SAN FRANCISCO – Seeking treatment for alcoholism, drug abuse or other addictions is no big deal in San Francisco, where altered states – and their aftermath – long have been an accepted part of the cultural landscape.
Mayor Gavin Newsom’s announcement that he will undergo counseling for alcohol use, which came on the heels of his admission that he had an affair with a veteran aide’s wife, therefore is unlikely to diminish his standing with voters as he seeks re-election this year, political analysts said Tuesday.
“He wouldn’t be the first man who had a few drinks, and he wouldn’t be the first man who had an affair,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who served as San Francisco’s mayor for nine years. “So he’s got to work this out in his own mind, but I believe he can continue. There’s no reason I see why he can’t be a good mayor.”
More unclear is how the 39-year-old mayor’s decision to seek treatment for alcohol use affects his own motivation and ability to run for higher office, observers said. Staying sober is challenging enough without the added pressure of worrying that you let people down and that your problem will be seen as a weakness, according to treatment professionals.
“Most addicts feel entitled anyway,” said Roland Williams, who runs alcoholism support groups in San Francisco for lawyers, doctors and other professionals. “But when you are working with someone who is educated and their entitlement has been fostered by years and years of having been catered to, it’s that much harder because they also typically have a lot of people in their camp who are invested in keeping them sick.”
The mayor revealed Monday that he is seeking professional help to keep him off alcohol, but that it would not affect his duties as mayor. He plans to be treated as an outpatient by Mimi Silbert, the co-founder and director of the Delancey Street Foundation, a residential program for hard-core addicts in San Francisco.
Silbert, who said she has known Newsom for two decades, said she could not elaborate on Newsom’s treatment plan, citing privacy concerns.
But other substance abuse counselors said clients undergoing outpatient treatment typically attend group and individual counseling sessions for three hours a day, three or four days a month for a minimum of three months.
Abby Medcalf, program director of the New Bridge Foundation in Berkeley, said she was surprised to learn the mayor planned to get help from Delancey Street because its client population “doesn’t match him.” His decision to be treated one-on-one by a person he knows also struck Medcalf as “a little strange.”
“It’s a bad setup,” Medcalf said. “Although I know he has very particular needs, he needs to be doing something different.”
Newsom’s chief campaign consultant, Eric Jaye, said Tuesday that the time the mayor devotes to recovery would not detract from his job performance or his re-election effort.
“Is he going to be reading fewer novels for the time being? I don’t know, probably,” Jaye said. “But will it take an hour here and there out of the campaign? … He certainly has time to do that and address this problem and to run a very successful re-election campaign.”
The campaign has not yet tackled the question of whether the mayor’s future fundraisers will need to be alcohol-free events, Jaye said.
“There are many elected officials, people who don’t drink any longer, who are in this environment and they cope by not drinking, and they are all doing pretty well,” Jaye said.
Although Newsom’s personal problems would seem to give ammunition to critics, the mayor’s strong support among women, gay and lesbian voters make it nearly impossible for a more liberal challenger to unseat him, said David Lee, a San Francisco State University political scientist.
Lee, who also directs the Chinese-American Voter Education Project, said the mayor’s tryst with Ruby Rippey-Tourk, his former appointments secretary who was married to his campaign manager, did not faze the 300 people who showed up at a previously scheduled fundraiser in Chinatown the day he went public about the affair. Attendees lined up for the mayor’s autograph and to be photographed with him.
The revelation about his drinking problem, however, may be a bigger obstacle with the city’s Chinese-American voters, Lee said.
“Whereas Western culture may see having an affair as a weakness, a lapse in judgment and a character flaw, in Asian cultures it’s not seen that way. It’s seen as, ‘Of course, he is a man in power, powerful men attract women,” Lee said. “Whereas if you are not able to control your drinking, that is seen more as an acknowledgment of weakness.”
While Newsom’s name is often floated among possible gubernatorial candidates in 2010, he’s often said that his stand on gay marriage pretty much ruled out a bid for higher office until the rest of California and the country see the issue the way San Francisco does. He also has repeatedly said that he could see himself returning to the wine and restaurant empire he built before his election.
Other prominent Democrats said that if Newsom wants to stay in politics, neither the sexual scandal nor a drinking problem should prevent him from being a viable candidate for statewide or national office. Several recalled how after battling a drug and alcohol addiction while in office, former Rep. John Burton went on to become president of the California Senate.
“The important thing is to stand up and say, ‘I made a mistake.’ He didn’t embezzle money. He had an affair, and the other part of it was that it was the wife of a friend, which raises another question,” Feinstein said of Newsom. “Big mistake, bad judgment, and he has to deal with that. But will people forgive? Yes.”
Angela Alioto, who served with Newsom on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and ran against him for mayor, said the mayor’s star power could not be discounted in any analysis of his future prospects.
“Any way you look at it, Gavin Newsom is a rock star,” she said. “People say this is going to end his career. Oh, baloney. The state of California would love Gavin Newsom.”