Gavin Newsom — the former San Francisco mayor, current lieutenant governor, and likely next governor of California — embodies Golden State liberalism: the perfect appearance, the bear-hug embrace of identity politics, the celebration of Silicon Valley moguls tempered by hand-wringing about income inequality, the grandiose, fanciful plans for building the state into a modern utopia.
This is no accident. For better or for worse, Newsom has already done a lot to shape modern California. As San Francisco’s mayor from 2004 to 2011, he pushed the outer boundary of Democratic party politics leftward. His first gubernatorial-campaign ad reminded viewers that he issued same-sex marriage licenses way back in 2004, in calculated defiance of state law. As mayor, he banned plastic bags, the use of Styrofoam in restaurants’ takeout containers, and sales of cigarettes in convenience stores, pharmacies, grocery stories, and big-box stores. He signed laws mandating composting and requiring retailers to display the radiation levels of the cellphones they sold. He gave 400 city employees the authority to write citations for littering. He proposed, but never succeeded in passing, a surcharge on all drinks with high-fructose corn syrup.
Since taking over as lieutenant governor in 2011, Newsom hasn’t had a ton of governing responsibility. In 2012 and 2013, he found the time to host a weekly show on Al Gore’s old Current TV. The Los Angeles Times’ limp endorsement of Newsom in 2014 is unintentionally hilarious: “Being lieutenant governor mostly serves as a perch for gubernatorial candidates-in-waiting. Nevertheless, voters are asked every four years to choose among the aspirants, so here goes . . .”
With little to do in his day job, for the past few years Newsom put his energies into promoting state initiatives. In 2016, he supported and the state adopted Proposition 47, which made just about any crime involving less than $950 — shoplifting, grand theft, forgery, fraud, receiving stolen property or writing bad checks — a misdemeanor for sentencing instead of a felony. Also that year he proposed Proposition 63, prohibiting the possession of large-capacity gun magazines and requiring certain individuals to pass a background check in order to purchase ammunition. The measure passed, but in June 2017, a federal judge issued an injunction, saying that it probably violates the U.S. Constitution. (California’s attorney general is appealing the injunction.)
Yet as Newsom and his like-minded allies unleashed a cornucopia of bans and restrictions and mandates from San Francisco and Sacramento, quite a few Californians started falling out of love with the state. More Americans are leaving California than joining it, concluding that the cost of living, taxes, regulation, traffic, and other problems are just too unbearable, despite the gorgeous coastlines and weather and everything else that once made the Golden State so golden. The state has the highest poverty rate in the country after accounting for its stratospheric cost of living, and the second-highest housing costs, behind only Hawaii.
All of this is probably something of an abstraction to Newsom. His has been a life of privilege that would get a typical Republican office-seeker torn to shreds. His grandfather, William Newsom, was close friends with Pat Brown, the governor of California from 1959 to 1967 and the father of current governor Jerry Brown. His father, also named William, attended St. Ignatius prep school with oil heir Gordon Getty. In 1975, Jerry Brown picked the younger William Newsom to be a state judge. He remained a close, trusted friend to the Getty family, and when young Gavin Newsom had entrepreneurial dreams, the Gettys were happy to invest. In 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle found that “Getty, or trusts and firms he controls, is lead investor on 10 of Newsom’s 11 businesses.”
Newsom likes to describe himself as a small-business owner with “a strong bias for entrepreneurs, a strong bias for those putting themselves on the line and taking risks.” One wonders just how risky a business venture can be when the Getty family and their fortune is so consistently ready to help out.
The ties to privilege and the messy personal life could be more easily dismissed if Newsom had built a record as an effective leader.
Curiously, none of Newsom’s political rivals have been able to play the “entitled” or “elite” card against him. “It may take future social scientists to explain why current California voters were so willing to give this guy a pass on all the things we know about him. . . . The 50-year-old lieutenant governor and former mayor of San Francisco is the living embodiment of privilege, and people seem to be OK with that,” Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton recently marveled.
