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Green win could have impact beyond city race

by Green Thursday, Dec. 04, 2003 at 4:43 PM

Shaggy-haired Matt Gonzalez, darling of the young, the hip and the non-propertied classes, is within striking distance of an upset in next Tuesday's mayoral runoff. If the 38-year-old lawyer wins, this overwhelmingly Democratic city of 791,000 would become the USA's largest to be run by a Green mayor.

Posted 12/2/2003 10:15 PM

Green win could have impact beyond city race

By John Ritter, USA TODAY

SAN FRANCISCO -- This unabashedly liberal city -- caldron of protest, celebrator of the outlandish and the fringe -- is flirting with a whole new leftist bent.

A candidate from the eco-friendly, ultra-progressive Green Party is threatening what passes for political convention here with a serious run at City Hall.

Shaggy-haired Matt Gonzalez, darling of the young, the hip and the non-propertied classes, is within striking distance of an upset in next Tuesday's mayoral runoff. If the 38-year-old lawyer wins, this overwhelmingly Democratic city of 791,000 would become the USA's largest to be run by a Green mayor.

His opponent, socially connected entrepreneur Gavin Newsom, architect of a get-tough policy to deal with the city's perennial homeless problem, has seen his once formidable lead shrink. A poll last month by local TV station KPIX had the race a dead heat. Both men sit on the elected Board of Supervisors that governs the city.

A Green victory here not only would raise the fledgling party's profile but also could hasten the defection of liberals from the Democratic Party. After the Oct. 7 election of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, political analysts expect the state Democratic Party to move toward the political center to compete with the popular former actor and his centrist policies.

That would alienate liberal Democrats and send them to the Green Party, analysts say. If enough Greens desert Democrats, Republicans could solidify their hold on the governor's office and perhaps win seats in Congress. Democrats hold a 35-20 advantage in California's congressional delegation.

A Green ascendancy in California also could have national political implications. If Greens siphon off enough Democrats, Republicans could win a plurality of the statewide vote, handing California's 55 electoral votes to a GOP presidential candidate. That prospect brought out heavyweight Democrats from former vice president Al Gore to Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi, the city's congresswoman, to campaign for Newsom. President Bush all but wrote off California in 2000, and no Republican has carried the most populous state since his father in 1988.

"If you really had a serious Green candidate taking votes away from a Democratic candidate, you could flip a state that's fairly liberal in a Republican direction," says Bruce Cain, a political science professor at the University of California-Berkeley. "So it would be a huge boon to the Republican Party to have the Greens thrive in California."

Green Party gains exposure

California is the epicenter of the USA's Green movement with more than 165,000 registered voters, just over 1% of the electorate. The party won official status to appear on the state's ballots in 1992 and gained priceless exposure in this year's campaign to recall Gov. Gray Davis when its candidate, Peter Camejo, shared debate stages with the major-party candidates.

In 2000, more than 400,000 Californians, nearly 4% of the electorate, voted for Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader. Many resentful Democrats believe Nader won enough votes in 2000 to tip several closely contested states to Bush and deny Gore the White House.

Greens push environmental responsibility, grassroots democracy, social justice and non-violence. But Gonzalez, a Democrat-turned-Green, downplays his affiliation in a bid to attract moderate Democrats. Officially, the election is non-partisan; party labels don't appear on ballots.

The rest of the country would label both Newsom and Gonzalez liberal, but they part ways on many issues, including one that has bedeviled politicians here for years, the homeless.

San Francisco has had one of the nation's most tolerant homeless policies, epitomized by a monthly cash payment of up to 5 for homeless singles.

Newsom, a restaurant owner whose business ventures have been backed by billionaire family friend Gordon Getty, wants to replace the payments with housing, job training and other services.

Fed up with panhandling, public urination and homeless camps, voters by a wide margin approved his "care not cash" measure last year, but it required Board of Supervisors approval. The board and its president, Gonzalez, rejected it.

"If you look at the city in left-right terms, it's pretty evenly divided," Democratic pollster David Binder says. "So the fact that Newsom was so far ahead initially is probably more of a testament to the bump he gets out of the homeless issue."

Binder thinks many liberal homeowners who otherwise would back Gonzalez lean to Newsom because they want tougher homeless policies.

Says Cain: "The older established community in San Francisco is very worried about the degeneration of the quality of life in the city as a result of the homeless, the dirt, the disorder that the city seems to be in."

Race is tightening

Newsom, 36, is married to Kimberly Guilfoyle, the San Francisco prosecutor who won convictions last year against owners of a dog that fatally mauled a young woman inside an apartment building. He's seen as an ally of big developers who remade sections of the city with offices and commercial space during the dot-com boom.

That makeover, plus skyrocketing real estate prices, has forced many middle-class families into the suburbs. Now Gonzalez counts in his base many of the young renters who surged into the city in the 1990s.

A former public defender, Gonzalez would raise taxes on properties that sell for more than million and transfer control of the city's electric power system to a public authority, policies Newsom blasts as fiscally irresponsible and anti-business.

With backing from business and labor, Newsom has raised .3 million, compared with Gonzalez's 0,000. But Gonzalez benefits from an energetic core of young campaign workers. And he got a boost from an appearance by actor Martin Sheen, a liberal activist and star of NBC's The West Wing.

The two supervisors beat five other candidates to set up the runoff. Newsom won 42% of the November vote to Gonzalez's 21%, but analysts say most of those who didn't vote for either now support Gonzalez.

"It has definitely tightened up," says Binder, whose latest poll gives Newsom an 8-percentage point edge. "Matt's an attractive candidate, and voters like him. He's fresh, he has values he's committed to and people respect that."

Newsom enjoys the support of Mayor Willie Brown, forced from office after eight years by term limits, but not the range of Brown's Democratic Party contacts.

Cain says Newsom can't call on the Sacramento interest groups, party regulars and consultants who always geared up for Brown, a former speaker of the state Assembly.

"Gavin doesn't have many of the advantages that Willie had when he was fighting off the left," Cain says. "So we've got someone who's not as firmly tied into the Democratic establishment fighting someone who's much more firmly tied into the alternative establishment.

"That could end up making it close."

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