Mar 1, 2007


(This a draft profile of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. The piece was commissioned by Salon, but was eventually killed, largely because the scandal that initiated the assignment passed through the news cycles so quickly that the piece had no context. A few weeks after the scandal I was promised an interview with the mayor but his communications staff did what you do in these situations, you promise and promise, keep the clock running until the moment has passed and then you just let the promise dissipate. You don't return follow up calls, you don't even try to explain youself. You just keep quiet. Eventually, this strategy comes back to haunt you, I've seen this from both sides, although as a press officer I don't remember letting people hang. But those scandals were so different and so endless that you had to face them. These people don't face anything. They operate from fear and cynicism, which is the deep reading of this city because their faberge egg of a mayor enjoys tremendous ratings. But no matter,a good friend who knows these characters far better than I explained to me that they are incapable of making the right decision and soon enough there will be another scandal and another opportunity to reveal the twisted little political soul of this city.... Why include this piece in a blog? Because several people I interviewed had interesting things to say about the mayor and those around him and were not quoted in other places.... This draft may include some inaccuracies, it has not been fact checked by someone other than myself.)

When San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom offered his public apology for having an affair with his appointments secretary, Ruby Rippey-Tourk, the wife of his campaign manager and good friend, Alex Tourk, he stood before the cameras, fingers clasped at the waist, palms up in submission, just the way well mannered Catholic boys do on solemn occasions.
"Thank you all for coming on short notice," he began "ah… wanna make it clear that everything you've heard and read is true."
The word 'true' was underlined with the flicker of a smile, and something adolescent in it, as though to say, “I don’t know quite how to act at this moment.”
It was an odd beginning to an apology, and certainly not what a press secretary might have wished for: Better to dispel rumors and be specific about what you are apologizing for, rather than leave the mob to its imagination.
After all, if everything you'd heard was true then mayor Newsom has a problem with cocaine as well as booze, hates his job, is the puppet of his incompetent and feuding staff, is increasingly unstable since his divorce, and hangs on to political life only because ‘downtown’ still wants him and the city has a well documented case of dementia and simply can’t remember wrong doing by public officials.
If everything you'd heard is true, Gavin Newsom, once forecast to be the new Kennedy, has become a failed state of a man, unable to trust or be trusted, has only the dimmest notion of who he is and meekly fights off the fear that he’s powerless, undeserving, perhaps even a fraud.
That's the one trespass they don't forgive you in San Francisco. It's the city's most cherished conceit. You can be anything you want, high or low, noble or despicable, but you'd better be who you claim. And the more brazenly you claim it the better.
Willie Brown — ‘Da mayor’ who although distantly married while in office had a child with one of his mistresses and rode with her in parades — never took much public criticism for his personal life. He took criticism for everyhting else but not that. The reason was because he kept the Sunni and Shiia in the city under control, playing the endlessly quarrelsome political clubs and ethnic groups off against each other.
He also demanded complete loyalty from his people and gave it in return. And if some folks feared him because he was ruthless — as well as villainous, the way he was willing to sell off the city piece by piece to the highest bidder — no matter. Underneath, even critics respected him because he was the juice and he got things done.

What Newsom has done in the three years since he became mayor seems more promise than performance. His gay marriage agenda, the highlight of his term, was eventually annulled, and some would say has now been tainted by this scandal. His much ballyhooed program to take the homeless off the streets has has worked but in an ever fickle city you’ll hear people say, “I see just as many as I did before, just not in the same places”.
His universal health care program for the city, which was not his idea, is still on the drawing board. His project to make the entire city Wifi-accessible hasn’t passed through the board of supervisors. Indeed, his relationship with the board has become so poisoned that they barely encounter each other.
“He’s always been absentee,” says board president Aaron Peskin who would become mayor were Newsom to leave office before his term ends. “Even when he was supervisor. Now he spends a lot of time governing by press release, and more time talking to the press than talking to his staff. That’s lead to the hegemony of the board.”
Peskin, well known for his late night rants on the phone to anyone who will listen went on, “Did you see The Queen? He’s kind of like The Queen. I don’t mean in that sense. I mean athough he didn’t come from the city’s elite he takes refuge there, he acts like that. Even when he was supervisor he would look down his nose at the other ten members.”

