During talk, San Fransisco mayor calls for more risk taking in politics

Steve Castillo Gavin Newsom

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom

As demonstrators lined up outside the California Supreme Court building during the debate over the constitutionality of a law banning same-sex marriage, San Francisco's charismatic Mayor Gavin Newsom was talking to a Business School audience about the difference between sweet talk and concrete action when it comes to being an effective leader.

Newsom, who four years ago ordered San Francisco to provide marriage licenses to same-sex couples, talked about the need for politicians to take risks, and he described the personal and professional price he has paid for taking bold positions on controversial issues.

"A lack of risk taking is the biggest problem in politics today. We like politicians who shake things up in the abstract, but when they really take action, people complain," he said during the March 4 "View from the Top" talk.

Most political leaders, he said, end up taking the easy route. "In politics, we can abdicate responsibility and play the blame game and still get elected. It's why we don't have universal health care. I promoted it early in my career. I didn't do anything about it then, yet you kept electing me," he commented wryly.

Eventually that position shifted and, against the advice of pundits, Newsom successfully implemented universal health care in San Francisco for all individuals as old as 24. Some of his other progressive reforms in the city include instituting universal preschool and elementary school, guaranteeing all high school students a four-year college education, and living wage guarantees. Other innovative initiatives address homelessness, poverty and the environmental crisis.

"If you listen to the commentators, it doesn't make sense that San Francisco is succeeding," he said. "But business and funding are flocking to us. When you advance the principles of equality and create conditions where everyone can prosper together, magic occurs. The private and public sectors flourish."

"San Francisco is 47.5 square miles surrounded by 'reality.' In that bubble, the reality we offer we hope will advance beyond those 47.5 miles," he said.

Answering a question about the personal cost of being a trailblazer on the issue of gay marriage, he said, "I got calls from every major Democrat saying, 'What the hell are you doing?' To this day, many democratic politicians want nothing to do with me. Two major churches in San Francisco have rejected me. I have family members who are still outraged with me. People say there's no way I'll be elected to anything else. I'm labeled 'the gay marriage mayor,' and what I'm doing on the environment and poverty is ignored."

Nevertheless, Newsom said, "sticking to your principles is bliss."

Newsom told the audience, made up mainly of students at the Graduate School of Business, that while politics could use a dose of business mentality, "the business brain will not automatically make politics more efficient." As an entrepreneur who has created 19 companies including restaurants, hotel, and retail stores, he urged listeners to remember, "It's not about money." His advice: "Find your purpose. It's your passion that persuades."

MBA students, in cooperation with the School's Center for Leadership Development and Research, organize the View from the Top speakers series inviting leaders of business and government to discuss leadership issues. Newsom's talk was part of a weeklong program of government leaders that included talks by former Mexican President Vicente Fox and U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulsen.

Marguerite Rigoglioso is a freelance writer.