If the adjective “Kennedy-esque” comes to mind, you’re not the first to make the comparison. In August 2004, Harper’s Bazaar did a gushing profile of Newsom and his wife at the time, Fox News Channel personality Kimberly Guilfoyle, headlined, “The New Kennedys.” That would prove awkward when Newsom and Guilfoyle divorced in 2005 and when, two years later, the public learned that Newsom had had a romantic relationship in mid-2005 with Ruby Rippey-Tourk, the wife of his then-campaign manager and former deputy chief of staff, Alex Tourk.
Even in the long and shameless history of politicians caught in salacious sex scandals, an affair with the wife of one of your longest-serving and most loyal staffers and friends stands out. As state assemblyman Travis Allen put it during a May gubernatorial debate, “If you can’t trust Gavin with his best friend’s wife, how can you trust him with your state?” It says something about Newsom’s personal life that his brief relationship with 19-year-old model and restaurant hostess Brittanie Mountz in 2006 — when the mayor was 39 — is one of his less controversial pairings.
The ties to privilege and the messy personal life could be more easily dismissed if Newsom had built a record as an effective leader. But while he was busy talking up ideas like installing giant, electricity-generating turbines underwater near the Golden Gate Bridge and announcing a new advertising campaign that assured illegal immigrants the city would not report them to federal authorities, the city government didn’t do much to fix residents’ actual problems.
Census data from 2010 revealed that even though the city’s population grew by 4 percent in the previous decade, the number of children in the city declined by 5 percent, making San Francisco the city with the fewest kids per capita in the country. The New York Times shared tales of parents fleeing neighborhoods with pot clubs and illegal drug use.
Before and during Newsom’s first term as mayor, the city government paid to have juvenile illegal immigrants, including drug dealers, flown back to their countries of origin, rather than turning them over to federal immigration authorities. The city police expressed doubts that the dealers were juveniles as they claimed, and the local U.S. attorney described himself as “flabbergasted” that city taxpayers were picking up the tab for the flights. Newsom said he was unaware of the city’s policy until the media reported on it in his second term. He implemented a policy referring undocumented youths arrested for felonies to the feds. But he also denounced federal immigration raids and offered city ID cards for any resident, regardless of immigration status.
For what it’s worth, in today’s California Democratic party, turning over juvenile illegal immigrants arrested for felonies to federal authorities is the controversial position. During the primary, a spokesman for Newsom’s top rival, former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, fumed, “Gavin Newsom must wake up every morning and look in the mirror at a man who made the decision to deport children in the face of political pressure.”
In 2004, Newsom audaciously pledged to end chronic homelessness in his city within ten years. A decade later, the San Francisco Chronicle completed a thorough analysis and concluded that despite $1.5 billion spent on moving 19,500 homeless people off city streets, “the homeless population hasn’t budged.” New homeless appeared as fast as the city could remove the previous ones.
“Plenty of San Franciscans didn’t see their daily lives improved. The streets are still dirty and potholed, panhandlers are still out in force, and Muni frustrations still abound,” the Chronicle concluded in 2010, as Newsom prepared to move to the lieutenant governor’s office.
Last month, Michael Shellenberger, president of an environmental-activist group based in Berkeley, argued that California’s self-professed progressivism wasn’t generating much actual progress for its residents. Outside the well-known enclaves of luxury, homeless tent cities are springing up across the state. Wealthy progressives in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and Los Angeles defend the residential status quo, rather than create denser, lower-cost housing. Public-school performance among minority students is declining. High sales taxes and electricity rates add to the squeeze on low-income Californians. All of these problems have worsened under Governor Brown and a solidly Democratic state legislature.
Newsom’s record offers little reason to think that he would deviate much from that alarming status quo if he won the top job in Sacramento. But he would offer one indisputable, immediately noticeable difference from Brown: No one ever gushes about the current governor’s hair.