Gonzalez Rebuffs Chronicle’s Attempt to Get Him in Mayor’s Race

by Randy Shaw on July 31, 2007

Despite a last-ditch effort by the San Francisco Chronicle to get him in the race, Matt Gonzalez ended months of speculation last night to announce that he would not run for Mayor. Last week, the Chronicle ran front-page stories sharply criticizing Mayor Gavin Newsom on two “hot button” political issues – safety in Golden Gate Park, and homelessness. Although the paper could have waited to run its expose until after the August 10 mayoral filing deadline, it instead seemed to invite a mayoral challenge by accusing Newsom of ignoring the proliferation of needles in the supposedly child-friendly Park. Even more uncharacteristically, the Chronicle coverage ignored the Mayor’s success housing homeless people and accused him of maintaining a “Camp Agnos”-type environment on the city’s Westside. Now that Matt Gonzalez did not jump for the bait, will the Chronicle resume its staunch pro-Newsom coverage?

What was striking about C. W. Nevius’ front page July 24 Chronicle story on drug use and homelessness in Golden Gate Park is that nobody saw the story as “news.” Even Mayor Newsom said that Nevius’ report was nothing new, and Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi was given the lead story the next day to confirm that his office had been complaining for a long time about the problem—to no avail.

Considering that what Nevius wrote about was no secret, the question is why the Chronicle picked this moment to put it on the front-page. And then followed it up with seven more prominent stories hostile to Newsom, including a Sunday Matier & Ross column also critical of the Mayor’s approach to homelessness in the Park.

Since the 1980’s, the San Francisco media has regularly trotted out its “the homeless have taken over Golden Gate Park” story whenever it (a) wants to make a mayor look bad and (b) wants to display of its own power.

The tactic, as practiced by the daily newspapers, has always worked. Recall former Chronicle columnist Ken Garcia raising alarms about needles in the Park during Mayor Brown’s first year in office; Garcia’s column got the mayor to send airplanes to scour the Park’s nooks and crannies searching for homeless people.

Of course, after air power was called and the homeless rousted it was discovered that there were nowhere near the number of needles that Garcia claimed were there. But the paper had achieved its goal of making Brown look bad, and the mayor never forgave the Chronicle for its duplicity.

Gavin Newsom was only a few months away from being the first San Francisco mayor in decades not to be targeted by a “needles in Golden Gate Park” or “”homeless are running amok in the Park” media frenzy. His ability to avoid such stories contributed to his high poll numbers, and his currently having no serious re-election challenger.

It is easy to understand why the Chronicle, desperate to sell papers and facing an uncontested mayor’s race, would want to encourage Matt Gonzalez to declare his candidacy. The timing of the Chronicle stories is simply too suspicious to believe that the editors launching of the paper’s strongest attack on the Mayor only a few weeks before the filing deadline was mere coincidence.

A paper that bent over backwards to protect a then-vulnerable mayor from an election-year sex/timesheet/alcohol scandal, and then decides to trot out a hostile “Panic in Needle Park” story in late July, clearly wanted a contested mayor’s race.

Would the Chronicle-created media frenzy have changed the dynamics of the mayor’s race?

It had clearly weakened public perception of Newsom’s record on homelessness. I have heard a number of people interpret the park story as showing that Newsom’s lauded homelessness record was all “smoke and mirrors.”

The Chronicle contributed to this conclusion by excluding from its Park stories any mention of the thousands housed under Care not Cash. So Newsom would be forced on the campaign trail to defend his homelessness record as it pertains to Golden Gate Park, rather than touting his significantly increasing housing options for single adults living on welfare or disability benefits.

The stories also undermined Newsom on the issue of public safety.

Up to now, the Chronicle had largely given Newsom a pass on the city’s rising homicide rate. No headlines have described San Francisco as the new home of “Murder, Inc,” and there has been no fanning the flames to build public anger against a soft on crime mayor.

But now we have stories of kids being exposed to needles that may contain the AIDS virus. And these needles are there because the Mayor’s Health Department does not appear to pay attention to what happens to them.

That’s the kind of story that could cause problems on the campaign trail. But with Gonzalez having declined a mayoral challenge, the potential impact of this story will remain speculative.

As the mayor was on the defensive on the Park, he also faced a potential electoral problem around his on-off support of the Muni reform charter amendment. As my colleague Paul Hogarth pointed out, Newsom appears to have given in to the demands of Donald Fisher and other downtown backers of a November ballot parking initiative in withdrawing his support of Muni reform due to a single provision about parking.

While the Chronicle tried to protect Newsom by blaming Peskin for allegedly handing out the wrong version of the charter amendment at last week’s press event, the Supervisor stated at Tuesday’s Board meeting that he handed out a version without the parking provision at the Mayor’s request. The Mayor’s Office has not questioned or disputed Peskin’s account.

So Newsom’s attempt to sell his environmental record to voters could be hurt by his identification with a ballot initiative seeking to build more parking. Many voters may wonder why a truly “green” Mayor would risk the defeat of Muni reform in order to help passage of an anti-environmental parking initiative.

Matt Gonzalez was the last remaining possible opponent for Newsom, and none of the above problems had changed the fact that the Mayor is a strong favorite for re-election. But the Chronicle had created some openings that were not present a few weeks ago, and it could have tipped the balance toward Gonzalez entering the race.

But the Chronicle’s criticism of Newsom was too little, too late. With Newsom effectively re-elected by default, expect the Chronicle to resume its uncritical coverage of the Mayor.

Send feedback to rshaw@beyondchron.org

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