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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IF NEWSOM REALLY IS that Machiavellian, it's only because he's smart enough to recognize that San Francisco stands today where New York was pre-Giuliani. Not only does the city remain mired in a recession triggered by the bursting of the tech bubble (think unemployment and commercial real estate vacancies), its physical condition cries out for change. Fewer cities are as postcard-pretty, yet visitors rudely discover streets reeking of urine and feces and numerous and aggressive panhandlers and vagrants.

And the city's liberal ruling class doesn't seem to have an answer.

San Francisco spends roughly $100 million a year on shelter, food, treatment, and other services for the homeless, according to a 2002 budget analyst report. That's for a group comprised of between 8,000 and 15,000 homeless (depending on whether you listen to city officials or homeless advocates). Using that lower-end figure, the city spends $13,000 a year on each member of the homeless population. By contrast, the San Francisco Unified School District's per-pupil spending in 2002 was a little over $7,300.

But as the mayoral contest shows, San Francisco's political elite is at least a decade behind the rest of the nation when it comes to ending welfare dependency. One mayoral hopeful, supervisor Matt Gonzalez, told the San Francisco Chronicle that "Care Not Cash" "represented a false premise and failed to address the root causes of homelessness and real strategies for helping the homeless." Another candidate, civil rights lawyer Angela Alioto, says she'd establish 22 "triage" centers to guide homeless people into appropriate programs. Supervisor Tom Ammiano would create supportive housing for mentally ill and drug-addicted homeless people. City treasurer Susan Leal talks streamlined bureaucracy. Newsom is the only major candidate talking tough love.

Which might explain why today's vote isn't so much a question of who finishes first but whether or not Newsom can be kept under 50 percent, forcing a runoff next month. This is what happened four years ago when Brown found himself in a runoff against Ammiano, who'd launched a write-in campaign three weeks before Election Day. San Francisco's business community, fearing the prospect of an ultra-liberal Ammiano administration, rallied to Brown's side and gave him another four years.

The same dynamic could occur this time around, especially if Newsom ends up in a runoff against his fellow supervisor Gonzalez, who three years ago defected from the Democrats to the Green Party. He wants to raise the city's minimum wage to $8.50 an hour (the highest in the state), and give noncitizens the right to vote in school board elections. Gonzalez also is no friend of Willie Brown's, having supported ballot measures which weakened the mayor's power. Once, he walked out on Brown's State of the City address.

No wonder President Bush is staying away. Those wildfires probably look tame compared with San Francisco politics.

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.