What's in His closet?

The Picture of Gavin Newsom

S.F. Mayor's Office

October 10, 2007


Update: In November 2010, Gavin Newsom was elected lieutenant governor of California, putting him next in line to lead the state should anything happen to Gov. Jerry Brown.

One summer day back in 2002, then Supervisor Gavin Newsom walked into an old warehouse in Hunters Point to give a pep talk to some city-funded street cleaners. Depending on who you ask, the occasion amounted to nothing more than an ordinary day in the life of a public official, or it signaled the start of an election conspiracy. Either way, those welfare-to-work employees ended up walking precincts for the wealthy supervisor a year later. And the city's Department of Public Works (DPW) picked up the tab.

Newsom sould edge out Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez in a tight race, becoming San Francisco's youngest mayor in in the city's history. Thereafter, a few of the street cleaners filed complaints, alleging that DPW Deputy Director Mohammed Nuru compelled them to campaign on Newsom's behalf. They claimed Nuru warned them that if Newsom failed to win the election, they would likely all lose their jobs. Nuru is a former executive director of the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, the nonprofit that occupied the Hunters Point warehouse and employed the crew. SLUG was started by environmentalists in the 1980's to promote community gardens in the city. However, in the 1990's the organization morphed into more of a contract service agency, one financed largely by local government agencies.

In sworn testimony, the workers also said their immediate supervisors threatened them with the loss of pay if they didn't attend Newsom campaign appearances, cast absentee ballots, walk precincts on election day, and help post campaign signs around town. These were undoubtedly serious allegations, leading City Attorney Dennis Herrera to launch an inquiry.Yet both Nuru and Newsom were cleared of any wrongdoing.

In fact, the only casualties of this episode turned out to be the workers themselves. Shortly after the complaints were filed, the city controller banned SLUG from servicing any more city contracts. Already teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, the nonprofit's welfare-to-work employees were all terminated and the organization eventually disbanded after 20 years in business. Newsom famous campaign slogan regarding the homeless, “Care not Cash” suddenly took on a whole new meaning.

This November, the mayor is up for re-election. Needless to say, he won't need street cleaners to walk his precincts, since no major candidate has come forward to challenge him. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, negotiations are underway to donate some of Newsom's massive $6 million dollar campaign chest to a scholarship fund at S.F. State University.

Perhaps in the giddiness of the moment, the mayor has sent a memorandum to all city agency heads, asking for a letter of resignation from each one, which will take effect next January. That's when he officially begins his second term. It's a roundabout way of securing a loyalty oath from subordinates, and for that reason many of the targetted executives have lodged protests with the city attorney. (Writing such a letter certainly won't help their chances of getting unemployment.) In addition, the union which represents about a thousand city managers has refused to endorse Newsom for mayor, citing competency issues and his lack of overall engagement in the day-to-day operation of city government. One anonymous union member interviewed praised some of Newsom's feats during the first term but told the Chronicle, “it is very hard to know what it is he's truly trying to accomplish, other than ... I can't even call them initiatives because an initiative implies organization. The plans seem to change week to week."

Still, the newspaper noted that Newsom enjoys high approval ratings from most city residents and has the endorsement of the firefighters, police and other unions. This despite revelations last spring that the mayor had gone on an alcoholic binge and commenced a steamy affair with his appointments secretary, Ruby Rippey-Tourk. This time it was Newsom's campaign manager - the husband of Rippey-Tourk - who announced his resignation. Naturally, the city attorney's office opened an investigation. In particular, there was some discussion about the legality of the mayor authorizing $10,000 in paid leave for his now ex-lover. Evidently, she took nine weeks off work to attend a substance abuse program when the affair was exposed. Afterward, she quit her job.

Again, the mayor was exonerated of any wrongdoing.

In reviewing all these fascinating developments, one can't help but be reminded of the classic Oscar Wilde story, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In it, a wealthy young bachelor poses for a portrait with a peculiar sculpture on the mantel behind him. While the artist paints, a friend explains to Gray the occult power of the art object to grant any wish. So Gray takes advantage of the opportunity and wishes that he always remain as young and virile as he is on that day.

