Don’t fret about the mayor leaving early, he has a plan

Mayor Gavin Newsom says he spends most of his days working on midyear fixes to the gaping hole we call a budget, but the biggest adjustments are still to come.

Like when he leaves office early to become the next lieutenant governor.

That takes a lot for granted. He says he still hasn’t completely made up his mind to run and, of course, he would need to win the seat — not exactly a stroll down Broadway.

But I’m more than willing to bet Supervisor Chris Daly’s tongue (and you would, too) that Newsom is going to announce his candidacy this week because as good as he is at debating both sides of an issue, he’s still more convincing talking about why he should run than why he should not.

I could argue that this is a terrible idea — giving up a very important job for a do-nothing one — if not for a few truisms about politics. One is that a lame-duck politician is by definition a lame duck, and can’t do anything about it except leave office or search for a new one. And another is that one person cannot and should not be responsible for bringing order to any jurisdiction, and if San Franciscans are worried about some extremists on the Board of Supervisors running amok in Newsom’s absence, then they should rethink who and how they elect them.

Yet as the mayor knows, I would be more than willing to bash him for abdicating his responsibility to my beloved hometown if not for one thing: If he departs, he will do so with a plan in place to allow the voters to pick an interim successor and remove it from those who would take it and use it as a tool for personal and political ascension.

So while I find it hard to believe that Newsom can do more with the office of lieutenant governor than so many of his predecessors, I won’t smack him around for doing the most natural thing — seeking the next available office to prolong a career — public-office seekers have been doing since public office became a reality.

That happens to be the case for Jerry Brown and for Meg Whitman, and whoever will be the next governor of California. So I won’t make an exception for governor lite.

Newsom makes a credible argument for leaving with just one year left in office. He said that former Mayor Willie Brown and all the career politicians before him have been relatively useless in the last year of their term, since all the energy and focus naturally reverts to those who will succeed them.

The reason that his potential departure has so many people concerned about the near future of San Francisco is that through the beauty of district elections we have on the board 10 of 11 members whom 90 percent of the registered voters never cast a ballot for. I’m not going to debate the merits of district elections now — just point out the major flaw in the system, which comes across like a jolt when talking about the succession to the mayor’s post when that person leaves early.

So while Team Newsom is busy trying to figure out the details about how to get around having the board name a successor for the remainder of his term, they have come to one fallback insurance position. And that would be placing a charter amendment on the ballot calling for a special election for the mayor and the district attorney, taking the appointments away from supervisors and handing it to the voters.

That might not be necessary if city residents move toward a centrist position and replace outgoing supervisors Sophie Maxwell and Daly with more moderate candidates in November. But to rely on that would be like returning Don Nelson as coach of the Golden State Warriors and expecting a dramatic turnaround.

San Francisco politics may be crazy, but The City’s voters are not.

“Holding a special election within 90 days of a vacancy seems to me a much better alternative,” Newsom told me. “But people need to focus on the supervisor races and my running [for lieutenant governor] might actually help that process.”

That sounds to me like someone who’s already off and running.

Ken Garcia appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Examiner. Check out his blog at sfexaminer.com/opinion or e-mail him at kgarcia@sfexaminer.com.

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