Two hours into Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Town Hall forum at the Richmond Recreation Center, someone asked me “is this an infomercial or a filibuster?” Given the political context that led to this forum, I’d say it was a filibuster. United States Senators use the filibuster when they want to avoid a controversial topic from being voted on, hoping to exhaust their opponents by speaking endlessly on an issue and refusing to yield the floor. Mayor Newsom held this forum to avoid “Question Time” at the Board of Supervisors, hoping that a well-scripted Forum on homelessness will deflect any criticism that he is blatantly violating the will of the voters. Two hours into the forum, half of the audience members had already left by attrition – with about 40% of those remaining employed by the Mayor’s Office.

After refusing to comply with the voter-approved Proposition I, Mayor Newsom announced that he would instead hold Town Hall meetings throughout the City so that he can answer questions “directly” from the voters. But even if we take him at face value, the forum on January 13th did not follow the letter – or even the spirit – of his statements and it certainly was not an adequate substitute for Question Time. The Mayor didn’t answer any questions, nor were the questions taken “directly” from the voters. Newsom has always governed by press release, and has generally avoided unscripted situations. But this latest charade shows a Mayor deeply insecure about any context where he is not in complete control.

It wasn’t a “Town Hall forum” in the traditional sense of the word. If you had a question to ask, you couldn’t just wait your turn at the microphone -- you had to write it down on an index card. You didn’t have a neutral moderator sift through the index cards and decide which questions got asked -- Newsom got to pick them out unilaterally. Newsom also did not answer any of the questions himself – he had a group of panelists, including Angela Alioto from the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness and Trent Rohrer of the Department of Human Services, speak on his behalf. The Mayor even joked at one point, “I could answer this question – but I won’t,” as he deferred to his panel of experts. It could have been an informative dialogue on homelessness, but it certainly wasn’t a chance to hold the Mayor accountable.

To be fair, the event could have been worse. Late last week, the Mayor’s Office announced that people should R.S.V.P. for the event – while sending out e-mail invitations to his supporters in order to “stack the deck.” But the Recreation Center was large enough to accommodate everyone who showed up, so nobody was forced to sit outside. On the other hand, the Mayor’s Office did try to keep six protesters who were dressed up as chickens from entering without first removing their costumes. Newsom aide Wade Crowfoot, however, relented after the chickens were assisted by other protesters who chanted “Free Range Chickens!”

What was billed as a “Town Hall forum” in the Richmond District where voters could ask questions was really just a panel of homelessness experts informing the public about what the Mayor is doing about this issue. The panel talked about the City’s goals to attain permanent supportive housing, the highly controversial sweeps in Golden Gate Park, Project Homeless Connect and the Homeless Outreach Teams. But these subjects have been covered before at similar staged events, such as the Mayor’s Annual State of Homelessness Address that was held just last month on December 14th. In fact, it is unclear how this event was any different from the December 14th event.

As he runs for re-election in November, it was no accident that Newsom chose to kick off his first Town Hall meeting in the Richmond. As the ultimate “swing district” in San Francisco, it is conventional wisdom among local politicos that where goes the Richmond, so goes the City. It is also no accident that Newsom chose to have the Town Hall meeting focus solely on homelessness – in fact, only homelessness (and no other issue) was allowed to be discussed. Mayor Newsom has always polled well on this issue, and in fact used “Care Not Cash” in the 2002 election to build up the groundwork for his 2003 mayoral campaign.

Newsom is still a popular Mayor, but by picking a fight with the Supervisors on Question Time, he turned what could have been a substantive discussion into a Filibuster. By refusing to accept an unscripted session that does not play by his rules, he has taken what was a minor political setback (the passage of Prop I) into a full-blown political meltdown. Willie Brown would have complied with Question Time, and would have turned it around to his political advantage.

Peter Ragone, the Mayor’s press secretary, pointed to the chicken-clad protesters at the Town Hall forum and spoke to reporters about how wonderful “democracy” is. But democracy isn’t just about free expression – it’s also about respecting the majoritarian view of the electorate. If Newsom truly believed in democracy (rather than selectively supporting it when it fits his agenda), he would follow the will of the people and attend a monthly Board of Supervisors meeting to answer their questions. If he had done so, his Saturday Filibuster would not have been so offensive.

Incredibly, Ragone chided the Board of Supervisors for not attending the January 13th forum. But state law prohibits a majority of the Supervisors from attending a meeting where city policy is discussed – without formally making it a Board meeting. Not only would calling a special Board meeting cost the city an estimated $15,000, it would also not be in compliance with Prop I. Proposition I formally makes it City policy to urge the Mayor to appear in person at a “regularly scheduled” Board meeting at City Hall – not a special meeting held out in the Richmond District.

It’s well known that Newsom has ambition for higher office, and Senator Dianne Feinstein has said that she hopes he will replace her when she retires. But if Newsom cannot handle unscripted sessions where he doesn’t select which questions get asked, how can he expect to take the heat at the state or national level? Of course, without even getting elected to the U.S. Senate, Gavin Newsom has already learned how to filibuster.

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