Gavin Newsom's mean streets

San Francisco's mayor hit the national stage when he allowed 4,000 gay couples to wed. But he wishes the world would pay more attention to his new crusade: Reducing crime and despair in the city's poorest neighborhoods.


Joan Walsh
July 24, 2004 12:17AM (UTC)

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of interviews with convention-going Democrats about what's at stake in the 2004 election and where the party is headed. Look for more "Convention Wisdom" all next week in Salon.

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By Joan Walsh

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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."

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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."

What did you learn from your walk through the Western Addition with Project Connect?

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You know what I learned? The community is ready. People are eager to be part of something, for leadership, they're eager to contribute. There are so many good people -- even people who've gotten caught up in trouble.

You've been criticized for your willingness to meet with gang members; I've heard the young man arrested in the Espinoza killing played in your basketball tournament in March ...

He was on the sidelines, but yes, he was there. I've got pictures of myself with guys [the police say were gang members], they were trying to turn their lives around. (Shrugs) You've got to deal with reality -- people should be accountable for their actions. There are no free rides. That being said, everybody has the capacity to change, and that's why we can't give up, and give them chances, and give them hope to turn their loves around. I think we're triangulating liberal and conservative ideas, if I may use that term again -- OK, we need accountability and responsibility from people, but we also need to provide opportunity and investment. We're doing both.

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But you know, I was meeting with some current and former gang members, well, they're all former, but some may ...

Slide back ...

Yeah. And I asked, Hey, what's this code of silence [about crime]? I set up a tip line, I increased rewards, we have victim protection and relocation. And two of these guys got really pissed off. "What the hell did you just say, Mr. Mayor?" I was like, "I'm sorry, I doubled rewards, I put a [crime] tip line together, I improved victim protection and set up a victim relocation program, I'm out in the community when these murders occur and I know there were 15 witnesses right there where I'm standing and they're looking out the windows at me and I'm pleading ..." And these two guys just kept looking at me and they were so pissed. Finally one said: "You wanna talk about a code of silence? Osama bin Laden. No one's talking there. You wanna talk about a code of silence, how about the Police Department? Code of silence, gimme a break. [There's a] code of silence in your own office -- a guy says something you don't like, you'll fire him. How dare you say that about our community, when it's no different in your community, in government?" It was very profound.

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The other guy starts talking about Iraq, and the war, and the violence, with such familiarity and detail, and I started to realize the impact of the violence and the death and the intensity, and its impact on their perspective of themselves. It made me think about the impact of this war. I don't want to overstate it, but I don't want to understate it. You're seeing many more weapons of war on our streets. There is a connection. I just don't think these things are coincidental. I see a connection between someone's desire to be in a photo with their AK-47, and the other war over there. And it does concern me that we're spending a quarter of a trillion dollars on a war on Iraq that's an abject failure, we have no cause to be there, when you've got a war in every urban district in America, you've got kids being killed by kids, with some of the same weapons they're using in Iraq.

And it's offensive when the federal government continues to cut HUD, continues to cut Section 8, cut the grants President Clinton put in for extra cops, they're cutting drug and alcohol treatment, they're not dealing with the mental health care these kids need -- boy do these kids need help, for what they've seen, the depression, that's huge. But there's no commitment there, no urban agenda, no concern about the toll being taken on our cities. I'd love to see that toll. I'd love the news programs to announce: "Last night, across America, 85 teenagers were killed by other teens, and 70 of them were African-American, 10 Latino, about three of them Caucasian."

It just doesn't make the headlines quite that way.

I really think the larger issue of an urban agenda in this country is missing. When you talk about a civil rights act, a voting rights act ... sure, there was progress, but not enough. I mean, I read Bobby Kennedy's speeches from 40 years ago -- I wanna go to the Commonwealth Club and just read one of his speeches -- I don't usually read speeches, but I want to read one -- and I want everyone to clap and say great speech! And then I'll say it's Bobby Kennedy from 40 years ago -- how can it still be great and relevant unless things haven't changed? As mayor, I'm hardly going to come up with the big idea that stops it, but I have an obligation to try. But we're doing this almost alone. There's no money for HUD's Hope 6. [An inner-city housing and services program created by President Clinton.] We're cutting nutritional programs, we're cutting summer jobs, vocational training.

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So you're having to go it alone in San Francisco ...

Well, it's a very small community that's affected. I don't for the life of me understand why we haven't been able to solve these problems. People say I'm naive, right? But we have allowed the violence to continue. It's very comprehensive what we're doing here. It's hardly law enforcement exclusively. If I'm a resident and I walk outside my unit and I see the lights are out, I see garbage cans tipped over, I see backboards with bullet holes on the basketball court, I see playground equipment not working, I see potholes, I see syringes, grass that was green 22 years ago now it's brown clay with patches of brown grass -- now what does that do to my self-esteem, my self-worth? So that's where we started. We went to West Point and Middle Point [in Hunter's Point, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods] and we said, "Alright, we're gonna repave the streets, repave the basketball court, replace the backboards and the rims, replace the playground equipment, replace the streetlights, clean up all the graffiti. And we're not gonna just walk away, we're gonna organize the CBOs [community-based organizations] to do more, we're gonna play basketball, we're gonna organize a community fair, and we're gonna come back and provide jobs work with the Conservation Corps and the Housing Authority."

