Gavin Newsom lived on the political edge

When Mayor Gavin Newsom leaves his office in City Hall in January, what he takes with him is his status as a celebrity politician whose public persona has both attracted and alienated voters across the state.

But what he leaves behind is a legacy laced with drama, intrigue and cutting-edge policies.

In a recent interview with The San Francisco Examiner, Newsom talked about both his achievements and missteps during his two terms as mayor.  

Newsom cited the redevelopment of the Hunters Point Shipyard, which will be a major job generator for The City’s southeast neighborhood as one of his greatest legacies. He boasted about balancing the budget without raising taxes and repaving city streets. He even pointed out that Muni’s on-time performance is the best it has ever been.

“There’s still work to be done, but I laid a solid foundation for the future,” Newsom said.

Despite being elected on a moderate platform, Newsom will be most remembered for his move to marry gay couples in 2004, only 36 days after he became mayor.

“Gay marriage was a liberating force for me,” Newsom said. “Every big supporter said ‘you are doomed, you are finished,’ and I survived and it gave me a sense of hope and possibility that I can take risks.”

Newsom’s decision catapulted him into the national spotlight, and he became a polarizing figure outside the liberal confines of the Bay Area. Opponents of same-sex marriage even used Newsom’s boast that gay unions were going to happen “whether you like it or not” on TV ads to great effect during the 2008 election. Gay-rights activists say the ad helped propel Proposition 8, the initiative banning same-sex marriages, to victory.

Newsom’s most contentious political battles in San Francisco didn’t involve gay rights — his position on gay marriage made him incredibly popular locally —  but his efforts to deal with The City’s chronic homeless problem.  Newsom was elected mayor in 2003 after pushing the controversial and much-criticized Care Not Cash program, which cut general assistance to homeless residents in exchange for shelter.

His progressive opponents and homeless advocates blasted the plan, which was passed by voters in 2002, saying it was an attack on the homeless. Some of Newsom’s other measures dealing with street people — including a ban on sitting and lying on city streets approved by voters in November — have also been derided by homeless advocates as criminalizing poverty.

“It’s been a lot of spin and very little substance,” said Bob Offer-Westort, civil rights organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness. “And the changes we have seen have been punitive, beginning with Care Not Cash to [the sit-lie ordinance].”  

Newsom today touts a 40 percent reduction in the homeless population on the streets, but critics argue that he has far from solved the problem.

While Newsom claims to have housed more than 12,000 homeless residents, observers say the tally is closer to 2,000.

“He came in promising to revolutionize the homeless system and leaves office and homelessness is still a major problem in San Francisco,” said Bill Whalen, research fellow with the Hoover Institution.  

What’s also attached to his résumé are a series of political blunders, mishaps and personal dramas, including a stint in rehab and his sordid affair with his campaign manager’s wife, which came to light at the end of his first term.

During his rocky first term, he even questioned whether he wanted to run for re-election. Of course, he wound up seeking a second term and won in a landslide.

“I am a much better person than when I started,” Newsom said. “I’m married with a baby, and I’ve found an intense passion the last few years for this work.”

In his second term, Newsom grappled with the threatened move of the 49ers, a drug-skimming scandal at the police department’s crime lab, and annual budget deficits in the hundreds of millions.

Nonetheless, Newsom remains one of the country’s most popular incumbent mayors, with approval ratings hovering at 70 percent as he prepares to assume his post as California lieutenant governor.

“He is good-looking, charming and he embodies what a lot of people would like in a politician,” said Jim Ross, a political consultant who worked on Newsom’s first campaign for mayor. “I think that’s one of the things that attracts people to him.”

Newsom admits there are some valuable lessons he plans to take with him.

“Ideas matter,” Newsom said. “The best politics is a better idea.”

