San Francisco's Greens vs. Democrats grudge-match

Bill Clinton stumps for mayoral hopeful Gavin Newsom, who Matt Gonzalez backers call a "racist liar." Will the real left win this race?

By Joan Walsh
Published December 9, 2003 9:28AM (EST)

"Thank you for supporting a racist liar tonight!"

That's what groovy young Matt Gonzalez supporters, all but one of them white and well-pierced, shouted at a multiracial crowd of Gavin Newsom backers Monday night, when former President Clinton came to San Francisco to endorse the embattled Democratic candidate for mayor over his Green Party challenger. Nobody bothered to explain why Newsom was a racist, or a liar. It was the Gonzalez campaign in a sound bite: Sanctimony over substance, personality over policy, and a good time was had by all of his supporters -- a helluva good time! -- as they vilified the opposition without offering an agenda for change of their own.

This may be the strangest political race in San Francisco's strange history. A candidate of privilege, the child of a wealthy family, with an Ivy League pedigree, squared off against the dyslexic son of a single mom, who worked during high school to help support his family, and went to a middling California college on a sports scholarship. But despite the national hype about the wealthy yuppie vs. the working-class bohemian, the rich kid happens to be Gonzalez the Green, while the hardscrabble lad is Newsom, who has been caricatured as a silver-spoon son of patronage since he was Mayor Willie Brown's "straight white male" appointee to the board of supervisors in 1997. Go figure. I still can't.

Bill Clinton and Al Gore, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Nancy Pelosi: Democrats in the last few weeks have gone all out to elect Newsom and defeat the Green Gonzalez. After Arnold Schwarzenegger's storming of Sacramento, the party can't afford to lose another stronghold. Meanwhile, outgoing Mayor Brown, who's been savaged by Gonzalez, is making the Green's defeat and Newsom's election a test of his legacy. On the other side, local and national Greens have swarmed the city to try to elect Gonzalez, who'd be by far the highest-ranking Green if he defeats Newsom. And yet the Democrat-Green matchup doesn't fully describe the depth of the feeling catalyzed by the race.

In my five years at Salon, I've suffered the most hostile ad hominem attacks when I've written about two people: Bill Clinton (the hate came from the Free Republic right) and Gavin Newsom (whose haters come from the left). So forgive me my solipsism when I say Clinton's appearance backing Newsom Monday night was surreal but strangely soothing, a sanity check for a lifelong ultraliberal who nonetheless has come to believe -- along a winding, rocky road -- that Newsom is the better candidate for mayor in this upside-down election.

When I called Newsom a "Clinton Democrat" in an earlier story for Salon, I got nasty e-mail and voice mail and in-person dressings-down from Gonzalez supporters, who insisted Newsom is a Republican who occasionally wears Democratic drag, the better to fool voters and dumb liberal writers like me. So it was validating to see Clinton himself embrace Newsom, for the same reasons I respect him. "America has some serious challenges, and hardly anybody has done serious thinking about the next 20 years," Clinton told the crowd. "I've actually read Gavin Newsom's platform, and I know what he wants to do," he went on, one policy wonk praising another. He even slipped in praise for Newsom's backing a local version of the Clinton-expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, which until that moment I believed only I was nerdy enough to have noticed. "I'm here tonight only partly because I'm a Democrat -- I believe in Gavin Newsom and his policies," Clinton said.

He never mentioned Gonzalez; in fact, he acted like Newsom was facing a Republican, warning his listeners that a Democratic loss in what he called the nation's "most progressive city" would only encourage Bush supporters in the "great struggle to define the shape of the country" that Clinton said he joined with the 1992 election. "I won the first skirmish, and with the help of the Supreme Court, they won the second." The sweaty, giddy capacity crowd of Newsom precinct captains and other loyal volunteers, who'd waited almost three hours for Clinton after his flight was delayed, ate it up. Before Clinton spoke, Fred Sanchez, a firefighter supervising a Newsom phone bank, asked me as a reporter whether I thought the ordeal would turn out to be worth it to the Newsom camp: Could Clinton's appearance actually help Newsom on Election Day?

