San Francisco's former Mayor Gavin Newsom

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Gavin Newsom
mayor of San Francisco
By Andrew Stevens, Deputy Editor

11 November 2007: Within months of assuming office as Mayor in January 2004, San Francisco’s Gavin Newsom threw himself into one of the most contentious and divisive issues in US politics by using his administration to bring about same-sex marriages in the Californian city long known for its tolerant surroundings. However, the 37-year old Democrat’s city administration is merely the latest in a line of colourful officeholders since the city’s arrival as an infamous centre of counter-culture.

Update July 2011: Ed Lee, San Francisco's interim mayor will contest the Novemberf 2011 mayoral election..

The mayoralty of Democrat Dianne Feinstein (now a US Senator) during the 1980s is best remembered for her planning policies which saw an increase in the number of high-rise buildings that altered the city skyline substantially, overseeing the transition from 1960s Haight-Ashbury radicalism to the city’s 1990s short-lived heyday as enterprise capital.

Feinstein’s predecessor as Mayor was Democrat George Moscone, who was assassinated in office in 1978 by Dan White, a conservative member of the city’s Board of Supervisors. A year earlier Moscone had survived an attempted recall vote by the supporters of defeated mayoral candidate John Barbagelata and his business interests. The election of Harvey Milk, the city’s most prominent gay politician, to the Board of Supervisors that year led to frequent clashes on the board, mostly between him and White. White resigned from the board in protest at the easing of restrictions on gays in public employment and on the day of the Mayor’s appointment to the vacant seat, assasinated both the Mayor and Board of Supervisors President Harvey Milk. White then mounted the infamous ‘Twinkie Defence’ at his trial, with his lawyers arguing that the sugar in ‘Twinkie’ sweets had led the otherwise diet conscious defendant to murder his opponents out of depression.

Having done so, White was acquitted of murder and sentenced for the lesser offence of manslaughter, though he later committed suicide after being granted parole. The case is significant as the issues of partisanship, lesbian and gay equality and corruption in the city’s police force were never fully resolved at the time and it casts a dark shadow over municipal politics there to this day.

When Willie Brown (also a Democrat) stood down in 2003 after two terms of office as the city’s first African-American Mayor, the race for the mayoralty was left divided on the question of one candidate’s alleged links to ‘big business’. The run-off between Democrat Gavin Newsom and the Green Party’s Matt Gonzalez (known in the local press as the ‘socialist stud’), both young members of the Board of Supervisors, saw Newsom elected on 53 per cent of the vote, but only after high profile endorsements from Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Jesse Jackson and a campaign that outspent his opponent 10-1. Gonzalez’s sole celebrity endorser, Oscar-winning documentary maker Michael Moore, painted Newsom as ‘a Republican masquerading as a Democrat’ and along with the Greens tried to draw attention to his big business credentials. As the son of a judge and the scion of the state’s Democrat establishment on the city party’s moderate wing, Newsom’s support from big business would never be in doubt. Yet his own business career was substantially more modest than that painted, with a string of medium-sized firms set up after his graduation from Santa Clara University with a BA in Political Science. Furthermore, his childhood was far from idyllic as the second child in a one parent family with his mother working three jobs to support them and his college education was financed by a baseball scholarship. The Mayor’s private life has raised some eyebrows of late. In 2001, Newsom was married to Kimberley Guilfoyle, a legal analyst, but the couple’s relationship broke down in 2005 due to her career being in New York.

If the citizens of San Francisco expected a conventional, if young, telegenic Democrat in hock to so-called big business interests to prove a bland Mayor in office then subsequent events were to prove revelatory to say the least. Shortly after assuming office, Newsom insitituted a policy of allowing same-sex marriages in the city, long known for its high concentration of gay communities and generally regarded as the gay capital of the US. The policy initially allowed a number of couples to conduct same-sex marriages, which are increasily commonplace in a number of European countries, though it was later successfully challenged in the courts. However, the issue did not fade from prominence as it featured heavily in the US Presidential election of 2004, which the Bush campaign sought to taint the Democratic nominee by association. This has now opened up a rift in the California Democrats over whether or not it was prudent to pursue such a radical policy in an election year and has also seen Newsom clash with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has voiced support for same-sex marriage while actioning the opposite in office.

Like Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa, Newsom's name is frequently banded as a successor to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger or Senator Dianne Feinstein, herself a former SF mayor and Newsom's mentor.  And like his Los Angeles mayoral counterpart, an extra-marital dalliance is possibly the only thing holding Newsom back in these ambitions after it was revealed in 2007 that he had an affair with a campaign aide's wife and had submitted to treatment for alcoholism. Yet the liberal climate on the East Coast was enough to save his standing and his re-election in November was never in any doubt.

While the city remains recognised across the world for its emblematic Golden Gate Bridge and cable car system, it can also rightly point to an enviable array of cultural heritage and amenities. This ranges from the Beat generation poets who congregated around the City Lights bookstore, through the 1967 Summer of Love immortalised by Scott McKenzie’s eponymous song devoted to the city, its more corporate status as the headquarters of The Gap jeans company in more recent times, as well as the burgeoning IT industry in the 1990s. Its Hispanic and Chinese heritage remain important to this day. San Francisco is one of California’s Charter Cities, whose code of governance is laid down in a separate city constitution rather than state law. The city’s legislative function is vested in the 11-member Board of Supervisors, which since 2000 has been elected on a district (as opposed to ‘at large’) basis.

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