Gavin’s Minor(ity) Problem

Mayor Gavin Newsom faced tough questions Tuesday night, March 12, at his townhall in the Frank Ogawa Rotunda in Oakland, CA.

High points:

-Newsom plugged healthcare almost to excess; his staff asked their interns to plant a softball question on universal healthcare so that he could talk about the access he’s expanded in S.F.
Edit: One of the interns clarified that they were asked to plant a question about healthcare in general, but not specifically a ‘softball.’
-In a brilliant PR-enhancing move, he promises young students a spot in college and loves education.

Photo courtesy of Kate Maeder, photojournalist.

Low Point:

His first question of the night was from a woman whose son had a nosebleed that morning that “filled up a garbage can.” She alleged it was because of particulate matter and toxic chemicals in her neighborhood, Hunter’s Point, and pointed out that children are suffering health consequences because of this government failure.

Gavin was extraordinarily knowledgeable on the subject, talking about the underground fire in Parcel E and recognizing the various community leaders with whom he’d worked to help this issue. He mentioned that only recently had the government paid S.F. $340 million that it owed for cleanup in the area, and that it took a while to put this money into action. The point remained, however, that he had been expediting measures to subsidize the Lennar corporation’s development of the Hunter’s Point Shipyard area.

-The Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard is a Superfund site, meaning that it’s a special toxic cleanup program as recognized by the EPA.
-The Lennar corporation acquired the rights to develop in Hunter’s Point, and is being blamed for much of the toxic waste. The Hunter’s Point Shipyard Community website, which is shiny and full of pictures of gentrified neighborhoods, is run by the Lennar Corporation itself (scroll to bottom)
-The EPA reports that the waste was left there by the U.S. Navy, which did repairs and used the port as an annex until 1976. Chemicals found in Parcels A and B included arsenic and metal zinc chromate. Local neighborhoods are saturated with asbestos.
-An underground fire even broke out, burning for weeks and spewing particulate matter into the air. The government failed to act, and the EPA fined the Navy $25,000. Local residents knew about it but were unable to take action themselves.
-Lennar has previously been responsible for respiratory problems in their housing developments.

The questioners then pledged to follow him to every town hall and ask him questions about Lennar to bring this issue to the forefront of his media exposure.

This puts him in a Catch-22:
The people who attend his town halls are predominantly white or Latino. All but one African American individual who asked him a question yesterday asked about Lennar.
-Gavin was encircled by four seating sections, and most of the folks from Hunter’s point were sitting in one quadrant. By avoiding questions from that section, he appears racist and his body language becomes dismissive. In last night’s town hall, to answer a question from any one quadrant, he had to turn his back on the three others.
-Late in the game, his staff failed to continue to choose questions from the audience. Gavin was forced to choose himself, and he turned away from that section and walked to the opposite end of the rotunda to take questions from other people. This put the question-dodging (literally) on him, instead of his staff.
-If Hunter’s Point residents continue to show up to town halls, to avoid their questions Gavin would have to avoid calling on African Americans. Not good.
-This is demonstrative of a much wider gap in California politicians’ awareness of environmental issues: They distinguish between social justice issues, such as inequality of race, income, education, and healthcare access, and environmental issues, which are issues of recycling, water shortages, and wildlife changes.
Environmental justice is the merging of the two: where demographics who are traditionally disproportionately affected by social justice problems are further disadvantaged by environmental circumstances that affect their health, insurance, or lifestyle. More politicians should realize that environmental problems stretch beyond some college kids who need money to start gardening on public land.

My thoughts:
Gavin should be answering these tough questions here, in his hometown. When he travels to the rest of California on campaigns, like Southern California and Orange County, he’ll be facing crowds who only know him for being a gay-loving hippie. But what’s equally important is how he’s dealt with local issues.

6 responses to “Gavin’s Minor(ity) Problem

  1. While I do appreciate your reporting of the town hall as being a league ahead of everything else I have read in terms of capturing the awkward tension, it seems to me that some of the analysis might be misplaced. Opinion is one thing, research and news another.

    A different perspective from a first hand observer:

    To start, do you really think Gavin is only promising middle-schoolers a spot in college to improve his public image? What about supporting marriage equality? Or defending SF’s Sanctuary City Ordinances? My sense is the guy generally takes positions because of their inherent value, and takes hits from all sides because of it. To dismiss a promise of higher education as simply “PR enhancing” inappropriately diminishes the value of such a proposal. Not everyone is so lucky as we are.

    Second, can we really blame any politician for doing PR anyhow? He’s a politician running for office after all; it’s what they do! I would as soon as criticize Obama for doing a little PR (which he certainly does, and does well, mind), as I would my cat for using the litterbox. It’s essential, even though it might not be pretty.

    On the exchanges concerning Lennar:

    What I took from all this was that while Lennar certainly has it’s problems–which may or may not implicate Gavin–it only represents the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems BayView/ Hunter’s point faces. You might not have put it in those words, but I do think your article captures that.

    As for the dynamics of the Q&A exchange itself-

    If any of us were in Gavin’s shoes that night, we would no doubt sympathize with the inclination to dodge those “questions.” But the fact is he didn’t dodge their rants. I can recall at least four lengthy interactions on the same topic, dwarfing the time spent on every other issue that night. I agree with you that Gavin demonstrated expert knowledge on the topic as well as his eagerness to address such issues at a statewide level. However, I would disagree in characterizing the exchange as demonstrative “of a much wider gap in California politicians’ awareness” on these issues. On the contrary, I think the exchange actually demonstrated his attention and concern for issues of environmental justice. I walk away more impressed.

    My last point concerns his defectors: Having grown up in close proximity to FIVE major refineries in the area, including my elementary school literally overlooking one, I appreciate their candor and spirit in raising awareness on their issue, however narrowly they might have done so. I know what it is like to have nosebleeds, headaches, and asthma growing up so I can certainly sympathize. With that said, in launching such in attack in that venue (how’s that for PR?), and dominating the event to the exclusion of many of the other participants, does a disservice to their cause. They tried to alienate Gavin from his audience, but ended up alienating most of his audience from themselves instead. I did in fact want to ask him a topic on healthcare, specifically what he planned to do about California’s much ignored problem of the UNDER-insured– but because I had to listen (twice, mind), to some lady’s (well meaning, no doubt), rant about how she saw “all nines” that day and that “god willed” her to do this and that, I didn’t get to ask a question that was of concern to most Californians, including minorities such as myself with whom Gavin supposedly has a “problem” with. That’s a shame.

    With loving respect,


    • tolovemycountry

      No, I don’t believe it was only a PR move– I think it is important that he symbolically promised all these kids a spot in college. Heartwarming, even. But the reason I described it as a PR move is because I question the ability of one San Francisco Mayor to ensure that every one of those kids has college paid for 7 years from now. I am glad that he promised that to those kids. But also, we won’t see the results of that promise until after the 2010 elections. It’s unenforceable. It will probably slip by the wayside. So while I believe in the message, and I believe in making kids believe in their ability to seek higher education, presenting those certificates to 6th graders is maybe not as important as talking to legislators in Sacramento now.

      I think Gavin was extremely gracious– he tried to contextualize the comments of the anti-Lennar folks by explaining, when they would name-drop, which councilmember that was, etc. And my favorite moment of the night was when the woman with the sick son said how much she admired how he had stood up for gay marriage, and his courage in the face of so much opposition there. That broke down every racial-sexuality barrier that the media had tried to establish in the wake of Prop 8. But in terms of Gavin’s sincere concern for problems of environmental justice, I feel like he still doesn’t quite understand the racial inequality that environmental injustice causes. So when I say he has a minority problem, it’s more that if he tries to avoid the anti-Lennar folks in the future, he’ll be put in the situation of having to choose not to call on African American individuals anymore.

      I don’t think that their behavior was appropriate either. Standing up and challenging him to a debate? Continuing to hold the floor even though they didn’t have a question, just to “get it out”? This wasn’t the right time or place for that. I really think we’re on the same page about this– but my point in writing this post is also that, despite Gavin’s altogether brilliant, level-headed approach to problem solving, gay rights, healthcare, education, etc., I think he needs to be asked these tough questions about his home city. And in terms of a wider gap of politicians’ awareness- we have people in the assembly debating for hours over whether mylar balloons should be banned. Or whether plastic doggie bags are a source of greater litter and pollution. I did like that Gavin reframed California’s climate change issues as a problem of access to water, but that’s not environmental justice.

    • tolovemycountry

      And yeah, perhaps I should have titled it “Gavin’s Rapidly-evaporating-African-American-community-from-Hunter’s-Point Problem” instead of encompassing all minorities.

  2. Yes, I do think we are mostly on the same page here.

    College: If I recall correctly, it was not that they would pay for any college, but that some sort of plan was already worked out with SFSU, which would make the proposal seem much more likely. But, like in all political promises that all politicians make, seeing is believing. Point taken– a follow up question should be directed his way as to the specifics and feasibility of the program. I will give him the benefit of the doubt, however, if for no other reason than I figure he is astute enough as to not make policies and claims that he can not deliver on. It would sort of be like “landing under sniper fire,” no?

    I agree, I think he does need to be asked those tough questions as well, though again, not to the exclusion of other important questions. And yes, most politicians are largely silent on issues of environmental justice. Awareness is certainly needed!

    While I agree Gavin did not say enough about environmental justice issues, I think it premature to base his knowledge on these issues on this particular exchange, especially given the context. His answers were pretty good and he brought up these issues himself at least on a couple of occasions, (and not just in terms of the African American community, either). Yes he could have gone farther, but relatively, he’s probably light years ahead of the other gubernatorial candidates. For that, I will give credit where credit is due, even if I too found the totality of his responses lacking. Seems we are arguing whether to see the glass as half empty or half full.

    Yes, it would be unfortunate of him not to take questions from African Americans in future town hall settings. Of course, the liklihood of this is probably not so great. Think about it: if the past Oakland town hall was any indication, I think he proved himself more than willing to take questions/rants from the Lennar group, even if they were seemingly offended over the fact that he took questions from individuals not affiliated with them. Second, he’s probably able to distinguish between African Americans and the subset of the anti-Lennar interest group. Assuming that, I am willing to bet he would be thrilled to take questions from African Americans who were not focused on the Lennar issue! Lastly, we should probably distinguish between these groups and subsets as well. I think Gavin does not have a minority problem so much as he might have an African American problem so much as he really has a Lennar problem.

    I leave you with one question: When California’s water supply reaches crisis level, which communities do you think will be most adversely affected by it?


    PS- Congrats on the announcement, and Happy Birthday.

  3. “Gavin’s Rapidly-evaporating-African-American-community-from-Hunter’s-Point Problem,” works as well!

  4. yeah that title was a little misleading I mean that was like drudge report or sumptin

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