Gavin Newsom: Man or Machine?

Thanks to his decision to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples last February, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is now taking the heat for helping the Democrats to lose the presidential election of 2004. Regardless of whether or not this is the case, San Franciscans have an opportunity now to revisit a more significant question: Did Newsom’s support for same-sex unions mean that he was a man of the people to begin with or is he just another cog in the political machine? An analysis of Newsom’s actions or in many instances inaction surrounding issues of economic import reveals that it is the latter.

With regard to the issue of gay marriage, Newsom claims that he was offended by George W. Bush’s opposition to same-sex marriages in the January 20, 2004, State of the Union speech, and that this compelled him to action.

“I was at the State of the Union,” he said, “and I felt a real resolve on this issue.”

While few would dispute the notion that gay people should have the right to marry whomever they choose, Newsom’s contention that he blew up his political base when he came out in favor of gay marriage is simply untrue, especially when viewed within the context of San Francisco’s political and economic schisms.

Doing the Math

In San Francisco’s mayoral runoff last December pollsters reported that the gay vote split roughly in half between Newsom and Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez. Statistics also indicated that Gonzalez swept a majority of the working class districts in the City including the Castro. The explanation for this occurrence is obvious.

The majority of the Castro’s gay population are tenants who, like many working class communities, have felt increasingly marginalized by San Francisco’s spiraling real estate prices and continuing lack of affordable housing. Expand the definition of working class to include all those who can’t afford to retire tomorrow if they were to quit or lose their job, and it immediately becomes apparent that the residents of the Castro were voting their class interests, identifying themselves as part and parcel of the City’s have-nots. Conversely, well-to-do, gay property owners can by and large be expected to have sided with Newsom.

The closeness of the runoff election prompted fears within the Newsom administration that a potential recall by the City’s resurgent progressive community was in the offing. By issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, Newsom simultaneously quieted his most outspoken and articulate critics and shored up his electoral base.

In other words, Newsom effectively neutralized class considerations by uniting San Francisco’s gay community around the issue of gay marriage, reaping a potentially enormous political windfall that could help keep him in office for years to come.

As an unnamed Newsom advisor in City Hall has said: “If you can control the gay vote, the whole city tips in your favor.”

The fact that the issue of gay marriage is perceived in San Francisco as a progressive issue tends to cloud perceptions concerning such political calculations.

Equally significant is the fact that Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, an experienced pugilist in the arena of gay rights, asked Newsom to hold off on issuing marriage certificates to gay couples until a later date. Additionally, some of the Democratic leaders whom Newsom initially leaked his decision to, including Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, and Democratic Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe, were admittedly reticent.
According to Newsom, “. . .some of the officials-and I’m not going to give their names because these were private conversations-took the news with sighs.”

While it is easy to write off Frank’s warning as that of a cautious political insider wary of effecting change through bold action, the lukewarm reception of the Democratic establishment to Newsom’s proposal highlights the significance of gay marriage as a wedge issue.

In San Francisco this wedge issue works in City Hall’s favor. More importantly, gay marriage does not threaten the economic interests of Newsom’s political base: property owners, downtown developers, the business community, and the fat cats of the Marina and the tonier neighborhoods west of Twin Peaks. This is because owning property and being gay are not mutually exclusive. If anything, Newsom’s decision to issue marriage licenses to gay couples in mid February appears to have consolidated the City’s gay vote and channeled it back to the Democratic Party, thus swelling the ranks of Newsom’s potential and existing political supporters.

Actions Not Words

Further evidence of the tenuous nature of Newsom’s progressive instincts can be found by contrasting the mayor’s resolve on gay marriage with his failure to confront the machinations of Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which holds $79,733,815 worth of City contracts. Despite agreeing in 1998 to shut down its power plant at Hunters Point, which leaches oil and asbestos into the soil and annually spews thousands of tons of particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, PG&E recently applied for and received a draft permit from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) that will extend the life of the decrepit plant by another five years.

