SAN FRANCISCO — Most of the country probably couldn’t care less about this city’s mayoral race. Quite frankly, the issues at stake don’t play in Peoria. Most who live even a few miles outside of this city tend to write off the local political scrapes as little more than quirky high-stakes theater. In fact, I suspect more than a few among the Spectator’s loyal readership wouldn’t mind if this entire bumpy blob of colorful humanity, progressive politics, and renovated Victorian mansions abruptly tumbled down the rough-hewn side of the continent, and sunk noisily to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
For now, a sizable portion of America might think this place pretty (aside from the homeless sprawled along my block), full of delicious ethnic eateries, and, on the whole, pleasant to visit, but as far as the political climate is concerned, it could easily resemble a different planet altogether — possibly an inconsequential one. Yet, as a relative stranger to the attitudes and habits of these parts myself, I am aware that, in this contest, the citizens of San Francisco are embroiled in a compelling electoral dilemma that stretches well beyond the trappings of everyday political intrigue.
Let’s take it from the top: Before the general election on November 4, there were four major candidates. Golden boy front-runner Gavin Newsom, a business-friendly moderate in the glitzy Willie Brown vein, was at the top of many tickets from the outset. Trial lawyer Angela Alioto, the liberal Dem spawn of an old, historically political Frisco family, promised to be a fiery challenger, as did veteran Supervisor Tom Ammiano, a gay education activist/stand-up comic. Finally, local Green Party sensation Matt Gonzalez, a former public defender and the current President of the City’s Board of Supervisors, arrived late to round out the ballot.
Once the dust kicked up by this motley crew of Bay Area bleeding hearts settled a month ago, Newsom emerged on top. However, since the well-heeled preppie only garnered 41 percent of the vote, he’s been forced into a December 9 run-off election against Gonzalez. That’s right, in a bit of a shocker, the bohemian wunderkind leapfrogged past his stodgier liberal comrades on the strength of a hard-hitting campaign aimed largely at the controversial “Care Not Cash” program for the homeless championed by Brown’s khaki-clad heir apparent.
In the days following the initial election, Ammiano quickly crossed party lines to endorse Gonzalez, a noble gesture to benefit a man who had greedily snatched a healthy portion of his once-devoted voting base. On the other hand, in a move that irked some of her biggest fans and deeply pleased leaders, Alioto betrayed her infamous vow never to back Newsom by publicly pledging her support in exchange for a prime post in his administration.
NOW THAT THE FIELD HAS NARROWED, the run-off election campaigning is getting nasty. Sprightly Gavin, ominously dubbed “Gruesome Newsom” by detractors, a bright, 36-year-old wine and restaurant impresario with overwhelming Financial District support and oft-noted ties to Gordon Getty, is certainly happiest attending to landowner interests and trying to crop monetary compensation for the homeless. His supporters see him as the serious, pragmatic candidate, capable of crafting tough yet compassionate solutions to San Francisco’s varied epidemics, and his opponent, the earnest and cheeky Gonzalez, as the doggedly out-of-touch dreamer barely worthy of his tired hipster pretensions. Of course, Gonzalez and his crew see things differently. In their eyes, Newsom is a slick, opportunistic square boasting the absurd luck and perfect connections to forge only a corrupt continuation of the Brown dynasty, not a fresh plan to revitalize this city.
Around here, the public is as polarized as it can get, and it is a commonly held belief that the future of San Francisco politics may hang precariously on the results of this election. An affable centrist is pitted against an uncompromising idealist, and at stake is a proud town’s identity.
A number of Democratic statesmen near and far have realized a Green mayor would carve into their power base, and have been eagerly weighing in. In a creepy effort to ensure his well-coiffed pal the nod, Willie Brown, who has a history of smothering his friends’ competitors in groundless charges, has cheerfully accused Gonzalez, a Latino, of bigotry towards African-Americans. In addition, heavyweight Dem Al Gore recently flew in to backslap young Newsom who, come to think of it, could readily pass for a slimmer, chattier, and (thankfully) beardless incarnation of the former Vice President.
As far as local political contests go, this has been a marathon in the making, with a photo finish yet to come. But beneath San Fran tug-of-war between wealthy urban Democrats and their rebellious Green Party step-children is a much more interesting conflict. For many voters, the crux of this mayoral contest rests not on the city’s warped conception of the traditional conservative-liberal paradigm, but on their pure, unadulterated sex appeal.
The weeklies were first to ask: Gavin or Matt — who’s cuter? Which one do you want to date? Who’d you rather make out with? Rest assured, rather than see our mayoral candidates reduced to teen magazine pin-ups and the electorate to bubbly ninnies, many of us would be much happier to share six-packs instead. Still, it’s easy to see how these guys are attracting supporters (surely both male and female) with such vastly different hankerings.
Unlike Newsom, who favors crisp suits and slicked-back locks, Gonzalez, a former high school football star, sports the rumpled earth tones and shaggy sideburns of a college philosophy professor. Presumably single, he prefers to live with roommates, plays the bass guitar, and moonlights on occasion as a literary critic. In contrast, Newsom lives with his glamorous wife, once a lingerie model (now an attorney), in a mansion located in one of San Fran’s toniest districts. Of course, Newsom may carry San Francisco’s venture capitalists in his pressed pocket, but Gonzalez enjoys hipster credibility and the right to kick back at neighborhood pubs with such local luminaries as poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and rock musician Jonathon Richman.
Being generally lascivious, San Franciscans are hopelessly fixated on this debate. On Craigslist, an immensely popular Bay Area-based website, posters passionately wage war in lower case on the merits of each candidate’s physique, sense of style, and perceived level of sophistication. Some posts approach the obscene, but much of the commentary is quotable. One woman prefers Matt’s “gorgeously moppy haircut” to Gavin’s “chiseled mug” while another defends her favorite Dem as “a hottie” and dismisses Matt as “gross…not at all attractive and so sloppy looking.” Those who admire Gonzalez’s “sexy voice” and “pretty large hands” might agree that “Newsom looks like a waxen Baptist preacher,” but for others, hygiene is the paramount issue. “Matt Gonzalez stinks…[My friend] was in the same room with him once and [he] did smell really bad,” harps one poster, who wonders “if he stinks, then what’s his view on stinky homeless people who [defecate] in doorways?”
All poor taste aside, the impulse to obsessively dissect the looks of the two candidates has quickly trickled up to the pages of major area newspapers. On December 3, the Chronicle ran a spirited “Queer Eye for the Straight Candidate” spoof in which a parade of sassy stylists offered up ways each contender could improve his physical appearance. “Only 40-year-old men who cyber-date girls named Vega part their hair down the middle,” quipped one in reference to Newsom’s oily hairdo. Another advised Gonzalez to shop Banana Republic as “the brand says, ‘I’m stylish, I’m modern, I’m accessible and I’m smart with cash.’”
On Tuesday, we’ll find out if Gonzalez’s understated fiscal conservatism manages to sway voters wary of Newsom’s expensive “best practices” habit. Until then, shouldn’t everyone stay focused on what’s truly important? Instead of organizing all those dull rallies and cloying benefit concerts, people should get involved by hosting slumber parties, drawing little pink hearts on folders, and, most importantly, passing around flirty notes in class. Just check the first box to pick Gavin, the second box if you like Matt, or the last if you’re hopelessly unable to decide.
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