The Scandal of San Francisco

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Justin Sullivan / Getty

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom recently admitted to an affair with Ruby Rippey-Tourk, the wife of his re-election campaign manager Alex Tourk who resigned on January 31 after learning of the affair.

Adultery never looks good on a political resume. But whether it is a career ender or just an unsightly smudge depends on the politician involved. Now, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is another example to study in the interplay of sex and politics.

On Wednesday, the dashing, ambitious and hugely popular Democrat came crashing into a crisis. Alex Tourk, Newsom's buddy and campaign manager, abruptly quit after confronting the mayor about having an illicit affair with his wife, Ruby Rippey-Tourk, 34, who once worked as an appointment secretary to Newsom. Apparently, while in rehab for substance abuse, Rippey-Tourk told her husband about her affair with Newsom. Rumors about the apparently short-lived affair had been circulating for about a year, according to City Hall staffers. "I didn't pay that much attention," City Supervisor Tom Ammiano said. "I dismissed it."

But, on Thursday morning, Newsom acknowledged the infidelity and apologized at a hastily organized press conference at City Hall. "Everything you have heard and read is true," Newsom told reporters, responding to a story that was first broken by the San Francisco Chronicle. "I am deeply sorry." The 39-year-old-mayor also accepted responsibility for his "personal lapse of judgment." Then, he pledged to work hard at "reconciling" and regaining the trust of citizens and his staff. The briefing lasted just minutes. No questions were taken leaving pundits, politicos and regular San Franciscans shaking their heads wondering about what's next for Newsom. Will he resign? How will this homegrown scandal impact his upcoming re-election — or any future bid for higher office?

"Adultery isn't a political disqualifier for him," Republican consultant Dan Schnur tells TIME. It has been 20 years since Gary Hart came clean about his extramarital affair with Donna Rice, he recalls, which ruined the Democratic Senator's 1988 presidential bid. Many more political sex scandals have made headlines since. "Bill Clinton rode out the Lewinsky scandal, because it was such a small percentage of the overall amount of information that voters had about him," Schnur says. "Right now, most people outside of San Francisco only know two things about Gavin Newsom: he supports same-sex marriage and he cheated [with] his best friend's wife. He can fix that, but if he doesn't do it quick, he's going to become a punch line."

However, the lasting, corrosive damage to Newsom's political star may not be the affair itself, but instead, the betrayal of a loyal pal and devoted adviser. "Voters aren't going to condemn him for having an affair," says Schnur, "But they are going to be much more upset that he betrayed such a close friend and colleague." City Hall insiders seem to agree. "It has less to do with his popular, external perception," according to a well-placed official who works closely with Newsom. "It's what this has done to the internal organization. Alex Tourk is a very popular, well-regarded figure throughout City Hall. There is the loyalty question now that we all know this is true." Then, there's the judgment question — what, exactly, was the mayor thinking?

"The question about Gavin Newsom has always been 'Is this guy ready for prime time?'" says Chris Nolan, editor and founder of, an independent political website. She adds: "Having gotten himself to the national stage as something of daredevil with the same-sex marriage platform — is he able to stay there and maintain a public persona that gives depth to that? I think that his behavior answers that question in the negative."

"There is a tarnish now," says Ammiano. In light of Newsom's extramarital affair, Ammiano and others voiced concern about the mayor's ability to focus on the business of the city — and the morale of his administration. Recently, Newsom fended off critics who suggested he should have attended the Conference of Mayors in Washington D.C., where 260 U.S. city leaders gathered to discuss the plight of their jurisdictions, rather than jetting off to the Swiss ski town of Davos for the World Economic Forum. In defense, Newsom's press secretary Peter Ragone tells TIME that "The mayor's commitment to the city and getting the work of the city done is as strong as it has every been." Newsom's affair, he adds, "was a personal situation."