When Newcom came to office in 2004, The San Francisco Chronicle, always a moderate voice, called him, “Kennedyesque”. That was the buzz, among mostly young professionals, business people like Newsom, and the ‘downtown’ folks, the older wealthy business elite always intent upon keeping the city’s wildly progressive tendencies in check.
Suddenly, and for no particular reason, this idea got around that Gavin Newsom could be president one day. His coattails became heavy over night. And it wasn’t just that he was the new new thing, or that to some he appeared to be a social stepping stone as well as a political one, but that he was genuine and full of ideas and more important full of hope. That’s important in city that enjoys its reputation for daring but always needs an ‘atta-boy’ as well.
Newsom was coming on during a period when the police chief and several of his staff had been indicted by a grand jury, and when several city officials had been caught up in various financial scandals. There was a feeling underneath that the city had gotten dirty under the spell of cronies and Wille Brown’s and needed to get back its respectability.
As he went around the city campaigning in those months before the 2004 election he projected the persona of both a worldly rich kid and a Capra character, a friendly John Doe who just wanted to do the right thing.
At the Democratic National Convention in 2004, he came to a party and afterwards people said, “TK”. And if he was snubbed by the politicos in his own party over his gay marriage initiative, and scaring up all those folks in Ohio, no matter. GQ Magazine hosted a party in Boston for him that the fire marshall had to close down. Boston was his.
Almost from the beginning there were stories about Newsom’s drinking, rumors that he and his wife had grown distant and complaints that his staff was both arrogant and ignorant. But that was all hidden in the foliage, behind what seemed like such obvious political potential.
He reached full bloom in September 2004, in a Harper's Bazaar spread — stretched out on the floor of Ann Getty's living room, with his arm around his wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle, with her almond shaped eyes, a former runway model for Macy's and Victoria's Secret, and once the lover of Gavin’s best friend, Billy Getty. It was her idea to do the spread.
The magazine dubbed the Newsom's "The New Kennedys" but the spread seemed quaint and parochial. This was not Jack Kennedy — a young lion in all his social inaccessiblity, sailing, or throwing a football, completely in his element. It wasn’t even like Bill Clinton playing a saxophone on Saturday Night Live. No, this was a man lounging, displaying no talent except charm, and like an actor, in a house that wasn't his; in a suit that wasn't his, and with a wife who in a sense wasn't his either. She'd already been living in New York for nine months, having given up her career as an assistant DA to host a segment on Court TV.
The spread became a joke around City Hall and further embossed Gavin's image among critics as a pretty pretender who had inherited his business and political fortune more than earned it. A man, who seemed thrust out by the Getty family,
In fact, he was not the rich man he appeared, merely the good friend of a rich kid, Billy Getty. The connection was through Newsom's father, a Getty family lawyer, the family’s consigliore by all accounts. Gordon Getty owns the majority share of several of Gavin's businesses.

Asked once about his ties to the Getty family, with the suggestion that without them he would not have had such business or political success, Newsom replied, "I developed strategies and I created opportunities. I executed. I implemented. I produced results and I did it over and over again. . . . No one ever knocked on my door saying, 'Gavin, this is all yours.' "
The Getty connection is in contrast to his own modest upbringing. He comes from a Fourth generation Irish family. His father left the family when Gavin was two, to run for public office, unsuccessfully and against his wife’s objections. She worked three menial jobs at the same time, including secretary and waitress, raised Gavin and his sister, and ever a do gooder in 19?? took on a foster child, who in recent years has been in and out of prison.
According to one story, Judge Newsom once told Gavin he probably couldn't be an attorney because he wasn't smart enough. His mother once told him not to get into politics because it would ruin his marriage. And it did.
But always this dual life, ricocheting back and forth between the Gettys and his mother. His aunt married the brother-in-law of Nancy Pelosi, and among the investors in his businesses is the speaker's husband, Paul Pelosi. [Mother died in TK, affecting him TK.]
In school he suffered from severe dyslexia, and still claims it’s a hindrance. He couldn't get into an elite private school and so settled for public school. He went to the University of Santa Clara, partly on a baseball scholarship, graduated in 19?? and with financial help from Gordon Getty started a wine shop. He became a restaurateur and now owns, in part, five restaurants, a winery, a ski resort, and two retail-clothing stores.
One of his establishments, the Matrix Fillmore bar, features designer cocktails, a plasma screen video system and tables shaped as letters S, E and X.
There is this story: Growing up, Newsom often went with the Gettys, he was nearly one of the family. Once he went on a trip with the family, perhaps to a resort or to visit close friends. At first the people, nannies whoever they were, thought Gavin was a Getty and treated him like gold. But when they found out he was not, they treated him rather differently.
"I took that to mean he's acutely aware that in the end he's not one of them,” said the person who told me this story. “But then who is he? He's caught between worlds and doesn't have any way out."