When Bayview residents protested this move at a May 4 public hearing, PG&E said that it is legally bound to seek a Title V Clean Air Act Permit, because the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) has refused to approve the plant closure until new generating capacity is found to replace what is lost at Hunters Point. Meanwhile, BAAQMD officials attempted to justify their approval of PG&E’s draft permit by saying that the utility company told them it had received no complaints about the Hunters Point plant over the past year.

In actuality, Bayview residents and community activists have been calling for the closure of the gas-fired plant for years. They say that there is a direct link between the toxic pollution the plant produces on a daily basis and the unusually high number of asthma, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and cancer cases in the neighborhood. Indeed, reports by the San Francisco Department of Public Health (DPH) have verified elevated levels of toxicity in the groundwater at the Hunters Point plant, and PG&E itself has acknowledged the presence of PCBs at the site and the need to spend at least $5 million to clean up the area.

In visiting the Bayview and Visitacion Valley in March and April, Newsom spotlighted the problems of two of San Francisco’s most troubled neighborhoods and knowingly or unknowingly signaled his intention to make some headway against them. While the resulting basketball tournament, miscellaneous public improvements, and town hall meeting made headlines, little has so far been done to address the neighborhoods’ two most intractable problems: lack of employment and environmental pollution.

Not that lip service hasn’t been paid. During the 2003 mayoral campaign, Newsom stated in his policy brief on economic development that:

“This fossil fuel burning plant [Hunters Point] is one of the dirtiest in the State of California, and is a suspected culprit for several health problems for Bayview residents, including asthma. Closing down this plant will be one of my top priorities.”

Despite such rhetoric, Newsom has taken no action on this issue. This is because shutting down the polluting energy station would bring him into direct conflict with the economic interests of PG&E, which, according to a San Francisco Bay Guardian investigation, has donated $1750 to Newsom’s political campaigns since 1998 as well as $10,000 to his 2002 Care not Cash initiative.

This fact also explains why in 2002 then-Supervisor Newsom opposed Proposition D, the ballot measure that would have established the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) as a municipal utility district with the ability to create new generating capacity and to buy the Hunters Point plant from PG&E in order to shut it down. PG&E spent millions to defeat Prop D along with like-minded, public power Propositions F and I in 2001.

Now that he is mayor, Newsom has all but confirmed his intention to seal away any significant challenges to PG&E’s energy monopoly for the foreseeable future by picking City Treasurer Susan Leal to head the SFPUC. Leal voted against Prop D in 2002.

Connecting the Dots

As for the issue of chronic unemployment in the Bayview, community activist and San Francisco Bay View Publisher Willie Ratcliff recently called on the Newsom administration to hold up the funding for final construction of the Third Street light rail maintenance facility, because San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI) General Manager Michael Burns had allowed McCarthy Building Companies, Inc. to begin the project without ensuring that the company was providing on-the-job training programs for neighborhood residents and businesses.

According to City Administrative Code 12D, a certain percentage of all municipal contracts are reserved for minority-owned and women-owned businesses. Ratcliff evidently felt that the Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA), which awarded McCarthy Building Companies with the contract for the MUNI Metro East Light Rail Vehicle Maintenance and Operations Facility in October, 2003, had failed to ensure that the St. Louis-based company was abiding by the provisions of 12D.

Meanwhile, Newsom, who emphasized during the mayoral campaign the need for local residents to benefit from development projects in their communities and who had pledged to “. . .work with local Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committees, unions, employers, and schools and community­based organizations in neighborhoods including Bayview Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley to recruit and place local residents into apprentice programs on development sites. . .” has remained silent.

Apparently, then, Newsom’s determination to defy California state law in the name of gender equity does not include challenging Proposition 209, the 1996 voter-passed initiative banning affirmative action in state institutions, in order to protect local businesses owned by women and minorities from large, out-of-state companies. If Newsom’s actions do not match rhetoric here, it is again because standing up for the rights of same-sex couples does not directly threaten the economic interests of his core constituency, whereas enforcing City Administrative Code 12D does.

McCarthy Building, understandably, contributed $100 to Newsom’s mayoral campaign along with a host of other construction companies and real estate developers. Although $100 may seem small in comparison to the millions of dollars routinely thrown at state and federal officials, it is instructive to remember that San Francisco law caps contributions to political campaigns at $500. With almost 5,000 campaign contributors, however, even $100 donations add up quickly.

