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A Pair of Aces 

Either Newsom or Gonzalez will make a good mayor, but Gonzalez has the creative edge

Wednesday, Dec 3 2003
Now that he's supported by Al Gore and Angela Alioto, Gavin Newsom is a shoo-in to be elected mayor of San Francisco.

I just wanted to get that sordid joke, and a Santa Clausian ho-cubed, off my chest. The regularly scheduled column will begin after the break.

Until last week, I was actually, genuinely undecided about the San Francisco mayoral runoff, but not in a lesser of evils, Gray Davis vs. Bill Simon way. I believed then (and still believe) that Gavin Newsom and Matt Gonzalez are first-rate mayoral candidates – genuine rising stars – and that the contest between them is a widely misunderstood cause for celebration. It's been misunderstood largely because this electoral season the San Francisco political press has been as bad, wrong, and misleading as usual, or perhaps even more so.

The wrongheadedness was exhibited most obviously by the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which seemed to enter some sort of unconscious, long-lasting Vulcan mind-meld along about September. In their own ways and for their own reasons, the Chronicle (which endorsed Newsom) and the Bay Guardian (which endorsed Alioto) portrayed the November election as a chase for second place, with Newsom in ascendance, and Alioto, a scattered windbag whose political history had consisted of being waxed at the mayoral polls twice, the leading chaser. Tom Ammiano, a decent guy who was pounded 60-40 in the last mayoral election by an incumbent whose negative poll numbers rivaled Satan's, was played as the third-place man-with-a-chance.

Meanwhile, Matt Gonzalez, an intelligent, well-spoken city supervisor with a Clinton-like ability to connect with voters, was mostly mentioned as an afterthought, a Green lightweight, or (because he entered the race a bit later than other candidates) a traitor to the progressive cause so faithfully led by ... wait a minute here ... by Angela Alioto?

Well, yes, a long, long time ago – meaning last month – the San Francisco Bay Guardian wanted you to believe that Angela Alioto was a great progressive worthy of the vaunted and supposedly valuable Guardian endorsement. But we'll get back to this.

When Matt Gonzalez (unendorsed by either the Chronicle or the Guardian) breezed by the themeless Alioto and Ammiano to gain the runoff election against Newsom, the media spinning that passes for election coverage in this town of strange political bedfellows became a bizarre whirlwind. Right out of the gate, the Chronicle cooked some analysis by David Binder, pollster to many of the interests backing Newsom, into the absurd thesis that Gonzalez had almost no chance of beating the Chronicle-endorsed Newsom – even though significantly more than half the people voting in the November mayoral election had voted for candidates who claimed to despise Newsom.

The Bay Guardian, meanwhile, proceeded to do the neck-snapping sort of political pirouette for which it is rightly famous, rabidly taking up the cause of Matt Gonzalez – acting as if it had all but created Gonzalez – just weeks after it had endorsed Alioto and thoroughly dissed Gonzalez as a wet-behind-the-ears pup.

Then, less than a week after the Chronicle proclaimed that Gonzalez had almost no chance of beating Newsom, a television poll showed the two candidates tied. The Chronicle played the absolutely predictable move of progressive voters from the Alioto and Ammiano campaigns to the Gonzalez camp as shocking news, rather than evidence that the paper had misjudged the Binder data or (could it be true?) played the fool for the pollster.

(Side note to the Chronicle and CBS 5 political staffs: Your reporting on the mid-November CBS 5 poll was embarrassingly wrong. This is how the Chronicle story started:

New poll shows Gonzalez out in front

He leads Newsom 49% to 47% in S.F. mayor's race John Wildermuth Chronicle Political Writer San Francisco's race for mayor is too close to call, but Supervisor Matt Gonzalez has a small lead among those most likely to vote Dec. 9, according to a poll released Friday by CBS 5-TV.

The CBS 5 Web site says much the same, and both accounts are just plain wrong. The poll had a 4.4 percent margin of error. The results for Newsom and Gonzalez were, therefore, within the margin of error for the poll. Gonzalez was not "out in front"; he did not "have a small lead." By definition, the two candidates were tied. If you don't believe me on this issue, call a statistics professor, or, better yet, take a statistics class. Maybe then the political professionals you cover will stop laughing at you.)

Ten days later, Alioto, after months of denouncing him as the potential ruination of San Francisco, did her own neck-breaking pirouette and endorsed Newsom. Some weird and icky strings were attached to the deal. She claimed she would be something like (but not exactly) a vice mayor in charge of the homeless, public power, and sole-source contracting. He said she wouldn't be anything, officially, but would unofficially be in partnership with him, or something.

Almost immediately, everyone in San Francisco took a shower.

The Alioto endorsement – which, with its sleazy, quid pro quo aura, may well become the greatest San Francisco mayoral gaffe since Frank Jordan bathed with some shock jocks – was duly and immediately described as a Newsom negative by the Chronicle. Then the Chronicle all but ignored the endorsement, and went about the task of reporting on the mayor's race in a way that would seem to give maximum comfort to Newsom, without ever crossing the line into undeniable advocacy. (If the Chronicle's news editors really don't want people wondering whether the news columns are dancing to the paper's endorsement tune, the Chronicle's news editors really shouldn't start a five-part series about homelessness – Gavin Newsom's signature issue – nine days before a mayoral runoff election in which Newsom is a candidate.)

The Guardian, to its credit, castigated Alioto at great length for her Newsom flip-flop. While consigning her to lefty political hell, however, the Guardian editors somehow forgot to acknowledge that they might have been the teensiest bit wrong about Angela's loyalty, character, or commitment to progressive principles when they endorsed her.

About The Author

John Mecklin


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