And you're out there a lot personally I hear ... .

Well, I was out there again just last Saturday. Now they're getting really cynical, it's casual now when they see me, because they know I'll be back, And I will be. They're like, What are you doing here again? I'm trying to say, You matter. We care. The city cares. They gotta believe that they matter. And then we follow up much more comprehensively with Project Connect. We can't solve the problem alone -- we need volunteers, we need the community. Go door-to-door, make people aware of the services that are available.

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I mean, people really aren't aware. I had a guy who gave me a CD, and he said, we need a music studio in this neighborhood. We were at Sunnydale [housing project]. And I said, there is a recording studio in this neighborhood -- because there is one. He said, nah, man, I can't get in there, it's locked, it's never open. Sure enough, I went there on a Saturday, it was locked up. They had some guy who was volunteering and paid to upgrade it all, bought all this new equipment, but he got nervous about security and just disappeared. There's a computer learning center in Hunter's View, we had a ribbon-cutting 18 months ago, I'm not sure the computers have ever been used. I was up there and that was locked and what did they say to me, Oh, Mr. Mayor, somebody drove up behind it because the fence is broken and we were scared, it was all going to be stolen, and I said, well, why don't we replace the fence? So we did that and I still think it's closed.

I was there last week and yeah, it was locked. A little boy came up to me and asked me wistfully, is that computer center open yet? It was really sad.

Doors should not be locked, programs should not be closed. We're going to partner with the Housing Authority. When we started, and we wanted to replace all those backboards, somebody said to me, Well, Mr. Mayor, we don't have the money to replace 22 backboards, and they'll only get shot up again. And I said, I'll get it, and we did. And we'll just keep replacing them. If they shoot it 21 times maybe the 22nd they'll get the point -- no use in doing that because we're gonna keep replacing them.

And you have had to replace some of them.

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I'm not happy. Some of my rims were broken down. Some of my nets were torn down. We put them back up. The graffiti is back on my walls but we'll keep getting it out. The playground equipment is starting to look old and worn already and I'm not happy. But hey, this is about commitment and follow-through. It's not about a basketball court or a swing set or new lights, it's about we care and we're gonna invest and we're gonna demonstrate our commitment.

I spent a long time writing about juvenile crime issues, and one of the sad facts I learned is that while everybody says we need more community-based programs, and we do, many of the ones we have really aren't doing a good job. What can you do about that? The same bad programs just keep getting funded year after year ...

What do you think Project Connect's about? Yes, it's pulling labor and business together, it's finding new solutions, trying to get the neighborhoods together. But we've got an obligation with all of our contracts, all of our CBOs, to have accountability, to make sure they work. Why is it, when we spend as much or more than any other city per capita, we're seeing such incredible challenges? Are we getting to people, are they getting the quality of services they deserve? That's what Project Connect is about. Connecting individuals and raising awareness and collecting data that -- you watch -- will let us change who gets those dollars. Now, we'll get monumental blowback but we'll have the data to support our efforts and we'll have community support to do what we need to do.

I mean, I met these little girls up at Hunter's View after a shooting, the mom was crying, Mr. Mayor, you've got to get me out. My girls can't sleep, there's guns all the time. I go into the house. The kids can't sleep, they've got ADD from all the stress, they can't pay attention. You walk into their unit, you can't even breath. Seven people using the same shower and there's no ventilation in the bathroom, there's mold and mildew. They have asthma. I told my staff, don't talk to me about great principals, great teachers, what can we do with education. These kids have ADD, asthma, they can't sleep, and we're saying we're gonna solve the problem with education? It's going to take more than education.

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I was on the Project Connect walk with a public school principal, and she was saying some of the same things. She was saying, hey, it's parenting. It's crime. Schools can't do it alone. She was a supporter of yours. But then she pointed to a plaza across the street and got very quiet and said, "That's where the police shot that young man." She was a fairly conservative, church-going community woman who's down on crime, but she was very concerned about relations with the police.

Hey, that mistrust with the Police Department is real. But that's where I come in. That's what I want to change. You've got a mayor that's trying hard, you've got my administration that's trying hard now. I don't care about the past, I'm not going to explain it away or argue for or against that point of view, I'm just going to say, I promise, that is no longer the case. If it ever was the case, it is no longer the case today. That's a legitimate concern but it can no longer be said about this city or this administration.


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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