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Pumping Irony 

Gavin Newsom should look to Sacramento for political inspiration

Wednesday, Dec 17 2003
About a month ago I invited Gavin Newsom to the movies through his campaign spokesman, John Shanley. The invitation didn't get anywhere, but I'm not holding it against our new mayor. He's been a busy guy. But I'm again going to invite Newsom to watch the Arnold Schwarzenegger weightlifting documentary Pumping Iron -- for his own good and the good of the city.

Newsom faces some awesome challenges during the coming months and years: The city's broke, and he's got to follow through on some controversial, yet in my view highly meritorious, campaign promises. The Board of Supervisors, meanwhile, is tilted against him. And despite the claims of the Chronicle's front headline last Thursday, Newsom's definitely not beginning his administration as a "million dollars worth of promise." He's a political weakling thrust by Democratic backers into a local war zone. Newsom needs to arm himself, and fast; he needs to accompany me to a screening of this movie, which I consider the cinematic version of Sun Tzu's The Art of War.

A couple of months ago at around midnight, while sitting next to two lawyers in a cut-rate Mission District movie house, I saw a vision of the future.

Readers of this space will recall how Matt Gonzalez, his campaign treasurer, Randy Knox, and I watched Pumping Iron a few weeks before the November general election. And observers of S.F. politics might recall that immediately afterward, Gonzalez's mayoral campaign took off. Overnight, he became the core of a citywide political movement, standing up to the hierarchy of the national Democratic Party, nearly beating an opponent who outspent him 10-to-1. Gonzalez walked away from the race with national stature and enormous political capital, with a limitless future before him, all in the months following his viewing of Pumping Iron.

There's a scene in the movie in which Schwarzenegger jokingly mocks Louis Ferrigno in front of his parents, turning Ferrigno into an insecure wreck and beating him for the world title. Leftist critics claimed that the scene proved Arnold a cruel manipulator. But in Matt's mind -- and I couldn't help but agree -- it showed Schwarzenegger's strength of character; under all circumstances, he never took his eyes off the prize.

Gonzalez explained that the scene was about how a champion never yields to complacency. It's about saying to yourself, he said, "'You know what, I've already won this.'"

Of all the silly convulsions in the Chronicle's yearlong swoon over Gavin Newsom's mayoral campaign, last Thursday's paper had to be the most outrageous; it read like the opinionating version of someone tossing off after trying to hold back too long. The front page blared: "S.F. mayor-elect hailed as Democrats' rising star." And the Business section followed with an article whose premise consisted of calling Newsom an entrepreneurial genius and a potentially brilliant nuts-and-bolts manager of the public's affairs.

Anyone who's watched Newsom's near-decade in public office knows this is piffle. He'll have to undergo a radical transformation if he's to prove himself a rising star. When I used to call Newsom the Supervisor for comment on important legislation involving tens of millions in tax dollars, I'd learn he had no idea what I was talking about; he was the supervisor who, along with Jake McGoldrick, could be counted on to skip reading the background information packet on legislation given to supervisors the week prior to board meetings. His legislative interests never seemed to veer far from his own: For a while he was the go-to guy for taxi reform (taxis stop at restaurants), which ultimately bogged down in an unsatisfactory muddle. His focus on homelessness, meanwhile, started with a campaign against stray shopping carts, which, he told me, homeless people left in front of his businesses. Newsom was talented at alienating colleagues, and thus had a difficult time carrying significant legislation at the board. His patron, Willie Brown, kept up appearances by letting Newsom carry procedural bills of the sort nobody opposes. Before the Chamber of Commerce and the Democratic Party adopted him, Gavin Newsom was a consummate lightweight.

Now he's assumed a job requiring an outsize leader at an unusually difficult time. His mayoral opponent, Matt Gonzalez, enjoys at least as much post-election political support as Newsom does. And Gonzalez occupies the post with the greatest ability to undermine the mayor.

Clearly, Newsom needs some help. And I believe he deserves it. He came out of the gate last week suggesting he'd follow up on his campaign pledge to clean house: Fire Chief Mario Trevino resigned, and Newsom made it clear he'd fire Police Chief Alex Fagan. The Fire Department is a bastion of overtime scammers; the Police Department is an ineffective, abusive bureaucracy dedicated to serving and protecting itself from scrutiny. The next steps in reforming these institutions will require great political cunning and force, which I believe a screening of Pumping Iron might provide.

