Now that voters are presumed to have overwhelmingly re-elected him, Mayor Gavin Newsom has a tough act to follow — his own.
The Democrat who made worldwide headlines when he opened City Hall to same-sex weddings six weeks into his first term acknowledged the expectations surrounding his second when he told supporters his agenda includes initiatives no less daring.
“One thing I know about San Francisco politics is the voters want to see you sweat. There is no having made it,” the mayor said during his victory speech Tuesday night. “I will continue to generate ideas that transcend our city, … to be more bold, to take more risks.”
But according to local political observers, the real job confronting Newsom, particularly if he has ambitions for higher office, may be eschewing attention-generating moves in favor of the day-to-day drudgery of municipal government, such as cleaning up the streets and addressing crime.
“Anybody that's a serious observer of politics would place Gavin Newsom in the A-list of talent. … He is a brand that people want to buy,” said John Whitehurst, a Democratic political consultant in San Francisco. “But when you go to the next level, or if he wants to approach the next level, there is only one question remaining for Gavin Newsom, which is: Can he deliver and can he manage and can he show himself to be a chief executive?”
Newsom easily bested 11 challengers that included a colorful cast of characters but no credible rival.
With a little over 54,000 votes for mayor tallied as of Wednesday afternoon – less than a third of the 154,000 ballots election officials estimate were cast in the election – unofficial returns showed Newsom with 72.5 percent of the vote compared to 6.8 percent for flower shop owner Harold Hoogasian, the nonpartisan race's lone Republican.
Quintin Mecke, a public safety advocate endorsed by several elected officials who consider Newsom too conservative, was third, with just under 6 percent.
During the weeks leading up to Tuesday's election, the mayor avoided making many promises. Instead, he highlighted how his administration had tackled hard-core homelessness, managed the city's finances and initiated programs to provide health care for uninsured residents.
Newsom has suggested going forward that he wants to cement San Francisco's reputation as a cutting-edge city with an environmental package that may include a tax based on how many carbon emissions companies generate.
He also plans to launch a bicycle sharing program that would allow public transit users to check out bikes at bus stops and train stations, and has floated the idea of making bus service free as a way of encouraging people to use it.
On other issues, he has already backed a proposal from the Board of Supervisors, the city's lawmaking body, to issue identification cards that would allow illegal immigrants and others to access city services. He also has pledged to launch an even more aggressive effort to target chronically homeless people and to get them into shelters, substance abuse treatment or long-term housing.
Taking a get-tough approach on homelessness helped Newsom get elected in 2003, and it remains the issue against which his effectiveness as mayor will be judged four years from now, according to David Latterman, a local political analyst.
It's a dicey position for him because the city's visible homeless population has vexed a succession of mayors, Latterman said. Making progress at this point may require the kind of police intervention Rudy Giuliani employed when he was mayor of New York – tactics that would be politically hard to pull off in liberal San Francisco, he said.
“Let's face it: the visual blight is as bad as ever, and it's beginning to encapsulate San Francisco,” Latterman said. Newsom “will have to start rousting people, he will have to do what every other major city does, but in this city, it's complicated because there are entrenched interests that are interested in keeping the homeless where they are.”
A byproduct of Newsom's intrepidness and natural ease with audiences is that political observers already are speculating about what he may do next. Some see him as a likely gubernatorial contender in 2010, while others say he is well-positioned to succeed Dianne Feinstein in the U.S. Senate, if she retires in 2012.
Either scenario would require the mayor to both continue appealing to San Francisco's left-wing identity while taking steps to assure voters and donors outside the city that he is mainstream enough to represent the nation's most populous state.
“Critics have said he has focused more on governing by press release, making bold pronouncements, and it's their way to cheapen the gay marriage issue, which took the political establishment by storm,” Whitehurst said. “He needs to bury that, and he needs to focus on a few issue areas where he can make a difference and actually deliver on them.”