The morning of election day, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a piece by columnist C.W. Nevius recounting a story from Barack Obama’s 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate. The piece was titled “Obama snub still rankles Newsom,” it says that Obama refused to have his pictured taken with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom because of the controversy swirling around Newsom’s decision to allow gay marriages in the city. Nevius quotes no less an authority than Willie Brown, the former mayor and maybe the state’s last true political kingmaker, as saying Obama told him directly that “would really not like to have his picture taken with Gavin.” Brown doesn’t give a date, but says the incident took place before an Obama fund-raiser he arranged at the Waterfront restaurant. Nevius doesn’t provide offer a date, either, beyond saying the snub happened four years ago. He gives no indication whether the incident has been reported before.
This may be a footnote in most parts of the country, but in San Francisco and perhaps in Southern California, too, the story could be damaging. The gay community in the state is very politically active and at least since the first Clinton candidacy has been a major source of support for Democrats. There are aspects to the story that make you wonder, if you’ve been in the Bay Area for awhile, whether there’s anything to it. It’s not impossible imagine Brown blowing smoke to help a candidate he favors, but I don’t see that he’s on record as supporting either Obama or Clinton. And among the story’s odd qualities is that it took four years to surface and that none of the principals speak to it. A senior Obama campaign activist who happens to be gay is quoted as saying there’s nothing to it, but the story treats the episode as fact. I heard this story discussed among some news types the day after it ran and heard anecdotally that some gay voters switched from Obama to Clinton after reading Nevius’s piece. Who would blame them? Here’s a guy who enjoys solid support from and friendly relations with gay voters in his own state who is portrayed as acting as some kind of weasel when he’s out of town.
So: where did the story come from, is it true, and can you tell anything meaningful without talking to the people involved?
Well, it would be great to have Newsom and Obama on the record, naming names. But that’s beyond my poor powers this time of night (or maybe any time). Without the principals, I think the key evidence about what happened is missing. But it’s possible to track the story back to 2004.
I spent some time looking in some online article databases, and find some version of the incident was mentioned five times since 2004: three times in the Chronicle itself, and twice in the Bay Area Reporter.
The first time the story appeared in print was September 7, 2004, in the Chron. It was such a hot item that it appeared, with nearly no context, in Leah Garchik’s column of local gossip. Here’s the item in its entirety:
“The Kerry/Edwards Shoes or Lose campaign — in San Francisco, Susie Buell’s the contact person — which was asking supporters to forego buying shoes and send donations to the campaign instead, has raised nearly $18,000. A chunk of that, I’m told, came from Frances McDormand, who not only contributed but also forwarded the e-mail to 50 pals.
P.S.: Buell is organizing a Barack Obama event at the Four Seasons on Sept. 20. I asked her about Obama’s refusing to have his picture taken with Gavin Newsom when he was here recently, fearing that it would hurt him with conservative voters. “That’s a smart political decision,” she said. “It would be just handing the right wing a bullet to put in their gun. … We’re at war here.’ ”
That’s it. The incident is mentioned as if it’s common knowledge, though there’s no evidence that the paper ever published a more detailed account. Note that the smart money here, Susie Buell (who is supporting Hillary Clinton now), is quoted as unhesitatingly excusing the reported snub as smart politics.
On September 24, Garchik alluded to the snub again:
“Elsewhere in the land of the Democrats, Kamala Harris introduced Barack Obama at a fund-raising luncheon at the Four Seasons on Monday, and Vanessa Getty and Robin Williams were in the crowd. (No Gavin Newsom, no dilemma for Obama, who’d been leery about posing with the same-sex-marriage advocate.) Obama spoke for about a half hour, took no questions, then sped off to Los Angeles for another fund-raiser.”
And again on September 29:
“Barack Obama’s fund-raising lunch at the Four Seasons last week was preceded by an event at the West Bay Conference Center, attended by about 60 mainly African American supporters (and no photographers). Mayor Gavin Newsom introduced Willie Brown, who introduced Obama, saying that when he’d first heard his name, he thought it would make him unelectable. Then he was told that Barack means ‘blessing” in Hebrew. This was a disappointment, said Brown, because Mark Leno had always told him ‘Willie’ means ‘blessing.’ When Obama took the floor, he said he always believed Willie meant ‘a fast-talking smart dude.’ ”
After that, I can’t find anything — checking both the Chronicle’s online archive and other article databases — that shows the paper wrote another word about the incident until Nevius’s article this week. I’d be curious to know whether Nevius knew about the earlier reports and if he did, why he didn’t mention them.
