guardian) breezed by the themeless Alioto and Ammiano to gain the runoff election against Newsom, the media spinning that passes for election coverage in this town of strange political bedfellows became a bizarre whirlwind. Right out of the gate, the Chronicle cooked some analysis by David Binder, pollster to many of the interests backing Newsom, into the absurd thesis that Gonzalez had almost no chance of beating the Chronicle-endorsed Newsom – even though significantly more than half the people voting in the November mayoral election had voted for candidates who claimed to despise Newsom.

The Bay Guardian, meanwhile, proceeded to do the neck-snapping sort of political pirouette for which it is rightly famous, rabidly taking up the cause of Matt Gonzalez – acting as if it had all but created Gonzalez – just weeks after it had endorsed Alioto and thoroughly dissed Gonzalez as a wet-behind-the-ears pup.

Then, less than a week after the Chronicle proclaimed that Gonzalez had almost no chance of beating Newsom, a television poll showed the two candidates tied. The Chronicle played the absolutely predictable move of progressive voters from the Alioto and Ammiano campaigns to the Gonzalez camp as shocking news, rather than evidence that the paper had misjudged the Binder data or (could it be true?) played the fool for the pollster.

(Side note to the Chronicle and CBS 5 political staffs: Your reporting on the mid-November CBS 5 poll was embarrassingly wrong. This is how the Chronicle story started:

New poll shows Gonzalez out in front

He leads Newsom 49% to 47% in S.F. mayor's race John Wildermuth Chronicle Political Writer San Francisco's race for mayor is too close to call, but Supervisor Matt Gonzalez has a small lead among those most likely to vote Dec. 9, according to a poll released Friday by CBS 5-TV.

The CBS 5 Web site says much the same, and both accounts are just plain wrong. The poll had a 4.4 percent margin of error. The results for Newsom and Gonzalez were, therefore, within the margin of error for the poll. Gonzalez was not “out in front”; he did not “have a small lead.” By definition, the two candidates were tied. If you don't believe me on this issue, call a statistics professor, or, better yet, take a statistics class. Maybe then the political professionals you cover will stop laughing at you.)

Ten days later, Alioto, after months of denouncing him as the potential ruination of San Francisco, did her own neck-breaking pirouette and endorsed Newsom. Some weird and icky strings were attached to the deal. She claimed she would be something like (but not exactly) a vice mayor in charge of the homeless, public power, and sole-source contracting. He said she wouldn't be anything, officially, but would unofficially be in partnership with him, or something.

Almost immediately, everyone in San Francisco took a shower.

The Alioto endorsement – which, with its sleazy, quid pro quo aura, may well become the greatest San Francisco mayoral gaffe since Frank Jordan bathed with some shock jocks – was duly and immediately described as a Newsom negative by the Chronicle. Then the Chronicle all but ignored the endorsement, and went about the task of reporting on the mayor's race in a way that would seem to give maximum comfort to Newsom, without ever crossing the line into undeniable advocacy. (If the Chronicle's news editors really don't want people wondering whether the news columns are dancing to the paper's endorsement tune, the Chronicle's news editors really shouldn't start a five-part series about homelessness – Gavin Newsom's signature issue – nine days before a mayoral runoff election in which Newsom is a candidate.)

The Guardian, to its credit, castigated Alioto at great length for her Newsom flip-flop. While consigning her to lefty political hell, however, the Guardian editors somehow forgot to acknowledge that they might have been the teensiest bit wrong about Angela's loyalty, character, or commitment to progressive principles when they endorsed her. [page]

As they've wrongly, misleadingly, or just goofily discussed who was up or down in the mayor's race, our local political media mavens at the Chronicle and Bay Guardian have helped create an unsophisticated dichotomy and a common wisdom: Gavin Newsom is either a dynamic, pragmatic up-and-comer in the Democratic Party or a puppet of the evil Democratic machine who would eat homeless people if he could. Matt Gonzalez is either the coolest and most empathetic political dude in the Green universe or a wild-eyed lefty who's going to reconstitute the Soviet Politburo in San Francisco City Hall.

The divide, of course, isn't entirely media-created. There are differences between the candidates. And as the race enters its final weeks, the campaign has turned ugly, with misleading mailers and political code words flying wildly from both camps.

But I'm here as – oh, have things come to this? – the voice of sweet reason, telling voters to forget most of the silliness they have read in the Chronicle and Guardian, to ignore the vicious mailers they will be receiving in the next six days, to relax, and to enjoy the political good fortune that has befallen them.

Gavin Newsom and Matt Gonzalez are good men and better politicians. They are both thirtysomething, smart, educated, dedicated, sophisticated, charismatic, and, it seems to me, sincere (inasmuch as effective politicians can achieve sincerity and remain effective). Most American cities are lucky to have one such candidate running for mayor (a position that tends to be a political dead end, and therefore to attract low-browed grifters, jolly hacks, vengeful petty tyrants, and outright fools).

