A funny thing happened last week: Republicans elected a mayor of San Francisco, and Democrats took the credit. The Yiddish term chutzpah probably applies: it took chutzpah, that is gall, even a flirtatious denial of reality, for Democrats to claim the election victory as their own.
First, some background. San Francisco is a special place, a combination of a unique climate and culture.
The city has a benign, Goldilocks climate, seldom too hot and seldom too cold. It creates conditions for social tolerance and, occasionally, social excesses. It is no wonder that the apotheosis of the 1960’s took place in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, or that Haight-Ashbury today continues to be a funky area. In a visit to Golden Gate park, I was met by signs soliciting beer, by young people smoking dope and doing nothing, or very little.
Yet San Francisco’s institutions demand attention. City Hall in San Francisco is America’s most extravagant municipal building, demanding respect, even awe. Nowhere else do you find such municipal grandeur. Chicago’s city hall is a poor relation, New York’s a colonial relic, by comparison.
This culture of grandiosity extends to private institutions. The Pacific Union Club still sits astride Nob Hill like a faded, but still potent, remnant of a bygone era. San Francisco still considers itself the center of power in California even though Los Angeles has long since preempted the role.
And San Francisco’s civic culture retains much of the flavor of radical labor politics and gold rush exuberance that characterized its 19th century origins. There is nowhere else like it in America. Into this cauldron stepped Gavin Newsom, to become mayor-elect.
Anywhere else Newsom would be an urban Republican. He owns a wine and restaurant business, with his own vintage, PlumpJack Winery. He is a successful entrepreneur. He accepted the mantle of "Establishment candidate." He has called for more conservative policies towards the homeless and promised to revitalize the local economy. His opponent Matt Gonzalez accused Newsom of being a tool of business, real estate and "Getty Family" interests. Horrors.
Thus, although Newsom ran as a "Democrat," he was a Republican in reality. Matt Gonzalez, the Green candidate, was the de facto Democrat.
Gonzalez actually drew more voters to the polls on Election Day. Newsom won on Republican absentee ballots. Republicans supported him quietly, but still supported him. Who was it that said you can achieve wonders if you don’t insist on taking the credit?
Newsom outspent Gonzalez by 10-1. He brought in Democratic heavyweights such as President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. The Democratic "establishment" in San Francisco was terrified he would lose. Yet Newsom only managed to eek out a 53-47 victory. It was close, too close for Democratic comfort.
So was this a great Democratic Party victory? Is Newsom a new Democratic "rising star?" I doubt it. Newsom has more in common with the last Republican mayor, George Christopher, than he does with the current Democrat, Willie Brown. Brown may have sponsored Newsom, but he will probably live to regret it. A new Republican Governor is cutting state aid. It’s hard to cut social pending when you run the People’s Republic of San Francisco. And Newsom’s opponent, Gonzalez, continues to control the local city council (called the Board of Supervisors).
Newsom is going to need all the help he can get. Maybe he should become a Republican. It will take a lot of skill, and luck, to avoid being a one-term mayor as a Democrat.
As for the Democratic Party, if they can’t elect one of their own-Gonzalez-in San Francisco, and are forced to promote a Republican in drag, where else can their political philosophy prevail? If Newsom fails, expect a Green Party mayor as the next occupant of America’s grandest municipal structure. It will be a fitting contrast. Will it happen? Fasten your seat belt. And thank, or blame, the Republicans who elected Newsom.