Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco whose political career has been both meteoric and troubled, has formed a committee to run for governor in 2010. On the eve of his announcement this week he sat down in his office for a wide-ranging interview with Capitol Weekly. He talked about gay marriage, the budget, governing San Francisco and his own political future.
Recent polls indicate that the state appears to have moved closer to accepting gay marriage. Back in 2000, Proposition 22, which stated that marriage was between a man and a woman, was approved by 61.4% of the voters in the state. What's changed since then?
I think the edge is off. People are starting to appreciate that this is about them. This is about us. This is about our values. This is about who we are as a state and what we represent. It's about people. It's about our friends and neighbors. It's about our family in some cases. And it's about an issue of discrimination. It's about denying people the same rights and privileges that the rest of us have been afforded for decades and I think people are starting to appreciate that's what it's about. It's not about discrimination at arms length in the abstract. It's about denying people fundamental rights. I think that's what has changed today. I think we put a human face on it. People are now faced with the discussion that is reflected in images of Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, a couple of 55 years, an 87 and an 84 year old, and they wanted nothing more than to say "I do." They wanted nothing more extraordinary than that. And I think people see that in contrast to a celebrity that has five drinks and gets married in Vegas and wakes up and goes "Oh Christ, what did I just do?" That's the contrast that people are starting to come to grips with and say, "Wait a second, maybe the biggest problem with marriage is the celebrity in Vegas, not the couple that's been together for half a century." And the institution is not going to be harmed by the latter, but by the former. And maybe we should reprioritize our angst elsewhere. But I also think there is an understanding toward the electoral side of this, regardless of polls that we've been played one too many times-that George Bush has some unfinished business and the fact that the business would be done in California, for some, doesn't leave a good taste in the mouth, meaning we're not necessarily going to sit back and watch what could be accomplished federally be it, a constitutional amendment, happen in our own backyard. That's not consistent with where this state has always been. We've always been on the leading and cutting edge. We've talked always about tomorrow and not about yesterday. And I think that people are recognizing that people don't necessarily want to be caught up in a distraction. They don't want to be caught up in something that just changes the subject in something that we should be focused on. I think that's emblematic of what Barack Obama has inspired in many people and I think a lot of people are looking for a new approach and new understanding and they're not going to be diverted again. So I think it's a combination of those factors.
If Californians do in fact vote to legalize same-sex marriages, will there be a domino effect in other states?
Yeah look, in 1948, we were the state that stood on principle against the absurd argument at the time [interracial marriage], which is by the way, so similar-the language is almost precisely the same. I can pull out quotes between 1948 and 1967, heck even beyond 1967, on the debate around interracial marriage, and they're indistinguishable between the debate around that and same-sex marriages. It was argued on traditional grounds, religious grounds in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Still today,–remember in the Loving vs. State of Virginia case in 1967, which ultimately dealt with this, and to your point about California being first, in 1948, we advanced in the Perez [vs. Lippold 1948] the idea that laws against interracial marriage were unconstitutional. And then it took till 1967, 19 years later, for the US Supreme Court to do the same thing. In the Loving v. State of Virginia court, the ultimate court that adjudicated on this topic, the judge in the court said that "God put different races on different continents for a reason. God never wanted the races to mix." So they were using the Bible as a political agenda much more than anything else and they were using tradition as a wedge to say that tradition is between people of the same races. The point is it's indistinguishable.
Do you think that Senator Obama would be hurt if the issue of gay marriage were to appear on the ballot across the nation in 2008? Could this issue energize the conservative base and hurt Senator Obama in the general election?