The earliest mention of the snub in the Bay Area Reporter appears to have been in a piece by Matthew Bajko on February 1, 2007:
“On the Democratic side the candidate who could be hurt the most by an early California primary is Illinois Senator Barack Obama, another candidate who has vacillated between including gay people in his address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention to refusing to be photographed with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom due to his support for gay marriage.
“Newsom, a favorite among gay voters and a self-avowed ‘Hillary fan,’ didn’t name Obama by name but said in a virtual newsroom interview with Reuters, conducted while he was in Davos, that ‘God as my witness, [he] will not be photographed with me, will not be in the same room as me, even though I’ve done fundraisers for that particular person not once but twice, because of this issue.’ ”
On September 6, 2007, the Reporter ran a Bajko item titled “Obama supporter discounts Newsom snub”:
Among Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama’s San Francisco supporters, it is the urban legend that will not die: that Obama refuses to be photographed with Newsom because of his supportive stance for gay marriage.
The rumor has circulated for years, and believers point to the fact that no photo of the two popular politicians has ever surfaced. They also point to their never seeing publicized any face-to-face meetings between the two when Obama barnstormed through the city raising cash and drumming up support for his campaign this year.
The men have spoken by phone and were to meet this summer but canceled the get-together after Newsom endorsed Senator Hillary Clinton ‘s presidential bid last month.
Los Angeles resident Jeremy Bernard , who with his partner Rufus Gifford , serves as a California finance consultant for Obama’s campaign, recently told the B.A.R. that the rumor is just that – fiction.
“I have heard that. There is no truth to the rumor,” said Bernard.
Newsom himself told a Reuters reporter in January that “one of the three Democrats you mentioned as presidential candidates, God as my witness, will not be photographed with me, will not be in the same room as me, even though I’ve done fundraisers for that particular person not once but twice, because of this issue.”
Along with Clinton and Obama, the third person named was former Vice President Al Gore.
And last month, the Reporter published an editorial endorsing Bill Richardson for president and alluded to the Obama-Newsom matter:
As a member of the National Gay Newspapers Guild, the B.A.R. has joined with other member newspapers in the major media markets in the United States in seeking personal interviews with Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards. As of this date, none has agreed. Yet in Iowa, Richardson, and not his emissary, showed up at the Pride festival June 2 in Cedar Rapids. Curiously, Edwards and Clinton were both in Cedar Rapids that day, yet neither stopped by the Pride festival. And in early 2006, while no one can prove, for sure, why Obama canceled a scheduled trip to San Francisco to attend a reception in his honor to be hosted by Mayor Gavin Newsom, there was much speculation that the Illinois senator felt uncomfortable with the inevitable photo with the gay friendly, same-sex marriage supporting mayor, particularly at a time when he was just beginning to test the waters for a possible presidential run.”
A few things to note about the Reporter’s items: First, Bajko starts out reporting the snub as fact; when he comes back to it, it’s “an urban legend” that’s been kicking around for years. Second, the editorial alludes to an incident in 2006, not 2004; so, was there a second “snub”? And third, the Reporter (and Nevius, too) mention a Reuters interview with Newsom in 2007 during which the mayor said one of a trio of Democratic candidates (Clinton, Obama and Al Gore had been mentioned) had refused to be photographed with him (that remark occurs in an audio version of the interview at that link; the print summary doesn’t show it).
Conclusion to the foregoing: Well, it’s reasonable to suppose based on the printed evidence that something happened. What was it? If you take Willie Brown’s word it was a shrewd political calculation. But that’s more than a rhetorical if. A real working reporter would be trying to talk to Garchik, Bajko, Susie Buell and some others to get to the bottom of the story’s provenance and trying to locate it more firmly at a place and time. For all I know, Nevius did that. It’s still on the strange side, though, that he doesn’t acknowledge that this is a gossip item from years back and that the paper decided to publish it at a moment when it was likely to sway votes and be hard for people to investigate before they went to the polls.