Gavin Newsom, the newly elected second-term mayor of San Francisco, has talked of suffering from alcoholism and dyslexia, and talked openly—too openly, some said—about an affair in early 2007 with the wife of his campaign manager. He had already suffered through a divorce and endured public scruntiny for dating a woman barely out of her teens.
And eight months later, he won re-election in a landslide, facing 11 opponents who mounted no serious competition. On Wednesday, the city’s elections department released the final count: Newsom received 73 percent of the vote, while his nearest rival, public-safety advocate Quintin Mecke, garnered only 6 percent, despite endorsements from several elected officials.
Such a collection of first-term personal scandals might have sunk many a politician. But this, after all, is San Francisco, and some say the results are a reflection of the city’s take on politics, and the voters non-chalance about personal lives of politicians.
“The outsiders see this as some sort of political resurrection, but the truth is, his numbers never went down,” said Jason Kinney, a Newsom consultant with California Strategies in Sacramento.
“He’s trying to tackle historically intractable problems,” Kinney said—housing, health care, homelessness and education, issues that have long carried their own special challenges in San Francisco. “Women, progressives, gays—he gets an A-plus from all of them.”
At 36, Newsom was the city’s youngest mayor in a century when he took office in 2004. He was called too conservative for San Francisco (filmmaker Michael Moore, who endorsed his runoff opponent, called him a conservative masquerading as a liberal) with apparent ties to moneyed interests.
He’s also been described as a political brand everyone wants to buy, helping to feed the popular talk of whether Newsom’s sights are set on higher office.
But Newsom may have hurt his statewide hopes six weeks into the job, when he made himself a permanent darling of the gay community by declaring same-sex marriage legal. Newsom himself has described the action as having likely sabotaged any upward political aspirations.
Kinney characterizes that move as an important event in a long struggle that will ultimately bring about legalized gay marriage nationwide. “I wouldn’t characterize it as a stunt, I would characterize it as a grand political gesture that will be seen as a historic achievement,” he said.
Newsom is known to keep numbers in public view, showing the results of his programs. Through Care Not Cash, a program he originated while still a San Francisco County supervisor, homeless residents who were receiving $410 each month began receiving services and housing instead. It was a contentious issue, with opposition contending that the value of intended services would never add up in practice, and Newsom was pelted with fruit in public over it. But hundreds of homeless residents have gained housing through the program.
However, Mike Casey, president of UNITE HERE Local 2, a hotel workers’ union in San Francisco, still offers criticism on the wider issue of affordable housing. The mayor’s administration “hasn’t moved far enough ahead” on the issue, he said.
But Casey also praises Healthy San Francisco, the mayor’s universal city health-care system. Implemented in July, the program makes full medical services available to uninsured city residents.
“He’s been a very pleasant surprise,” Casey said of Newsom. “He’s still got close ties to the business community, but he hears working people’s concerns and issues. He works very hard to strike that balance and not be favorable to one or the other. There have been times when we’ve been disappointed. But he tries to strike a balance. Let’s be honest, there’s an incredible imbalance between people who work and corporate America. By our standard, he’s just beginning to address that disparity in power. He’s also been very forthright and outspoken against the demonization of immigrants in the workplace.”
As for the talk of higher office, Newsom only promoted it—and likely helped create it—when he began venturing around the state after gaining the mayor’s office in 2003, raising money to pay down campaign debt.
From one perspective, political fundraising is limited in San Francisco, with its tight campaign-finance rules, so a high-profile campaign can require outside fundraising. From another perspective, such a wide-roaming strategy is exactly what a politician needs to create a support system that could provide a boost into higher office.
“He gets talked to about it more than he talks about it,” Kinney said of future political aspirations.
Kinney contends that politics may not be a career choice for Newsom—that the political realm only happens to serve his present purposes. Newsom’s aim is to advance causes, Kinney says—something that can be accomplished through a variety of means.
“I think he can have whatever political future he wants,” Kinney said. “But I’ve always genuinely thought that he wonders whether politics is the right thing for him.”