Green Giants: Conversations with Global Environmental Leaders
San Francisco’s mayor discusses the fight for cap and trade, how he nearly derailed GM’s partnership with the city, and why from her deathbed, his mother urged him not to run.
You are in a heated race with Portland Mayor Sam Adams to make San Francisco the electric vehicle capital of the world….
Hold on…now he…I’m not in a race. We were out front and then Sam calls a press conference and says, “Look out, San Francisco,” about a month later.
It’s actually part of a federally directed appropriation. But we have a big stimulus ask to create ubiquity, which is the key. You’ve got to deal with range anxiety. We’ve dealt with it with traditional vehicles—they’re called gas stations. So you address it through creating the charging infrastructure and switch stations Shai Agassi’s Better Place is calling for, and by creating the public infrastructure so you can get free electric charges like you can right now in front of City Hall.
One of my regrets is that the stimulus impact wasn’t as substantial as it should have been. To take advantage of $787 billion—if we had done one or two big things we could have dramatically changed the course of events in this country. The problem is we did hundreds of little things. But Rahm Emanuel will be the first to say, “We did what we could do, not necessarily what we thought was the ideal.”
You now have a new electric car, yes?
Yes. I got a Tesla about six months ago. I bought it when I had money. And then when it came I was out of money and I was like, “I can’t afford it.” But my wife uses it almost every day.
Did your homeowners association give in to your request for a 280-volt outlet for quick charges?
• Read more of Newsom’s talk with The Daily Beast’s Matthew Dakotah, in which the would-be California governor shares his ambitious—and controversial—vision for the world’s eighth-largest economy, as well as his competition with Michael Bloomberg.I moved. And now in my new home in The Haight I plug it in every night. But that’s one of the reasons we’re changing the zoning and permitting laws. We’re not a suburban city or a bunch of single-family homes. Many people only have on-street parking or they are sharing garages in big apartment buildings. So New York and other cities like San Francisco will have the same problem. And that’s why it’s critical to do the infrastructure.
We’re working on this with GM. And they were a little furious with me when I was doing a Newsweek panel and I really ripped into the fact that they were promoting hybrids as the future when in fact the technology is decade-plus old.
Yeah. I was a little tough and it almost derailed our partnership with them. But they had me on a big conference call and set me straight in some ways to be more supportive of their new reforms. It does make me more optimistic that they get it.
My fear with the Volt is that we set expectations so high that they come in under in terms of units sold and then go, “See, we can never do plug-in hybrids, there’s not a market.” That was their excuse with the EV1 and it set us back a decade. They’re on the third-generation Prius now and here we are talking about coming out with a new line of hybrids in three or four years. Big deal. It’s not good enough. I think Obama gets this. They’ve leveraged their bailout dollars to a new way of thinking and it’s an exciting time.
Would you have voted for the recently passed House climate bill that put a cap on carbon?
Of course. But I’m concerned that it was only a seven-vote margin. They made a lot of concessions to get the votes in the House, and it should have passed overwhelmingly. I understand the issue of the economy and jobs, but to me this is an economic engine.
What do you predict will happen in the Senate?
I’m worried, but crossing my fingers and hopeful. I know the prioritization is to get health care and then get cap and trade—as much as we can by the end of the year, first quarter of next year, because we may not ever have the opportunity again.
You appear to be ahead of the policy pack on food, too. Michelle Obama has followed in the footsteps of San Francisco—and Eleanor Roosevelt—with her White House kitchen garden.
Yes. And I went to the White House the other day and had absolutely no interest in doing anything except going to the vegetable garden. It’s strange that I would be more excited about that than walking into the Oval Office, but that’s just where my mind is. And [California first lady] Maria Shriver, to her credit, is doing the same thing.
What’s the next step on this front?
We’ve developed this great partnership called the Urban-Rural Roundtable and established a premise: Think globally, eat locally. So we took a 100-mile radius from the Golden Gate [Bridge] and looked at what we’re producing all around the region. Eighty percent of our food needs could be met within the radius and yet the average plate of food we eat has traveled 1,100 or—some would argue—1,400 miles.
We begin to look at our consumption habits. We look at transportation in relation to climate change and where the food is going, how it’s being packaged, how it’s getting to our shelves. We look at the issues of freshness, quality, sustainable practices, and how we can preserve our foodshed. We’ve invested in farmers’ markets and are trying to get grocery stores into underserved communities that provide fresh produce. What are our purchasing practices as it relates to our homeless shelters and food banks? It’s about health, obesity, poverty, and economic development.
And the schools are involved, too?
We put salad bars at every public school and we’ve got the edible schoolyards with vegetable gardens. What is the most fundamental thing you learn in farming? That the Earth has cycles and there are no shortcuts in life. This is a profoundly important lesson for children.
Last question. By all accounts your mom, Tessa, was an amazing woman, working three jobs to take care of you and your sister, Hilary. I read that the day before she died of breast cancer in 2002, she urged you not to run for mayor.
She said, “Politics will destroy you and nothing ultimately good will come out of it for you personally.”
Is that true?
No. Not yet. But I say yet in quotations.
Well it obviously hasn’t destroyed you thus far, but have good things come of it for you personally?
Yeah. It’s the most ennobling thing I’ve ever done. To walk down the streets and see guys on the corner that come up crying and hugging you because you gave them housing through a program you initiated is about as extraordinary a thing as you can experience in life. Not politics, life. But I understood what she was saying. The personal sacrifice that all politicians¬—even if you can’t stand them—make is what I think she was referring to as a mother. Which is a very human thing.
Absolutely. How do you think she would feel about your bid for governor?
I think she would be very proud and very surprised at some of the things we’ve accomplished. I think she’d be very shocked that I would be running against Jerry Brown, since we all grew up together.
Matthew Dakotah is conducting a series of interviews with global environmental leaders for The Daily Beast. An award-winning journalist, he has directed 14 magazine and Web site redesigns and worked at Hearst and Emap. As vice president, group editorial director of Homes & Lifestyles Publishing, he initiated coverage of sustainable development and secured contributors from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Architectural Digest and Princeton. Follow Matthew on Twitter: @matthewdakotah.