Monday, February 5, 2007

The Star of Mayor Gavin Newsom

There were ooohs and aaahs everywhere San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom spoke during his one week Sister City visit to Manila last December, where he captivated his audience with his intelligence, Hollywood good looks and personal charisma.

Filipinos there confidently predicted that Mayor Newsom would one day be elected president of the U.S. after succeeding Dianne Feinstein as US senator or Arnold Schwarzenegger as California governor. They readily compared him to John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, who possessed, they said, the same qualities they saw in Gavin Newsom.

Unlike Kennedy and Clinton, who were married when they had affairs (with Marilyn Monroe and Monica Lewinsky, respectively), the 39-year old Gavin appeared to be squeaky clean. As an eligible bachelor, he could go out with anyone he pleased and there would be no sex scandal involved.

Well, not quite. Last week, Gavin made front page news all over the country when his best friend and campaign manager, Alex Tourk, resigned after confronting the mayor about his affair with Tourk’s wife, Ruby Rippey-Tourk, while she worked in his office.

Gavin admitted to the short-lived affair, which occurred a year and a half ago, and apologized to Alex Tourk and to the people of San Francisco for his failure of judgment. His apologies notwithstanding, the Mayor quickly became the butt of jokes as comedians like Jay Leno, announced that what really surprised the people of San Francisco was that Gavin’s affair was with a woman.

Gavin's fans in Manila may be disappointed with the sudden fall of Mayor Newsom’s star but it’s standard fare out there to intrude into the private sex lives of their celebrities and politicians. Still, it was a shock to see CNN interrupt its regular programming to announce "BREAKING NEWS," not of the war in Iraq, but of Newsom's affair. "If there is one thing worse than the modern weakening of major morals,” English author and novelist G.K. Chesterton once observed, “it is the modern strengthening of minor morals."

I would like to share a few of my personal encounters with Gavin Newsom. I first spoke with him sometime in March of 2003, when he was still a San Francisco Supervisor. He called me about an article I had written in the Philippine News, and which also appeared in Asian Week and The San Francisco

The column, “Would this have happened to Gavin Newsom?” was about my arrest by San Francisco police officers who were called in by the Walgreens manager, who mistakenly thought my old (small Ben Franklin) $100 bill was counterfeit. I thought my arrest was racist because I believed then, as I still do now, that had it been Gavin Newsom who presented the $100 bill, the white manager would not have called the police, and the police would not have arrested him.

The fact that I was a lawyer and an elected city official did not change my appearance as a minority. Yes, the Walgreens general manager and the San Francisco Chief of Police apologized to me but it didn't change what had happened. Gavin called me to complain as to why I chose him as an example. “Do you have an ax to grind against me?” he wanted to know. I told him that no, I had nothing against him. He was just the most suitably identifiable white official I could think of to make my point.

“Well, it’s ironic, Rodel,” Gavin said, “because what happened to you happened to me.” “No kidding?” I replied. Gavin explained that one day, he went to his bank to deposit cash from his Russian Hill restaurant, Balboa CafĂ©. As the teller counted the money, she noticed a peculiar $100 bill which she examined then applied the counterfeit detector pen to. It turned black which meant that the bill was counterfeit unlike my Walgreens experience when the mark turned yellow, which meant it was good, but still didn’t stop Walgreens or the SFPD from arresting me.

“So what happened?” I asked. “Well,” Gavin replied, “she just returned the bill to me and warned me to be careful next time.”
“Gavin,” I said, “if that had been me, she would have called the police. What happened to me didn’t happen to you.” "Oh." he said.

In retrospect, I can see now that Gavin was reaching out to me, empathizing with me in his own way. But it was also clear to me that his white upper class upbringing limited his ability to understand what minorities and lower income people experience on a regular basis.

He Gavin was elected mayor later that year in 2003. After assuming office in 2004, Gavin made local history by appointing San Francisco’s first woman police chief (Heather Fong) and first woman fire chief (Joanne Hayes-White). He then cemented his place in history when he proclaimed same-sex marriage was legal in San Francisco, allowing more than 4,000 couples to be legally wed before the courts stopped him from continuing the practice.

Gavin became a pariah to many Democrats who blamed him for handing George Bush a major wedge issue to use for reelection in 2004. The extent of this rejection was revealed in a recent interview where Gavin complained that presidential candidate Barack Obama refuses to pose in a picture with him despite the two fundraisers he has done for Obama.

A year ago Gavin called to invite me to join him that Friday in his visit to Bessie Carmichael Elementary School in the South of Market district. I readily accepted the invitation to the one school in the City where the majority of students, the teachers and the principal are Filipino. With Principal Jeff Burgos, Gavin and I went to each of the classrooms and engaged the students and teachers in civic discussions.

He would ask the students “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and the students would respond “doctor, lawyer, nurse, firemen, actor, dancer” etc. He would nod in approval, believing that if students set their goals early, they can work to meet those goals for themselves.

But he recently told us that he realized he was asking the wrong question. “It shouldn’t be ‘What do you want to be?’ It should be ‘What do you want to become?’ It isn’t important that you want to be a lawyer,” he explained. “What’s really important is that you want to become a socially committed environmentalist or advocate for social justice. It’s a state of consciousness, more than a state of being, that’s what really counts.”

I saw in that epiphany a maturing Mayor Newsom, someone who did not want to be just mayor, but a socially committed and conscientious mayor. Will San Francisco voters in November allow him to continue to become that kind of mayor?

Send comments to (

No comments: