Gavin Newsom, above Civic Center.
How Gavin Newsom Climbed to the Top
by Hank Donat
It was one of those mornings when the fog lifts late but suddenly, revealing a city in crystal clear, high-contrast colors that photographers love. If you listen closely, you can almost hear the chorus of angels amid the din of the town.
Testing my theory that the San Franciscan at home is all at once a neighbor, a tourist, and a traveler, my destination this day is the top of the dome at City Hall. Reaching a height of 307 feet, architect Arthur Brown Jr.'s 10,000 ton dome is the fifth largest in the world.
My escort is Supervisor Gavin Newsom, the mayoral candidate who hopes to reach the top of this building in quite another manner by year's end.
Newsom is squeezing in our jaunt to the top between a lunchtime confab and the regularly scheduled meeting of the Board of Supervisors. The board meeting is less than an hour away when I arrive at City Hall.
Newsom is in good spirits. He's raised a half million dollars for his run for Room 200 and is enjoying the momentum from his successful campaign to pass Care Not Cash. He's also bracing himself for an anticipated "couple of hit pieces," from the media when the campaign is in full swing.
"I think it's always the lesser of two evils on election day," Newsom says, "Everything about all the candidates gets exaggerated in the press and you end up with what you knew about someone at the beginning and you make a choice."
Though he'll celebrate his sixth anniversary as a supervisor in just a couple of days, Newsom says he still feels like a newcomer. "I'm always learning," he says, "In fact, I'd really like to go back to college. I wasn't ready for college when I was in college."
The first mayoral campaign for Newsom, who went to Santa Clara University on a baseball scholarship, is bound to be an education. With the support of moderates, his "radical center," Newsom wants to prove he's ready for prime time. But the only thing he has to prove today is that he can climb the 254 steps to the top of Arthur Brown's dome.
Newsom is headstrong. He refuses to wear legislative aid Michael Farrah's coat over his own crisp, French-laundered white dress shirt. "It's really, really dirty up there," Farrah insists. Newsom rolls up his sleeves and drapes the coat over a chair.
The inner space of the dome is unimpressive. Everything is covered with fire-retardant building material like an extremely well-flocked Christmas tree. The cold, narrow steps, like those on a submarine, could have been squeezed in as an afterthought, as if to save every possible square inch for the magnificent relief work seen from below.
On the way up, Newsom, who routinely jogs up and down the insanely cardio-vascular Lyon Street stairs, reminisces about climbing the leaning tower of Pisa. Between quiet but desperate gasps for air, I offer a memory about climbing to the hunchback's bell tower at Notre Dame in Paris. "How long ago was that?" I thought, "and am I really so out of shape now?"
Arriving at the top is a revelation. After I heave for moment, as though I've just survived The Poseidon Adventure, I see that Newsom hasn't broken a sweat. Not one drop.
"I'm mad at you now," I said. "Why is that?" asks Newsom.
"Because we're the same age. You could at least shpritz." Newsom gives me a look that seems to say, "Lead, follow, or get out of the way."
The view from here is breathtaking. Neither Newsom nor I expected to see the Golden Gate Bridge from here, but there it was.
"See, you see that?" Newsom asks, pointing to the barren median strips on Van Ness Avenue. "Greenery there would mitigate traffic noise and increase the value of surrounding property."
As we survey the Civic Center, Newsom makes a series of observations that reveal his penchant for symmetry. He's elated the symphony hall and state building look like bookends from this height.
Together we deride the ugliness of Fox Plaza. "Just terrible," Newsom says, "and on the site of one of the most beautiful theatres in the world." The Fox Theatre was demolished in 1963, a few years before Newsom and I were born. The San Franciscan, as the legend goes, is born with memories.
Newsom observes the lack of public art at Civic Center, which is glaring from here. The uncluttered lawns in front of City Hall look naked without so much as a pink flamingo.
I point to the mural by the artist Rigo, a couple of blocks away on Market Street. Like Rigo's other well known murals, it's a traffic sign. This one's emblazoned with the word "Truth." Its message is aimed squarely at the mayor's office.
After the descent back into the building, Newsom is fresh as a daisy and so is his crisp, white shirt. The coming months will tell whether Newsom's trip to a room just down the hall - the mayor's office - will be so effortless.
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Copyright 2003 Hank Donat