Newsom loses control

Mayor Gavin Newsom, who fancies himself a solution-oriented pragmatist, has allowed the supervisors to take over the urban policy agenda
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steve@sfbg.com

In the early days, the mayor tried to sound like a practical, hands-on executive who was ready to run San Francisco.

Mayor Gavin Newsom used his inaugural address on Jan. 8, 2004, to emphasize that he was a uniter, not a divider and that he wanted to get things done.

"I say it's time to start working together to find common purpose and common ground," he proclaimed. "Because I want to make this administration about solutions."

It's a mantra he's returned to again and again in his rhetoric on a wide range of issues, claiming a "commonsense" approach while casting "ideology" as an evil to be overcome and as the main motive driving the left-leaning majority of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

"Because it's easy to be against something," Newsom said on that sunny winter day. "It's easy to blame. It's easy to stop.... What's hard is to hear that maybe to come together, we need to leave behind old ideas and long-held grudges. But that's exactly what we need to do."

But if that's the standard, Newsom has spent the past 17 months taking the easy way.

It's been a marked change from his first-year lovefest, when he tried to legalize same-sex marriage, reach out to BayviewHunters Point residents, and force big hotels to end their lockout of workers.

A Guardian review of the most significant City Hall initiatives during 2005 and 2006 as well as interviews with more than a dozen policy experts and public interest advocates shows that Newsom has been an obstructionist who has proposed few "solutions" to the city's problems, and followed through on even fewer.

The Board of Supervisors, in sharp contrast, has been taking the policy lead. The majority on the district-elected board in the past year has moved a generally progressive agenda designed to preserve rental units, prevent evictions, strengthen development standards, promote car-free spaces, increase affordable housing, maintain social services, and protect city workers.

Yet many of those efforts have been blocked or significantly weakened by Newsom and his closest allies on the board: Fiona Ma, Sean Elsbernd, Michela Alioto-Pier, and Bevan Dufty. And on efforts to get tough with big business or prevent Muni service cuts and fare hikes, Newsom was able to peel off enough moderate supervisors to stop the progressives led by Chris Daly, Tom Ammiano, and Ross Mirkarimi at the board level.

But one thing that Newsom has proved himself unable to do in the past year is prevent progressive leaders particularly Daly, against whom Newsom has a "long-held grudge" that has on a few recent occasions led to unsavory political tactics and alliances from setting the public agenda for the city.

Balance of power

The Mayor's Office and the Board of Supervisors are the two poles of power at City Hall and generally the system gives a strong advantage to the mayor, who has far more resources at his disposal, a higher media profile, and the ability to act swiftly and decisively.