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Common Knowledge
Everything’s relative in Newsom’s next race
By John Zipperer

NewsomWhen San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom made his abortive run for the office of California governor, he was the Democratic Party’s liberal candidate. So I was surprised when my friend Gina said that Newsom had been her preferred candidate. Gina’s politics are solidly center or even center-right; she’s a Facebook fan of John McCain. What, I asked, was Newsom’s appeal? “He’s practical,” she said. “I like his pragmatism.”

Newsom has since recalibrated his ambitions and is aiming for the lieutenant governor’s job; at press time, it was considered his race to lose. If he wins, he will probably owe a fair amount of credit to the nonprogressives like Gina who mark his name on the ballot.

Newsom secured the mayor’s office as the centrist candidate, beating Matt Gonzalez, the progressives’ favored candidate. After Newsom approved gay marriages in the City, he became the GOP’s platonic ideal of the left-wing radical. He fought a running battle with leftist members of the Board of Supervisors, and then ran as a liberal Democrat for governor. He could now be positioned as the Rorschach candidate for lieutenant governor.

Everything’s relative.

Newsom will find that to be even truer if he gets the bench-warming seat in Sacramento. Lieutenant governors serve an unheralded function, one that is often difficult even for other politicians to explain. Newsom himself has had his past denigration of the job thrown in his face during this campaign. These days, he easily recites all of the boards and commissions he would serve on if he wins. But one can sympathize with his previous opinion. Lieutenant governors tend to serve in obscurity in this country, except when the governor is raptured to a higher office (the way Texas got Governor Perry) or is rapped by spectacular scandal (the way Illinois got Governor Quinn, whose two predecessors are now in prison or awaiting trial). Unlike some cities, such as Chicago, San Francisco doesn’t go for mayors-for-life. Two terms and you’re out. Thus Dianne Feinstein sits in Washington, Willie Brown writes newspaper columns, and Newsom is looking for statewide office. But if he can convince enough Californians that he’s more pragmatic than progressive, he might just win the Sacramento job on the back of the electorate’s frustration with its nonfunctioning state government.

Pragmatism has worked for another big city mayor, Richard M. Daley of Chicago. Daley, the son of Mayor Richard J. Daley, was criticized early in his tenure for focusing on quality-of-life issues and talking about making the city government manageable. “Where is the grand vision? Where are the big plans?” critics wanted to know. His predecessors had built major expressways through the city or constructed university campuses as their legacies. Instead, Daley the younger talked about planting more trees in the city and putting up wrought-iron fences around abandoned lots to prevent them from being used by drug dealers. Daley arguably hasn’t done anything substantive to fix Chicago’s infamous political corruption. But he did deliver on his livability and manageability plans, and that’s a big part of the reason Chicagoans have returned him to office five times. Of course, election as Chicago’s mayor – especially if you’re named Daley – is practically a lifetime appointment; but the decidedly nonideological Chicagoans are willing to put up with a lot of backroom dealing and sweetheart deals if it means the snow gets plowed, the buses run, and the police are visible. Delivering on promises means a lot in local politics, perhaps less so in regional or national politics. Newsom has had friendly sparring sessions with KQED radio’s Scott Shafer during his past appearances at The Commonwealth Club. In 2007, Shafer needled Newsom about the mayor’s track record for delivering on his promises. Newsom responded with a detailed description of his administration’s plans and accomplishments, ending with, “What else you got? Those aren’t very good [criticisms].”

On April 7, when Newsom visits the club again, it’s likely there will be less interest in what he has accomplished in the streets of San Francisco than in what he plans to do with himself post-mayoralty. I’m sure we can expect further questions about Newsom’s future to be asked of former Mayor Willie Brown, when he speaks at The Commonwealth Club on May 11.

When he threw his hat into the lieutenant governor’s race, Newsom let it be known that he wasn’t ready to retire from politics. Perhaps without term limits, he’d be content to stay in the mayor’s office indefinitely. But again, everything is relative, so maybe Chicago isn’t a good model here. After all, when Richard M. Daley ran his first reelection campaign in 1991, there were three candidates vying for the Republican nomination: a German-American businessman labeled as an illegal alien by another candidate; a Hispanic who responded by calling the first candidate a Nazi; and a professional clown.

The clown won the nomination.

John Zipperer is vice president of editorial and media at The Commonwealth Club of California ( E-mail

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