The Blog

The Man Who Would Be Willie

Gavin Newsom looks to buck the liberal trend and win the San Francisco mayor's office by trying to fix the city's homeless problem.

11:00 PM, Nov 3, 2003 • By BILL WHALEN
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PRESIDENT BUSH has yet to set foot in San Francisco since taking office 33 months ago. Although he's visiting Southern California to inspect the wildfire devastation, the itinerary doesn't include a detour north. Which is unfortunate. San Franciscans go to the polls today to choose a new mayor, and few cities stage a better political circus.

You can't blame the president for keeping his distance from Northern California's "Babylon by the Bay." Bush received only 16.2 percent of the vote in San Francisco County, half his percentage in Los Angeles County (statewide, Bush's support was 41.7 percent). San Franciscans were just as hostile to the Governator. Arnold Schwarzenegger received only 19 percent of the county vote in last month's recall; statewide, he got 48.6 percent. Eighty percent of the county voted to keep Gray Davis in office. Four out of five San Franciscans agree: They're out of touch with the rest of California.

Yet, if the polls stay to form, this liberal bastion is about to turn right--and to a candidate who's shunned liberal orthodoxy--to solve one of its most vexing social problems.

MEET CITY SUPERVISOR GAVIN NEWSOM. He's young--having turned 36 last month--slim, moussed, and looking like he stepped straight out of the pages of GQ. Newsom is the embodiment of the metrosexual ideal. Like Arnold, Newsom is married to a TV personality. That's Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, a former lingerie model turned city prosecutor, who's currently a legal analyst for both ABC News and CNN.

And he benefits from having the right connections. Newsom's grandfather was a confidant of former California governor Pat Brown. His father, a retired state appellate justice, is a longtime pal of Jerry Brown. His aunt was married to the brother-in-law of House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. An ex-girlfriend married the actor Don Johnson (okay, maybe that's not a bragging point, getting dumped for "Nash Bridges"). Newsom's political godfather is the man he seeks to replace, Willie Brown. In 1996, Brown put Newsom on the city Parking and Traffic Commission. A year later, Brown appointed Newsom to the board of supervisors, filling what locals call the panel's "straight, white male" slot.

But it's Newsom's ties to one of America's most prominent families, the oil-rich Gettys, that raises eyebrows. Over the past decade, Newsom has created a mini-empire of limited partnerships and holding companies that span from Squaw Valley to Maui. That includes wineries, trendy eateries, and nightclubs. The Getty family has provided financial muscle for his businesses--even a friendly loan for Newsom's home in Pacific Heights. And that has purists wondering if Newsom would be too beholden to the city's upper crust should he win office.

THEN AGAIN, Newsom's candidacy gives bleeding hearts a bad case of heartburn, as he tends to stray from what passes for mainstream San Francisco ideology. The supervisor has proposed reinstating the city's job tax credit. He also wants to revisit the city's payroll tax. Newsom correctly sees it as a hindrance to biotech firms that might want to set up shop in San Francisco.

But that's small potatoes compared with the one issue that separates Newsom from his mayoral rivals: His plan to fix the city's homelessness problem.

Last November, Newsom's "Care Not Cash" ballot measure put San Francisco in line with other U.S. cities that have cut cash grants for the homeless in favor of in-kind services like food vouchers and better shelter programs. Newsom, who contends that general assistance grants feed substance abuse problems, called for cutting grants then as high as $410 a month to as little as $59 a month. The measure was blocked in the courts. However, the board of supervisors passed an amended version of Newsom's plan--"Real Housing, Real Care"--that continues the spirit-over-cash idea.

On today's ballot, San Franciscans once again face a referendum on homelessness. Newsom's Proposition M calls for a crackdown on aggressive panhandling and panhandling on buses, city streets, freeway ramps, parking lots, outside check-cashing businesses, and not within 20 feet of ATMs (violators would be fined, or placed in treatment programs--that is, if the police decide to enforce the law). Critics contend that Newsom is trying to exploit the homeless issue to win the mayor's race, just as he used "Care Not Cash" to lay the groundwork for his campaign (the anti-M campaign calls itself the "Committee to End Political Scapegoating"). His supporters say he's the only candidate offering a sensible solution.