By Savannah Blackwell, SF Progressive Editor
You’ve got to hand it to Carole Migden. Often the State Board of Equalization member comes up with a pithy sound bite that goes right to the heart of the matter. And she did just that on Monday, February 16, as she stood on the grand staircase in City Hall officiating during the landmark marathon nuptial proceedings for scores of jubilant gays and lesbians.
Migden, who supported longtime anti-machine progressive Harry Britt over the more moderate Mark Leno in the 2002 state assembly race, has not historically been a big fan of our new mayor. Indeed, she officially stayed out of the race. But she had this to say about Gavin Newsom’s February 10 directive to Assessor Recorder Mabel Teng that allowed queer couples to make their commitments legally binding:
"I think this is a wonderful thing for our new mayor to do,” Migden told SF Progressive. ``It’s extremely humane. And it doesn’t matter who you supported. You can’t bear witness to this and not feel incredibly moved.’’
She was absolutely right. The mood at City Hall was one of euphoria and gratitude. Even anti-Newsom activists were caught up in the good vibes.
"In the end, love wins,” Richard Shadoian told us. Shadoian, who has worked as a therapist for queer couples, gave a house party last February in support of Supervisor Tom Ammiano’s bid for mayor. ``I never thought I’d live to see this day. And now it’s happened.”
The fact that a politician who owes his victory to the city’s conservative voters (indeed the vote of local Republicans is credited with having a great deal to do with the outcome of the December runoff) and whose homeless and housing policies made many progressives liken him to George Bush -- made a decision so critical to the civil rights movement has forced the progressive community into something of a dither: Is this a genuine and heart-felt act or a calculated move to lull the left into submission? Or could it be both?
Given the hard-to-criticize performance of Newsom’s first six weeks in office, it’s tempting to imagine that this is part of a carefully crafted plan to build support as the new mayor heads into the March 2 election carrying a housing initiative – Proposition J -- opposed by much of the progressive community, and as he prepares for what will be one hell of a battle over the city’s annual budget. With the shortfall projected to be somewhere around $300 million, Newsom has already signaled to city departments that major cuts are expected, and the City’s social service programs are likely to take a big hit.
But let us put that sort of cynical thinking aside for a moment, and accept the line put out by Newsom and his office: that after becoming incensed while listening to President George W. Bush tout legislation aimed at restricting gay marriages during the Executive Chief’s annual State of the Union address on Jan. 20, Newsom came home, quietlysussed out a plan to allow queers to marry in San Francisco, checked it out with City Attorney Dennis Herrera and made it all happen in time for the long Valentine’s Day weekend.
Shadoian, for one, buys that story. Last year, progressive queer activists such as Gay Shame gave Newsom a hard time for supporting policies that have made it more difficult for those of lesser means to afford to stay in the city. Shadoianpointed out that Newsom could have picked up more support in a community that ended up largely divided in the mayor’s race by making this proposal on the campaign trail.
So let us recall what Board President Matt Gonzalez advised during his inspirational concession speech on December 9:
"What really matters is when Mayor Newsom is wrong, we’ll be there to oppose him,” Gonzalez said. "But I want to emphasize, that when Mayor Newsom is right, we’ve got to get behind him and support him because there are a lot of issues in this city that really need our attention and cooperation.’’
Let us consider: Newsom’s first acts do indicate a willingness to take into account issues brought up by progressives and include them in his administration. For example, his announcement that he will put a stop to the large numbers of contracts that don’t get routinely bid out is a money saving, good government proposal long championed by leftist reformers, including the San Francisco Bay Guardian. His decision to let former Supervisor Angela Alioto include PaulBoden, the head of the Coalition on Homelessness who has battled Newsom over Care Not Cash, on the panel tasked with coming up with a plan to deal with this complicated issue is another. In addition, his decision to appoint MichelaAlioto-Pier to fill his District Two supervisorial seat was met with praise by Gonzalez backers such as Supervisors Chris Daly and Aaron Peskin.
But progressives should remain vigilant and proceed with caution. Alioto-Pier voted February 10 against Daly’s legislation preventing the demolition of rent-controlled buildings with 20 or more units. And activists must continue to fight Newsom’s Proposition J – the Chamber of Commerce’s pet housing construction proposal under which some 60 percent of the new condos would go for market-rate prices (see San Francisco Bay Guardian reporter Rachel Brahinsky’sexcellent piece on the topic).
Newsom recently made headlines when he journeyed to the Bay View to raise awareness of the recent spate of youth gun violence in the neighborhood. The cops didn’t like that. But will he follow up by actually making jobs available, say through the development of the Third Street Light Rail project, so that these young people have real opportunities?
Will advocates such as Boden be allowed to really influence the city’s final homeless plan – or is he and other lefties in tow just for show?
We’ve seen lip service in action before. In 2000, for example, Mayor Willie Brown convened summit-type meetings over what to do about runaway development that included housing activists such as Calvin Welch. But in the end, Brown went behind closed doors and scuttled the group’s compromise solution. That forced Welch (who recently backed Gonzalez) and other supporters of reasonable growth to put Proposition L on the ballot in an attempt to stop the spate of illegal multi-media office development that was forcing lower income residents of the Mission and South of Market areas out of the city in droves. (See “The Battle for San Francisco".)
Nor should we back off on pressuring Newsom to address complaints that some of his campaign supporters pressured and intimidated people to get votes. Reports of voter fraud have come throughout the city – but have been concentrated in Bay View Hunters Point. And we should not forget that his campaign treasurer, Jim Sutton, is embroiled in a controversy at the city’s ethics commission – in which top staffers at the agency ordered the destruction of documents strongly suggesting that Newsom intended to pay off at least part of his campaign debt – illegally -- with a fund that was not limited to accepting $750 contributions.
So while the importance of his decision to allow queer marriages should not be understated, the question still remains whether the mayor will make decisions that go to the socioeconomic advantage of the ordinary San Franciscan. Remember that a lot of his campaign cash came from the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Remember that players such as Oz Erickson, a builder who heads the powerful Emerald Fund and co-authored Prop. J, chipped in $5,000 to his inaugural celebration. Remember that in the end, what is best for the likes of a hugely successful developer and political heavyweight like Walter Shorenstein (who gave $15,000 to Newsom’s inauguration) is not likely to benefit most of us who call San Francisco home.
So raise your glass in a toast to give credit where credit is due. And celebrate. But do it with your eyes wide open.
Savannah Blackwell recently joined the SF Progressive as our editor. Email her at email@example.com