A gay-marriage anniversary

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom talks about his 2004 gay-wedding spree, whether Barack Obama ducked a photo with him and how he recovered from last year's personal scandal.

Published February 20, 2008 7:00PM (EST)

Reuters/Kimberly White

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom speaks at City Hall on the first year anniversary of same sex weddings in San Francisco on Feb. 12, 2005.

Four years ago last week San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom turned City Hall into a big white wedding chapel, presiding over nearly 4,000 gay marriages before the state Supreme Court shut him down. Last week I talked to Newsom about the fourth anniversary of his historic gambit. It not only advanced the cause of gay marriage, but his career as well. Newsom had just won a close race with Green Party leader Matt Gonzalez (who ran an Obama-like movement campaign; Newsom happens to be supporting Hillary Clinton), and he had only a 39 percent approval rating with self-described "progressive" voters when he took office. With his gay marriage move his ratings with those same voters shot up into the 70s, and citywide they've stayed that high -- even after an affair with an aide last year seemed to put his career in doubt.

February seems to be a fateful month for Newsom. It was just a year ago he admitted the affair (the woman in question was married to one of his top staffers and closest friends) and also announced he was seeking treatment for alcoholism. Many people (including me) thought his mayoral career was over, but he ran for reelection and faced no serious opposition, winning 72 percent of the vote.

Still, his approval ratings have dipped recently, at least partly because the city's homicide rate is at its highest level in 10 years. And while his Care Not Cash program, giving homeless residents housing and help in place of a formerly generous general assistance grant, has reduced the G.A. rolls and placed thousands in housing, panhandlers and vagrants are still omnipresent on many city streets. When I asked the mayor about a recent murder outside my daughter's school, he said he couldn't talk about a case under investigation, but insisted he was galvanizing attention to the city's homicide problem from every level of government, and blasted the Bush administration for funding a troop surge to reduce killing in Baghdad while slashing funding for urban police.

We happened to speak on Valentine's Day, when gay couples showed up in a symbolic protest seeking marriage licenses. "I was pleased, though not shocked -- we didn't organize it," Newsom said, but he thinks protests will gear up again as the California Supreme Court gets ready to rule on the city's challenge to the state's gay marriage ban. He sounded supportive but worried about Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, and he semi-confirmed (well, read it for yourself) reports that Barack Obama wouldn't be photographed with him in 2004 after he tried to legalize gay marriage here. Two weeks ago former Mayor Willie Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle: "I gave a fund-raiser, at his [Obama's] request at the Waterfront restaurant. And he said to me, he would really appreciate it if he didn't get his photo taken with my mayor. He said he would really not like to have his picture taken with Gavin." The Obama campaign denies the story; Newsom called it "trivial and irrelevant, and it had nothing to do with my endorsement."

An edited transcript of our conversation about gay rights, Clinton, Obama and Newsom's recovery from his 2007 troubles follows.

I talked to you the day after the 2004 election, and you were being blamed for costing John Kerry the race. Dianne Feinstein wasn't happy with you.

Yeah, she wasn't happy with me, and that was the public conversation that was reported -- you should have been there for the private conversation. With many Democratic leaders. It was incredible. I was most surprised by that, I was not surprised by the predictable opposition elsewhere.

But now you've been embraced by Senator Clinton, and you've embraced her, you're publicly campaigning, how did that happen?

Well, she was always interesting. She's got a lot of friends here in San Francisco. She was out here on multiple occasions, and she didn't run or hide. That wasn't lost on me. I admired that. Mimi Silbert down at Delancey has a picture of the two of us at an event we had around that time, it's a vivid reminder ...

Because there are other pictures that you're not in ...

Yeah, most assuredly ...

You've said another Democratic candidate refused to have his picture taken with you in 2004, and it's pretty obvious you were referring to Barack Obama ...

Well, let's be honest, back then we had been doing fundraisers for John Edwards in [restaurants Newsom had co-owned] -- we never did another one. John Kerry, well, Teresa Heinz Kerry was on the Environmental Defense Fund board with my father for years, and Senator Kerry was out here a lot because Teresa had family here, but he never came by. And I get that. Those two, there's dispensation, I'm not naive to that, because they were candidates for the presidency, and Senator Clinton wasn't ...

Come on, though, Willie Brown confirmed the story about Obama not wanting his picture taken with you to the Chronicle two weeks ago. But the Obama campaign says it never happened. I've asked you before, and you've refused to confirm it.

Well, I don't know, for me it's trivial ... Look, whether or not he did or didn't, on what occasion, on multiple occasions, that's for others to analyze. To me it's trivial and irrelevant, and it had nothing to do with my endorsement. Someone just the other day said, "Oh, that's why you didn't endorse him!" and I said, "You gotta be kidding me." I endorsed Clinton on the merits because I believe in her, I actually believe she can deliver. I admire Senator Obama. I disagree with what he said at the LGBT debate, when he said he didn't see that there's any difference between civil unions and marriage. Well, I see a profound difference. Perhaps I hold him to a different standard on issues like this because of Brown v. Board of Education and the idea that separate in this country is not equal.

What advice do you have for Senator Clinton about how to turn the campaign around?

