Thursday, September 06, 2007

Eric Jaye: "They struggled to find an issue, and they never did"

Jaye is right. It's not that Mayor Newsom doesn't have a lot of political opponents in the city, because of course he does. C.W. Nevius sets the table for a serious discussion in today's Chronicle:

It isn't as if there aren't any issues for which the mayor should be called to answer. In 2004 Newsom said he should be "recalled" if he couldn't get the homicide rate to decline. On Wednesday, the 81st slaying of the year was recorded---apparently a homeless man camping in Golden Gate Park, which is another sore point---and puts the city well on the way to passing the 85 homicides in 2006 and a decade-long high of 96 the year before. Public housing remains a mess, Muni continues to struggle, and the city's skyline is undergoing a controversial remake ("When Newsom gets a free pass for 4 more years, nobody wins," C.W. Nevius, SF Chronicle, Sept. 6, 2007).

But when you look closely at the issues the mayor's opponents might have used, a different story emerges.

Housing development: Progressives like Mirkarimi, Daly, and Peskin essentially agree with Mayor Newsom on housing: they all support the Rincon Hill highrises, the Market/Octavia Plan (more highrises, the false "transit corridor" doctrine, etc.), the UC land-grab on lower Haight St., and the Planning Department's intention of applying the aggressively pro-development Market/Octavia Plan principles to the South of Market area.

Transportation/Traffic:
Again, there's no serious dissent on the left with the city's present approach to traffic and transportation. Like the Murk, Daly, Gonzalez, and Peskin, Mayor Newsom is pursuing an anti-car approach on city traffic. Every political leader in the city supports the SF Bicycle Coalition's anti-car agenda, which amounts to making it as difficult and expensive as possible to drive in the city. And every progressive politician, including the mayor, supported making the Bicycle Plan part of the General Plan with no debate and no environmental review. True, Mayor Newsom opposed last year's defeated ballot measure that would have raised the parking tax, and, the first time around, he vetoed the Healthy Saturdays ordinance to close Golden Gate Park to autos on Saturdays, infuriating the Bicycle Coalition. Unfortunately, he then brokered a "compromise" to do essentially the same thing, even though city voters rejected the idea decisively in 2000. And Daly and the Murk explicitly endorse Critical Mass, while the mayor only grumbles about it when the event is marred by violence. The city now pays dozens of city cops to "escort" the monthly disruption of a Friday commute. And everyone more or less agrees now that what Muni needs is more money to buy buses and hire more drivers.

Gun violence:
Everyone is rightly alarmed at the persistence of gun violence in the city---what I call the Punks with Guns issue---but no one really knows what to do about it. Mirkarimi has been demagoging the issue for months, but his talk about foot patrols and community policing as solutions seem like wishful thinking. Besides, though gun violence among young black men is a national/international problem, the city's dialogue takes place in a vacuum, as if San Francisco isn't part of the wider world. My attempts to discuss the cultural roots of gun violence in the thug/rap/hip-hop culture that permeates the lives of young black men is dismissed as racist.

Homelessness:
I put this last, but it's the issue on which Mayor Newsom has shown real leadership and produced real progress. And, just as important, it's an issue on which city progressives have completely failed, both before Care Not Cash and after the election of Mayor Newsom in 2003. Can anyone remember what positions Daly, Mirkarmi, and Gonzalez have on homelessness? With the Coalition on Homelessness, they've mostly sniped from the sidelines while the mayor began implementing real changes in how the city deals with homelessness. Care Not Cash discontinued the city's self-defeating practice of handing out cash to the homeless, which only enabled a derelict way of life on city streets and in city parks. The Homeward Bound program is the most cost-effective program initiated by Newsom: it gives the homeless a one-way bus ticket out of town to wherever they came from---or wherever they have someone to meet them on the other end. Project Homeless Connect has rightly gotten a lot of publicity and is now imitated by other cities. The city's emphasis on supportive housing---a change endorsed by Angela Alioto's non-partisan Ten Year Planning Council on homelessness---is also a long-range approach to homelessness, the effectiveness of which is only limited by the amount of money available to create supportive housing units.

During the 2003 mayoral campaign, Matt Gonzalez and city progressives characterized Care Not Cash as a war on the poor and vaporized about addressing "the root causes" of homelessness. After the election, Gonzalez and other city progressives essentially disappeared from the city's dialogue on the issue, except to occasionally snipe at the mayor for failing to "solve" homelessness in San Francisco.

Nevius talked to former Mayor Art Agnos about the lack of an opponent to Mayor Newsom:

"The high-rise on Rincon Hill is going to be twice the height of the Bank of America building," marvels former Mayor Art Agnos, who was urged to run by his supporters. "People are going to say, Where the hell did that come from?...I think any serious candidate who really wants to run against the incumbent is not going to be intimidated by poll numbers. They're a snapshot." Agnos recalls that when he declared his candidacy in 1987, his support numbers were at 14 percent and opponent Jack Molinari was at 40 percent. Agnos ended up winning with 73 percent support.

People have a right to ask Rip Van Agnos, Where has he been for the past four years as the Rincon Hill highrises---there's going to be more than one, by the way---were moving briskly through the planning process? And it's important to understand that they were facilitated by city progressives, like Chris Daly and Aaron Peskin. Peskin bravely declared recently in San Francisco magazine that he was not afraid of highrises in San Francisco---except in his North Beach, of course. Ross Mirkarimi called Rincon Hill "a fine deal" because of the $58 million in development fees Daly extracted from the developers. Since progressives and Mayor Newsom supported the Rincon Hill highrises, a progressive opponent wouldn't have been able to use the issue against him.

Nevius laments that "someone ought to have the guts to do something." But it's not a matter of "guts" per se. City progressives---and Tony Hall, too---have been failing intellectually on the issues for years---on housing, homelessness, transportation, and gun violence. They've either been taking cheap shots at Newsom from the sidelines (gun violence, homelessness) or they've essentially been agreeing on flawed policy (housing, transportation).

The real problem is not the Newsom administration but the fact that the city's political opposition is simultaneously smug, self-righteous and intellectually deficient. Faced with that reality, the city's voters are right to give Gavin Newsom another four years. At least he's making some progress on the homeless issue.

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