Another sign Newsom means business: his fund-raiser last week for a ballot initiative that would facilitate the construction of some 10,000 units of housing in the southern parts of the city. Up to now San Francisco's housing debate has consisted of arguing over the meaning of the nonsense term "affordable housing," which is presumably superior to another nonsense term, "market-rate housing." In practice, political constraints on ordinary, non-subsidized apartment construction have created a monumental shortage that has driven up costs at every price level -- from $700-a-month fleabag SROs to $2,000-a-month one-bedroom apartments. Newsom's Workplace Housing Initiative is a laudable step in the opposite direction. Opponents will attempt to stymie him using meaningless rhetoric that says the new units aren't "affordable housing." Newsom needs help in this noble battle, too. And for guidance along this uncharted path, I suggest we all look to Sacramento.

In keeping with the novelty and celebrity of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the recent Sacramento struggle to reach a budget compromise has drawn mountains of coverage. Some have called the new governor ham-handed for refusing to negotiate with Democratic legislators at first, and for apparently ignoring the devastating effect cuts will have on local communities, the disabled, education, and other constituencies Schwarzenegger had vowed to defend. What's been missing has been a look at just how canny he was in creating the conditions that ultimately allowed for a compromise inclusive of rabid, anti-tax Republicans and committed, preserve-public-services Democrats.

Earlier this month, Schwarzenegger met with the Assembly's Democratic caucus in a meeting billed as the beginning of negotiations between the governor and the Democrats over whether to pass a $15 billion budget deficit bond and institute a spending cap. But Schwarzenegger didn't mention the bond or the cap at all. Instead he told a story about his in-laws and how, with their encouragement, he got involved with the Special Olympics. It was an important life experience, he said. He told the caucus members, with an ironic lilt to his voice, how he came to America with the modest goals of becoming a champion bodybuilder, a movie star, and a fabulously wealthy man.

"'It was all about me, it was all about Arnold,'" one of the members present recalls Schwarzenegger saying.

But through working with developmentally disabled children, Schwarzenegger said, he experienced a different kind of pleasure helping others. It inspired him to enter public service. Rather than fussy talk about budget negotiations, Democratic legislators heard a delightful story from an enormously charming, gracious, well-groomed, and vibrant man. Schwarzenegger befriended them.

And then, just as Democrats began holding committee hearings and closed-door negotiations regarding Schwarzenegger's budget proposal, which Democrats considered unacceptably draconian, the governor left town. He went to Tracy and invited embattled Democratic Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews onstage. He went to San Diego and held a rally where he invited endangered Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe to wave at the crowd with him. Schwarzenegger went to Bakersfield, where Assemblywoman Nicole Parra is hanging onto her office by a hair's breadth, and invited her to stand at his side. In a scene eerily similar to the Pumping Iron breakfast scene, Schwarzenegger smilingly humiliated his newfound friends on the eve of an important competition. He refused to budge on his budget bond/ spending cap proposal, which he vowed to take to the voters if no compromise was reached; allowed an early deadline to expire with no deal; then returned to Sacramento for extended negotiations that resulted in a Friday compromise that avoids a spending cap but allows the governor to make midyear budget adjustments. He'd placated hard-right Republicans, who'd been tossed the bone of his earlier, intransigent stance. He pleased Democrats, who didn't have to face the prospect of an extreme version of the governor's proposal being taken to the voters next year.

Democrats felt like they'd won.

"He swallowed our program 95 percent," said S.F. Assemblyman Mark Leno. "It's definitely a Democratic program. He blinked without a whole lot of negotiating."

The state's Republicans felt they'd gotten the best possible deal.

And newspaper headlines in the New York Times and the Chronicle said Schwarzenegger had just scored his first important legislative victory.

At the end of Pumping Iron, Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno wrestle jokingly in the back seat of a car as the world champion aims friendly put-downs at his defeated rival. On the front pages of California newspapers this past Friday, Democratic lawmakers were shown laughing with the new governor.

Despite what his partisans may say, Gavin Newsom begins his administration at great personal and political disadvantage. His meager victory came thanks to millions of dollars, appearances by Al Gore and Bill Clinton, and a Herculean get-out-the-vote campaign conducted by municipal workers' unions; to many San Franciscans, it rang hollow. That triumph also came with dozens of strings attached: Newsom's campaign contributors' list reads like a who's who of corporate feeders at the S.F. government trough.

But for a fighter trained in the way of Arnold, there's plenty to work with. Newsom is now outnumbered on the Board of Supervisors, but that could change in a heartbeat. Next fall, no fewer than five opponents -- Gonzalez, McGoldrick, Aaron Peskin, Gerardo Sandoval, and Tom Ammiano -- will be up for re-election. As mayor, Newsom will have at his disposal resources with the potential to either co-opt or eliminate some of these rivals. He's already shown a warrior's face in following through on his campaign promises to build housing while cleaning house. Frankly, I'd like him to succeed.

So, Gavin: Are you up for a movie?

About The Author

Matt Smith


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