I told Sanchez, speaking mostly for myself, that I thought it would: Newsom, strangely, used to seem as if he was running away from his Democratic Party ties. He invented himself as a Clinton-style problem-solving triangulator, without any of Clinton's lefty political history. And so the left, which had a love-hate relationship with Clinton, reserved only hatred for Newsom. Then came Green Matt Gonzalez, and the left fell in love with the youngish bohemian defense lawyer whose moral certainty and self-righteousness matched its own. Clinton, I told Sanchez, could give some liberals pause if they were thinking of going with Gonzalez.

Certainly his visit strengthened my resolve -- once furtive and apologetic -- to back Newsom. I honestly tried to like Matt Gonzalez when he declared his candidacy for mayor in August. I had already come to believe that my anger at Ralph Nader's self-indulgent 2000 presidential campaign -- widely shared by lefty Democrats -- was corrosive, a political dead end. The Democrats need a vital left, the Greens control a good portion of it, we all need to get along or else resign ourselves now to another four years of the Bush presidency.

But I failed, badly, in my quest to like Gonzalez and the local Greens. They've run a relentlessly negative campaign, unfairly attacking Gonzalez's opponents, from stalwart progressive supervisor Tom Ammiano -- who he had to vanquish to get into the runoff election -- to Newsom today. And for all his lefty rhetoric, Gonzalez doesn't appear to have spent much time thinking about the issues that move many progressives, especially those having to do with poor children and families. By many accounts, he blew a chance to win over the liberal Human Services Network -- which still resents Newsom for his controversial "Care not Cash" homeless reform -- because when he visited the group, he simply hadn't mastered the details of service programs well enough to reassure even lefty program directors and agency heads he will do right by their clients.

Likewise, he appalled a lot of ultraliberal education advocates with his vote against Ammiano's charter amendment to increase city general fund spending on schools. Gonzalez explained his vote by saying he was philosophically opposed to such fiscally irresponsible voter set-asides, and that's actually a defensible position. But then he stunned even lefty schools-advocates with a toothless education policy and a lackluster performance at an education policy forum that seemed tailor-made for him. The Internet "sfschools" group on Yahoo -- I'm a public school mom, and a member who lurks, but doesn't post -- has boiled over during the last month with posts from pained progressives who won't support Gonzalez because he doesn't seem to care enough about kids and families -- including low-income kids and families -- to master the details of the sometimes tedious debates over the education and welfare programs that serve them.

I also have to admit some of my political doubts about Gonzalez are personal: I've felt the sting of his self-righteousness and name-calling myself, when I had the gall to question him about why, running against Ammiano, he suddenly began trumpeting himself as a "Latino board president," when earlier in his career he'd publicly eschewed identity politics -- he wanted to be supported as a progressive, not as a Latino. Gonzalez said my question was "racist" -- to my face, and to another editor -- an unfair, unfounded assertion that I would later realize probably came from his defensiveness about his class background.

He defended his Latino heritage by telling me he was the son of Mexican immigrants who didn't attend college, that he grew up in a home with "no books or political conversation," and that he was a child of affirmative action. There was nothing technically untrue about any of those statements, but they were misleading, given his privileged background. And the fact that his default was to personally attack me gave me the sense that he's skated through life, and politics, without a hell of a lot of scrutiny.

So I will vote for Gavin Newsom Tuesday, but proudly and no longer furtively, and it's at least partly thanks to the Clinton imprimatur from Monday night. But it's also thanks to a new anger and energy in Newsom himself. He ran around his sprawling headquarters, while Clinton was delayed, shaking hands and rubbing the shoulders of volunteers who were spending the time waiting by phone-banking for him. Every once in a while, he'd grab a phone and make an impassioned plea for support himself. "I promise to work hard for you every day," he told one supporter. I decided I believe him.

Likewise Clinton worked the crowd, once he got there, with his trademark vigor and love of gladhanding retail politics. He stayed longer than anyone expected, telling campaign volunteers and reporters alike how much he respects Newsom. Outside, righteous young Gonzalez supporters heckled everyone leaving the building for supporting the "racist" Democrat. As I walked away, they were shouting down black minister and former supervisor Rev. Amos Brown, but they were calling him "Cecil Williams," the legendary leader of Glide Memorial Church, which Clinton visits on every trip to San Francisco. (The short, bearded Williams and the tall, clean-shaven Brown look absolutely nothing alike, except they're both black.)

You don't have to like Amos Brown or Cecil Williams to play a role in San Francisco politics, but you really ought to know who they are. But it was just another night of fun and self-righteous games for Gonzalez supporters. On Wednesday morning, we'll know whether it matters.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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