Well I think that question could be asked anytime. It was asked four years ago, it could have been asked during the mid-term elections two years ago. It could be asked and most likely will be asked two years from now with gubernatorial elections across the country. It could be asked a few years after that for the re-election of President Obama. It's so reminiscent, isn't it, of previous civil rights struggles. It's "Too much too soon, too fast," they said to Dr. King. "To wait," [Dr. King] said "Almost always means never." I really can't press on people anymore to read the powerful words of the letters from the Birmingham jail from Dr. King and to read his response to African American clergy that were saying "Too much too soon, too fast." And it came from some place else as well, even his colleagues who said "you know it's just not good for us, it's too much, we're going to lose the South. And there was impact. But there was nobility, there was purposefulness. And with nobility and purposefulness come veracity and authenticity and I think now more than ever people are looking for veracity and authenticity. They are looking for people that are not equivocators. They are looking for people that are not hiding from tough issues. They are looking for people that are not calculating. They are looking for people to stand up on principle. Even if we disagree with those positions, and by the way, I have family members on the gay marriage issue who disagree with me, trust me I respect those that disagree. I really do. I know it's a difficult issue and I come from a very religious family and I understand the issues of faith as it relates to this and I respect that. I've had more people come to me that say, "I can't disagree with you more on gay marriage, but you know what, I trust you and I like that you've been saying publicly what you've been saying privately and not vice versa." We so often hear politicians, even in the Democratic Party-in fact I would say as much in my own party as others-say one thing publicly, [but] aren't authentic to their truest thoughts and beliefs. I just think this issue for politicians can be dealt with by being forthright, but will not be an issue that we will deal with effectively if we try to hide from it and deviate and work around it. It's about core principles, it's about values. If you believe in civil unions, Republicans and Democrats today believe in civil unions overwhelmingly in this country. If you believe in civil unions and or gay marriage, then you've certainly accepted a premise that two people of the same sex should be given some basic rights. If you agreed inherently to allow a relationship, then you have to be consistent with foundational values of this country that is, separate is not equal. And so it is inconsistent. This is my long winded answer to your question about Barack and the Democratic Party and this issue of politics. For a party that has always stood on the principle that separate is not equal, to now run the 90 yard dash on
the gay and lesbian issue of our time, it doesn't wash. People see through that and then it becomes problematic, because people start questioning your positions on other issues because they say, "Well look, if you can't be consistent on this, what else are you saying to us on healthcare, education, the environment?" things that frankly, people are much more interested in than the issue of gay marriage. That's why I think you saw in the last few years in the legislature. You had legislature that to [Mark] Leno's credit, challenged Democrats in the legislature to stand on principle. When they did, they were all rewarded with their re-elections. No one lost. No one. And once they realized that it didn't impact their electoral nature, the next year Leno got the bill up, he got more votes and these people realized, "Wait a second, maybe this it won't impact me as much." So my point in saying that is I think it's going to take some time. I recognize that as much as anyone. The more I travel the more I identify with this. I hear from all sides. I read my emails and my threats, and trust me, it's unbelievable, I recognize that some good people and some bad people disagree and some bad people agree as well. Everybody's got the extremes with or against them. But I think over time, this issue is going to transcend the borders of our state as it already has transcended the borders of Massachusetts and it will have the same arc of history as the interracial debate had. I do think it will be a much faster conclusion. I don't think it's going to take two decades, as interracial marriage did.
Nearly one year ago, you endorsed Senator Clinton. Why Clinton over Obama?
I've just known her for years. I have great admiration for her. Her commitment to public policy-I'm a policy person, I'm passionate about my public policy and I think that the best politics are a better idea. I'm not one of those political calculators trying to figure out where the public will be or where they are or how I can organize myself within that frame. I've always believed that if you've got a great idea that can solve a problem people will participate in being part of that solution, and what I've always admired about Hilary Clinton is there's a hardheaded practicality about public policy. When I sat down and talked to her about public housing, which was the first conversation we had in relationship to her Presidential ambitions, I was mesmerized by her level of detail and knowledge. There are people that understand an issue sterilely, people that understand it loosely, and people that understand it based upon fundamental facts and then there are people that have reflected on it and internalized issues and I was stunned. She had me on that. Then we got into health care and other things and so it was an easy decision. But I was never opposed to Barack Obama, or for that matter, John Edwards or old friends that I've supported in the past-Joe Biden, Chris Dodd who I admire greatly as well, and Bill Richardson. It was just a difficult decision because there was a wealth of choices and I couldn't be more proud of her run and the historic nature of it. I think that Barack Obama is a substantially better candidate for president against John McCain than he would have been had it been an easier fight in the primary. I think that the party is strengthened because we have millions of new registered voters. That is something that five years ago, no one could have imagined. We were struggling with declined to state [voters]. We were struggling to find our voice as Democrats. I think across this country you have more and more people engaged and enrolled in the process and I think that's a testament to Hilary Clinton and to our nominee, and I couldn't be more enthusiastic about the race. I was with him a few days ago in Miami reinforcing my strong support. I will be doing that anywhere I am asked.
