It might be hard to draw a parallel between a $60 parking ticket and California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, but that’s just how Newsom got on the fast track to political success – by chairing San Francisco’s Parking and Traffic Commission. Then-Mayor Willie Brown made the appointment.
Fifteen years later, Newsom has an office just across the hall from Gov. Jerry Brown – the office that Newsom really wants.
Newsom openly has his eye on the governor’s office. He already went after it once, but dropped out last year to push for the lieutenant governorship instead, a position with an imposing title but little real power.
But while Newsom didn’t quite hit it right on the mark, he certainly didn’t land too far from the target. But will Newsom have time to shine in the spotlight of state politics as a lieutenant governor? For decades, Capitol insiders contend the job is mostly “get up, read the paper, see if the governor is dead; if not, go back to sleep.”
“That’s an act of God,” Newsom said of the possibility of having a few moments as acting governor during Gov. Brown’s tenure.
And in the mean time, what is a lieutenant governor to do? For the polished and telegenic Newsom, there is a lot to do.
“I want to be constructive, I want to add value. I want to be relevant because what’s the point of doing if you’re not doing something of relevance and purpose?” Newsom said.
Chairing the Parking and Traffic Commission might not have been the most relevant, or glamorous, job title but Newsom had already made a name for himself as the entrepreneur of PlumpJack, a widely successful wine shop turned café turned gourmet restaurant turned slew of resort hotels.
Within a year, Willie Brown appointed Newsom to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
It was then that Newsom sponsored Measure N, or Care Not Cash, an initiative to drastically cut welfare checks for the city’s homeless and use the money to build homeless shelters and provide other basic services.
After the idea was turned down by city hall, voters approved it in 2002. Care Not Cash was implemented but not without its fair share of criticism.
“(Care Not Cash) was a dramatic shift from the way things had been done because the notion of poverty eradication is that we can buy our way out of the problem…more isn’t always better and so there’s an inherent struggle…with those that believed the current status quo was working,” Newsom said.
But while many of Newsom’s policy changes in San Francisco faced scrutiny if not controversy, Newsom is accredited for accomplishing a number of wide-sweeping changes in San Francisco. After Newsom became mayor in 2004 he directed city hall to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and spearheaded a universal health care plan called Healthy San Francisco.
With his liberal social policy he touted himself as a Democrat while his successful business background gave him pull as a fiscal conservative.
“When you get involved in politics you hope to do great things for people. Working with Gavin Newsom you could actually accomplish that,” Peter Ragone said. Ragone volunteered in Newsom’s first campaign for mayor before becoming his communications director.
“(Newsom) sold wine at the same cost in his restaurant as he did in his wine shop,” Ragone recalled. Restaurants that usually charged about a 50 percent markup on wine said the idea was crazy, Ragone said.
But the business model, while frowned on by other restaurateurs, made PlumpJack a fast success.
Ragone said there were both good and bad memories from his days working with Newsom. And while he was guarded about discussing the latter, it is obvious that the two worked through some rough times together.
In 2007, Newsom admitted to having an affair with a staffer – an aide’s wife – and Ragone, in the shadow of the flames, admitted he had been posting positive blog items about Newsom under a phony identity. Newsom also sought help for a drinking problem and was going through a divorce.
Despite the controversy, Newsom was reelected mayor of San Francisco in 2007 and Ragone stayed on board.
Now, Newsom is concerned with statewide policy issues like realignment.
“Now the realignment debate becomes an exciting one because it’s the substantive delivery of government resources. It’s about empowerment,” Newsom said.
As lieutenant governor, Newsom is now an ex officio University of California Regent.
“It’s frustrating, one has to accept certain realities and I am not good at that. We’re out of money,” Newsom said.
“It has to change…I’m so sick and tired of watching the pundits take cheap shots at California. I like the sort of Reagan-esque notion of the ‘coast of dreams,’” Newsom said.
Historically, the office of the lieutenant governor has been one of the least powerful elected offices.
But, Ragone said, “I’m certain that people will be surprised.”