Perhaps it’s not such a good thing that Mayor Gavin Newsom has no viable candidate campaigning against him this year, because even running against himself, he’s not doing so well.
The favorite mantra of Newsom’s critics is that the mayor governs via press release, a style-versus-substance swipe that most voters have set aside. But this week Newsom found out that even if you are alone in a race, it’s best not to get too far in front of yourself.
With his eye clearly on the future, Newsom told his senior staffers Friday that he was looking for a fresh start next year — and to that end he said he wanted them to really see if they wanted to be on board for the next term to carry out the agenda he started. Even when he said he would ask for their resignations, it was viewed as more of an inspirational speech, according to one of the staff members, who said the group actually applauded when Newsom finished.
But when Newsom said the same thing to assembled department heads Monday, the clapping was replaced by more of a stunned silence. And the fact that he said he would also be asking for resignation letters from about 300 commissioners he appointed — without their knowledge — as part of his “fresh start’’ hit like a forearm shiver when the news leaked out of City Hall.
People picked by the mayor know that they serve at his pleasure, but it’s clearly not going to be easy to understand why they should be loyal subjects when they hear that their boss has asked for their resignations through panicked phone calls from friends or on the 11 o’clock news. To say that there were hurt and angry feelings from scores of Newsom supporters this week would be an understatement — and some talked of defying his request.
“But I was happy to see that the mayor cashed my campaign contribution check before I tender my resignation,’’ one commission president told me. “And I was wondering if I should attend my next three-hour hearing this week.’’
Newsom has been musing about his second term recently and has gone on record as saying there will be some changes in department heads. And he knows well what it’s like to be saddled with commission appointments he didn’t make — he inherited dozens of loyal Willie Brown supporters when he took office, some of whom had been clinging to the municipal trough for decades.
But his ambitions for the coming term clearly blocked out the obvious this week — he came across as disloyal, insensitive and ungracious to many people who have been his strongest supporters and those who give up dozens of hours each month to volunteer their services to carry out the business of government. Some commissioners openly wondered whether Newsom had given up the grape and instead drank the Kool-Aid.
Newsom was completely unbowed when I met with him Wednesday — in fact, he seemed positively giddy that his actions stirred up such a fuss.
“I got exactly what I wanted — lots of infuriated people, lots of confused people and lots of people thinking about what it meant,’’ he said. “Most people understand the spirit of it and they know they shouldn’t expect to be fired. But I wanted this to play out audaciously and I have no animus for anyone who is critical of me.
“The important thing about it is that it elevates the discussion at all levels of The City and it helps prepare the next mayor or myself for a second term,” Newsom said. “If someone else is elected then it would be an unprecedented gift to that person because there hasn’t ever been a mayor who wouldn’t want to start fresh, to be able to hit that reset button. It’s a wakeup call for all of us that you’ve gotto perform.’’
But blowing up boxes, as our chief wonk is wont to say, generally works best if there are no innocent bystanders in the vicinity. The mayor may want people to understand that he’s just trying to make a larger statement about government service, but they may not appreciate it quite so much unless they’re listed among his iPhone favorites.
If the mayor’s detractors want to continually portray him as a serial news manager, at least Newsom should get his spin cycle in order so as not to upset the very people he’s appointed to carry out his mandate — or leave reporters thinking that perhaps his eye is too much on the future.
Newsom probably wouldn't be so carefree if he were locked in a tight election campaign. Because when you lose style points just as you’re about to reach the finish line, you end up stumbling across it.
Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (415) 359-2663.
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