Twenty minutes into "Big Love" on the last Monday in
July, the call came in.
Normally, nothing can tear me away from HBO's polygamist drama,
but having heard late that afternoon from a well-placed source
that word was former supervisor Matt Gonzalez would not make a
second run against Mayor Gavin Newsom, I was on red alert. I had
prepared a story looking toward a Gonzalez v. Newsom race, and
I was waiting only for an update from the Green Party activist.
But as the city's progressives and so many other voters hoping
to see Newsom face a serious challenge now all know, Gonzalez,
the source told me, decided not to go for it -- after more than
seven months of flirtingwith
And I, like many, was deeply disappointed.
Fast forward to Monday, August 6 when Supervisor Chris Daly told
Fog City Journal that he was considering seriously taking
on the task, and my outlook changed considerably.
Sure, the frequently embattled Daly has the slimmest chance of
the city's top progressive leaders to actually beat Newsom - or
even come very close. But seven years after a slate of neighborhood
activists and hard-core progressives swept the city's freshly
implemented district elections, and at a time when the murder
rate is soaring, MUNI is a mess, the homeless problem clearly
is not solved and Newsom's personal problems nearly have cost
him the support of some very key and high-ranked leaders in the
Democratic Party as well as leaving many in his own administration
wondering if he really can handle the job, it just seemed unbelievable
- ridiculous even, that there would be no serious challenge from
the left. That's not good for "the movement," and it's
not good for the city. As SF Bay Guardian Editor Tim Redmond pointed
out back in February, "for a long list of reasons, there
has to be a real mayor's race this fall
"We need to keep Newsom on the defensive, to hold him accountable
not just to his donors but to the rest of the city," Redmond
Given that recollection of nearly losing to Gonzalez in 2003
likely influenced Newsom's decision to make important progressive
moves such as implementing gay marriage and supporting Hotel workers
as well as Supervisor Tom Ammiano's health care package, a lack
of a serious progressive challenge might make Newsom listen only
to the Don
Fishers of the city. And that would be disastrous.
Although longtime Daly confidante and supporter Richard Marquez
cautioned his friend against a run --"because the opposition
and the press likely will threateningly depict Chris to voters
as Charles Manson out on bail if he enters the race," Marquez
also feels strongly that "Daly's entrance, however, would
speak to the realities of what the other San Francisco - and especially
the powerless, the vulnerable, the scorned and despised -- struggles
with every day."
For his part and with less than 48 hours remaining before the
deadline to file, Daly says he will sign on only if he feels that
doing so will unify the city's fractious progressive community.
He hopes to make the decision by tonight - after meeting with
"That's really what it comes down to," he said.
* * *
Let us pause and reflect on how we got to this point.
On February 1, when
news broke that Newsom had some sort of affair with Ruby Rippey-Tourk,
the troubled wife of Newsom's former Deputy Chief of Staff Alex
Tourk and Newsom's secretary, some of Newsom's well-heeled supporters,
many in his administration and others at City Hall were well aware
that the mayor had been more or less AWOL from the job for quite
some time - drinking too heavily and drowning in depression --
likely resulting from his failing marriage and dislike for some
of the more politically tricky and psychologically challenging
nuts and bolts aspects of the job.
Embattled department heads could not get their calls returned.
Neither, apparently, could key local players such as higher-ups
in the San Francisco 49ers, who have been threatening to take
the team away from the city, and even key national players, such
as Howard Dean, the chairman of the national Democratic Party.
Howard Dean (left) joins Mayor Gavin Newsom to support former
Phil Angelides, August 12, 2006
According to sources close to Dianne Feinstein, the U.S. Senator
was dismayed at the revelations, and was already concerned that
perhaps Newsom could not handle the difficult challenges of the
Willie Brown, who appointed Newsom to the Board of Supervisors
in 1997, had lost respect for the guy and was also feeling shut
out of Room 200, according to sources close to the former mayor.
"He told me a few times he was disappointed with him and
that I had better access, which is really saying something,"
said one source who remains a close ally of Brown but is no friend
of the current mayor. "I picked up in conservation that Willie
has a real dislike of him."
One day before Rubygate hit the front page of the San Francisco
Chronicle, columnist Leah Garchik quoted Brown telling those gathered
at a swanky Nob Hill luncheon, "Newsom needs to cut down
on the social stuff and focus on city issues."
"It is damaging politically said Brown that the mayor's
been seen with so many women and that people are talking about
his drinking too much," Garchik wrote.
