Garcia: Mayoral race an only-in-S.F. circus

There are some niggling questions about the upcoming mayoral race in November, including whether Mayor Gavin Newsom will continue trying to raise money or bother to debate against a bunch of no-name candidates.

But among the queries no one has raised is exactly how a homeless taxi driver managed to find $5,000 to get in the race, or whether the nude activist will uncover more than the truth before the campaign is finished.

It’s remarkable really that in a city in which politics seeps into every nook, cranny and appointment, not a single credible candidate stepped up to challenge Newsom during a year in which the mayor seemed increasingly vulnerable.

A lot of people would have bet a pretty penny before summer that a realistic challenger would emerge from the pack of usual suspects to run, especially after the local rags were all but pushing their favorite candidates forward.

Yet as we approach Labor Day, all the hard work now falls to a couple of bloggers, a flower-shop owner, a sex-club owner, a music teacher and a guy who likes to wear chicken suits to public events. Who says San Francisco takes itself too seriously?

Humor will be a much-needed trait during the next few months as the political junkies try to spin the scenario to their liking.

The far liberal left, which was trying to find anyone it could to take on Newsom — even pushing screeching Supervisor Chris Daly as its kamikaze candidate near the filing deadline — is now touting as its strategy a plan to make sure Newsom’s winning percentage is not that lopsided.

It’s kind of like playing Roger Federer and saying you hope to take one game in each set.

Still, Newsom’s draw in this race may provide some humor, but it’s not going to give us any decent platform to discuss the issues — unless making Golden Gate Park a clothing-optional retreat is one of your core issues.

It would be hard to take any of the rhetoric in the race seriously, though it would be fun to see one-time Supervisor Tony Hall continually refer to the mayor as “kid” knowing that the kid fired Hall from his last job.

And while Newsom is clearly relieved that he won’t have to beef up his security detail since Daly decided to withdraw, there’s also a sense of disappointment that he can’t face off against one of the key critics of his administration, since that is what he had been counting on for the last year. After all, it’s one thing for bloggers to attack Newsom for being too cautious or publicity conscious and quite another to explain how they would make San Francisco a more livable, lovable place.

Newsom noted this to me recently when he said his campaign had always been predicated on one of his political rivals running, if only for the simple reason that it’s been decades since an incumbent mayor has essentially been handed a second term. And that has caught him slightly off-guard because now Newsom is in the uncomfortable situation of running against himself.

“There’s a sense of awkwardness that wants to fill the void,” he said. “The biggest fear is that your supporters lose their energy and commitment. They’re thinking that rather than attend a weekend rally they can just spend Saturday doing something else. Or maybe questioning whether they really need to put signs up, or make calls. It’s kind of a strange place to be in.”

Instead, the mayor finds himself at the center of a three-ring circus in which you half-expect a dozen clowns to emerge from a Mini Cooper near the steps to City Hall. Yet all the sideshows obscure the reality of the shifting political landscape in San Francisco. During Newsom’s second term, nearly all of his self-described “progressive” opponents on the Board of Supervisors will lose their seats through term limits and the balance of power could change dramatically.

“The Newsom bashers will have to exist for a more noble reason than just trying to stand in the way of things I’m trying to accomplish,’’ he said. “So during this campaign, I need to remind people that we can unite for a common purpose and I don’t have to try and destroy my opponents or divide a city to win.”

Yet in a town where one-third of the voters are against anything, he’ll still have to expect that his winning margin will be marginalized by his opponents, who will try to say the final numbers don’t translate into a mandate. And that he should have done better, no matter how well he does.

In a race in which a cabdriver calls himself Grasshopper, that’s the only reality check you need.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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