Inside Story: Why Newsom’s Governor Bid Collapsed


twogavinsSan Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s publicly-stated reason for dropping out of the Democratic race for governor was the absolute truth:  “With a young family and responsibilities at City Hall, I have found it impossible to commit the time required to complete this effort the way it needs to — and should be — done.”

But, according to sources close to Prince Gavin, it didn’t have to be so.

Despite his charisma, policy depth and breezy communication skills, Newsom found himself behind Attorney General Jerry Brown by 8-to-1 in campaign cash and 20 points in the polls because of three key problems: his utter lack of discipline, his inability to manage his City Hall staff and his faulty judgment about the practical operations of a statewide campaign.

Last week, with about $375,000 in the bank, Newsom finally realized he would have to put City Hall on maintenance mode and commit to at least 20-40 hours a week on the phone, schmoozing donors and political shakers, raising money the old-fashioned way – a task he simply could not make himself do.

For Newsom, as he said in his statement, it truly was “impossible to commit the time required to complete this effort the way it needs to – and should be – done.”

In part, this is a function of how Prince Gavin operates in the political world. “Newsom is really motivated by public policy,” said one insider. “He wants to pull together all the stakeholders and hammer out the next new policy option.”

Time and agaiericgarryn he would find one excuse after another to blow off scheduled time for fund-raising, even when his campaign staff arranged for an office across the street from City Hall. He could not be made to make the phone calls — even in the car during drive time — for a senator’s birthday or a labor leader’s new baby or whatever political chingadera needed tending at any given moment.

Partly this was a function of what might be called Newsom’s Political Attention Deficit Disorder. But his PADD was reinforced and amplified by the political strategy that the candidate originally bought into – the theory propounded by Eric Jaye, his long time strategist, that given a national base among gays, progressives and greens, Newsom would be able to raise $35 million, mostly online, through Twitter, Facebook and other social “new campaign” networking channels.

This was an absurd projection. By comparison,  Phil Angelides, who was state treasurer, former state party chairman and a prolific fundraiser with a deep base in the Greek-American community when he became a candidate for governor, had managed to raise $22.3 million over 3 ½ years leading up the 2006 primary.

Jaye’s model may have been wildly unrealistic, but it dovetailed nicely with Newsom’s personality and his desire to believe that he could raise the money he needed without resorting to old-fashioned dialing-for-dollars. A byproduct of Jaye’s belief in the social-networking model: the finance and political directors he had brought into the campaign had nothing like the experience a campaign would demand if traditional fund-raising and connecting with existing party power centers were regarded as crucial  endeavors.

Meanwhile, Newsom’s City Hall staff – who were close to Jaye and whose base is simply the voters of San Francisco – hoarded the candidate’s schedule and constantly came up with new initiatives and ideas for the mayor that the campaign staff often only learned about after the fact.

The rift in the campaign – with Garry South, Peter Ragone and Nick Clemons on one side versus Jaye and his City Hall allies on the other – grew increasingly bitter; Jaye argued that Newsom should use his successes in San Francisco to demonstrate his fitness to be governor, while the others pushed for Newsom to demonstrate viability through fund raising, building statewide support and articulating a political message about change and reform to contrast with Brown, whom they would aggressively portray as old-school status quo.

In late July, Jaye was ousted from the campaign. But Newsom still could not  bring his City Hall operation to heel. Newsom’s support for a tax on soda products (in September) and his police chief’s new plan to allow unlicensed drivers to phone a friend to retrieve their car after a traffic stop (last week) are just two recent examples of policies the campaign had no idea about before they were announced to the news media.

Newsom ultimately was incapable of managing the conflict between the innate leftiness of his San Francisco City Hall staff and the realpolitik pragmatism of his California campaign staff.

The Newsom strategic message – new versus old, change versus status quo – was always a long shot: making Jerry Brown look like a geezer is no easy task, even though he’s 71 years old, bald and sports bushy white eyebrows. There’s something Tony Bennett about him that resists being branded as over-the-hill.

But as a 42-year-old mayor from a liberal Northern California city, it was Newsom’s best shot. With enough money and political support behind him, he might have made a run at Brown, not from the left or the right but from the future.

But there’s the paradox: Newsom thought that propounding a new ideas message meant he could avoid the old politics necessity to focus on fundraising and building alliances. As a political matter, it was a fatal flaw.

