Friday, December 31, 2010

Assessing Gavin Newsom

As we come to the end of Gavin Newsom’s truncated second term as mayor of San Francisco, we may want to look around and see if the city is truly better off than it was seven years ago.

Recent articles in the Chronicle and Examiner have tended to celebrate the changes, at least in attitude, Newsom has brought to City Hall. However, what may smudge his mark on history seems to have been glossed over. In reality, Newsom is viewed by many pro-business and centrist liberals in much the same way that progressives now view Barack Obama; that is to say, with some sense of betrayal.

Newsom has had a very hard time finishing what he has started. The most glaring example of this is his failure to carry out his campaign promise to reform the city's homelessness policy. Walk down any part of our downtown and you'll see the situation has not changed. Instead, we got the Potemkin Village Sideshow called Homeless Connect, a facile palliative policy that was also embraced, ironically, by the Bush administration. The reality is that while Newsom aggressively brought a lot of homeless people into existing assistance networks, more so than any previous Mayor, he never put a real dent into the root problem. The only way to deal with the chronic homeless is to essentially make their “lifestyle” illegal – allowing courts to intervene and mandate life assistance. Newsom’s Community Justice Center on Polk Street is a mere token move in that direction.

Newsom also has a bad habit of sacrificing subordinates carelessly. First among these was police chief Heather Fong, who entered the job with a reputation as a strong but low-profile administrator, but was shown the door after being tarred as Newsom's political whipping girl on the increasing violent crime rate, and a seeming inability to deal with the old-boy cronyism of the police union and their contempt for the public. Only very late in the game has Newsom finally done the right thing by hiring George Gascon, a dedicated professional from outside the hidebound culture of the SFPD with a personality strong enough to work for lasting change. But by appointing Gascon so late in his term, and leaving early, Newsom has again left yet another police chief twisting in the wind.

If Gascon ends up not being able to make lasting changes to SFPD, then it could very well be argued that the only lasting positive legacy of the Newsom Administration will be the further development of the New Downtown in South of Market, solidified by the opening in 2005 of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine on King Street. Newsom deserves significant credit for setting the policy stages for the Center and its companion ballot initiative Proposition 71, in the face of skepticism from different ideological directions at local, state, and even national levels.

Unfortunately, this early major victory for Newsom may have encouraged some hubris on his part. Much has been made of Newsom's subsequent public stand on marriage equality, which while laudable on the surface, can hardly be considered as courageous within his own constituency. Meanwhile, on the national and eventually state level, Newsom became a useful caricature of an arrogant liberal elite as a foil for social conservatives. We live in an age where politics is more often defined by irrationality and backlash. To succeed, the ongoing for struggle for civil rights must focus on achieving not merely tolerance, but outright acceptance. To this end the most effective advocates for marriage equality will always be the stakeholders in that struggle themselves: namely, gay and lesbian people. Newsom stole their thunder, endearing himself to his own constituency, while, as usual, allowing the real stakes to twist in the wind. The resulting conservative backlash not only brought shame upon California, but may have also cost the Democratic party a presidential election.

This brings attention to Newsom’s biggest, but unfortunately apparently not fatal, flaw: his venal personality. Stingy with praise, assistance and courage, Newsom may well be the ultimate egoist, a Randian Objectivist ideal type working ironically within a political framework dedicated to social justice. Many of the issues he embraces suffer as his own career benefits from them.

Now ready to assume the mostly symbolic office of Lieutenant Governor, Newsom's statewide and national image remains that of almost a professional tarbaby, permanently positioned to provoke the political right on social issues. Unlike President Obama, who aims to change peoples' minds by reaching out to them, Newsom's strident posturing is a turnoff. He is in many ways the biggest threat we have to the modern Liberal tradition in American politics.