By Joe Eskenazi
As city officials’ letters of resignation pile up on Gavin Newsom’s desk like missives to Santa roundabout Christmastime, the mayor definitely has no shortage of poignant reading material to sift through.
"The three hundred Commissioners who serve the City and County of San Francisco deserve better than to be treated like cattle,” Robert Haaland, a commissioner on the Board of Appeals, wrote on his Web log. “…This was a dehumanizing act that disrespects the work of many who have dedicated their lives to serving the City and County of San Francisco.”
Great stuff Robert. That’s just what the mayor wants to hear.
“There’ll be a few bad headlines, but bureaucrats don’t have a very large constituency among the voters,” said Dan Schnur, a visiting political science professor at U.C. Berkeley and one of the state’s most sought-after Republican strategists.
“Sure, this’ll alienate some bureaucrats at City Hall and make some commissioners unhappy. But the overwhelming majority of voters will see this as a positive thing.”
At this point, Newsom could still be re-elected even if he chose to show up to work in a bear suit. Yet Schnur feels San Francisco voters were unhappy with the idea of a “re-coronation” for the mayor. So, voila! — “This is how he shows them he’s not resting on his laurels, he’s planning an aggressive second term and taking on new issues and new challenges. He could coast into re-election without saying a word but this signals a new team and a new start.
“It’s a smart message to send.”
It’s also a unique way of sending a message. None of the professors, political insiders or political junkies I talked to could recall a San Francisco mayor pulling a maneuver like this. Twenty years ago Art Agnos asked for mass resignations when he took office, but those were appointees of his far more conservative predecessor, Dianne Feinstein. And, if you plumb the depths of the city’s history, the 1856 Committee of Vigilance that took control of San Francisco as a ruling junta forced several city officials’ resignations (and hanged some people, too — which one assumes Newsom doesn’t plan to do).
On the national level, President Jimmy Carter asked for a round of resignations following his so-called “malaise” speech in 1979 (you can read the whole thing here; the word “malaise” doesn’t appear in it once).
But, more notably, it was Richard Nixon who demanded the resignations of thousands of his own political appointees in the wake of thrashing George McGovern to win re-election.
A 1972 TIME Magazine article titled “Shaking Up the Bureaucrats” eerily reflects the situation unfolding at 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place here in San Francisco.
“He demanded that some 2,000 of his politically appointed men in sensitive spots throughout Washington submit their resignations. He would decide who should stay and who should go,” reads the Nov. 27, 1972 story.
“The move was an extraordinary one for a President whose electoral triumph could be interpreted as approval of what he has been doing all along. Nixon's determination to shake up his Administration was, among other things, a hopeful sign that he was not necessarily content with the status quo. He seemed determined to grapple with a basic realignment of Cabinet-level departments as he strives for what he described as a Government that would be ‘leaner but stronger.’”
You can read the entire article here, and if you substitute “Nixon” with “Newsom,” “President” with “Mayor” and “H.R. Haldeman” with “Eric Jaye,” you really will find that the more things change the more they stay the same (until you get down to the part about 1970s-era foreign policy; at that point the parallel crumbles).
We all know what happened to Nixon — asking for resignations was so much fun that, two years later, he did it himself. Yet Schnur predicts rosier things for Newsom.
“Nixon’s call came after he was re-elected, so I think voters tended to view it with more suspicion. Again, Newsom’s timing works to his advantage.”
Whatever the case, it certainly appears that we’ll have Gavin Newsom to kick around for quite a while to come.