From the movie The Picture of Dorian Gray

For the next 30 years, Wilde's protagonist does indeed retain the boyishly pleasant face and sleek figure captured in the portrait. Yet whenever he commits an indiscretion - the first, for instance, causing the suicide of his fiancé (played by Angela Lansbury) the portrait of him grows a notch darker and more hideous.

The parallels are striking. Gavin Newsom's good looks and bachelor status have made him a national celebrity ever since he first stumbled onto the scene in 1996. And the wish-granting object matches the role that billionaire Gordon Getty has played in Newsom's life. Getty, who is the son of the miserly oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, has financed nearly all of Newsom's businesses and election races.

Both Getty and his trust administrator, Judge William Newsom (Gavin's father) are Republicans. However, in a town where 80 percent of voters register as Democrats, it's not surprising that Gavin Newsom identifies himself as one, too. Getty has backed people like Dianne Feinstein, Willie Brown (who first appointed Newsom to the board of supes) and Nancy Pelosi. (Curiously, both Feinstein and Pelosi are married to investment bankers.) In 1992, at the age of 25, Newsom opened his first business, the PlumpJack Wine Shop. PlumpJack is the name of an opera written by Gordon Getty himself. It's based on the slovenly liar and drunkard Jack Falstaff from Shakespeare's Henry IV.

In 2001, Newsom married Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Victoria's Secret model and prosecutor who went on to work for the conservative cable channel Court TV. After their divorce five years later, Guilfoyle became the host of The Lineup, which airs on the equally conservative Fox News Channel. Apparently the 24-hour network of the G.O.P. went to some lengths to revamp the show for Newsom's ex, even though he himself had recently authorized his city clerk to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples. Many election observers felt President Bush triumphed in 2004 by using gay marriage as a wedge issue, so Newsom's actions on that subject proved quite fortuitous for the Texas political dynasty.

Yet despite so much circumstantial evidence of right-wing ties, Newsom manages to navigate around his home turf - the gay-friendly, liberal Democratic city of San Francisco - with nary a stain of suspicion. In the Oscar Wilde story, Dorian Gray makes regular trips to the dark side of town in order to satisfy his lust in a house of prostitution. He cuts deals with criminals to further his personal ends. And no one in his social circle ever catches on.

Seedy though it may be, the underworld analogy merits further discussion. Newsom recently appointed the DPW Deputy Director Nuru to serve on a committee to pick the next director of the San Francisco Housing Authority. The Authority has a long history of corruption that includes pocketing funds intended to repair the city's low-income housing projects. Earlier this year, a federal official identified a housing project in the Bayview area as among the worst he's seen in the United States.

On another front, last spring the mayor intervened after the Taxi Commission voted to fire that agency's executive director, Heidi Machen, citing issues of mismanagement and her poor judgment in hiring subordinates. In particular, Machen tapped as second-in-command her longtime companion, Tristan Bettencourt. Bettencourt is a former taxi driver convicted of felony burglary. According to court records, he picked up a woman and her children at their Marina District home in 1989, and after dropping them off at a local mall, returned to ransack the house. He was apprehended when a vigilant neighbor called the police.

Machen posted bail for her lover after the burglary. And while employed by the Taxi Commission, Bettencourt's wages were being garnished to pay damages in another criminal case, this one involving a computer scam.

Incredibly, Newsom responded to the commission's vote by sacking two of the board members who supported Machen's removal. He then appointed replacements who quickly voted to reinstate her. But perhaps the kicker of the story is that Machen's previous job had been working as a legislative aide for Newsom while he was supervisor of… the Marina district.

