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The Wrong Stuff 

Candidate Newsom is “narcissistic,” “thin-skinned,” “disloyal,” and “friendless.” And that’s from his former supporters.

Wednesday, Sep 9 2009
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Aaron Peskin, former board president and well-publicized foe of Newsom, can talk (and talk and talk) about that relationship. Peskin and Newsom's problems started on the corner of Grant and Columbus in 2000, when Peskin was running for supervisor.

Peskin chased Newsom down to that corner to ask for an endorsement, knowing full well he probably wouldn't get it. Willie Brown had appointed Newsom — then just a guy with a prominent judge for a father, connections to the Getty money, and a wine shop — to the Parking and Traffic Commission and subsequently to the Board of Supervisors. Certainly Newsom was indebted to Brown, who had also appointed Supervisor Alicia Becerril, then an incumbent running against Peskin. Complicating things further, Newsom had grown up with another candidate in the race, Meagan Levitan.

But to Peskin's delight, he remembers, Newsom said he had chosen not to endorse anyone. Not more than a week later, Peskin says, registered voters got recorded phone calls from Newsom. He had endorsed Levitan.

"On the board, and in politics, and in life, your word is your bond," Peskin said. As a supervisor, he often had to ask co-workers for their votes and cosponsorship. There were plenty of times he got a "hell, no" for an answer, he remembers, and that was okay. At least he knew where he stood. With Newsom, that was rarely the case.

Former Supervisor Fiona Ma, now in the California Assembly, had a similar experience. When she was running for supervisor in 2002, Newsom told her he'd endorse her candidacy. After a group of her supporters displayed numerous signs saying as much, Newsom changed his mind and asked Ma to take them down.

"His word was ubiquitously known to be bad," Peskin said. "If Gavin said yes, yes could mean no. Maybe could mean yes. No could mean yes."

Of course, you'd expect Newsom not to get along with a political rival like Peskin. But the doesn't-work-well-with-others criticism is echoed by Bevan Dufty, an ostensible ally on the Board of Supervisors.

Dufty points to Newsom's response to a recent piece of legislation amending the city's Sanctuary City ordinance, cosponsored by Dufty and seven other supervisors.

After the legislation was formally introduced last month, Newsom went on the attack to undermine support for it. He even authorized his staff to leak a confidential memo from the city attorney that outlined legal problems with the proposal.

Dufty criticized the mayor for being a latecomer to the process. He says even though the proposal had been in the works for months, the mayor never contacted him to express his concerns during that time.

Dufty, who could prove to be the deciding vote to override a Newsom veto, says only now has he begun receiving calls and e-mails from the mayor's office. "It's just typical of the mayor's relationship with the Board of Supervisors," he said. "It's not collaborative; it's reactive."


Although there was a time before Newsom's re-election when he told the press he wasn't even sure he wanted to be mayor again, he has also expressed a desire to become president of the United States.

Back in 2003, Newsom and Jack Davis held private meetings where they would sip orange-mango juice, Davis said, and Newsom would "unload his heart."

One day, Davis remembered, Newsom confided that he wanted to be president. Davis considers that a noble aspiration, but something about Newsom's admission put him off. "I felt the guy was ready to do whatever it took to make it a reality," he said.

The two also discussed campaign strategy, and Davis said he will never forget the day they agreed that Newsom wouldn't put his name on anything controversial while running for mayor because it would create enemies. "Do you understand, Gavin?" Davis remembers saying. "So we're clear on that one?"

"I understand," he remembers Newsom saying.

Soon after, Davis says, Senator Dianne Feinstein called from Washington and leaned on Newsom to support bonds for Hetch Hetchy. Within a day of telling Davis he'd remain neutral, Newsom gave his support to Feinstein.

Davis immediately set up another meeting. "You and I had an understanding, and you broke that understanding," he told Newsom. "I'm no longer running your campaign."

Although Davis stayed on to help with Care Not Cash, "it was one of those nail-in-the-coffin days." He didn't want to work for a candidate he couldn't trust.

In the end, Davis believes Jerry Brown will defeat Newsom, based on character. "I don't think you're gonna find Jerry Brown fucking somebody else's wife," he said.

Of course, not everybody thinks the affair or issues of character and loyalty will come into play, or that they should. Corey Cook, a political scientist at USF, says that in many cases, character isn't worth bringing up. He'll agree that while politicians are often flawed beings — perhaps more so than the rest of us — it's not their personalities that matter, but rather their ability to persuade, negotiate, and bargain. Cook said he would rather hear about how Newsom plans to manage a gridlocked legislature in what is said to be an ungovernable state.

But experts in the field of political psychology say that particularly during troubled times like those facing California, the personalities of candidates absolutely matter. "Character is the best predictor of what people will do and whether they will be trustworthy," said Lloyd Etheredge, director of the Policy Sciences Center in New Haven, Conn. He recommends that voters listen to their gut about whom to vote for, rather than choosing the candidate who best reflects their own ideology: "You have to respond to them as human beings."

The way Newsom treated two human beings on his staff is expected to come up again and again during the battle for the Democratic nomination.


In February 2007, Gavin Newsom's former appointments secretary, Ruby Rippey-Tourk, returned from rehab and confessed to her husband, Alex Tourk, Newsom's campaign manager, that she had had an affair with the mayor. Tourk resigned immediately, and the affair became public knowledge. Discussion about how Newsom had "broken the man code" abounded.

About The Author

Ashley Harrell

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