Add to the mix the machinations of powerhouse consultant Jack
Davis, who took Brown to victory in 1995, and Newsom was skating
on some very thin ice. He may have sounded ok when he spoke to
supporters at a low-key campaign kick-off later that month (which
occurred after former state Sen. John Burton came to his rescue
to help the young mayor overcome his ahem, alcohol problem), but
when one department head later asked him in private how things
really were going, he shook his head and said, " I don't
know. I really don't know."
Not long before Feb. 1, Davis had let it be known that he likely
had lined up a formidable challenger, an outsider to City Hall
-- former 49ers President and CEO Carmen Policy.
Policy's wife, however, soon made it clear she was far from thrilled
with the idea, and so it was scuttled. Even so, Davis was still
talking about squeezing Newsom from the left and from the right-center.
He courted Gonzalez, even showing him a mock-up campaign mailer
focusing on four major problems facing the city. The idea, which
jibed with what even Newsom's pollsters knew was possible, was
to run a campaign based on the issues - and convince voters that
regardless of whether they cared about the mayor's sex life -
the upshot was that he was not doing the job.
"Gavin is so f---ed up in his own head that he will self-destruct,"
Davis told me in late February.
While Gonzalez mulled, other progressive politicians could not
be convinced (or were reluctant given the possibility of a Gonzalez
run) to jump in.
Jeff Adachi, who is widely liked and respected, could not be
torn away from the job he truly loves running the city's
public defender office.
Aaron Peskin, the highly competent president of the Board of
Supervisors (who probably does more to run the city than Newsom),
was never a contender. Peskin's better half, planning activist
Nancy Shanahan, has long disliked the inevitable nastiness of
the San Francisco campaign trail.
Consultant Jim Stearns, who took District Attorney Kamala Harris
to victory in 2003, has said that in some ways, the progressive
for whom it would be easiest to craft a narrative with which to
court voters, would be District Five Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi.
Mirkarimi, as Stearns and other observers have noted, clearly
front on the city's homicide crisis -- having pushed legislation
requiring more foot patrols in areas most impacted by violent
crime -- to the board's override of Newsom's veto. This is a guy
who goes to the scene of every shooting in his district and once
even chased down a purse-snatcher. But if Mirkarimi were to run,
he faced some serious problems including having enraged
leaders of the medical marijuana community that played a key financial
role in his 2004 supervisorial bid. He did so not so much by tackling
the issue of the proliferation of pot clubs, they said, but by
rebuffing attempts to stop him from enacting regulations that
would undermine the longstanding clubs' financial viability.
"The reasons why Ross has lost our support is that he took
a very defensive attitude," pot community leader Wayne Justmann
said in June. "It was defensiveness, and then coldness
and then shutting us out when we needed to talk to him about the
problems we're having actually complying with the legislation Our
pleas fall on deaf ears." Justmann did note that Mirkarimi
recently had offered an apology which Justmann said he
Supervisor Chris Daly, meanwhile, was hard at work trying to
convince Gonzalez to enter the race.
Chris Daly and Matt Gonzalez
Having told the San Francisco Chronicle that Newsom would face
a serious progressive challenge by June, in hindsight it is clear
that he was overly optimistic about his ability to get Gonzalez
to commit. Less than a week before the "Progressive
Convention" on June 2, he had given up on Gonzalez and
turned up the heat on former Mayor Art Agnos.
Thursday evening before the convention (and having concluded
during the interim that Agnos would not jump in anytime soon),
Daly was due to meet with Agnos and Mirkarimi with the hope of
convincing Mirkarimi to announce at the convention that weekend.
But that evening, Daly got a call from Mirkarimi aide Boris Delepine
telling him that Mirkarimi said, "there was no need to meet."
Unclear as to what that meant, Daly tracked Mirkarimi down the
next day and walked away thinking he had convinced his fellow
supervisor (with whom he had traded more than a few barbs) that
he should go for it. But the next morning as Daly headed into
the convention, Mirkarimi made it clear to Daly it was a no-go,
and the D5 supe gave a speech saying "somebody whomever
it may be .somebody should begin to speak in terms that that
will lead to solving the city's problems The people cannot
wait another four years."
Chris Daly and Ross Mirkarimi at the 2007 Progressive Convention
Daly departed the convention leaving the press with the notion
that he himself might run. But on Monday, he announced that he
would not - out of consideration for his young son, Jack, and
his pregnant wife, Sarah. He was clearly still hoping that Gonzalez
would enter the race.
