Even on a Casual Friday, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom still looks sharp.
In a fitted navy suit and a cup of green tea freshly steeping in his manicured grasp, the political professional breaks from the bustling city streets with ease. Upon entering the Founders Den, a downtown San Francisco co-op that provides office space for fledgling online companies and serves as his headquarters, Newsom is quick to confess a sense of urgency that perhaps only a new father would understand.
Meet Gavin Newsom, family man.
“It’s been a good morning, but my wife is gone so I was with my two kids and so I’ve changed already,” offers Newsom in a somewhat apologetic tone. “And my son, he just ‘bleh’ all over me. It’s so cliché, I’m in my suit, I’m ready to go and just ‘bleh!’ It was so cute. So I haven’t done anything all day,” he says gesturing to a well-worn leather attaché case, “but I did important things with the kids.”
In the 16 years that he’s been on the political scene, Newsom’s profile continues to evolve. Not a bad political profile, either: He’s got wealth, an impressive resume, movie-star good looks and solid fund-raising connections. He’s in a striking position for governor or a U.S. Senate seat – although he’s careful not to discuss his plans.
The effects of his past controversies – from progressive policy issues to a stormy, short-lived run for governor to very public marital strife and a highly visible affair – have prompted the former San Francisco mayor to define himself not by his past but by what he sees as the growing potential of his future.
“I want to be a successful lieutenant governor and I want to do this with my eyes wide open. I was the butt of my own jokes during the campaign,” jokes Newsom, 44. “I worked for Leo McCarthy – that was my first paid internship. And so I had direct familiarity and appreciation for what the lieutenant governor did, so I went in understanding that the role was a difficult one in terms of being able to accomplish much.”
This may be an understatement: The enduring joke in California is that a lieutenant governor wakes up in the morning, checks the obituaries to make sure the governor is still alive, then goes back to sleep.
Even though he’s a lifelong Democrat, Newsom notes that he often finds himself at odds with the decisions of the Democrat-controlled Legislature and even with the feelings of the electorate at large and some in the national party, as when he performed gay marriage ceremonies on the steps of City Hall in San Francisco in 2004.
Opponents have long contended that Newsom’s principles are too liberal for such a politically diverse state, while others have argued that he’s not progressive enough. “People have strong opinions about me, trust me, and they have no problem sharing. Walk with me for two blocks, you’ll get it,” shrugs Newsom.
Gavin Newsom has never been used to standing still. After graduating with a degree in Political Science from the private, Jesuit-affiliated Santa Clara University in 1989, he successfully acquired his first business opportunity in just three years. PlumpJack Group, a hospitality management company specializing in luxury resorts and spas, wineries, bars, restaurants and boutiques, has grown to become a multimillion-dollar enterprise.
“I want to be productive,” continues Newsom. “I came out of school and opened my own business for a reason, I have sort of an entrepreneurial gene and I built that business because I wanted to. I don’t just want to sit around holding hands talking about the way the world should be.”
Newsom’s world must be a complex one. Having grown up in the both the dusty foothills of Dutch Flat and rolling riches of Marin County, his background is an apparent juxtaposition of plain-living and prestige.
In 1975 his father, William A. Newsom III, was appointed Placer County Superior Court Judge by Gov. Jerry Brown during Brown’s first term as governor. The elder Newsom later served in the State Court of Appeals in San Francisco until 1995.
The father currently serves as the primary financial adviser for the San Francisco-based Getty family fortune, which is estimated to be collectively worth upwards of $2 billion. Early reports by SF Weekly during Gavin Newsom’s first run for mayor suggested that this powerful, strongly influential relationship with the Getty fortune, arguably has made the Newsom name what it is today.
Newsom may have grown up among Northern California political royalty, with the Burtons, Browns and Kopps as a common sight around the dinner table, but despite such powerful family connections he has worked to develop the new image of the man he wants to be seen as today – first an entrepreneur and constant family man, then a political player.
“I was afforded the opportunity to have a fancy little office, it was quite nice, right across the street from City Hall and could look at my old office every day. But, to me, that’s the old hierarchical model; it’s symbolically suggestive to the status quo,” says the former mayor. “Or I could come down here (the Founder’s Den) to a sort of lateral, collaborative, participatory place.”
Not often do you hear those words in one brief sentence – collaborative, participatory and lateral.
So while Newsom is making the image transition from aggressive politician to family man, the question is, can he succeed and ever truly be seen as California’s Every Man?
“He started out in politics at a young age and accomplished a lot at a young age. Like everybody, we all grow as we get older, our roles change and our personal and professional lives change,” said veteran Democratic strategist Roger Salazar of Sacramento-based Acosta Salazar.
“It’s not unnatural to see this kind of growth. In fact, if he didn’t change, people would find that startling,” Salazar added. “I don’t think it’s a stretch for folks to see Gavin growing into his own skin.”
Clearly, he believes it’s worth a try.
Recently, Newsom, a member of the UC Board of Regents and the CSU trustees, aligned himself with the student demonstrators protesting fee increases and high administrative salaries at UC and CSU campuses around the state. The actions raised his statewide profile – no easy feat for a lieutenant governor. He also has been supportive of some tenets of the Occupy movement.
Serving on the CSU and UC boards, as well as on the State Lands Commission, are perhaps the most important official functions of a lieutenant governor. The service “is pretty ennobling. So I’m very enthusiastic about taking a responsibility with that, and not just come in and come out, have a press release and a press conference and then disappear, but get involved in a richer and deeper level because I care about it, it’s interesting to me, I feel passionate about it, and so for me it’s not something that I have to do, it’s something I really want to do and I want to efind a way to be contributory and not just rhetorically but substantially.”
Newsom says his support of such demonstrations isn’t the result of political calculation.
”When I have a passion, I run with it. I’ve been involved with a lot of controversial public policy issues in my life, none of them were poll tested, none of them were about some calculation, they were all about things that I believed in with intensity and passion, so I’ve always felt that the best pol
itics is a Better Idea,” he said.
“If you have a Better Idea and stand up for something you believe in, you’re open to argument, you’ll let other points of view in, your own values, but if you stand on a principle, then the politics takes care of itself.”
When it comes to his own political future, Newsom is tight-lipped.
“A year is a lifetime in politics,” says Newsom. “A month can change everything. The one thing that is certain is that there is no certainty. I’d like to focus on getting things done and making people believe again.”