Democrat Newsom wins San Francisco mayor race
December 9, 2003
SAN FRANCISCO – Democrat Gavin Newsom decisively beat a Green Party candidate Tuesday to win San Francisco’s mayoral election, a race that had been viewed as a referendum on the Democrats’ strength in California and a battle for the liberal city’s soul.
Newsom, a wealthy restaurateur who was backed by most of the city’s political establishment, received 118,651 votes, or 53 percent, to 107,030 votes, or 47 percent, for the Greens’ Matt Gonzalez with all precincts reporting.
At 36, Newsom is the youngest person to become mayor of San Francisco since another Democrat, James Duval Phelan, was elected to the post in 1897. He will succeed Democrat Willie Brown, his political mentor, next month.
Gonzalez’s unexpectedly strong challenge had worried Democratic Party leaders, who flew in former Vice President Al Gore and former President Bill Clinton to stump for Newsom.
In the end, however, Gonzalez’s insurgent campaign was overwhelmed by the same entrenched political machine he railed against. Newsom, who poured more than $3.6 million into the race, outspent Gonzalez by more than 8-1 and his professionally managed campaign organization overwhelmed the Greens’ volunteer-driven effort.
The race was tight up till election day, and coming so soon after Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election as governor, it was seen as a gauge of whether California’s Democrats had lost touch with their core constituents. The party has maintained a near stranglehold on elected offices in the city for decades.
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Democrats represent 54 percent of the 466,141 voters registered for Tuesday’s election, while 29 percent declined to state a party affiliation. Greens had just over 3 percent. But Gonzalez claimed his views were more in tune with Democratic Party values than Newsom, who was expected to attract more votes from the 13 percent registering as Republicans.
The result was a muddle that made the outcome hard to predict.
The candidates have such similar positions that both would be considered liberals in almost any other major city. But in this race, which has hinged as much on looks and lifestyles as their approaches to homelessness and economic development, Newsom, 36, has been cast as a Republican in liberal’s clothing, Gonzalez, 38, the fringe spoiler.
Gonzalez, a former Democrat who switched parties three years ago, fueled his campaign with the frustration felt by many hard-core liberals over the pro-development direction the city took under the well-connected Brown, 69, who governed with an autocratic touch after four decades in politics. He is barred by term limits from running again.
Newsom sought to distance himself from his political mentor during the campaign, but he has been endorsed by many of the same business interests, organized labor groups and political appointees that Brown’s Democratic machine has mobilized for years.
Newsom jump-started his mayoral campaign a year ago with a ballot measure cutting the city’s generous cash handouts to the homeless and placed a commanding first in last month’s general election. He did not receive enough votes to avert a runoff, however.
In the five weeks leading up to Tuesday’s one-on-one matchup, he portrayed Gonzalez as an ideologue who lacks both the will and practical ideas for creating jobs, housing and a renewed sense of well-being in a city that was hit hard when the air went out of the dot-com balloon – a message that resonated with some voters.
“While I love everything on the left nationally, I think we’ve got too much left in local government,” said Cynthia Cummins, 46, a real estate agent who cast her ballot for Newsom.
Both Newsom, a wealthy restaurant owner, and Gonzalez, a former public defender, are members of the city’s Board of Supervisors, where Gonzalez also serves as president. Either would be San Francisco’s youngest mayor in more than a century.
“I think people are ready for something new and different, but they’re also ready for someone that can actually get things done,” Newsom said Tuesday as he arrived at his polling place with his wife on his arm.