San Francisco has become one of the world's leading cities in the fight against global warming. You've set some big goals-in 2004, under the Climate Action Plan, you sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 2.5 million tons by 2012.
You've also sought for San Francisco to exceed the goals set by the United Nations Kyoto Protocols. How is everything progressing?
All of that is irrelevant. What matters is delivering on those promises. In every town America, there seems to be a mayor or city manager or elected official with a plan. That's a great thing, don't get me wrong. It's important. But it's not about asserting a point of view. It's not about believing in something, it's about doing. The thing that I am most proud of is that we are delivering. We had a local global climate action plan to roll back our CO2 emissions by 20 percent below 1990 by 2012. We became the first city in the country to register our CO2 footprint because we wanted a third party to quantify the efficacy of our implementation strategy. We are about to announce that there are some critical milestones that we will be announcing in a week or two. We are delivering. We just passed the most aggressive solar rebate in the country. Combined with what the state is already doing, which we should be so proud of the work that's been done by the governor and the legislature on the solar rebate, it's going to jumpstart our solar efforts in the city in terms of not just bringing solar on roofs, but creating real jobs. I'm not again asserting that we have companies that have already announced their intentions to move to San Francisco, to move in and not only manufacture, or distribute and install solar, but to do a workforce training program. All of these things we talk about-green tech jobs, green collar jobs replacing blue collar jobs, jobs of the future locking in people that have been locked out in the industrial age economy, lock them in to the green economy. We are beginning to see things take form and shape here. We have the green building ordinances that our planning commission and the Department of Building Inspection have already adopted and we are waiting any day now for the Board of Supervisor's push to adopt the most aggressive green building standards in the country for private sector construction. We've just announced our 70 percent recycling rate, the highest [rate among any] city in America. We are so proud of that. Our bio-fuels effort, our alternative-fuels efforts in the taxi cabs and our entire vehicle fleet, our public transit-already two-thirds of our public transit is on alternative energy. We've got a carbon tax to replace our payroll tax that we are organizing around. We have a local carbon fund that we have established-California by the way should do the same thing so that we are not sending those offsets out of the state. It would be substantially beneficial to advancing AB 32. We have done the water bottle bans and the plastic bag bans that have gotten a lot of attention. We have a new sustainability district that we are creating. We are actually going to pull our civic center off the grid and create an internal sustainability district which is really exciting co-generation, rain water, sewage treatment, all incorporated with our solar wind. We're doing urban wind farms-urban wind, not just up there in Altamont Pass, and we've got wave and tidal programs as well. I could bore you on and list another 75 things we're doing, but it's just a passion for me, and it's one I am so proud of. The people of this city have embraced those goals and they want us to do more good in those areas and I love that. And we are proving that we can do it and grow our economy.
California is taking a pounding right now with another budget crisis. How will the governor's proposed budget cuts impact local governments like San Francisco? Will it impact health care and other services San Francisco provides? How will you handle it?
