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Newsom’s Shaky Political Future

Clockwise from top: Gavin Newsom, Jerry Brown, Barbara Boxer and Louise Renne.

Clockwise from top: Gavin Newsom, Jerry Brown, Barbara Boxer and Louise Renne.

Since winning election in 2003, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has been a rising political star. His landmark support for gay marriage, followed by the California Supreme Court’s endorsing it as a “fundamental right,” left Newsom the candidate to beat in the 2010 Governor’s race. But Prop 8’s victory lent a double blow to Newsom: one of his speeches was highlighted in the opposition’s media blitz, and he did not tour the state – as Harvey Milk is shown doing during 1978’s Prop 6 campaign in the film Milk – seeking to win hostile audiences to his side.

Yet Newsom’s political prospects may be more endangered by a factor entirely unrelated to Prop 8: his alienating many of the San Francisco Democrats whose support he will need in the 2010 primary. These are the Democrats who backed new Supervisors John Avalos, David Campos, David Chiu and Eric Mar against Newsom’s selections, and who voted for the Peskin-Daly led “Hope” slate for the Democratic County Central Committee. Newsom is putting himself in the position Louise Renne found herself in her congressional race against Barbara Boxer in 1982 – losing the San Francisco support needed to prevail.

I’ve asked a number of political consultants for their views of Gavin Newsom’s chances in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, and have gotten a remarkably similar response: he’s toast. Not to doubt these experts, but I still see Newsom as having a chance, though I remain mystified by his alienating San Francisco voters whose support he will need against Jerry Brown.

The Renne-Boxer Precedent
In 1982, a San Francisco and Marin County Supervisor squared off in a congressional primary for a district that included both areas. John Burton, a San Franciscan, had long occupied the seat and many thought San Francisco’s Louise Renne had the inside track.

But Renne opposed rent control on vacant apartments, and was closely aligned with conservative Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who appointed her Supervisor. Boxer swept San Francisco by successfully parlaying local progressives’ dissatisfaction with Renne, and, coupled with Burton’s endorsement, won a surprisingly easy victory.

By consistently battling with Aaron Peskin and the city’s progressive Democrats, Newsom is following Renne’s losing approach. The difference, of course, is that Renne did not have the opportunity to shift to the left in expectation of a congressional race; Newsom has known since at least 2007 that he would be running for Governor.

The city budget crisis gives Newsom an opportunity to build bridges with the city’s progressives, but thus far he has excluded them from the process. While angering progressives he has steadfastly defended the 7% annual police and fire raises, but those constituencies are not who he needs to win a statewide Democratic primary.

Labor Moving to Brown
According to my sources, organized labor currently prefers Jerry Brown to Gavin Newsom. Brown is a known commodity who is loved by the prison guards union, and is trusted to keep his promises to labor.

[ad #travelocity-468x60]While unions are not unified behind Brown, some do not yet have a comfort level with Newsom, who is a relative newcomer on the statewide stage. Yet at a time when Newsom needs to shore up his labor backing, he instead finds himself battling powerful SEIU over the San Francisco budget.

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I don’t understand this. As Brown makes inroads into Newsom’s gay and lesbian base (the Attorney General’s refusal to defend Prop 8 made national news), San Francisco’s Mayor is creating opponents among potential labor allies. Trust me: you will not see Jerry Brown alienating any possible supporters through primary day, and Newsom cannot compete if he does not follow a similar strategy.

Brown is Winning Enviros
Jerry Brown’s filing suit to enjoin the Bush Administration from weakening the Endangered Species Act was a huge media story in the last week of 2008. Recall that for all of Newsom’s emphasis on all things Green, Brown was talking about alternative energy and limiting consumption back in the 1970’s.

Today, his critics description of him in the 1970’s as “Governor Moonbeam” is likely viewed by primary voters as a plus.

As with labor, Newsom has failed to use his leverage as Mayor to win the allegiance of local environmentalists. To the contrary, he has a very frosty relationship with the local Sierra Club chapter, and has alienated San Francisco enviros who strongly back public power.

Newsom would get more political mileage on his media events trumpeting his latest “green” policy if he made sure that prominent environmental groups got most of the credit. Willie Brown could certainly advise him on this, as nobody parsed out credit to groups and individuals more liberally than Newsom’s mayoral predecessor – which is why Brown maintained labor and environmental support for over thirty years.

Battling Supervisors is Political Loser
I know it makes the San Francisco Chronicle, Chamber of Commerce, and Association of Realtors happy when Newsom bashes the Board of Supervisors, but those entities will not help the mayor win a Democratic primary against Jerry Brown. In contrast, winning kudos from progressive Supervisors would help give Newsom the credibility he needs to win like-minded voters across the state.


Most voters only remember what politicians have done for them lately. This means that for all of his past strategic mistakes in alienating progressive San Francisco Democrats, Newsom still has a chance to get their 2010 support if he reverses gears in his approach to the 2009-10 budget.

Does Newsom have the flexibility to change his tune toward the progressive community? If not, he better take the advice of those who think he should set his sights on the Lieutenant Governor’s race, as beating Jerry Brown will be a pipedream.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the newly-released Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press)

Republished with permission from BeyondChron where it first appeared.