Mayor Gavin Newsom has entered the race for Lieutenant Governor, a job he ridiculed while running for Governor – and his supporters include San Francisco progressives who figure it’s an opportunity to get rid of him. Nonetheless, an endorsement list that includes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the California Teachers Association and Sacramento’s legislative leaders (along with an opponent with unimpressive fundraising totals) should make Newsom the front-runner for the Democratic primary. But it won’t be pretty – given that Garry South (who ran his gubernatorial campaign) now works for his competitor, L.A. City Councilmember Janice Hahn. The Hahn campaign has been vicious on Gavin so far, using the kind of scorched-earth tactics that South is famous for. Newsom may win the nomination on June 8th, but he could end up suffering the same fate as Garry South’s last victim. Phil Angelides had much of the Democratic leadership behind him when he ran for Governor, but only won the primary after a bruising fight with South client Steve Westly. And it left him so bloodied that he went on to lose the general election by a landslide.
As a student of San Francisco politics, I’ve found the local chatter in the past few weeks surrounding Gavin Newsom’s run for Lieutenant Governor to be just plain bizarre.
His allies in the business community are incensed that he’d abandon the city to become Jerry Brown’s bridesmaid – and (God forbid) allow those crazy lefties on the Board of Supervisors to pick the next mayor. Chuck Nevius’ column in the SF Chronicle last week read like it came from a jilted lover. “Newsom wasn't supposed to be the average career politician,” he lamented. “Now he’s Gray Davis.”
Meanwhile, progressive are all too eager to show Gavin the door. Supervisor Chris Daly, who once suggested at a public meeting that the Mayor was a cokehead, has endorsed him – and I’ve heard from tenant activists who now say that they will walk precincts for Newsom. How in the world could any politician win statewide office, when your closest friends don’t want you to run – and your rivals are delighted to see you take the plunge?
But believe it or not, Newsom is poised to win the nomination on June 8th. State Senator Dean Florez dropped out of the race the minute he got in, saying Gavin “commands a formidable lead that would be hard to surmount.” And the Newsom camp sent out a list of endorsements that includes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Assembly Speaker John Perez, State Senate President Darrell Steinberg, the California Nurses Association, the California Teachers Association, the UFCW Western State Council and Dolores Huerta.
The fundraising totals of his sole Democratic rival – Los Angeles Councilmember Janice Hahn – are also worth considering. As of December 31st, Hahn had only raised $421,000 – and reported a cash-on-hand total of $341,000. For comparison’s sake, at this stage of the Lieutenant Governor’s race four years ago John Garamendi had raised over $1.37 million – while his Democratic rival Jackie Speier was at approximately $1.28 million.
But Hahn has something Newsom lacks – Garry South, who was the Mayor’s chief strategist until he dropped out of the Governor’s race. South, who worked for Gray Davis in 1998 and 2002, is the sole Democratic consultant in California to have run a successful campaign for Governor in 25 years - something not to be sneezed at. And it was viewed as quite a coup when Newsom initially retained him in 2008.
And while Hahn’s fundraising leaves much to be desired, Gavin has the same problem. The Mayor can transfer his defunct gubernatorial campaign account to the race for Lieutenant Governor, but there isn’t much left of it – only $40,000 as of December 31st.
Granted, Newsom raised over $2 million last year – and can now go back to his donors and ask again. But while state law lets contributors give up to $25,900 to gubernatorial candidates, the Lieutenant Governor’s race limits donations to $6,500. A quick look at Newsom’s campaign for Governor shows that over $1 million came from donations exceeding that amount, and half a million from contributors who gave over $20,000. In other words, he won’t be able to raise $2 million from those people.
And with Garry South now running Hahn’s campaign, the attacks on Newsom have been brutal. Gavin had disparaged the role of Lieutenant Governor before opting to run, even publicly admitting he had no idea what the job does - a point the Hahn campaign has fully taken advantage of. But South has gone so far as to betray the confidence of his ex-client – divulging private statements Newsom made when South consulted him, where the Mayor had told him he was no “Gray Davis.”
Of course, we can expect nothing less from Garry South. Known in California politics as the “King of Mean,” South has a long history of running scorched-earth campaigns – the most recent example being in 2006, when he ran Steve Westly’s campaign for Governor.
In that race, Westly’s rival – Phil Angelides – had the endorsement of Senators Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer and most of the Democratic Party establishment in the primary. But in what can only be described as a muder-suicide pact, South waged an intensely negative effort against Angelides – leaving the bloodied front-runner limping past the finish line in June when it was all over.
South then spent the whole summer and fall denouncing Angelides as a “weak nominee” who could not beat Governor Schwarzenegger, rendering it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many Democrats (including myself) will never forgive South for that conduct.
Could the same happen to Newsom if he beats Hahn? The likely G.O.P. nominee – Abel Maldonado – lacks Arnold’s celebrity status, but has cultivated a moderate image that will make him tough to beat – especially in a year where Democratic turnout could be dangerously low.
Newsom could and should win the primary on June 8th, but his progressive rivals in San Francisco shouldn’t be celebrating a new Mayor just yet. Gavin will still have to face a Republican in November, and if Garry South has his way he might not win that election.
Paul Hogarth is the Managing Editor of BeyondChron, San Francisco's Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published.