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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

Page 2 of 5

Others have theorized that because detractors are jealous of the good-looking, affluent mayor, they're behaving like crabs in a barrel. (As it happens, if you stick a bunch of crabs in a barrel, they writhe and climb on each other. If one crab starts getting close to the top, the others instinctively pull it back.)

A slightly more viable explanation is ideological uniformity. San Francisco residents are largely left of center and generally agree on big issues, so the city's policymakers tend to distinguish themselves by taking aim at opponents' character flaws. "This is a city that eats its own mayors," said Garry South, Newsom's current strategist.

But in interviewing former staffers, supporters, and campaign strategists (many of whom requested anonymity), one can't help but think there may be aspects of Newsom's character that should be examined if he is to become governor. These people criticize him on all kinds of things — not keeping his word, inflating his accomplishments, taking credit for the successful ideas of others, being detached, and caring more about becoming president than improving the city or the state. But in the background, a highly personal issue still looms large in their minds and in the campaign — the Rippey-Tourk affair.

San Francisco voters forgave the mayor for bedding appointments secretary Ruby Rippey-Tourk, who also happened to be married to Newsom's longtime strategist, Alex Tourk. In fact, Newsom was re-elected with an astounding 73 percent of the vote. But those closest to the situation have not been nearly so forgiving. They're friends with Tourk, and they have as many good things to say about him as they have negative things to say about Newsom.

"Alex Tourk is one of the most popular people in San Francisco," Brigham said.

But apparently that wasn't going to stop Newsom from trying to rewrite his sordid history at the expense of the Tourk family.

Although SF Weekly made dozens of requests to interview the mayor and his campaign staff, they delayed for two months, claiming they were taking the requests under consideration.

Only last week did Newsom's longtime aide and former press secretary, Peter Ragone, call to set up a meeting that felt more like damage control than an interview. Ragone — who in 2007 got caught injecting positive comments about the mayor into the blogosphere under a false name — refused to comment on the record.

To counter the spurned strategists' argument that Newsom has no friends or long-standing allies, Ragone eventually provided Tom Hsieh, who worked with Newsom back in 2002 as a campaign manager for his re-election as supervisor, and then as a political director for both of his mayoral campaigns. He's still around for the gubernatorial race.

"I'm working with him because of his ability and willingness to force change in a system that defends and sustains the status quo," Hsieh wrote in an e-mail.

Furthermore, Newsom's political appointees, including Treasurer Jose Cisneros, Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting, and Supervisors Sean Elsbernd, Carmen Chu, and Michela Alioto-Pier have all endorsed him for governor. Calls to all but Ting and Cisneros went unreturned, but those two spoke glowingly of the mayor and their ability to work with him.

As an openly gay elected official, Cisneros said he was particularly impressed by Newsom's work on same-sex marriage. "We're all human," he said. "I can't think of anything I would say about him that I wouldn't say about the rest of us. We all try. We stumble. We get back up. One thing I see with him — he stays dedicated."

In an e-mail, Ting wrote, "He has proven that he is unafraid to tackle difficult issues, offer bold new ideas, and bring people together to solve problems."

Occasionally, even Newsom's biggest critics will admit that he has done some good for the city of San Francisco. They'll give him credit for ending the pay-to-play atmosphere that proliferated under Willie Brown, and many admire him for (briefly) legalizing same-sex marriage, which pushed the issue to the forefront around the nation even as the movement failed at the ballot box in California. Although Muni still has its problems (and costs a lot more), buses and trains are more often on time these days. And homicides and gun violence have recently dropped significantly. Then there's the public health care plan, Healthy San Francisco, which is said to have been successful in providing care to 32,000 residents, many of whom are poor and elderly, without the negative impact on the city's employment rate critics had warned about.

Of course, Newsom's foes love to point out that he doesn't deserve full credit for Healthy San Francisco, since former Supervisor Tom Ammiano rallied the support for the measure. Still, one can't help but think that even if Newsom came up with some brilliant policy and flawlessly implemented it, in the poisonous atmosphere of San Francisco politics, plenty might refuse to acknowledge his achievement.

When it comes down to it, complaints against Newsom from his former staff seem to originate from the personal more often than the professional. They see him as fundamentally disloyal and unconcerned with the well-being of those around him.

Take the departure of Jaye, for instance. Newsom could have attempted to remain neutral in the press about it, but instead he acted as though the loss meant nothing to him. Newsom "owes the fact that we take him seriously to Eric Jaye," said John Shanley, a city attorney who worked for Newsom's 2003 mayoral campaign as the communications director. "He had talented people like Eric Jaye holding his shit together, and [Jaye] gets no gratitude for it. Newsom dealt with Jaye like a piece of toilet paper."

Other former staffers bring up the mayor's inability to manage and work with others. "I don't think he has the temperament to effectively govern the state of California, or lead," strategist Ross said. "You can just see it in his relationship with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. ... To push the reform that the state needs, I think we need a leader who can work with the legislature effectively."

About The Author

Ashley Harrell


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