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Friday, July 23, 2004

Salon on Newsom

Gavin Newsom's mean streets

July 23, 2004 SAN FRANCISCO -- GQ is calling him "the next Bill Clinton," but unlike Clinton, who's addressed every Democratic convention since 1988, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom won't be speaking in Boston next week. Newsom's decision to allow 4,000-plus gay couples to marry in February, before he was stopped by the courts, irritated many fellow Democrats, who feared he'd handed a perfect wedge issue to President Bush. Some party leaders even blamed Newsom for last winter's sudden speedup of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, which seemed to gather momentum from his bold local gambit.

But don't worry about Newsom: His staff has spun the rancor of national Democrats into political gold for the new mayor, who was widely viewed as the conservative candidate in last year's election and is now beloved by local progressives. He had the last laugh on the gay marriage amendment last week, when divided Republicans couldn't even get it to the Senate floor. And while he once said he wouldn't go to Boston at all, because of the disapproval of party elders, he'll be there next week, though he'll have no speaking role. Baltimore's Martin O'Malley gets the prime-time urban mayor slot Newsom might have dreamed of, though because he's a freshman mayor it was a bit of a stretch even without the gay marriage crisis.

In an interview with Salon, Newsom talked about the urban agenda he'd pitch if he were invited to speak. Even Newsom supporters are surprised by the extent to which the man supported by downtown business has put inner-city issues on top of his governing agenda. Though tiny San Francisco doesn't evoke the images of decay and urban warfare other cities do, Newsom is battling the city's skyrocketing murder rate -- there were 54 at the midpoint this year, compared with 70 in all of 2003 -- along with chronic joblessness in its bleakest housing projects. Meanwhile, tension has increased between the city's black community, hardest hit by the crime wave, and the police charged with solving those crimes, particularly after Officer Isaac Espinoza's Easter weekend killing was followed a month later by the fatal shooting of a black suspect after a car chase.

But Newsom insists the city is on the verge of big change. I caught up with him the day the Senate voted not to consider the gay marriage amendment, as local media besieged him for reaction to the vote, which was billed locally as Gavin Newsom 1, George W. Bush 0. He was accommodating but slightly irritated that the event was upstaging his new local crusade, Project Connect, an effort to mobilize volunteers and city workers to ease the isolation of low-income neighborhoods by going door-to-door to hook up residents to whatever they need -- jobs, drug treatment, better housing. To kick it off, he blasted the Bush administration's spending billions on war with Iraq while cutting urban programs. "Give me that $200 billion and we'll invest it in the top 20 urban districts," he said to 250 cheering volunteers. "That will guarantee homeland security."

It was Newsom's third foray with the Project Connect team, but he's in the city's worst neighborhoods at least weekly now, talking with idle men in the projects, some of them gangbangers, as well as kids. The 36-year-old mayor can be easy to poke fun at -- he himself jokes about his Bobby Kennedy fixation, and it's hard not to think of his role model watching him walk through the ghetto in his shirtsleeves -- but he's also easy to underestimate. Shawn Richard of Brothers Against Guns, an ex-gang member who turned his life around after his brother was murdered nine years ago, says the mayor's constant presence in the grim Hunter's View project where Richard is based has made a huge psychic difference in the community. "I give the mayor a 10," he says. But one black leader says on background: "Is he making people feel good, or making their lives better? There's a difference."

Newsom insists he's doing both. He put more cops on the street, he says, and also increased his summer jobs program for youth by 25 percent, despite a crippling budget deficit. Even while making cuts, he notes, he's recently expanded the city's innovative universal healthcare for children program. "Nobody's writing about the fact that we have universal healthcare for newborns to 25-year-olds in San Francisco," he told me. "Write about that."


- Bob Brigham
Bay to the Beltway
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