Interestingly, McCarthy Building is also involved in the construction of a Mission Bay mixed-use, high-rise owned by Cattellus Urban Development Corporation, which holds $151,034 worth of City contracts and which has previously contributed to campaigns supporting Newsom. The Cattellus development currently calls for 36 condominiums. Had Proposition J passed in March, 2004, Cattellus would have directly benefited from the subsequent relaxation of height and density restrictions the initiative called for.

Backed by Newsom and written by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, Prop J would have allowed developers to exceed existing height and density restrictions in order to build market-rate, high-rise condominiums downtown and along the waterfront in exchange for reserving a small percentage of so-called “workforce housing” units for single workers earning a minimum annual income of $77,000 or $136,000 in the case of a four-person family. The majority of San Francisco residents earn between $30,000 and $70,000, and they would not have qualified as middle income under Prop J.

Finally, there is Newsom’s March veto of Supervisor Chris Daly’s ordinance prohibiting the demolition of residential buildings containing more than 20 units in San Francisco. Aimed at preserving the City’s remaining stock of affordable housing in general and the 360 rent-controlled units at the Trinity Plaza apartment complex at Eighth and Market in particular, Daly’s measure went down to defeat after Supervisor Bevan Dufty withdrew his initial support for the legislation and left the 11-member Board of Supervisors with only seven votes to go up against Newsom’s veto. A two-thirds majority vote is required to override any mayoral veto.

Unless Daly can revive his anti-demolition ordinance as a November ballot measure, Trinity Plaza owner Angelo Sangiacomo, nominal head of Trinity Properties, is now free to proceed with plans to demolish Trinity Plaza and replace it with a five-tower apartment complex consisting of 1,410 rental units. Sangiacomo is required to reserve at least 12% or 169 of the new residential units as affordable housing under City law. However, these new units will not be subject to the City’s rent control law, according to a loophole that exempts buildings constructed after 1979 from rent control. Therefore, the demolition of Trinity Plaza will result in the permanent loss of 360 rent-controlled units.

Was Newsom’s veto of Supervisor Daly’s anti-demolition ordinance influenced by the fact that he had received $500 for his mayoral campaign from James Sangiacomo, nominal head of Trinity Management Services (TMS), which is contracted to manage rental properties owned by Trinity Properties throughout the City? Undoubtedly.

A Lesson in Definitions

If there is anything to be learned from Newsom’s actions or, equally, lack thereof, it is that in situations where public policy directly clashes with the economic interests of the City’s elite, Newsom will defer to the wishes of his core constituency and defend their class interests, of which he has a significant share.

Also of note is the fact that definitions are at the core of this society’s legal and ideological superstructure, and the altering of these definitions can mean the difference between legal protection or legalized oppression, environmental protection or environmental degradation, between justice for all or justice for the few, economic sufficiency or economic dependency.
By simply replacing the words “bride” and “groom” with the word “applicant”, City Hall unleashed a maelstrom of public debate concerning the difference between gay marriage and the rights of gay people to marry.

Likewise, if BAAQMD officials were to actually require PG&E to comply with the provisions of a Title V permit instead of automatically renewing it, Bayview residents might finally get some relief from the toxic pollution generated by the Hunters Point plant. Additionally, if rent control was extended to cover all rental units regardless of the year they were built, there might be no need for an anti-demolition ordinance. Finally, if discrimination were to be redefined so as to include economic discrimination, local residents in neighborhoods from Visitacion Valley to the Bayview might actually reap the benefits of community development projects in a way heretofore unintended by the powers that be.

So far, Newsom has done little to try to move San Francisco in this direction. The task of making a better world, then, must necessarily fall to the people of this City. It is unlikely that much progress will be made toward this goal, however, until the current definition of working class is expanded to include anybody who works for a living irregardless of race, social status, or culture. Only by recognizing their commonality in this manner can the people of San Francisco penetrate the obfuscation and hypocrisy that seem to characterize American society, while avoiding the twin traps of conspicuous consumption and pecuniary emulation.