Oh, for me it's just déjà vu, running against Matt Gonzalez in 2003. I had 21 policy papers, I talked about my experience, but I also talked about new ideas and change, but people said, "He's not about new ideas and change, he's just an appendage the way things have been done, even though he's different from Willie Brown, he's the same." It was all values, rhetoric, words, inspiration, aspiration ... I was out yesterday, and I ran into two people who actually like me, who were angry with me that I was with Hillary Clinton. I said, "Hey, I'm not with Newt Gingrich, what are you talking about?" There's the same vehemence. I asked, what is it? And they said, "Oh, I just don't like her. She's just more of the same." I said, "OK, but what does that mean?" You can't win the argument, they're just: "Well, I like him! He inspires." Fair enough. He's now got this momentum. It's a movement now. And that's what I ran against, I ran against a movement.

So then how do you win?

I won the way she won in California: I ID'd my voters. We had a more disciplined approach and campaign, we turned voters out with an extraordinary effort. But that's difficult because she can't run 50 of those campaigns. It now comes down to three states, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and Texas is stacked in a curious way, not necessarily in her favor with the way they pick delegates, and the after-hours caucus. My recommendation is for her to move toward the aspirational qualities of her campaign. She does represent change, the fact that we have to be defensive about that is perverse and curious to me. And it is fundamental and profound change. It drives me to the depths of despair that she hasn't been able to meet 300 million Americans, because when you do meet her, there's a warmth and a depth and a candor. So the only advice I have is: Be yourself. You have nothing to lose. This is it. Don't be anything but who you are, and who you are is remarkable. That's what I look forward to seeing in the coming weeks.

To change gears a little, one of the last times we talked, almost four years ago, you were very concerned about the rising homicide rate. And it rose again last year. There's another interesting four-year anniversary last week: You took a lot of your department heads over to Sunnydale [one of the city's most dangerous housing projects], just like at the start of your first term you put them in a van and drove around Bay View Hunter's Point.

Yeah, and a hundred times in between that haven't been written about.

But still, you made these problems a priority, but why do you think they've been so hard to solve?

Well, violent crime has gone down, by the way; it's homicide that's up. But it's an important point, and it's a vexing one, because it makes it frankly more challenging for me to get my arms around this. Overall crime's dropped since I've been mayor. Violent crime is down. Homicide rates dropped two years ago, and everybody was saying, boy, what did you do? I remember the year in reviews, this time last year, I was saying, well, it was saturation, our gang task force, our tactical units, working with the feds, interdiction strategies, prevention strategies, all these wonderful things. And then this year I'm sitting here saying, well, the homicide rate went up again, and we don't know why. I'm not gonna make excuses, the mayor is accountable, but there's a criminal justice element to this that doesn't get the attention it deserves.

How is it possible that victims of crimes have rap sheets like they have, and are still out on the streets? I'm just gonna give you a run we did one month last year: There were 13 homicides; in 11 of them, the victims had an average of 15 felony arrests on their record. It was perverse. But it's not just the police ... or just the district attorney, it's adult probation, it's all our systems. It's the federal government [ending the COPS program, which funded 100,000 police officers]. You're telling me you can't afford to fund 100,000 police officers in this country, and you're running a surge in Baghdad, which I have nothing but admiration for its apparent success, but when more people are killed every month in the streets of America? About 16,000 people are gunned down in the streets of America every year, and you can't fund an existing troop level to help the cities?

You had another anniversary this month: Last February wasn't very good for you. You had a rough year, in fact, and I found myself thinking while all that was going on: You didn't seem to like your job very much ...

At the time, not very much. I didn't like myself very much a year ago at this time.

Well, I'm not talking about a year ago, I'm talking about what led up to it: I just found myself thinking you didn't like being mayor. And I half-expected you wouldn't run again.

I had the burden of having a pretty complete and full life before I got into politics, and I say that in a perverse sense: In politics today, a lot of people didn't have that experience before, in life; they only get it through politics, so they'll do anything to stay. That wasn't me. That burden, I say "burden" tongue-in-cheek, but it allowed me some perspective. In the last three mayors races, in two out of three the incumbents were kicked out, and in the case of Willie Brown, he only got 39 percent of the vote and he was forced into a runoff, and that was the great Willie Brown. So this is an unforgiving town. It was a challenging year and a half there, and it hasn't gone away.

So what are you doing differently?

For me, the election's over, and so the politics are behind me. So I'm getting back to the core. That's what the Sunnydale visit was about. Reset. I was sworn back in; back to policy. Back to better ideas. Our baby bond, it's almost ready to go: Every child born in San Francisco gets a $500 savings bond; we match it with the working-families tax credit, we're the only city in America that has one. We require civic contributions to get it, and when it's mature, at 18, we're doing actuarials to see how much money will exist. That's the stuff that motivates me. Universal preschool will be fully implemented in this city ... certainly early next year. So it's finding that again. Yeah, the political fight for reelection, I don't enjoy; I'm no better equipped to enjoy that than I was when you were feeling I'd had enough of it two years ago. It's not gonna change. I've never found purpose in it. Yesterday, I was out on the streets, I spent four hours with seven panhandlers, I know everything about all of them. That was how I started, so I'm getting that back. I do not think that any day that I'm sitting in City Hall is a successful day. Any day that I'm out in the community is a successful day. And that has been my strength and my weakness. Every weakness I have is associated with a lack of time that I spend here, developing those political relationships ... Not one good idea has ever been generated inside City Hall.

Oh come on, I bet one has ...

No, not one. I'm serious. Oh, that's a terrible quote. You can write it anyway, I've got a million, so that's just another one that's bad.

By Joan Walsh

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