The municipal election is days away, but the race for San Francisco mayor effectively endedon the Saturday in June when hundreds of the city's left-wing power brokers met to nominate a candidate.
No one at the so-called Progressive Convention- not even the Democratic incumbent's most devoted critics – could be persuaded to run against Mayor Gavin Newsom.
“It's on everyone's mind,” Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi said that day before declining to take on Newsom himself. “Would San Francisco, a politically sophisticated city like our own, actually allow a mayor to go unchallenged?”
Apparently, it would.
Eight months after a chastened Newsom publicly admitted having a drinking problem and an affair with a close aide's wife, the politician best-known for opening City Hall to same-sex weddings six weeks into his first term stands poised to win his second without breaking a sweat.
“This was geared up to be a different race than it's turned out to be,” the mayor said in an interview at his cavernous campaign headquarters, which were almost empty after having served as the site of a volunteer appreciation party more than a week before Tuesday's election.
It's not that Newsom doesn't have challengers. In fact, there are 11 of them, ranging from the silly to the inexperienced.
Yet none is what observers consider a credible rival. They include a sex club owner, a homeless taxi driver, a nudist rights advocate and videographer Josh Wolf, who holds the record as the journalist jailed the longest for refusing to cooperate with the government.
After reviewing the options in a field it termed “not exactly a varsity squad,” the leading alternative newspaper, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, endorsed Quintin Mecke, a community activist making his first bid for elective office who failed to raise the $25,000 needed to qualify for public campaign financing.
The last time a San Francisco mayor appeared poised for such an easy victory was in 1983, when Dianne Feinstein, now California's senior senator, ran without a serious opponent.
“The things that Newsom has done wrong haven't really affected the greater city,” said political analyst David Latterman, noting that the mayor's first term approval ratings have consistently hovered around 70 percent. “The fact is, he is popular, he is not going to lose and no one wants to run against him.”
At the beginning of the year, few observers foresaw a cakewalk for Newsom, who at 36 became the city's youngest mayor in over a century after beating a fellow city supervisor in a tighter-than-expected runoff.
After launching his administration with a series of high-profile moves, the mayor faced mounting accusations that he had become disengaged from the workings of city government. Public relations setbacks included the San Francisco 49ers announcing they planned to move the team south to Santa Clara and having his veto of a measure to create police foot patrols to address the city's spiraling murder rate twice overridden by supervisors.
Even Newsom's allies wondered whether the self-described policy wonk who early in his term would ride the cable cars in a baseball cap to get a tourist's-eye view of San Francisco still had his heart in the job.
Then, on Jan. 31, came the revelation that the chairman of his re-election campaign had resigned after learning the mayor had an affair with his wife, a city employee. The mayor stood before a crowd of television cameras the next day and apologized for his “lapse in judgment.”
A week later, he announced that he was seeking counseling for an alcohol problem, a tough proposition for someone who co-owns two wineries.
“I'm glad I stopped. It was the right thing. It's penance time, it's clarity, its refocusing, recalculating,” he said.
Newsom says these events, while painful, helped remind him why he wanted to be mayor and that he was surprised by how quickly San Franciscans seemed to forgive and forget. He said he used to refer to the affair while campaigning among small groups – “I thought it was the elephant in the room and I had to bring it up” – until a donor sternly told him to stop talking about it.
“It's the one absolute in politics that you come to realize and rationalize: People really care so much more about today and tomorrow than they do yesterday,” he said. “The capacity for renewal or to re-engage is always there and for me, it's a very humbling and reinforcing thing.”
An entrepreneur who made a small fortune selling wine and running restaurants, Newsom, who turned 40 last month, was considered conservative by San Francisco standards when he was elected in December 2003, championing a get-tough approach to panhandlers and the city's chronic homeless problem.
He quickly disarmed many of his leftier-than-thou critics – and angered some of his elders in the Democratic Party – when he unilaterally directed city departments to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, a violation of California law. Over four weeks in early 2004, more than 4,000 couples tied the knot before the courts intervened and nullified the unions.
The mayor solidified his liberal credentials over the next year when he appointed women to lead the police and fire departments, joined hotel workers on the picket line, expanded a children's health insurance program to cover young adults, and showed up at murder scenes in the city's poorer neighborhoods.
He also has tried to appease the business community by competing to bring corporate headquarters to San Francisco. One of his early achievements was beating out San Diego and Los Angeles to land a state-funded institute that will oversee $3 billion worth of human stem cell research.
But Newsom's critics complain he's more style than substance – an empty suit who governs by press release.
Mirkarimi, a Green Party member whom many Newsom critics had hoped would challenge the mayor, said he gives Newsom high marks for embracing innovative ideas such as creating a universal health plan for residents without insurance.
But he faults him for overstating the administration's success in addressing homelessness and not doing enough to follow through on his pledge to reduce crime in the city's poorest neighborhoods.
“The fact that the city is benefiting from a strong economy nationally does not necessarily provide tribute to the mayor's actions locally,” said Mirkarimi.
Noting the telegenic mayor's facility with audiences – during his State of the City address this week, Newsom wandered a stage with a cordless microphone and no notes while presenting a “by-the-numbers” Power Point presentation on his administration's accomplishments – Mirkarimi called him “Al Gore meets Phil Donohue.”
Thomas Brown, president of San Francisco for Democracy, a group formed to support the presidential candidacy of Howard Dean, said he voted for Newsom four years ago, but plans to cast his ballot for Mecke on Tuesday.
Brown was disappointed with Newsom's performance in making free wireless Internet service available citywide. Two years ago, the mayor struck an agreement with Earthlink and Google for building and financing a Wi-Fi system. The Board of Supervisors – the city's equivalent of a city council – refused to approve it, insisting it was a bad financial deal for the city.
“The mayor is just a great public relations person,” Brown said. “But back at the ranch, is he managing the city departments where things get done for the betterment of the citizens?”
Newsom defends his record, stressing that he's brought the city's deficit under control while investing in anti-poverty and environmental initiatives. As a barometer, he touts the fact that his policies are reviled equallyby Fox News host Bill O'Reilly and San Francisco's far left.
While homelessness remains a visible problem, he says, there are 30 percent fewer people living on the streets than when he took office. He says his second term will be marked by the kind of bold moves that defined the first part of his first term.
“I will not become like some politicians, angry and bitter, because I woulda, coulda, shoulda,” he said.
Political observers sometimes envision Newsom succeeding Feinstein in the U.S. Senate; others see him as a possible candidate for governor when Arnold Schwarzenegger leaves office in 2010.
Newsom, who is distantly related by marriage to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, hasn't ruled anything out, but doesn't plan to have the possibility of higher office dictate what he does at City Hall.
“I'm not running for any other offices while I'm running for mayor,” he said, “but don't count me out of anything.”