Substantially. He's ta
lking about $112 million in cuts to our local budget. Close to nine million dollars comes just from his Medical proposal. And sadly the legislature went along with that. I was certainly stumped by that. It's disproportionately going to impact health and human services. And these are again value propositions for us. When we talk about values we talk about universal values in terms of the air we breathe and the water we drink. We talk about our public health, the health of our people, health care, and these are being attacked. Look at the cuts in the public schools. They can't be competitive against Boston, let along Bangalore. If you can't educate your kids, if you can't provide opportunities in community colleges, the state system, let alone the University of California, and other institutions of higher learning-one of the things I'm so proud we did is when the governor came out with his cuts on schools, we said we were going to send city money and we are going to backfill all the cuts so it won't impact teachers, so there'd be no teacher layoffs. We have done the same in terms of back filling these other cuts, on the health care side. Not all of them, because we can't afford to, but most of them. So it's had a big impact. And what happens then is that our local budget grows and then people criticize that. If you look at the totality and you look at why, it's because we are back filling the cops funding from the Bush Administration that he cut because we need more police. We're back filling the cuts to run White Care Dollars that are being cut by the federal government because we have more people living with HIV/AIDS than any other time in our history. We're back filling the medical cuts. We're back filling the other services cuts so we are trying to do more than we should be. But including universal health care we are growing at the same time. We became the first city in the United States to do universal health insurance zero to 25. No one thought we could do that. And then when I came we were doing zero to 18. My first year in office, we expanded it to 19 to 24. We have huge deficit damage that we can't afford. Now as you know, we are doing it for everybody else. In spite of budget deficits, in spite of cuts from the state, we are putting in substantially more resources this year to continue our universal health plan which is enrolling anywhere from 750 to 1,000 people every single week. Already one quarter of the previously uninsured versus the previous time last year-one quarter of those that were uninsured last year are now enrolled in our program. This is something that every county in the state of California could be doing. It is a quality of imagination that has limited us. It is an outdated model and we continue to debate whether or not we can do this. We can do it. San Francisco is proving it can be done and for those that don't think it can be done, I encourage them to come in and learn from what w are doing. It's not perfect, and we have a long way to go, but we are on to something. In my conversations with Hilary Clinton and others across the country, they don't accept the proposition that we can't provide quality universal health access. They simply refute it, based on evidence, not based upon conjecture.
Like all well-known politicians, you have your public persona. What's something people wouldn't know about Gavin Newsom? What's on your iPod playlist? What are your favorite novels?
Well on my desk, I've got about 15 novels I just finished reading. I just read a book by Richard Branson and a book by Bob Wise called Raising the Grade: How High School Reform Can Save Our Youth and Our Nation. I just finished reading a must read for every elected official and everyone that gives a damn about the issue of poverty, a really interesting book that was written by Senator Edwards called Ending Poverty in America: How to Restore the American Dream. It's funny, what I do is I read books, I underline everything I read, and then I have friends, family, or interns depending on the day, that do a sort of a Cliffs Notes version of everything I underline, then I put it back into a binder . It's so funny you bring this up because I just got my new notes back on a book I read. I just finished Bill Hillsman's Run the Other Way: Fixing the Two Part System, One Campaign at a Time. And I finally got to one of my favorite books of all-time, Built to Last, by Jim Collins, and he wrote a supplement called Good to Great and the Social Sectors. Then I've got Bob Schrum's book No Excuses, which I haven't read yet and then I've got Chris Matthew's book. And my iPod you don't even want to know. Everything from Akon to Jordan Sparks to Gnarls Barkley to Goo Goo Dolls to Toby Keith, I do love Toby Keith, to Five for Fighting to Usher-I'm just looking through my iPod right now. Even Justin Timberlake, God help me. And there's Rihanna, Gary Allen and all the American Idol folks. I could go on and on. Plus I've got to love my local boys.
Any heroes in your life?
Bobby Kennedy. No one comes close. I read religiously his speeches and I am more profoundly influenced by his speeches than anything else. I remind people that he gave a number of speeches out here in San Francisco 40 years ago. If I gave those same speeches today I would get a standing ovation. So nothing's changed. At the end of the day issues of poverty, issues of income and equality-now more than ever we need some audacity, we need more authenticity, we need risk takers, we need politicians to stand on principles, make mistakes and believe in searching for solutions. The core of a good idea is a bad idea where there were lessons learned. It's just an absence of ideas and there's no progress. You may make mistakes, but you've got to have the courage to make them and learn from them. Don't repeat them. I come from the private sector. I started about 17 businesses, and we always had a risk-orientation at our restaurants, our hotels, our wineries, and we learned from our failures, we learned from our mistakes and then I get into politics and government and we are risk averse, nothing changes dramatically because we are scared to death of tomorrow's headline. So one thing that I have survived doing is if I believe in a sanctuary city , we don't just believe in it, we'll market it, we'll advertise it and people get outraged by that. But if you believe in something fight for it.
Who do you think would be the toughest Democratic opponent for you in 2010 if you were to run for governor?
There are no opponents. It would be a goal for the person who wins to actually do something. The opponent is inertia. There are no opponents in a race, there are goals you set forth and must act on. You run against the problems.