Garcia: The courtship of Art Agnos

Politics is such a bruising sport, you have to wonder how many people would jump back into it 16 years after leaving office.

But that’s where former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos finds himself these days, with a chorus of people urging him to go into a battle against a man 30 years younger, if only for the reason that nobody else will.

I had a long lunch recently with Agnos, who looks very much like someone who is enjoying semi-retirement. He is fit and tan and relaxed, he goes golfing whenever he wants and has enough time on his hands that he could travel to the East Coast to take in a Giants game with his son at Fenway Park in Boston over the weekend. Agnos talks about his political career with deep perspective and humor — the kind that comes with the maturity of someone who has been around 68 years.

And now, by his own admission that he’s enjoying life more than ever before, it makes one wonder why someone who doesn’t need the pain and aggravation of another difficult political campaign would even consider running for the toughest elective office in The City against a highly popular incumbent.

Part of the answer may lie in the fact that Agnos lost his bid for a second term as mayor to an upstart political novice named Frank Jordan, an event he says marked his lowest point as a public official. And that moment serves as a reminder — at least in some circles — that incumbents rarely get a free pass in San Francisco and why Gavin Newsom probably will not be an exception.

So redemption plays a possible role, as do the memories of a person who spent more than two decades wheeling and dealing as a high-level political operator. There’s always an itch to get back in the game.

When I asked Agnos if he would run, he wavered, but he was also clearly considering it.

“Would I bet my mortgage on it right now? Probably not,” he told me. “But I haven’t made my mind up yet. I seem to be at the head of the line by default.’’

The question is whether Agnos still has enough fire in his belly to mount a huge uphill battle to try to unseat Newsom, and whether he can ignore the many voices in his ear that he’s the last person with any chance of winning. That’s not easy for any politician — just ask Al Gore, who probably had one chance to win the presidency (and probably did) but still has people urging him to make a comeback.

The thinking on an Agnos candidacy is this: Unlike Newsom’s contemporaries around town who all are about the same age and have relatively equal experience, Agnos would be viewed as a seasoned veteran who has the experience to do the job. He has ties to the old Burton-Brown machine, and many longtime voters may welcome an old-school pol who hasn’t been involved in some of the silly antics and gamesmanship that have plagued City Hall in recent years.

“I am probably the most dangerous candidate Newsom could face,’’ Agnos said, and many current left-leaning politicians, including Matt Gonzalez and Ross Mirkarimi, have essentially told me the same thing.

Agnos could point to some of his accomplishments — steering The City through the Loma Prieta disaster and getting the Embarcadero Freeway torn down — and contrast it with what Newsom’s critics call the mayor’s record of style over substance. And it would offer an intriguing match-up, especially if Agnos could garner enough support from the young “progressive” voters who turned out in big numbers for Gonzalez in the last campaign.

But reality suggests that that is a big if. Not only has Agnos been out of office longer than a lot of those voters have been in San Francisco, there is no unified coalition on the left for any single candidate — which goes a long way toward explaining why no challenger has stepped forward.

And of course there are the polls that indicate Newsom is likely unbeatable — especially since he’s been campaigning for the better part of a year, hoarding endorsements and raising gobs of money.

So will Agnos be the one? He says he won’t make a final decision until mid-July, after he returns from war-torn Sierra Leone in West Africa, where he’s part of an international delegation observing elections there as that nation tries to regain its footing.

“It should be fascinating,’’ he said. “That’s the kind of stuff I like to do. It gives me great satisfaction.’’

Trying to run a largely ungovernable city is a much different story, especially if you’ve already done it.

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

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