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There are 9 comments for this post

  1. avatar tonyseton says:

    Nice obit. Great LIne: “But as a 42-year-old mayor from a liberal Northern California city, it was Newsom’s best shot. With enough money and political support behind him, he might have made a run at Brown, not from the left or the right but from the future.”
    But the bottom line is that someone who so mismanaged his campaign could hardly have managed the state. Which is why every candidate for executive office should have to take charge of his own campaign, to provde his abilities. Or lack thereof as it were.

  2. avatar Bystander says:

    You guys are obviously flacking for Garry South and his version of reality — which rarely corresponds with the truth.

  3. avatar rgoulet says:

    Great story. Having worked on several campaigns myself – but not this one – I have seen this dual phenomenon first hand. First, if the candidate isn’t willing to roll up his or her sleeves and dial for dollars day in and day out, you’re doomed. Secondly, if the candidate isn’t willing to clearly set the priorities and let’s the infighting between camps build over time, you’re doomed that way as well.

    I must admit, it does jive very well with everything I’ve ever heard folks whisper about how Newsom runs city hall over the years. Perhaps he’d be better suited to being a cabinet secretary so he can focus on innovative policies on one set of issues??

  4. avatar pdquick says:

    The “utter lack of discipline” is no news to anyone paying attention in SF. The policy “inititiatives” don’t come from a desire to “pull together all the stakeholders and hammer out the next new policy option.” They are consistently either drafted from elsewhere (tidal energy, police reform), developed by focus groups (Care Not Cash), or desperate stopgaps to stop a political hemorrhage (same-sex marriage). Remember, this is someone who lost the gay vote in 2003 after refusing to take a stand on same-sex marriage–and it almost cost him that election. The guy is notorious for failing to follow through on commitments, and for issuing “initiatives” that are only so much hot air. As for the need to “put City Hall on maintenance mode,” that shouldn’t have been a problem. It’s been running on maintenance mode for almost six years.

  5. avatar pdquick says:

    I should have added Healthy San Francisco–which as a practical matter created a new set of barriers to care for uninsured San Franciscans–as an example of an idea stolen from others.

  6. avatar Dallas112263 says:

    Mr. Newsom’s implosion comes as no great surprise, a bit early but I like definition… But even without looking into the fundraising and what is, right now, totally irrelevant polling, one could perceive a lack of enthusiasm for the Mayor’s campaign. It seems clear that Californians have learned that dramatic changes in the Executive as we have seen since 2001 are pointless as long as a handful of corporate Republicans can stymie any and all effective reform. The fact of his age pretty much precludes Mr. Brown seeking higher office or in fact running for re-election, thus he would be perceived as one prepared to do what is right and needed without reference to day to day politics as usual. As the writer has noted, most of Gov. Moonbeam’s ideas turned out to be pretty good ideas, when confronted with the shibboleths of his past all he has to do is chuckle and mention bridges and running some water under them, and chuckle again… And then start laying out his water policy… Glaze to black…

    Though their sound and fury will, IMHO, turn out to be pointless, the Republicans will have to provide the “color” and the horse race in the 2010 Gubernatorial contest…

  7. avatar Ave7 says:

    A young, self-absorbed, glamor-boy chief executive, impatient with anything hard or humbling, obsessed with beautiful women and finding his political destiny, who breeds a factionalized and uncontrollable staff, who learns about his own policy proposals in the morning paper, who sees technology as a savior, and who lacks the discipline to do the nitty-gritty of the immediate challenge?

    Help me…are we talking about the current Mayor Newsom or the old Governor Brown?

    • avatar Mobius Trip says:

      Oh sure, Ave7 – definitely a comparison. Secretary of state and successful, two-term governor of CA who fought the oil companies on drilling off the coast, appointed the first female, Latino and Black judges to the state supreme court, notably eschewed all the elegant trappings of office, supported the farmworkers, and even passed the first tax break for CA homeowner’s solar panels. Um, ran three innovative, if unsuccessful, races for the presidency, mayor of Oakland for two terms and currently Attorney General of the state. I can see why you’re having a hard time telling them apart, buddy.

    • avatar Ave7 says:

      Everything you said is true, and everything I said is true. It’s called “irony.” Look it up my friend.

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