After the Bazaar spread, Newsom's spokesperson, Peter Ragone, strongly suggested Newsom resist taking advice from his wife. Later, Newsom would say privately, referring to the magazine spread, "That was the worst decision I ever made."
Some would argue this was the beginning of Newsom's emotional decline because four months later Kimberly filed for divorce citing the difficulty of their bicoastal marriage. In fact, she had wanted the bicoastal marriage in the first place, unhappy with her shadow life as the mayor's wife. She wanted to wear the coat not hang on to the tails. Still, she seemed to miss her life with Gavin and sometimes complained to friends that when she tried to reach him he wouldn't take her calls.
"Say what you will about her," says someone that knows them both, "but she kept him in line."
Whether true or not, during ???? the Newsom administration seemed to unravel. The mayor
Perhaps, the signature failure in his three years in office was that Newsom was unable to convince the York family to keep the San Francisco 49er football team from moving out of the city to another county. The move isn’t set in stone but very unlikely at this point.
The issue was over a new stadium, the loss of which also dashed any chances the city might host the 20?? Olympics.
“It was a straight up business issue for the 49ers,” says Peskin. “There’s probably nothing anybody could have done to keep them here. Even if Willie Brown was still mayor. But it didn’t help that the Yorks couldn’t get phone calls returned and that’s the problem over and over.”
Much more subtle agendas have also suffered. “Some of his earlier dreams,” says Russell Murphy, a children’s advocate, “like funding community after-school programs, and busing kids to these programs, has become a thing of the past. You try to get these people in city hall to listen and they just back away.”
Even those who preferred his more liberal and equally popular opponent, supervisor Matt Gonzalez, believed Newsom could accomplish a great deal because he was inheriting a proven infrastructure.
“Frankly, I preferred Matt,” notes Jeff Sheehy, a long time community advocate who Newsom appointed as his HIV/AIDS Advisor. “But I voted for Gavin because I was wary of the people around Matt. I was afraid that without experience they wouldn’t be able to get anything done.”
Sheehy eventually quit his position.
“Gavin asked me to do this job, to volunteer by the way, and I was glad to do it, but then there was just no support. It was extremely frustrating. Part of the problem was Gavin himself, and part were these people around him. They’re in late 20s, early 30s, most straight guys, moderate lefties. But they just didn’t know what they were doing. ”
"He brought in this entire staff who knew nothing," says one of the old hands in the City Hall establishment. "Some are good but for the most part they didn't want to listen to us. It was as though they came on the coattails of the king and should be treated accordingly. And don't think they didn't all drink. That's the pot calling the kettle. You'll find a full bar in a lot of those offices."
Another person with long experience in the city remarked, "It was like a frat house and they were so tickled they had drivers. Every night they'd all go out drinking. That was when the decisions were made, not in staff meetings."
Meanwhile, Newsom didn't seem to care and made little effort to regain control of his office. He became increasingly isolated and the tone in his office began to change, in the words of supervisor Bevin Dufty, to a “bunker mentality.”
One former member of the Gavin administration who asked not to be identified told me, "He was ignored, they showed him no respect. I think he began to feel humiliated. And yes he was letting it happen but I don't think he felt he could change it. So he began to hate the job. He would put on his music and tune out, as though, 'They've won, there's nothing I can do.' The very people he hired betrayed him."
"Initially, I thought he was a dazzler," this person added. "I thought, 'well, maybe he could be another Kennedy', but then somewhere along the line he started losing his hold on things, he started drinking, and there was just no one around him to say 'you're out of control.' “
“It’s all Fitzgerald, it’s The Great Gatsby,’ says Peskin. “It’s the story of vacuous people who thought of themselves as a political elite, and thought they were going to run Newsom into the White house. But then along the way they all became morally bankrupt.”