Newsom’s top accomplishments

When the mayor sat down for an interview with the San Francisco Examiner recently, he came armed with a 20-page list of his accomplishments as mayor. Here are some highlights:

– 10 percent decrease in school dropout rate from 2006 to 2009
– Over the past two years, The City has experienced its lowest rates of homicides and violent crimes since the 1960s
– Moved 12,210 homeless people into permanent housing; 40 percent decrease in street homelessness
– Implemented Healthy San Francisco, the first citywide universal health-care plan in the country
– Passed the nation’s first mandatory composting program
– Muni achieves its highest on-time performance ever (73.3 percent) in 2009, although that’s still below the voter-mandated goal of 85 percent
– Reduced the size of the public-sector work force to its lowest level since 1998
– 28 percent reduction in cell phone costs

Coke claims, chickens were all in day’s work

At the height of the 2007 fight over proposed cuts to the Public Health Department, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s acrimonious relationship with Supervisor Chris Daly had hit an all-time low. Daly strongly implied that Newsom — who had admitted to having a drinking problem earlier in the year — had used cocaine.

The cocaine accusation immediately blew up in the press, shifting the focus away from the budget debate.

It was antagonistic moments like these that distracted the electorate from the issues at stake and exacerbated political gridlock in City Hall, political analysts say.

“It’s comical because the political body in San Francisco is very liberal, but we fight over gradations on the political spectrum and it creates chaotic governance, especially when important things lie in the balance,” said P.J. Johnston, a political consultant and a Newsom appointee to the San Francisco Arts Commission.

All along, Newsom’s centrist style and moderate politics (at least by San Francisco standards) pitted him against the progressive majority of the Board of Supervisors, which some believe started battles with the mayor over politics, not policy.

But these political assaults often turned into a public spectacle. When Newsom refused Daly’s requests for mayoral question time at the Board of Supervisors meetings, leftist activists began heckling him while wearing chicken suits.

It was this kind of relationship that strained Newsom’s effort to get his legislation and policies passed during his first term as mayor, including providing free Wi-Fi Internet for the public. By the time his second term came around, Newsom says he had just learned to pick his battles.

“You can’t work with some people. It’s a very important lesson,” Newsom said. “I have no problem losing, but there are certain people that build their careers on being against things, and that’s their identity.”

Despite personality clashes, Newsom still had to hone his abilities to get the six votes needed to pass his legislation — and that’s exactly what he did, supporters say. The mayor fought the board every budget cycle, but eventually he would work out a compromise.

This year, for instance, Newsom and the board butted heads on the budget deal, negotiating up until the last minute. Newsom was able to get the board to drop a proposal to limit his power to appoint people to commissions in exchange for restoring services that had been cut from the public health budget. “Mayor Newsom has won most of the big fights,” Johnston said.

Notable Newsom

December 2003
Gavin Newsom is elected mayor  with 53 percent of the vote

February 2004
Newsom begins marrying gay couples at City Hall

August 2004
The California Supreme Court voids gay and lesbian couples’ marriage licenses, declaring Newsom had overstepped his authority

August 2004
Newsweek Magazine calls Newsom a Democrat with “star power” along with Barack Obama

April 2006
Newsom speaks at the state Democratic Convention

January 2007
Newsom confirms reports that he had affair with his campaign manager’s wife, Ruby Rippey-Tourk.

February 2007
Newsom announces he will seek counseling for alcohol addiction

November 2007
Newsom is re-elected to his second term as mayor

January 2008
Mayor announces engagement to actress Jennifer Siebel

April 2009
Newsom declares his candidacy for California governor.

September 2009
Montana Tessa Siebel Newsom, the mayor’s daughter, is born

October 2009
Newsom drops out of the race for governor

March 2010
Newsom announces his bid for lieutenant governor

June 2010
Newsom beats Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor

November 2010
Newsom is elected lieutenant governor, meaning he will have to resign as mayor
with a year left in his term

December 2010
Newsom tells reporters he will likely delay his swearing-in as lieutenant governor for five days until Jan. 8; this will allow incoming members of the Board of Supervisors to pick his interim successor

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