During the roughly two months that followed, Gonzalez gave the
idea serious thought, while hoping that Agnos
would step to the plate.
Gonzalez met with key supporters and attended more than a handful
of house party/fundraisers organized by the Residential Builders
Association that gave him the opportunity to meet with more conservative-minded
voters who have been unimpressed with Newsom's performance. The
RBA's former head honcho, Joe O'Donoghue, had been urging Gonzalez
to mount a second challenge to Newsom - really since Gonzalez'
near-win in 2003 -- and was ready to dedicate their considerable
resources of the RBA to a re-match. The organization ponied up
$180,000 to help the Gonzalez effort four years ago, according
Joe O'Donoghue (right)
But Gonzalez' obvious ambivalence, while understandable - given
that a mayoral campaign would take him away from the work he loves
at his law office and face a strong chance of ultimate defeat
-- was confusing and even dismaying to some loyal supporters as
well as those who were inclined to come to his aid. Less than
one week before Gonzalez announced his final decision, O'Donoghue
had phoned the attorney and told him, as the Irishman -- never
one to mince words -- put it to me, "to shit or get off the
Gonzalez climbed off "the pot" while revealing that
a poll conducted on his behalf showed that voters are concerned
about the city's serious problems but are not inclined to blame
Newsom. According to sources who funded the Gonzalez poll, Gonzalez'
favorability rating came out at 66 percent. The same sources said
that a poll conducted by supporters of Agnos showed Newsom with
a favorability rating of 67 percent. Neither number reflects likely
election results for either candidate. (You can't take the 66
percent or 67 percent, subtract from 100, and say that's the percentage
the opponent would garner.
What those numbers mean, is that after educating voters more
on Newsom's failures and telling them positive things about Gonzalez
and Agnos, in the Agnos poll 67 percent said that overall, they
still had a favorable perception of Newsom, and 66 percent in
the Gonzalez poll said they had a favorable opinion of the former
What both polls do not measure is how a challenger ultimately
would fare if -- with a well-run and well-financed campaign --
they were able to make voters see that Newsom should be held accountable.
Even in Newsom's own polls, that often-quoted 70 percent approval
rating is a soft number. Only about half of that is solid. The
rest is ripe for picking.
Moreover, the decision made shortly after the Jan 2004 inauguration
to make the Newsom mayoralty about Newsom the person rather than
about the long list of issues that his campaign focused on, may
turn out to be a gift for a challenger.
"We never made the campaign about Gavin Newsom," said
Jim Ross, who played a key role in Newsom's 2003 race. "It
was all about 'Great Cities. Great Ideas .That was because
we wanted to create a policy basis for this guy after election.
But then it became about his personality.
"While it's true he has a formidable public persona - He's
articulate. He's charismatic -- that's a very dangerous strategy,"
Ross said. "It hasn't been about a team approach. Instead
they've been promoting this, 'Gavin Gives' message, but that has
the potential to be a real problem. You don't beat him by attacking
him. You beat him by coming up with an issue-focused agenda. That's
really what people want: a vision, a plan, a program."
So what would it take to get a Daly bid up and running - virtually
overnight - and mount a serious challenge? Daly said he feels
confident he can raise enough dough to get $850,000 in matching
funds from the city - the top amount available. That would give
him nearly $1.4 million to run the campaign - one that hopefully
would include television cable and radio ads where Daly, with
the backing of Sarah and young Jack, could go far in shaking off
the press's demonic image of him. He would need to make amends
with some colleagues who clearly have grown weary of his bare-knuckles
approach to politics. He would need to work hard to win over the
ethnic media. He would need to aggressively court absentee voters,
register new ones, and focus on the districts where support for
him is solid - or pretty much so - while not completely ignoring
the opportunity to woo those voters in more moderate districts
who know they should hold Newsom responsible or could be convinced
to do so.
And even if he only captured barely 40 percent of the vote (or
less), it's difficult to see how that would be more damaging to
efforts to push a progressive agenda and stave off potential losses
on the Board of Supervisors in 2008 than not putting up a fight
at all. That just feeds into the cynical line of Newsom spinmeister
Eric Jaye -- that the city's progressives are "in total collapse."
Let us show Jaye that he is wrong, and while we may not have
a candidate with a real shot at winning, we know that it's more
important to lose and still "get our message out" (as
activist Julian Davis put it recently) than to forfeit altogether.