We have two, and whoever wins will do many good things, and many things his opponent now claims as his own.

On fairly short notice, Newsom and Gonzalez took time out of their schedules during the last few weeks to talk with me; those interviews confirmed what I'd thought earlier about them, which was, despite my cynical nature, mostly good.

Newsom arrived about a half-hour late at his campaign headquarters on the third floor of a Van Ness office building, looking as harried as he should've been in the late stages of the campaign. The office, filled with cubbyholes full of happy campaign workers, was pretty much all business, as was Newsom.

After suggesting that he thought SF Weekly had it in for him in some way, and then apparently accepting my assertion that I had no idea what he could possibly be talking about, Newsom, at my request, ripped off his policy priorities. They basically consist of importing a series of “best practices” from other cities in a variety of areas, starting with economic development, city contracting, and the use of an integrated technology and management system called Citistat to track and improve the performance of city departments. Of course, he mentioned one of his signature issues, homelessness, and his tough-love plan to deal with it, known as “Care Not Cash.” He then went into a detailed discussion of the hard choices dealing with the continuing budget deficit will entail, including hiring freezes, early retirement packages, and a host of consolidation and streamlining efforts in the city bureaucracy.

I won't go into a lengthy discussion of Newsom's many intertwined policy proposals, most of which are laid out in papers posted at his campaign's Web site. Suffice it to say that I came away convinced not only that he was interested in reforming city government in a holistic way, but also that he was well-versed in the policy minutiae a reformer must love to be effective.

At his staff's request, I met Matt Gonzalez at Kate's Kitchen in the Haight. I got there a bit early, and whiled away the time by listening to the funky diner's funky jazz, looking at its display of funky art (including a painting that featured a “Get Out of Hell Free” card), and noting that the top item on the menu blackboard was the funky “Vote Matt Omelette.”

After apologizing profusely for arriving four minutes late, at my prompting Gonzalez went through his policy priorities, which he said include attacking the “all-around ethical issues” that have plagued the city during its Willie Brown years, tackling the budget problem by making city government smaller and more efficient, setting in place a long-term renewable energy program that includes both solar and tidal power, and dealing with homelessness in a realistic way by making decent shelters and housing available as a precursor to reforming the city's failed homelessness programs.

I didn't think Gonzalez really hit his stride until I asked him how he thought he might have been misperceived. Then, he made it clear that if he is unrepentantly left on social issues, financially he is nothing like the taxer/spender his opponent has tried to make him out as and is, in fact, very nearly conservative. Gonzalez said he wants to cut patronage, stop borrowing to pay recurring expenses, leave property taxes alone, and build significant amounts of housing on Rincon Hill and in other areas in transit corridors.

As I've said, there is no disputing the differences between Gavin Newsom and Matt Gonzalez.

Newsom is backed by the full bore and weight of the Democratic establishment, from Northern California to Washington, and by most big business in San Francisco. But he's got a lot of other support from a wide variety of groups across the political spectrum, and across the city. He is pretty much a standard-issue, midliberal Democrat.

Matt Gonzalez is a far-left Democrat turned Green who draws support from a disparate pastiche of groups and people, from the wacky, leftist outsiderdom of Carlos Petroni and Lucrecia Bermudez through the center of San Francisco's large progressive population to the weird inside politics of Joe O'Donoghue and Walter Wong. [page]

But I hope you've gotten my point without my having to point it up: Both of these talented, ambitious young men say they are committed to streamlining a city government that is wild with corruption, waste, inefficiency, and arrogance. Both say they want to change a system of caring for the homeless that is not, as currently constituted, helping them. Both say they want to build more housing. Each says he will really do what he proposes, and his opponent will not.

And either would be a vast improvement over Willie Brown, or any other mayor San Francisco has had for a long time.

Had anyone but Matt Gonzalez made the runoff, I'd be recommending a vote for Gavin Newsom. Had Angela Alioto gotten to the runoff, I'd be screaming: “VOTE FOR GAVIN NEWSOM!”

But Gonzalez did make the runoff, and I'm recommending a vote for him because he's a smart, decent guy who seems to have a quality that is rare in public life: imagination.

A few years ago, Stanford law grad and public defender Matt Gonzalez imagined himself into a substantive candidate for district attorney. He subsequently ran for supervisor and won, after having imagined himself into the Green Party. He then imagined himself into the presidency of the Board of Supervisors, even though he was the lone Green on an otherwise Democratic board. And out of nowhere, Matt Gonzalez imagined himself a viable candidate for mayor, and made it so.

The ability to imagine a future that others cannot see – and to work the real-life details necessary for that future to become a reality – is one of the primary traits of leadership. Unless my people-reader has lost its bearings, Matt Gonzalez has the imagination gene in spades, and therefore the slightly better claim this time around to the mayorship, and the chance to prove that he will do what he's claimed he would do to improve San Francisco.

But I'm not losing a second of sleep contemplating the possibility of Gavin Newsom as mayor, and neither should you.

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