When Gavin Newsom moved into Room 200 in City Hall one of the first things he did was to move the desk. Willie Brown had it facing the interior of the office and he had the tall curved doors always open to the hallway outside, and a velvet rope across, so that the tour groups could come and see the mayor in his political diorama, in his natural habitat.
Newsom closed the doors and moved the desk so that it faced east, toward the square and across the way the library and the Asian Museum. It’s a view of a city in all its steely variety and complexity. And of course you can see lot of people, but not who they are.
“I think it’s nicer where the desk is now,” says Bevin Dufty, who counts himself a firm supporter of Newsom. “But the tours have stopped. When Gavin first got elected I’d go and see him. it was supposed to be an open door policy, but his people began to screen everyone. “He’s running behind,” they would say and eventually I just stopped going over.
“It was so unlike with Willie, and I don’t mean this as a criticism, but at lunch for example, Willie was always out there, talking, engaging people. But Gavin is not a big ‘people person’. His compassion sometimes seems more for people in the abstract. So during lunch he would just stay in his office and eat turkey sandwich after turkey sandwich, with his music going, reading a book or going over some policy.”

It's interesting to note that before Newsom made his apology he called his family and close friends together for consultation — not in his home or in the Getty home but in the back room of a restaurant, perhaps the one refuge where he feels most comfortable and secure.
That seems to have been his life in recent years — in his office by day, in a restaurant by night. Often he could be seen at North Beach Restaurant, alone, with a glass of wine. Perhaps, happier as a businessman than as the primate of a $4 million budget and 30,000 city employees. Perhaps more comfortable in the half lit demimonde of casual relationships and a small tight circle of close if not completely trusted friends.
“But does anybody really know him?” more than one person asked me.
“You have to remember he’s still a 30-something guy,” says KCBS radio reporter Barbara Taylor. “In a way he leads a double life. He’s the mayor of a large city and at the same time a handsome bachelor, who women really like. So there’s inherently a conflict and sometimes maybe a disconnect when he reverts back to a 30-something bachelor and forgets that he’s mayor.
“But there’s another aspect to this disconnect. He has established an image as a moralist and a goodie two shoes. But then you wonder how that can be? At about the same time last year he was expressing outrage over some tasteless videos made by police officers he was off boffing his campaign manager’s wife.”

The question right after the scandal was “when will the other shoe drop”? And how big would the shoe have to be to force Newsom from office.
Then came news that Mrs. Tourk had been paid $10,000 for a benefit normally given to a person with an illness that could, in the words of the director of the san Francisco health department, “result in their death in a relatively short period of time.”
Was Mrs. Tourk’s condition that dire? The whole matter is under investigation. Meanwhile, damage control is under way. The mayor is in rehab. In a well respected program, not a celebrityhab. Moreover, a poll taken after the sandal broke showed that Newsom still has a 75 percent approval rating. The consensus is that he will easily win reelection, if only because there’s no clear contender.
"The city's nature is to be tolerant," notes philanthropist Warren Hellman who has worked with Newsom on several projects. "If nothing else happens I don't think it will affect his reelection."
Hellmann adds a widely held sentiment in San Francisco, "We almost impeached Clinton and look at what we got now."
As for the immediate political fallout Barack Obama has apparently refused to be seen with Newsom when he passes though San Francisco on ???. Most would agree that this is not an example of San Francisco values that helps Nancy Pelosi. If she was roasted for taking the advice of the sergeant and arms, surely she’ll be torn and quartered over this, if not now, later.
Then there is the matter of San Francisco, itself.
“It’s shameful,” says Calvin Welsh, “that on my side of the political edger we don’t have a progressive, full throated candidate, and it’s equally staggering that corporate San Francisco has no one other than this feckless character. You wonder what’s gonna become of this city.”
Aaron Peskin adds that with Newsom even more out of the picture now than before the city has fallen under the leadership of Newsom’s public information officer, Peter Ragone, who as the mayor’s scandal broke, was himself in a scandal, admitting that he had left quotes supporting Newsom on a blog, under another name.
Ragone has been given a new title: director of communication and planning.
“Peter Ragone is now in charge,” says Peskin. “Gavin reports to him, not the other way around.”
Still, Newsom may finally get his political wits back. He sounded like his old self at the opening of his reelection campaign office the other day, albeit still with his inappropriate smile in the midst of a renewed apology. “I wish he would take that little smike off his face when he offers an apology.” said a friend who works for the city. And although he’ll never become senator, much less a presidential hopeful, he could settle down as a businessman, a restaurateur, and be a Capraesque congressman, in a Washington office with a white picket fence.
For now he must confine himself to Baghdad by the Bay. Perhaps he can start playing basketball again in the Bay View, an African American district in the city. He used to go there on weekends and he was at his best, relaxed, as nice a guy as you'll ever find, look-you-in-the-eye friendly. "Hey Big G," the kids would say and he was in heaven.

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