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May 16, 2008


Man on a tightrope


A jubilant Gavin Newsom stood beneath the great rotunda of San Francisco City Hall yesterday, surrounded by happy people celebrating the State Supreme Court’s support for same-sex marriage. His reasons for joy were undoubtedly twofold. Not only had a just cause won, but the event, which the Bay Guardian’s Steven T. Jones calls “the most important civil rights ruling in a generation” had truly established him as a civil rights leader.

Here in San Francisco, Newsom’s public image rests on his role in furthering same-sex marriages. But elsewhere he’s known for his promotion of sustainable cities. Same-sex marriage is rarely mentioned.

He’s elsewhere a lot. Hardly a day goes by when his office and the media don’t announce that he’s just departed for, or just returned from, some far-off destination. At the beginning of this month, he headed off to Israel. He swung by New York City on the way back, pausing long enough to be interviewed by a beaming Dana Goodyear for the New Yorker Conference. No sooner had he touched down in San Francisco than he was off again, this time to testify before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Only a State Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage in California prevented him from going on from there to Chicago.

In all these trips, his focus is the same: sustainability, green building, fighting global warming at the city level. He’s come a long way from the wet-behind-the-ears mayor whom Tad Friend described in 2004 in the New Yorker magazine. The images that Friend presented in his article were vintage San Francisco stereotypes — he ended with this scene:

A suspiciously serene rally in favor of legalizing marijuana was going on [opposite City Hall], and the air was suddenly pungent with the substance in question.

I tried to counter them with a piece of my own in the San Francisco Call.

That was only four years ago, but it was a very different time. Taking a leaf from the book of his hero, Robert Kennedy, Newsom was attempting to solve the problems of San Francisco’s perennial homeless population. In the wake of 9/11 and the bursting of the dot.com bubble, the city’s economy was reeling. The war in Iraq had begun less than two years before, and the country was about to return George W. Bush to the White House. For the average American, global warming was just a gleam in a few environmentalists’ eyes.

Since then, both the Bush administration and the war he promoted have become festering wounds in the nation’s side. The economy has flown some astonishing loop-the-loops before descending in a frightening spiral. Even most die-hard conservatives consider the issue of climate change to be real, although some of their methods for addressing it remain less than serious.

Here’s where the new Newsom comes in. In the past year or so, he has refashioned his image from the Scourge of Homelessness to the Green Mayor. And the chief executive of the city that Tad Friend described as “an avatar of social rebellion” is now being talked about as the next governor of California. (Can you say “Gavinor”?)

The transition was probably gradual, but Newsom himself credits the 2007 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, for the change. In the course of his discussions there, he was surprised to realize that

the debate on global warming is over.

The new political theme would be the nexus of economic reform with environmental action. The new political leader would be a combination of Bobby Kennedy and Bill McKibben and Warren Buffet. In an interview at Davos, Newsom said,

How big an issue will global climate change be in the elections? If it’s not dominant, then the American people aren’t doing their job holding us to account. I can’t imagine a more important issue that unites the entire planet around one value. What else does?

He added, in the context of the 2008 election,

The presidential candidate that can link the issues of poverty & job creation to those that have been left behind in the last decade, the last half century, to the issue of global narrative on the environment & sustainability, that’s the person I’ll be electing, or voting for, in this election.

He was also talking about himself.

In his various travels, which the people of San Francisco hear very little about, Newsom presents himself as the mayor of a rapidly greening city. He says he was inspired to travel to Israel because of a plan to institute a nationwide network of electric cars there. His performance at the New Yorker conference included an almost poetic waxing on the subject of composting:

composting in food scraps
& getting into our public schools
& just seeing these little kids run up
& get rid of their little extra pasta or their beans
& then using that compost
& bringing it back to the schools to do edible schoolyards
& to have these kids learn an extended narrative of an urban-rural partnership
& understanding where food comes from, understanding their own environmental connection to food
& slow food movement
& the impact of agriculture as it relates to our waste stream
& the like

In Washington, he was the green businessman, explaining in hard facts and figures how San Francisco’s new building program was created with the support of builders and how it fosters the economy.

For once, the world is seeing a San Francisco that is not a city of kooks and wild-eyed radicals.

As Newsom travels, and as he presents himself to the political world, he must be aware of people’s knee-jerk reaction to the city he represents. It’s a major obstacle to being taken seriously. And in fact, he often jokes about it.

But he does more than that. He actually distances himself from the city of San Francisco, allying himself with his audience. In explaining anti-Israel demonstrations at San Francisco State to the Jerusalem Post, he said,

I think there is a lot of bias and bigotry, and frankly a lot of anti-Semitism.

When Dana Goodyear said that San Francisco had been described as “37 [sic] square miles surround by reality,” Newsom chimed in,

That’s a good way to describe it.

In Washington, he spoke of the city’s early legislation to require LEED certification for municipal buildings.

At the time people thought, “Again another typical San Francisco idea — San Francisco values — sky’s going to fall in — world’s going to come to an end — major tax increases — companies are going to run out of San Francisco.”

All of which, he added, was proven wrong.

It’s a tricky business, introducing yourself as a San Franciscan to the rest of the world. The quirky images beloved by the media can obstruct a clear view of our 47 square miles of reality. And it must be even more risky when the world regards you as “an aggressive progressive” (Dana Goodyear’s term).

What to do?

It seems to me that there are two alternatives. There is the one that Newsom has chosen: Distance yourself by joining the tomfoolery. The local press pays very little attention to the far-reaching scope of Newsom’s green plans and even less to events that occur outside the Bay Area. San Franciscans are unlikely to discover that their mayor has been playing Peter and denying his ties to them. And even if they do, it probably won’t make any difference in his future.

But there’s another possibility, one that’s far more generous and far more constructive. The local press has, for reasons of its own, not been interested in exploring the significance of Gavin Newsom’s initiatives. And the mayor’s office, for reasons of its own, has never spent much time on promoting its activities locally. It’s far more interested in publicizing what it regards as roadblocks erected by an obstructionist Board of Supervisors and the “chattering classes.” But you can’t tell me that our businessman-turned-mayor couldn’t find ways to market himself at home if wanted to.

Imagine what would happen if Newsom took even a portion of the energy he devotes to campaigning away from home and began to publicize his very real achievements to constituents here beyond the business community. Of course, he’d have to acknowledge the contributions of those obstructionist supervisors to the process. But the resulting spirit of cooperation might allow the city accomplish twice as much.

In the broader scheme of things, however, that might damage his prospects for higher office. It could be dangerous to be too popular in a city like San Francisco.

Thanks for reading. I’m outta here till Monday.

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008