By Steven T. Jones
Nobody seems to be buying Gavin Newsom's line that the taxpayer-funded campaign events that he calls town hall meetings are actually a "substantive dialogue" with the community. And it's downright funny to suggest that these ridiculous events are comparable to the policy discussions that voters asked Newsom to engage in with the Board of Supervisors, something he's refused to do. But it appears that the Newsom campaign plan is to just keep their heads down, plow forward, and hope they can convince half the city's voters they're honestly and effectively doing the city's business.
The plan might just work, but there's a huge downside that I don't think he's taken into account.
On the surface, there's a cunning brilliance to Newsom's disingenuous approach. After all, the format of these town hall meetings doesn't allow anyone except Newsom and his employees to speak, so the only way for people to have their say is to be obnoxious and interrupt. It's similar to their media strategy, in which they don't hold regular press conferences or make the mayor available to any but a select few reporters, making the rest of us disrupt his public appearances and look like jerks if we want to ask him a question. So Newsom gets to appear earnest and dignified, answering only the questions he chooses, and his critics and disfavored journalists come off as shrill malcontents.
But there is a downside to this strategy. Beyond just Newsom's subversion of cherished democratic principles like open and honest debate, there is the practical political reality that the mayor is hardening his opposition and creating the very political polarization that he has repeatedly claimed to abhor. People simply don't like to be lied to or treated like children by a man who claims to be something he's not. It's grates on us and makes us want to push back all the harder.
Four years ago, Newsom encountered a surprisingly strong wave of visceral opposition to his expected coronation that almost overcame his huge advantages in money, time, and ruling class support. Remember, the late-starting, barely funded, ragtag campaign of Matt Gonzalez came within five points of beating Newsom. Two years ago, after Newsom did gay marriage and walked the hotel strike line, that anger toward him seemed to dissipate. But now it's back with a vengeance, and not simply because there's a campaign at hand. It's because Newsom is now showing himself to be everything we feared he was: arrogant, unaccountable, superficial, belittling, out-of-touch with working class concerns. And the fact that he pretends to be none of these things while refusing to be anything more than a press release mayor has outraged his opponents and even turned many of his former friends against him.
Maybe it won't matter. After all, we still have yet to see anyone credible announce a campaign against him. But it's still early, and if a well-funded grown-up gets into this race, Newsom may end up regretting his deceptive and petulant approach to his job and the public.