And then there's the Municipal Transit Agency, or MTA, to consider. MTA operates both Muni and the city's lucrative parking division. In January, 2006, the mayor's office chose Nathaniel Ford, who formerly head of Atlanta's transit agency, MARTA, to preside over MTA's $800 million annual budget. Ford is a former conductor on the New York subway system with no formal post-secondary education. Six months into his new stint here, the San Francisco Business Times reported that Georgia state authorities were investigating Ford and other former executives because they had logged millions of dollars in incidental expenses when MARTA was on the verge of bankruptcy.

Ford and his secretaries racked up $150,000 in charges on two credit cards, the Times stated, neither of which MARTA's governing board had ever authorized. The tabs included meals and drinks at expensive restaurants, a $454 purchase at a golf pro shop, $335 in clothing from the Men's Wearhouse, and $58 for a dental visit. Ford told the Chronicle he had recently reimbursed $11,000 to the agency, but refused to discuss the matter further.

“I think he's exactly right for the job" MTA board member Tom Nolan told the Times, when asked about the revelations. "If something happened back there, I don't know how much that would impact us at all." While no allegations of mispent funds have been made against Ford in San Francisco, he earns $300,000 annually, plus the possibility of a 10 percent annual bonus for meeting work deadlines set by the board. Meanwhile, analysts are predicting the current Muni deficit of $100 million (or more) will likely result in another fare increase soon. In MARTA's case, the base fare was raised to $1.75 during Ford's tenure. See our article, The Trouble with Muni, for more on this agency's troubles.

Circling the Wagons

Like Dorian Gray, Newsom's enemies seem never to lay a glove on him. In the novel, the Angela Lansbury's brother tries to get revenge against Gray for causing the suicide, but is accidentally shot dead on a firing range. Supervisor Chris Daly appears the likely parallel of that pathetic character. In June, he publicly castigated Newsom during a budget meeting for cutting $200,000 from a substance abuse program. Daly claimed the mayor lied when he said there was no money to cover the costs and was probably a cocaine addict himself.

The accusation really wasn't much of a stretch. Gordon Getty's protege is known to run with the high-flying celebrity circuit, a demographic which considers the potent white powder indispensable to one's night life. As for lying about available funds in the city treasury, a quick check of the facts discloses that Newsom included in this year's budget $500,000 for a new small business support center. The center will effectively duplicate services already provided in the city by the federal government and other local agencies, so the expense does seem a bit gratuitous when compared to Daly's substance abuse program.

In his 2007-2008 budget, Newsom also awarded an unprecedented 25-30 percent across-the-board pay raise for police officers, while adding 250 new law enforcement positions to boot. This despite criticism from community groups who claimed the SFPD had yet to address its costly practice of assigning uniformed staff to undertake clerical and other jobs normally reserved for more affordable civilian employees.

No matter, the local media outlets circled the wagons after Chris Daly's emperor's clothes speech in the board of supervisors chambers on June 20, 2007. Senator Feinstein demanded punishment, arguing that Daly failed to observe proper decorum while in chambers. Board President Aaron Peskin duly complied with this request, removing him from the budget committee.

It may be worth noting here that during her own time as mayor, Feinstein was tainted by the sensational arrest of her longtime city administrator, Roger Boas. Throughout his tenure in office, Boas paid a pimp to hook him up with underage prostitutes. So clearly, the concept of a proportional response to wrongdoing is not a mainstay in California's most colorful metropolis. Feinstein herself ascended the mayoral throne following the murder of Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the city's first openly gay supervisor, back in 1978. Both men were killed by a third supervisor, Dan White, who snuck into city hall through an open window with a revolver. A former police officer, White snuffed out the lives of two progressive leaders in the course of about ten minutes, yet paid for that crime with a manslaughter conviction and less than seven years in prison. (He committed suicide shortly after his release.)

But getting back to Gavin Newsom, the former owner of Plumjack Wine Shop marches forwards to another four years at the helm of San Francisco. Given the eventual demise of the protagonist in Wilde's psychological thriller, it will be interesting to see how the mayor's remaining chapters play out.

Rosemary Regello

The author worked as an administrative assistant at SLUG in 2002.

Copyright © 2007 TheCityEdition.com


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